2.2 – Kant on Justice

As the age of enlightenment began, the church lost its iron grip over western peoples’ minds. From the late 1700’s justice became defined as either the very teleological (the science of outcomes) Utilitarianism or Kant’s very deontological (the science of duty) categorical imperative. Let’s do the hard one first.

Kant was genius. He was so genius that he is nearly impossible to read. Unfortunately, his major works were never ‘stand alone’ so we must cover most of them. Trying to summarise Kant is like trying to abbreviate the alphabet without losing any meaning, but I’ll try. I’m sorry but this is about to get heavy.

There are lots of different things in the world and we humans try to understand them as best we can. We can understand them them three ways. The first way is to experience them with one of our five senses and learn what it smells, tastes, looks, sounds or feels like. The second way is to know what it is and to have understanding about it by its description (where the predicate is logically contained within the subject). For example, if we know something is a bachelor, we know it is a man and the man is unmarried. If we know a thing is a triangle, we know it has three sides. We don’t need any experience with the thing itself to understand this. Note that a thing’s colour, or a man’s status as a bachelor is not a universal constant. Things can change colour and men can be married or unmarried.

But there is a third way of understanding a thing. People believe that when something has been affected, something must have caused the effect. They believe this absolutely as a universal principle and we don’t need to experience it nor do we need a description of the object to know it. Newton’s “claim the quantity of matter is always preserved” is known by people who have no proof. We know that all bodies take up space in the universe. We know that 1567 divided by 17.3 = 90.5780347 without ever getting 1,567 apples and dividing them into exactly 17.3 equal portions. We know this without experience nor do the terms ‘1,567’ and ‘17.3’ necessarily imply 90.5789347 (the predicate is not logically contained within the subject).

Kant’s explanation for this third method of understanding is that it has nothing to do with objects at all. It has to do with the mind that is trying to understand the object. Just as an abacus works by sliding beads along a wire, or computer works by sending… well I don’t know how a computer works, our minds only works by understanding objects in terms of space and time, even though the objects don’t possess space and time as properties. For the human brain to experience the world, it must order the world so that it can understand it. Hence, space and time. Space and time are illusions necessary for the mind to function. They produce fallacies and fraudulent knowledge as we all try and know the unknowable. Think about it, what colour is time and how does space taste? The questions are absurd.

For example, we all know that everything that exists has a cause and that each cause has a cause in its own turn. If we use logic, we have to follow it all the back to… what? What was the first thing that had no cause but existed? What occurred before time began? Pure reason leads us to have concepts that cannot be understood from experience and that produces absurdities.

So what do we do when we fall into an absurdity caused by taking reason past what we can experience? We do things like believe in the most real being, God, and we try to believe in our immortal soul. To Kant, whilst it is not possible to prove that God doesn’t exist, it is impossible to prove he does exist. His presence in our understanding is the result of the fallacies that come from pure reason, but that proves nothing about existence, just that we need God somehow. So when pure reason is used improperly, that is, without reference to human experience, we come to absurd conclusions. However, pure reason has its uses and in a dramatic turn of events, Kant believes that pure reason is useful in considering morality and justice as they deal with human welfare.

Kant rightly states that all men want different things, therefore there is no universal law on how to make a man happy. Each man’s happiness lies on a different path and each man may choose a maxim which leads him to his own path, but his maxim is for him alone. We can however, formulate a universal law on how to act based on the form of what the law would look like, not the substance of what the laws contains. The first form of the law is:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

The commonly used example to demonstrate is the maxim “It is good to steal”. Now if we all stole all the time, private property would become a thing of the past and without private property, how could the concept of stealing exist. The situation becomes absurd and so “It is good to steal” does not work as a categorical imperative.

Another example is “cultivate your abilities”. Now this works well. If we were all to adopt as a universal law “cultivate your abilities” there would be no contradictions. (As an aside, Kant sees this law as an imperfect duty. That means you are to be praised for performing it, but not criticized for failing to.)

