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Three wise mentalities

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The ‘structural similarities’ I spoke about in Scratch my back – those between Kant’s categorical imperative, the Golden Rule, and the evolved behavioural strategy of reciprocal altruism – are some really obvious ones.

This article follows Scratch my back in a discussion on The ethics of belief.

All three are principles guiding behaviour. All three are expressed in universal form.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

All three are also ‘formal’, in the sense that specific content must be added to flesh them out to derive specific guidelines for specific contexts. For example the categorical imperative does not refer to promising or telling the truth, but can apply to both of these. Again reciprocal altruism is about cooperation in general, and can apply to a variety of scenarios where cooperation (and, significantly, cooperation by default) is an option. Similarly the Golden Rule (or the Silver Rule or the Platinum Rule: see Any fool can make a rule and Precious metal rules OK?) does not talk about specific things individuals may do or not do to each other, but about all of them.

With one interesting exception, they all assume, and address, a context of social interaction. The exception is Kant’s extension of the categorical imperative to cover ‘duties to self’. I mentioned in Precious metal rules OK? how unconvinced I am by his arguments on this subject. Now is perhaps a good time to dig deeper.

Kant presents the categorical imperative as a formula applicable to all free and rational beings, insofar as they are free and rational – full stop. Not insofar as they are humans or social beings of any kind. He seems to take it as given that there are duties to self – because moral traditions, including in particular the Christian tradition, say there are. His intention was after all to explain moral obligation as commonly experienced. And for example many moral, religious and legal codes have declared a ban on suicide, which contravenes the duty of self-preservation.

But this in itself does not independently prove that duties to self exist. His only substantive supporting arguments either refer in the end to the impact on others of obeying or disobeying these supposed duties, or involve unconvincing teleological claims about ‘nature’s purpose for humanity’.1

The categorical imperative cannot presuppose obligation, as obligation is what it is intended to explain. Kant is not saying we ought to obey the categorical imperative. He is saying we cannot but see as binding those imperatives which fit the formula of the categorical imperative, purely because we are free and rational. Anything else would involve a contradiction.

It is worth recapping some examples which fit the categorical imperative explanation.

Promising and telling the truth fit because they both rely on universal acceptance. I cannot have the right to lie because I cannot at the same time will that everyone else has the right to lie when they want to. If everyone could lie, the convention of truth-telling on which communication (and therefore lying itself) depends would be destroyed, or would never be established in the first place. One person’s putative ‘right to lie’ presupposes that people in general do not exercise the right.

Promising is if anything even more clear-cut. The convention of promising can only exist in a context where individuals act on the maxim that they keep their promises. Breaking a promise is only possible within the convention of promising. So again one person’s putative ‘right to break a promise’ presupposes that others do not exercise that right.

Moses and the Ten Commandments (Rembrandt)

Moses and the Ten Commandments (Rembrandt)

But now consider the sixth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. If this also fits the categorical imperative formula, it does so for a different reason than for promising and telling the truth. The argument is that I cannot will it to be a universal law that others can kill whom they want to – including myself and anyone who matters to me. But this is not a logical contradiction, as in promising and truth-telling. My putative right to break a promise presupposes that others do not exercise that right. But my putative right to kill another does not presuppose that others do not exercise the right to kill me.

It is theoretically possible, and logically coherent, for me to act on a maxim giving me the right to kill another and at the same time will it to be a universal law that others have the same right to kill me. If this sounds like the theme of a Spaghetti Western that should be no surprise. To live outside the law you must be honest, sang Bob Dylan.2 Well maybe. But you should certainly take care.

It is hard to see how social life is possible if people give themselves the right to kill each other. So the sixth commandment could be a categorical imperative under Kant’s formula, but only within the domain of social beings. It may not apply to honest and logically consistent outlaws.

So what about duties to self? To make sure we are not really talking about duties to others, we must exclude every possible impact on others of, say, suicide or self-neglect. And once we do that, it is hard to see how a putative duty of self-preservation can be explained as a categorical imperative. I can commit suicide while acting on the maxim that I have a sovereign right over my life, and at the same time will it to be a universal law that everyone else has the same sovereign right over their own lives.

