Sunday, April 15, 2012

[PL 431] Kant's formulations of the categorical imperative

Kant gives four formulations of the Categorical Imperative:
  • The Formula of the Universal Law of Nature: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature."
  • The Humanity Formula: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."
  • The Autonomy Formula: "So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims."
  • The Kingdom of Ends Formula: "So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends."
Kant says that these four formulations are equivalent ways of stating the categorical imperative. If so, then whether we use the Humanity formula or the Universal Law formula, we should get the same result about what is morally permissible in a certain situation.

Now, consider the first scenario--the Switch scenario--in the Trolley Problem. The maxim in that situation might be something like the following:
Whenever the lives of four people can be saved by flipping a switch and sacrificing the life of one person, I will do so in order to save the lives of the four.
This maxim seems to be able to go through the Kantian decision procedure. In other words, it does not seem to imply a contradiction in conception or a contradiction in the will.

On the other hand, if we think of the Switch scenario in terms of the Humanity formula, then it seems that the maxim fails, i.e., it is not morally permissible to flip the switch, since, by doing so, we would be using one person as a means to an end, i.e, as a means to save the lives of four people.

If this is correct, then the same maxim is both morally permissible, when judged relative to the Universal Law formula, and morally impermissible, when judged relative to the Humanity formula. Does that mean that the four formulations are not equivalent after all?

7 comments:

  1. Yes, I think that this may suggest that the four principles are not equivalent in all situations. It is clear that when judging under the humanity principle, the person who is killed becomes a means to an end (despite the fact the end is very noble).

    But what about if the person is not only a means to an end but also the goal of your action itself? I mean, as weird as it may sound, it is the best thing for this person is also to die and save the life of four others. I am convinced that if the person about to die would look at it objectively, he would come to the conclusion that the best thing for him is to die so that others can have life. Thus, living with the guilt that four people died because of one's selfishness would effectively make one's life unbearable. I would argue, as extreme as this sounds, that trying to selfishly preserve one's life at the expense of the life of four others is not in one's best interest.

    Arturo Peña

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think that this example does suggest that the four formulations are not equivalent. While this is an extreme situation, using the Universal Law formula and Humanity formula provide different results on the morality of the situation. Kant states that “the four formulations are equivalent ways of stating the categorical imperative,” and no matter the situation one should always get the same result regarding what is morally permissible. As a result, because two of the formulations provide contradicting results when evaluated, I would conclude that the four formulations are not equivalent.

    ReplyDelete
  3. At first glance, this can mean that they are not equivalent laws exactly, but we really have to think about this.
    Are we making this person a means to an end? Is he not also an end? That is the question. I would have to explain the Humanity Formula in other ways in order to avoid a verbal disagreement. According to the Stanford explanation, this Humanity Formula means that we need to have respect for people, their rational thoughts, and their humanity. "..it is not human beings per se but the 'Humanity' in human beings that we must treat as an end in itself."
    We must treat each other as rational beings. Rationally, would this one person understand the reasoning for killing him as opposed to the other four? Knowing that we do not know who he/she is or the other four, each life has an equal value. It makes sense to flip the switch. We respect this person as an end because their rational mind would come to the same conclusion.
    The explanation by the Stanford website also states that "...self preservation is a subjective end, while Humanity is an objective end." We are making an objective decision to force the trolley to go a different way. Because of this, we are treating this person as a means as well as an end, making this action morally permissible, both in the way of the Humanity Formula and the way of The Unity of the Formulas.
    Through this logic of thinking, I do believe that they are still equivalent thoughts.

    -Lauren Phillips

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is very clever and insightful, but it still begs the question that the person who decides to use the switch does indeed causes another person to dies, but that this person's death was not a means to the end for the preservation of the other four lives rather it was a consequence of the action. The death of the single person was not a means to preserving the lives of the other four. Whereas the fat guy being pushed in front of the train is a means to an ends and that would be wrong.