For here, Kant tells us that all actions must have both a guiding principle and an end in mind. The only thing that can chose the end we wish to obtain is free will. But the only thing that can choose to obtain a moral end, it an autonomous free will. Therefore each person must be an end in themselves. If they are just a means (like a slave), they have no autonomy and the things they chose to do (like ploughing a field for the master) is not from their own autonomy, rather it is from their master’s. Conversely, you can’t make another person be virtuous, they must choose it for themselves otherwise they are just carrying our your wishes, not there own, and are thereby a means, not an end. This leads as to the second form of the universal law:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

Finally, for this whole thing to work, these maxims must be able to be universalized. Kant asks us to imagine a great kingdom in which all those people who consider themselves as ends (rather than means) are subjects of. Get ready for the third from of the law:

“Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.”

Using the combination of these three forms of the categorical imperative, Kant asserts that lies, theft, suicide, charity and laziness are all immoral as per the categorical imperative. Interestingly, he believes that cruelty to animals is immoral as humans all must cultivate their compassion if they are to be happy and hurting animals diminishes our ability to do just that. I wonder what he’d say about war?

But what has all this to do with justice? Before we can make that connection, we must understand why the word ‘imperative’ is being used. To Kant, everything obeys laws but only humans do so by choice. Only rational beings follow the law of practical reason. Along with emotion and appetite, reason determines what humans should do. Reason is compelling to human will and when it speaks, human will must listen, hence it is imperative. Things that are imperative oblige us to do things. To do what? To respect other’s rights to free will of course. For if our free will was not used to respect other’s free will, a universal law of “use your free will to violate someone else’s free will” could not be supported by pure reason.

In truly Kantian fashion, he makes the point that in making the universal law ‘you don’t have the right to do what you are doing because what you are doing is imposing on my freedom’ we are imposing on someone else’s freedom and thus are guilty of the same crime we are trying to prevent. It would be a breach of the categorical imperative to claim a right (freedom) that I deny others as that is absurd. Nor can I add in a few exceptions and clauses that I find expedient because then I am not acting out of moral duty and hence not supported by pure reason either. Remember, autonomous free will is commanded by pure reason, not pleasure

Kant believes people have only one innate right, “Freedom, insofar as it is compatible with the freedom of everyone else in accordance with a universal law, is the one sole and original right that belongs to every human being by virtue of his humanity”. Now, as if you hadn’t guessed, the reason freedom is innate is, of course, because of pure reason. Humans are autonomous free agents who choose to be directed by reason. There cannot be an autonomous free agent without freedom, so, freedom is innate within us. To be a slave to another’s choices would violate our moral autonomy, and thus our humanity. Claiming human’s are innately free while denying someone else their freedom is absurd.

So what is Kant’s justice? It is “Every action is just that in itself or in its maxim is such that the freedom of the will of each can coexist together with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law.”

But all the pure reason aside for a moment, his method of stating that we must act justly is actually realistic. The genius is that Kant does not seek to concern himself with producing a just outcome because that includes subjective human desire. He is only interested in why we chose to act, which is the result of reason. The result of the act is arbitrary so long as we chose to act for the right reasons. From this approach, Kant might actually succeed in making a universal law on how all men should act. It is really quite amazing and Kant must be commended upon such an incredible undertaking. So we are not talking about what ought to be, but how men ought to act. Social justice, to Kant, is categorically about the right reason for acting. There are no Governments here measuring relative wealth and taxing some to give to others, just people acting for the right reason. To Kant, the only unjust action is one that imposes on the freedom or will of someone else.

Under Kant’s theory of justice; slavery is impossible, outcomes don’t matter (only duty), equality is a non issue (as outcomes don’t matter) and our two castaways should act so that they treat each other as ends in themselves and so that the maxims that guide their actions can be taken as the islands universal law and not create a contradictory situation. It would certainly appear that a version of social justice where we measure levels of equality does not occur to Kant as it is an outcome.

Take a break, you’ve earned it. In the next blog, we’ll deal with Mill. By comparison the Kant, he like reading Dr Zeus and his theory is simpler than a jigsaw puzzle with one piece.

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