The exception therefore seems to be the type that proves the rule. So for practical purposes, despite Kant’s protestations, all three principles (categorical imperative, Golden Rule, and evolved reciprocal altruism) also assume and address a context of social interaction.

The last similarity we should consider is the ‘message’ or ‘advice’ they contain. Now we can exclude duties to self, the message is effectively that of the Golden Rule itself: treat others as you would like to be treated. The categorical imperative formula from the previous post Scratch my back was:

(ii) Always act in such a way that you could also will that the maxim on which you act should be a universal law.

Continuing the same numbering sequence from Scratch my back, if we confine (ii) to the domain of social interaction it becomes something virtually identical to the Golden Rule:

(vii) Always act towards others in such a way that you could also will that the maxim on which you act should be a universal law.

The only real difference is that Golden Rule formulations typically talk about treating others as you would like to be treated (or in the Platinum version, as they would like to be treated), whereas (viii) talks about treating others as you think everyone would like to be treated – by everyone else.

Reciprocal altruism is a strategy (or a range of strategies) rather than an imperative. But in Scratch my back we managed to morph ‘tit for tat’ into:

(vi) When faced with a situation involving another individual and where the choices open to you are to cooperate, defect or decline, you should always cooperate unless you have good reason to think that individual previously deliberately defected, in which case you should politely decline from participating – and explain why.

On the assumption that you want others to cooperate with you, because of the survival benefits you will enjoy, then strategy – or maxim – (vi) is effectively to treat others as you would like to be treated.

Having laboured all these similarities, we should look at how the three principles differ.

The most obvious difference, and for present purposes the most interesting difference, is that the three come to us from such different sources. The Golden Rule is a guide to behaviour taught by a variety of world religions and traditions, but originated in the Axial Age around twenty-five centuries ago. The categorical imperative comes from the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. It was intended as a synthetic a priori principle, providing a logical foundation and justification for moral experience. And reciprocal altruism as an evolved strategy comes from twentieth-century biological and game-theoretical models, backed by computer simulations.

Now if all three principles have pretty much the same meaning, and pretty much the same context – human social interaction – then perhaps they are three different views or descriptions of the same thing, but coming at it from three different perspectives? If so, this suggests it might be possible to construct a model reflecting all three.

Assume for the moment that an evolutionary explanation of human ethical behaviour is the correct one. (This is just an assumption, but it is one based on research which has at least established its feasibility.) Assume also that part of this evolutionary explanation is that humans are in some way hard-wired with strategies causing them to behave and decide as if in accordance with general guiding principles or imperatives – for example ‘tit for tat’ or ‘forgiving tit for tat’ or ‘cautious cooperation’: something like (vi). And assume, furthermore, that an evolved behavioural strategy like (vi) will appear to a self-conscious human agent as an imperative.

We have established the obvious feature of these principles that they are universal in form. For example (vi) is of the form:

(viii) Whenever conditions x1xn obtain, do y.

This is the universality of the agent’s context. Whenever conditions x1xn obtain, the agent is to do y. But if the agent is a member of a set or domain – indeed a species – which is ‘hard-wired’ to behave in a particular way, then universality also applies to the agent. In this example, we are saying that an imperative (or maxim, or strategy) like (vi) applies to all humans, because all humans are hard-wired with (vi).

The result is a model of human moral behaviour. It includes assumptions which are at least feasible. It is supported by some scientific research, but is clearly nowhere near proven. It could well be false. But it is both verifiable and falsifiable, and it is consistent with other scientific knowledge.

The model has some interesting implications, which will be explored in the next post.


1 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by Jonathan Bennett (July 2005),

2 Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie, 1966. In: Blonde on blonde, 1966.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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  1. […] more on this see Three wise mentalities. The point for now is that as soon as we talk about promising, and telling the truth generally, we […]

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