"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why Kant Was Wrong About Beneficence: I don't need your help.

Lately, my mind has been reeling.

I seem to be suffering from a desire to do too many things at once. It is exhilarating- and a tad frustrating.
In the last two days I have gotten halfway through Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It (in case you're wondering: you do). I have gotten through the first part of, Stumbling on Happiness, a book dealing with the psychology of that elusive state which we all pursue- thus far, it is delightfully written. I have worked on crafting poetry. I have watched a live debate on the subject of capitalism. I have been pondering the ethics of being a rational, omnivorous creature, and questioning what it means to live out my values. I have watched TED talks on architecture, gratitude, "anonymous extraordinaries," and a host of other interesting and inspirational subjects. I have loaded my bedside table with more philosophy books, Russell's Principles of Mathematics (a perhaps foolish ambition), an introduction to game theory, and I become increasingly persuaded that I need  to investigate economics. It seems like every half hour I decide that I really, really want to learn about or think about something new and exciting- or pursue an idea to greater depth.
...What will I do with five weeks at home? I don't have enough time to think about half the things I want to think about!

Unsurprisingly, I suspect I lose a great deal of time fretting over the dilemma, rather than simply sitting down and actually doing some good thinking and reading. This can be a problem, but there's hope.

Fortunately, in the last half hour or so I managed to capture the latest intellectual whim "on paper"(actually, in a word document, but same thing, right?).

See, I was slowly eating teaspoons of peanut butter out of the peanut butter jar (a delicious but overall unwise idea). I believe I had just been mentally protesting the impossibility of fitting ten different subject into my next two college terms when I got sucked into renewed contemplation of the Kant paper I wrote for my ethics class. Whilst savoring the sweet peanut buttery-ness I returned to one of problems that kept bugging me. Is it, or is it not, plausible to say that an agent will necessarily require the assistance of others to achieve his end? Kant presumably believed that this made sense, but I went on to question that assumption. I began to wonder... what exactly does it mean to absolutely require the help of others?

The best I could come up with is being bitten by a poisonous snake and requiring someone else to fetch the antidote to save you. In that case, I willingly concede that self-help is not exactly an option.

But excluding cases of physical (or mental- but that is a big problem indeed!) debilitation... how much sense does it make to posit that, on the basis of self-interest, a rational agent cannot will the universalization of the maxim to neither help nor hurt others, because there exists a case in which the agent will require the help of others to obtain (one of) his end(s)?

I should perhaps clarify. It's more or less obvious what it means to not hurt others. What it means to help others is perhaps not so clear. I'm talking about "selfless charity"- assistance disconnected from any notion of rational self interest.

Let us envision a world where you are forced to solve your own problems. As humans, we are extraordinarily talented, capable creatures; we use our intellect to find creative solutions. Given this capacity, and given a free society- that is, a society where people are politically free (free from compulsion, free from abuse, free from violence), a society where people neither hurt nor help you... Given these things, it seems reasonable that when you find yourself in a strait... you are free to find your own solution. And you do so- without need of the help of others.

Imagine you're in a world where no one will offer you charity… You find yourself under stress. You find yourself in need of a solution to a major problem. What do you do?
 Well, here's something you don't do. You don't sit on a street corner and pout. That will get you nowhere.

So what do you do? 
Well, what can you do? Call upon those prodigious powers of intellect! 
You start to think. Hard. You figure out what tools you possess to get around the problem. You find a solution, and you get around your problem. 

Do I expect someone to help me by giving me a job I don't deserve? No. If I'm in need of employment, I start trying to think what jobs I can perform- moreover, what jobs I can perform well. What do I have of value that I can offer to someone?
 Do I expect someone to hand me a check in the belief that I can offer them nothing in return? No! No one invests in something they believe to be worthless. That is irrational, and I don't expect others, or myself, to be irrational.

To return to the question then...What sort of help would I, or could I, expect from others?

