Kant’s categorical imperative and Fyfe’s knob

It’s so nice to be able to use the word “Kant” and “knob” in the same blog title.

But I do actually have a reason for this. Allow me to explain!

Alonzo Fyfe is the originator and chief proponent of desire utilitarianism. Like me, he uses desires as the basic raw material of his moral theory. However, instead of using desires to determine which action causes, say, the greatest happiness, he uses desires in a self-comparison exercise in which each desire is ranked according to its ability to thwart or fulfill other desires.

One of his ways of doing this is to imagine a knob, or dial, that can be used to increase the prevalence and intensity of a particular desire in a population. The effect of turning the knob up or down can be used to determine whether the desire is a good or bad one (according to his metric of desire-desire comparison). Unfortunately, I think there is a real flaw in this approach. Take the following example, found in one of Fyfe’s blog posts:

The desire to rape is a desire that we have many and strong reasons to “turn down” (preferably down to zero). If nobody had a desire to rape then no rapist would have to endure the frustration of not raping, and no victim would have to endure being raped.

Unfortunately, Fyfe fails to mention what would happen if, instead of dialing down the desire to rape, we dialed down the desire to avoid rape. If we dialed down the desire to avoid rape, then no one would object to being raped*, and rapists would have a whale of a time. So which of the two desires here is more fulfilling or thwarting? They seem to be in perfect deadlock. What Fyfe’s theory fails to acknowledge is that what most people ultimately desire is to be happy, or at least content. This is what breaks the deadlock: in a typical rape situation, far more harm is caused than happiness, so rape is not an action that is generally conducive to happiness, and can be rejected on this basis alone.

But I digress.

Let me bring in Kant, and his categorical imperative, because I’d like to compare it to Fyfe’s knob. Er, dial.

In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant describes his categorical imperative thusly:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

This is analogous to the sort of exaggeration mechanism that Fyfe advocates. It asks us to imagine an increase in the prevalence of a particular action to such an extent that it might be considered a universal law, and then to determine whether we would find such a situation acceptable. So, for instance, let us assume that murder were increased in prevalence to such an extent that it might as well be condoned, or even encouraged, by the law. Most people, for the remainder of their short lives at least, would probably find such a situation to be rather awful.

The flaw in Kant’s thinking, as I understand it, is that it relies too heavily on moral intuition. It essentially forces us to engage our sense of moral indignation by giving us a situation in which the influence of a particular action is grossly and absurdly exaggerated.

I am thus left feeling unsatisfied by Fyfe’s knob and…

Let me try that again.

I am thus left feeling that there is something missing from both Fyfe’s and Kant’s exaggeration mechanisms. Nonetheless, I still think this is a potentially useful tool, and for this reason I will offer, in a forthcoming post, a new exaggeration mechanism, this time developed in the context of my own moral system.

* It may seem, to some, that the lack of objection to rape is a contradiction: that rape, by definition, requires the victim to object. However, I don’t think this is necessarily true. Consider this example: someone might put up with a long commute to work every day without actually desiring to commute. It’s simply something they put up with. Similarly, I can imagine a world (admittedly a bizarre one) in which women didn’t expressly desire to have sex with strange men, but when accosted by such men, allowed them to have their way, and then continued with their day.


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