Moral Imperatives as Ethical Touchstones

Moral Imperatives as Ethical Touchstones

Copyright 1997 David E. Cortesi

The philosophers Immanuel Kant and Jean-Paul Sartre independently proposed very similar "moral imperatives" that, like the Golden Rule, are one-sentence general guides that can be taken as an ethical framework.

Although they are as attractively simple as the Golden Rule, both imperatives suffer from serious logical flaws that make them unworkable as rules of living.

Sartre's Imperative

In the book Existentialism, (quoted in the anthology Existentialism and Human Emotions, Carol Publishing Group 1995, ISBN 0-8065-0902) Sartre says (emphases mine):

In fact, in creating the man that we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be. To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all....[in any act] I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man. every moment I'm obliged to perform exemplary acts. For every man, everything happens as if all mankind had its eyes fixed on him and were guiding itself by what he does. And every man ought to say to himself, "Am I really the kind of man who has the right to act in such a way that humanity might guide itself by my actions?" And if he does not say that to himself, he is masking his anguish.

Sartre appears to believe he has derived this insight from first principles; he makes no reference to Kant's Categorical Imperative, although he must have been aware of it.

Sartre did not seem to think this imperative had any prescriptive value. To the extent that Sartre developed an ethics, he based his ethics on the value of freedom. However, when it is recast in prescriptive form:

When choosing a course of action, assume all mankind will take you as a model and will make the identical choice in the same situation.

Sartre's imperative appears to have wider application than, for example, the Golden Rule.

Defence Against Noncompliance

Sartre even has a clever way of ensuring that no one can escape applying his imperative. It works like this.

Certainly, many people believe that when they do something, they themselves are the only ones involved, and when someone says to them, "What if everyone acted that way?" they shrug their shoulders and answer, "Everyone doesn't act that way." But really, one should always ask himself, "What would happen if everybody looked at things that way?"

The last sentence is not merely a restatement of the first; "looked at things that way" refers to the attitude of the careless people. In other words, you ask someone "what if everyone acted as you just did," and the person shrugs. Then you ask "what if everyone shrugged when asked that question?" As Sartre says,

There is no escaping this disturbing thought except by a kind of double-dealing.

Scope of the Imperative

The scope of Sartre's Imperative is simply all human behavior. Even standing alone in the middle of a desert, wondering if you should deface a rock carving, you can't evade the responsibility of acting the way you think any other person should act in the same situation. Even in the unlikely event that you are facing a completely novel situation, a choice of actions that no person every faced before, you have to consider the possibility that somebody, sometime, will be in the same position, and ask yourself, "Do I want them to act this way, too?"

The scope of the imperative is much broader than that of the Golden Rule, which (as I discussed) really only covers personal interactions between equals.

No Defense Against Insanity

Like the Golden Rule, Sartre's Imperative has no defense against insanity, even moderate and temporary mental illnesses, even temporary passion. The Imperative does not define any action as wrong; it simply requires each person to decide, continually, which of a set of choices is most right. Since the choice is made at the moment, it is conditioned by the mental capacity of the actor at that moment.

If the actor chooses an action no matter how terrible, and can honestly say "I don't give a flying damn what anyone else does, I hope they all do the same and more," and mean it even for a short time, the imperative is no restraint against wrong action.

Complication of the Situation

Alas, there is a major flaw in Sartre's Imperative: It must take into account the situation in which it is applied, but when too much of the situation is incorporated, it becomes no rule at all.

Speaking in general, rhetorical terms, Sartre (or his translator) says in his quaintly sexist way,

every man ought to say to himself, 'Am I really the kind of man who has the right to act in such a way that humanity might guide itself by my actions?'

But upon whom is your model a requirement? Clearly, it applies only to people who are in the identical situation that you occupy at the time of choosing.

To be explicit, let us say that you are in a dark alley, holding a club, and you are watching a smaller, weaker person walking toward you unaware. You are faced with the choice of whether to commit battery and robbery on this victim, or not. (I assume this is not a typical situation for you, but ride with it for a moment.)