Certainly, I would expect people to treat me with respect- but that's not a question of charity. That's a part of freedom- respecting the rights of individuals.
I would expect others to deal with me in a mutual exchange of value- I would expect people to behave rationally, in a manner conducive to their rational self-interest.
If someone hands me a check, I expect it is because they believe I can offer them something valuable in return. And I accept their check because I believe it is fair compensation for what I provide them. Value for value. When dealing with others, I don't expect them to waste time or money on something that they believe to be worthless. That, fundamentally, makes no sense! 
I don't expect senseless, selfless charity.

So, again, does it even make sense to conceive of a world where people neither help nor hurt one another, where people leave each other to act freely, where people respect the rights of others… does it make any sense to say that in such a world, when you find yourself having a problem, the only thing you can do is rely on others solve your problems for you?

I would argue that, no. It doesn't.

And in case you were wondering- yes, I'm a capitalist.

Feel free to take issue with me on this. If you don't wish to go through the hassle of putting yourself in a position where you can leave a comment, address questions or comments to martina@carleton.edu

And look forward to more thoughts on Objectivism, Kantianism, or whatever else strikes my intellectual fancy!


  1. Kant argues that it is in fact possible for a world to exist where everyone acts in a selfish manner and no one helps anyone. But he argues that it is impossible to will such a world. In so far as everyone needs help at some time, at that moment when you need help, you have cut yourself off from the help you seek because you have also willed a universal law of nature: no one helps anyone.

    You argue that we can get along fine without help, that by the use of whatever we have, we can overcome problems. But Kant is surely right: at some point we will want help from others. It is true that we can over come many problems on our own. It is true that overcoming problems may make use better in many ways. But it is undeniably true, unless one is very young and naive, in which case you have been depending on the good will of others your whole life, that we all seek help at some point. And even if you do not strictly need it, you still want it, and wanting help is all Kant needs to generate the contradiction.

    It is for Kant also an imperfect duty, which means helping people is not a universal requirement: you do not have to help everyone all the time. But helping people is still a moral duty. You should selflessly help some people some time.

  2. But isn't there an important distinction between rationally willing such a world and "wanting" it? I think for Kant's mission of a non-contingent moral system to work, it isn't enough for an agent to "want" help- on the basis of his inclinations. It seems that you'd need to generate a case in which the agent must, rationally, will that he receive assistance from others, because otherwise it is impossible for him to meet his end (under the idea that a rational agent must will the means to his end).

    So I don't think Kant himself would be happy to say it is enough to want it, though a Kantian might be free to concede that reason is insufficient to yield a moral system and therefore appeal to "anthropology," or human desire.

    Also, I think it depends what you mean by selflessly help others. Help others because I believe they have potential and value and I want to see that flourish?
    Yes. And I would argue that it is in my self-interest to see the things I value flourish.

  3. Oh I forgot to thank you for the comment! Thank you for reading and posting your thoughts!

  4. By unselfish, Kant means something that does not a means to any of your ends, not connected to any of your desires. So to help someone selflessly is to help them totally independently of your own ends. You may doubt that such exists (though I think it is clear that it does as an empirical question), but that is exactly what Kant is trying to show in the Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, that an action can be rational independent of any desire. Reason, he says, has its own end. The tough metaphysical slogging on the 3rd section is designed to show us that as raitonal agents, we are free to make choices according to reason, and that reason comes with it certain requirements, i.e. morality.

    It is not required that Kant thinks "to generate a case in which the agent must, rationally, will that he receive assistance from others" for the simple reason that the will is your faculty of choice, and I cannot choose what you will do, only what I will do.

    But here is the key: At the moment you want help, you would like someone to act in your interest. But if you have willed a universal law to not to help anyone, you have cut yourself off from the very thing you desire. You cannot, therefore, consistently will that no one helps anyone ever. At the moment you want help, that is, you cannot want to live in a world where no one helps anyone. Such a world is logically possible, but cannot be willed, he says.

    BTW, you define a rational choice as something in your own interest. Kant does not. Reason has two components, one where we figure out how to do things that fulfill our desries, but the higher purpose is to make a will that is an end in itself, ie a moral agent. It is through that that Kant allows us to be rational, and not act in our self interest, at least as a metaphysical possibility. (Even if everyone actually acted by their own desires, it is still possible for people not to, says Kant.)