      Delete
  4. Sumaiyia ChowdhuryMarch 25, 2014 at 12:01 AM

    I would have to say that according to this logic, the four formulations are indeed nonequivalent. Based on the Universal, the maxim is noncontradictory and is thereby morally permissible but based on the Humanity formula, it is not. It is clear that the person being sacrificed in this situation is being used as a means to an end which and this violates the basis of the Humanity formula. Although the end may seem to be worth it, the person who dies will not view it that way. To that person, they are being used as a tool to be tossed aside and others will gain from his/her loss. In terms of the Universal law, this maxim seems fair and legal because it promotes for the greater good. It can be applied to any situation because it does not contradict itself and can actually help a lot of people.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I would disagree, and would say the formulae yield the same result. Both would ban "flipping the switch" and killing the one to save the four. Let's look at this in two parts:

    Formula of the Humanity (FH): You're right here, it is treating humanity as a means. This is verging on the point of the FH. Kant expressly wanted an anti-utilitarian meta-ethical theory. The responses saying that the one sacrificed should realise that it is rational so to do and thus think he's treated as an end misunderstand Kant. The word rational in my previous straw man sentence is used as a consequentialist term, not a Kantian one.

    Quoting an above comment: "Rationally, would this one person understand the reasoning for killing him as opposed to the other four? Knowing that we do not know who he/she is or the other four, each life has an equal value. It makes sense to flip the switch. We respect this person as an end because their rational mind would come to the same conclusion."
    No! That each life "Has equal value" is a utilitarian calculation. Kant is not in the business of weighing up lives.

    Conclusion: The formula of the humanity bans flipping the switch as it treats the one as a means to save the others. If he were an end of your action, you can't kill him.

    Formula of the Universal Law (FUL): At first glance you're right, it appears that there is not a logical contradiction in the maxim "Whenever the lives of four people can be saved by flipping a switch and sacrificing the life of one person, I will do so in order to save the lives of the four." This is different from Kant's "Whenever the life of someone is on the line I will lie to save it." Kant thinks the latter involves a contradiction because if everyone lied to ax-murderers at the door, then ax murderers would not believe the lies, so your lie wouldn't save anyone, so you wouldn't bother lying/lying wouldn't be a comprehensible term, so in a world where your maxim applies you wouldn't follow your maxim.

    But! This isn't the end of the story. It fails the "contradiction in will" test. This makes it teleologically (as opposed to logically) contradictory. This is when your maxim for adopting a rule leads to actions that contradict that maxim. What is the maxim guiding the rule about saving the lives? It's that your end is the preservation of human life. What is your action? Destroying (/the non-preservation of) human life. This is a contradiction in your maxim and your actions.

    Conclusion: The formula of the universal law bans flipping the switch as you are committed both to saving and not saving life. This is a contradiction.

    Meta-Conclusion: Kant's belief in the equivalence of the formulae remains the same.

    Possible objection: This explanation of the "contradiction in the will" test can probably be rephrased as the formula for the humanity. If every time you want to save someone's life by sacrificing another person you're banned from so doing because the act of sacrificing contravenes the reason you have for sacrificing, then basically you're just banning us from using people as means.

    Response: Well that's rather the point.

    Ely Sandler

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Welcome, Ely! And thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I think that, if the maxim were to flip the switch for the preservation of life, then you would be right about the contradiction between the maxim and one's action. Note, however, that the maxim is not "flip the switch for the preservation of life" but rather "flip the switch to preserve as many lives as you can." In other words, what if one's maxim is guided by a version of the Greatest Happiness Principle? Would there still be a contradiction between one’s maxim and one’s action? (Assuming ethics would not implode :)

      Delete

This is an academic blog about critical thinking, logic, and philosophy. So please refrain from making insulting, disparaging, and otherwise inappropriate comments. Also, if I publish your comment, that does not mean I agree with it. Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.