Kantianism vs Cute Things

“We love everything over which we have a decisive superiority, so we can toy with it, while it has a pleasant cheerfulness about it: little dogs, birds, grandchildren”.

Immanuel Kant

I don’t normally argue for or against Kant, recognizing that figuring out exactly what he means takes expertise I don’t have. I normally argue with contemporary Kantians, because if I don’t get what they mean, I can email them and ask, or they can tell me I’m wrong in Q&A. Yet I can’t resist the quote above. It is, of course, offensive to grandparents everywhere, and to anyone who has ever valued the love of a grandparent. See, your grandparents “loved” you because you were so small and weak and they could toy with you and relish being on the right side of the power imbalance between you. It doesn’t sound like love to me. It sounds like some kind of chaste perversion.

I’ll still not argue against Kant, but I will point out that the quote does not look so weird in the general context of the suspicion in which Kantians seem to hold any altruistic motive other than reverence for the categorical imperative, aka duty.

A clarification as to what duty is. I used to think that “acting out of duty” always means “doing something because you think it’s right. That was an error. Some Kantians mean that some of the time but at other times they think of the motive of duty not as being guided by the thought “this is right” but rather as being guided by the categorical imperative. In other words, an agent acting out of duty is motivated by considerations of universalizability or by respect for persons (henceforth “Kantian Thoughts”), whatever exactly they are. It is often assumed that the person motivated by Kantian Thoughts also has the thought “this is the right thing to do”, but being a Kantian does not commit you to the view that the agent has that thought (note Korsgaard’s descriptions of the motives of the morally worthy helper in Creating the Kingdom of Ends). So starting with my 2015 paper, I think of acting out of Kantian duty as being motivated by Kantian Thoughts – with or without thoughts about morality de dicto.

I agree with Kantians that many beneficent motives deserve to be dismissed offhand as potential sources of moral worth. For example: suppose you believe that it is wrong to eat animals. You are at a fancy restaurant with a friend who thinks it’s OK to eat animals. The friend looks at the menu and sees that if features braised rabbit. That makes her squeamish. “O my god”, she says, “I can’t eat a bunny!” If you are serious about your beliefs about animals, you are not particularly impressed with your friend’s choice to not eat rabbit. Your friend is not acting for moral reasons. He seems motivated by cuteness, and whatever the reasons you think make his choice a morally right one, they don’t have to do with cuteness. It is perfectly possible to have a similar attitude to humans – to want to help a sweet-looking child but be indifferent to less sweet-looking humans, say. Either way, one is not worthy of moral esteem for responses to cuteness.

What about intrinsic concern for the wellbeing of humans? (I’ll stick to humans for the moment). Such concern is different from a desire that cute creatures not be harmed about as much as respect for persons is different from “respect” for people with authoritative voices and nice suits – and pre-theoretically, is about a morally relevant thing. If Jennifer helps John because the wellbeing of a fellow human is in jeopardy, but has no Kantian Thoughts at either the conscious or the unconscious level, does her action have moral worth?

When I ask my undergrads for an initial reaction they say “yes”. This is true even though they are usually convinced that the prudent grocer does not deserve esteem (“it’s like when you do stuff for Habitat for Humanity just because it looks good on a college application”, they explain). What are the pre-theoretical reasons to deny that Jennifer’s motive grants moral worth?

There are a lot of answers Kantians give to that. I’ll only think about one of them today: sympathetic feelings are flighty. If Jennifer becomes, for example, depressed, she will, like the sorrowing philanthropist, lose sympathy for her fellow humans and need Kantian Thoughts, if she can muster them, to get her out of bed to help John.

I think it is very important here to remember that concern for human wellbeing simpliciter does not always manifest itself in the form of a warm fuzzy feeling. There is no need to assume that when Jennifer acts to protect John from illbeing, she acts out of a sympathetic feeling towards him. Perhaps she is, in fact, depressed, and there is no room in her heart for warm, fuzzy feelings. But she tells herself “John needs help”, drags herself out of bed with grim resolve, helps him, and goes back to bed. The fact that she acts with grim resolve makes it perfectly good English to say that she is acting out of duty, but she is not acting out of the Kantian motive of duty, as she is not motivated by Kantian Thoughts. An agent acting with grim resolution could be acting from Kantian Thoughts, but she could also be acting from any number of other thoughts – heck, some extreme consequentialist agents would have to do a lot of grim resolving if they are to practice what they preach. Many of them would not, in any ordinary sense, do what they are inclined to do.

So whether one acts on a warm fuzzy feeling or with a colder, “cerebral” feel to one’s motivation does not settle the question of whether one acts from Kantian duty, and devotion to Kantian duty does not obviously have a special power to get a sorrowing philanthropist out of bed that other motives, such as concern for wellbeing simpliciter or even loyalty to non-Kantian moral beliefs, don’t have.

Ok, Concern for wellbeing isn’t a warm fuzzy feeling. But isn’t concern for wellbeing still a motive that can come and go? Can’t you lose it?

Yes. And a sense of Kantian duty can come and go as well. Sad but true, and not a problem for Kantianism.

For if you are a Kantian, what makes a motive moral-worth-granting is not really reliability. If self-interest suddenly became, by divine “invisible hand” arrangement, a reliable way to get people to do the right thing, the prudent grocer would still not be esteem-worthy. What matters is the metaphysical connection between the content of the motivating consideration and the content of morality. Roughly, if morality is defined by the categorical imperative and you are motivated by the categorical imperative, your action has moral worth. If morality is defined by the categorical imperative and you are motivated by something else, however likely it is to motivate you next time, it doesn’t.

Where was I? Jennifer, helping John to protect his wellbeing. You can’t show that her action has no moral worth by appeal to the flightiness of warm and fuzzy feelings. That doesn’t mean there isn’t another way.

To be continued….


3 thoughts on “Kantianism vs Cute Things

  1. “What matters is the metaphysical connection between the content of the motivating consideration and the content of morality.”

    Exactly! But I think that the metaphysical connection that matters to the moral worth of the action had better be discernible a priori. Otherwise, agents might end up acting in ways that lack moral worth simply by virtue of having, and rationally responding to, misleading empirical evidence.


    1. Interesting. If you mean discernible discernible, you have to explain a lot of people who seem to not discern them. I don’t mean psychopaths, whom I do not regard as cases of ignorance. I don’t even mean bad people who have a motivation to deceive themselves about morality even if they “know” it. I mean perfectly fine people who do not buy the categorical imperative or who haven’t heard of it and have other moral beliefs, including philosophers who are consequentialist, Aristotelian, particularists etc. On the other hand, if you mean “discernible a priori” the way calculus is discernible a priori, then you can’t really blame people for not getting it…. But as you know, and I’m sorry to bore you, I don’t think any knowledge of ethics to act with moral worth, nor do you need any knowledge of ethics to be blameworthy.


      1. (Sorry, this interface doesn’t allow me to correct typos after I posted a comment). I should add that I also think that you don’t have to discern a reason in order to act on it – I imagine you think differently, which could explain some of the difference.


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