    Importantly, this allows him to help that we can rationally not meet our desires, ie rationally sacrifice ourselves for others. For the egoist, true sacrifice is irrational. When I throw myself on a grenade to save a buddy, it is the buddy's interest which drives my choice. But that is for a different discussion.

    Your quite welcome. You seem to be seriously interested in this stuff, and that goes a long way. You can read SteveG's other critique of Randian views to see how badly the discussion can go, it is.

  5. I think now I'm left trying to figure out the distinction between wanting something, and willing something. More specifically, what does it mean to will something?
    I'm also left with questions about value. If I say that to act on my self-interest is to act on my values, yet I have a moral duty which fails to coincide with my self-interest- let's make this more concrete. Say that for some reason I deny that children in Africa have any sort of value to me and thus I refuse to donate money to help feed or educate them. Kant (and many others) would say I have a duty to help those children. Is this because those children have value which, although I do not recognize, nevertheless exists?

    I also have been unable to figure out what you mean by 'for the simple reason that the will is your faculty of choice, and I cannot choose what you will do, only what I will do.' I don't know if you'd mind elaborating on that.

    Thanks again. I'm thinking I need to work through GMM part 3.

  6. To will something is to make a choice. When I use my will, I make a choice. A rational being has a will that answers to reason, or as Kant says, reason can influence the choice made. When we use the categorical imperative to test a maxim, we will (rationally choose) not only our own action, but make our choice the necessary choice of everyone, as a law of nature. Kant is arguing that this universal exercise of the will is inconsistent with the otherwise rational choices we may make. And that makes them fundamentally irrational. Our choices, though, are obviously frequently (always, for Kant, were in not for the possibility of moral choices) are shaped by our desires, or as we might say, what we want. A want is a desire, the will is the part of our mind that makes choices.

    We want help. That is not a choice on our part, and it is connected to our desires. What we cannot rationally choose, however, is a world in which we cannot get what we want.When he says we would not will such a world, he means that we cannot choose to live in such a would if we could some how choose the laws of nature. It would be consistent if we had no desires, because then we would not be cutting ourselves off from our own desires through our choice, choices which we make in part to satisfy our desires. Does that help? This is all quite advanced stuff, so if your not getting it, its not too surprising. Kant is the Big Time.

  7. The second question is intially more difficult. Every human being is worth of respect because she is a moral agent, a being capable of moral action, a rational being, it is all equivalent for Kant. So in some sense, every human being has value not as a means to some end, but 'in it self'.

    You are required to help people, but there is no duty to help everyone. It is, Kant calls it, an imperfect duty. In your sense of value, where by value you mean a means to some end (end that you have, otherwise it would be practically irrational... It may be rational for a thirsty man to drink, but it is not rational for someone not thirsty to drink).

    In your example, Kant may well grant that the person you do not know is of no use to you, nor will feeding benefit you or your desires in any way [if you were a sympathetic person, that would be different, as your desire may be to alleviate their suffering], and so they do not have any value in your sense. But you still have a duty to help people, not because they are a means to an end, but because ends in themselves.

    This changes the language of Kant though. He gives three different versions of the categorical imperative, and all three he says are equivalent. But we shifted from the first formulation (act so that your maxim can be willed a universal law) to the second (always treat rational agents as an end in themselves, never as a means to an end). That shift in this discussion may make things more confusing.

  8. GMM3 is very difficult, and is deeply connected to the First Critique. In it, he tries to prove that there are universal duties by showing that we are metaphysically free.

    My comment was perhaps too quick, but ties into the above. You used the term 'will' almost equivalent to 'want' and wrote that Kant needs to show that 'the agent must ... will that he receive assistance from others.' But she cannot will that she receives assistance from others, she can only want it. She cannot will it, because she can only make choices for herself. She cannot choose a course of action for others. That was all I meant. Does that help?