Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On "Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives"

This famous paper by Philippa Foot struck me as a good deal more reasonable than most of the ethical theory I had been reading previously. From what I gather, it was a challenge to mainstream thinking at the time and continues to be controversial today.

Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives — Philippa Foot (Link)

Two Kinds of Imperatives

An imperative is just a command. According to Kant (as quoted in Foot's paper), "All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically." Kant goes on to define hypothetical imperatives as involving actions which are necessary in order to achieve something a person desires (or actions which would be necessary if that thing were desired). So if I say, "You must take a left at the end of the street" under the assumption that you want to reach the bank, I've expressed what is clearly a hypothetical imperative.

Kant then defines categorical imperatives as involving actions which are necessary in themselves "without regard to any other end." If that doesn't make much sense to you, join the club!

Morality — according to Kant and others — is concerned with categorical imperatives and not 'mere' hypothetical imperatives. But as you might guess from the title of Foot's paper, this assertion is under question.

Inescapable Commands

Foot does recognize a difference between imperatives which rely on the agent's desires (and are withdrawn if it turns out the proper desire isn't there) and imperatives which stand regardless of the agent's desires. It's easy to contrast "If you want to reach the bank, you must take a left at the end of the street" with "You must not rob the bank." The latter type is 'inescapable' in the sense that the command applies no matter what the agent wants.

Does this escapable/inescapable dichotomy amount to the same thing as the hypothetical/categorical dichotomy? According to Foot, "[m]odern philosophers" have claimed inescapability as a key feature of moral judgments which distinguish them from hypothetical imperatives.

Reason-Giving Commands

Foot writes, "[I]t is supposed that moral considerations necessarily give reasons for acting to any man." This leads to another dichotomy: commands which necessarily give everyone reason to follow them and commands which only contingently give people reason to follow them.

The Challenged View

Now we have the components to sketch the overall view that Foot appears to be challenging in her paper. I'm presenting it all at once instead of in parts (as she does), but I think it's a fair representation.

Supposedly, all commands fall into one of two distinct categories. They are either:

Hypothetical Imperatives
and Escapable
and Contingently Reason-Giving
and Non-moral
Categorical Imperatives
and Inescapable
and Necessarily Reason Giving
and Moral

An obvious way to criticize this model is to find odd cases which blur the line between categories, which is what Foot does.

Challenge #1: Commands can be inescapable, yet non-moral.

Club rules — like "not bring[ing] ladies into the smoking room" — or rules of etiquette are inescapable, i.e. we don't take back club rules or table manners just because someone doesn't care to follow them. In fact, we tend to express the rules all the more forcefully when we encounter such indifference.

Challenge #2: Commands can be moral, yet contingently reason giving.

Per Foot, "Irrational actions are those in which a man in some way defeats his own purposes, doing what is calculated to be disadvantageous or to frustrate his ends. Immorality does not necessarily involve any such thing."

I don't see how to dispute that without claiming the most moral action is necessarily the action which most promotes an agent's own goals. Even if it's the case that human psychology or a divine overseer's intervention makes every moral choice the best option to realize personal goals — which is doubtful from the look of this world — that would just mean that all moral commands are contingently reason giving.

Farewell, Proxies!

If you glance down to the third challenge, you'll notice Foot directly challenges the notion that morals must be categorical imperatives. What, then, was the point of the first two challenges?

Philosophers had been using 'inescapability' and 'necessarily reason giving' as proxy measurements (indirect indicators) of categorical imperatives. Foot needed to break down the assumption that any 'inescapable' command must be categorical and the assumption that 'necessarily reason giving' is a quality possessed by any command at all.

Think of it as clearing the table before focusing on the true object of inquiry.

Challenge #3: Commands can be moral, yet necessary to achieve a desire (i.e. hypothetical)

Supposedly, "Actions that are truly moral must be done 'for their own sake,' 'because they are right,' and not for some ulterior purpose." Ah, we're finally back to the question of the end/purpose/goal of a command! Remember that Kant defined hypothetical imperatives as actions necessary to achieve some actual or potential desire and categorical imperatives as actions which are necessary without such further purpose.

Since I still have no idea what it would mean for an action to be "of itself objectively necessary," I'm happy to let that phrase remain apparent nonsense if moral imperatives can be understood without it.

First, Foot gives a probable explanation for why Kant was so opposed to letting desires play a role in morality. In short: he mistakenly believed that humans only desire selfish things unless they decide to act morally for morality's sake. Why is this mistaken? Because we can and do desire good things for other people beyond personal benefit.

(On a hunch, I looked up whether Kant ever had children. Nope! I don't have children either, but from what I've observed, it would be very hard to be a loving parent and still think all human desires are self-serving.)

Second, Foot gives an example of moral virtue coming from a desire:
It will surely be allowed that quite apart from thoughts of duty a man may care about the suffering of others, having a sense of identification with them, and wanting to help if he can. Of course he must want not the reputation of charity, nor even a gratifying role helping others, but, quite simply, their good. If this is what he does care about, then he will be attached to the end proper to the virtue of charity and a comparison with someone acting from an ulterior motive (even a respectable ulterior motive) is out of place.
She further points out that a person may act justly out of a desire that "every man to be treated with a certain minimum respect," or act honestly out of a desire "to live openly and in good faith with his neighbors."

If we can have desires which correspond to moral imperatives, then we can view hypothetical imperatives with greater esteem. Not all hypothetical imperatives support moral virtues, but some do!

The Danger of Hypotheticals

Foot anticipates complaints that teaching morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives would be ineffective in controlling people who lack any and all moral desires. I would very loosely paraphrase her answer as: "Yes. Let's be honest and face up to that, rather than peddle delusions."

She closes by implying that we might actually be creating moral skepticism with "the official line about morality," i.e. that right acts must be done for some utterly mysterious reason with no concrete justification. I, for one, am in favor of removing the mystery from moral discussions and making do with what's left.

Followup Post

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