When you ask yourself the question of the Imperative, it is nonsensical to condition it in any other way than: "Do I truly want every other person in this precise situation to behave the same as I am about to behave?" This particular choice, to rob or not to rob, cannot possibly have any relevance as a model for people who are driving on the freeway, eating dinner in a restaurant, or browsing the web. They simply don't face that choice, so your choice cannot be a model for them. Also, it has no relationship to someone contemplating a different kind of robbery, such as embezzlement, nor to someone in a similarly dark alley contemplating a different kind of crime, such as a rape.

Perhaps a better way to say it is, "Do I truly want every other person faced with this precise choice of actions to choose as I am about to choose?" Because if the other party has a different set of possible actions more of them, or fewer, or simply a different set -- there is no way your choice could be a model for them, and the Imperative simply doesn't apply.

Situational Sophistry

Immediately three flaws arise and drain all meaning from the Imperative in application. Each of them is simply an issue of defining the precise choice you face.

First, the precise choice of actions you face can be defined with such exquisite detail that it applies to you only in all of time and space. If you are determined to commit the robbery, you can say "Well, if another person with my arm strength and a club of just this length can attack a person of precisely the appearance of this approaching victim, with just the same amount of light in the day and exactly the distance to the escape route, in just this city...and so on and so forth, adding detail...then yes, truly, I think they should strike as I am going to." Since you can tell yourself with fair certainty that no other person will ever be in precisely that set of circumstances, you no longer need to feel guilty.

Sophistry? Certainly! But how do you cast the Imperative to disallow it? There must be some description of the choice of actions that you are exemplifying. Where do you set the gauge for the relative coarseness or fineness of detail that needs to be included? And doesn't it vary with the type of situation?

Second, a more credible (or less attorney-like) sophistry is to include the actor's immediate history in the description of the choice. You can tell yourself, "Well, if another person who is as hungry as I, who has gone as long as I have with no job, no prospects, no place to sleep, who has been as abused by the Veterans' Administration as I have, etc. etc., if such a person can either commit a robbery or walk all night in a sleet storm because he can't afford shelter and likely die before morning, then yes, that person should rob as I am about to rob." This is still sophistry, because one can dramatize and color the pathetic description of one's dilemma as needed to narrow the range of possible disciples of one's choice, and to persuade oneself that members of that badgered minority are justified in the crime.

Third, and frequently used in this last decade of the 20th Century, is the practice of extending the description of the action far back into the actor's history, and using facts from the past to select a narrow, specialized subset of future humans to consider. Thus, standing in the alley, juggling the club in your hand, you can say "Yes, if another person who was as badly abused as a child as I was...," or "If another person who was a child of slavery and suffered discrimination for as long as my people have...," or "If another Native American whose parents drank themselves to death on the white man's reservation as mine did..." Call it the Oprah manouver. As before, the strategy is to load the choice with details, narrowing the possible group of future mimics, so as to dilute the force of the Imperative, and to give that tiny group a reason for acting in a way that the general population would call wrong.

Kant's Categorical Imperative

Let me quickly confess that I have not read Kant; this information is from secondary sources. Kant, the philosopher who more or less defined the modern job description of an academic philosopher, attempted in his Critique of Practical Reason to define an ethics based solely on reason. This wasn't a new goal Socrates had the same idea but Kant by the sheer weight and scope of his analysis gave it a new credibility.

Kant's core idea was to base all of his ethics on a single Categorical Imperative (which simply means, an unconditional or inarguable rule). The Categorical Imperative serves in some fashion as the basic axiom of his system. The C.I. can be stated this way:

Act only on that maxim such that you can, at the same time, will the maxim to be a universal law.

A moral choice becomes a four-step algorithm:

  1. Choose a course of action.
  2. Before you act, deduce the maxim, or general rule, that guides your choice.
  3. Ask: could this rule be a universal law, incumbent on everyone, without logical contradiction?
  4. If not, return to step 1; otherwise, continue.

This is a formal, algorithmic version of Sartre's Imperative (of course, Sartre was writing 150 years later). To "deduce the maxim that guides your choice" is simply to codify the circumstances and reasons that determine your action.

Example: you are preparing your income taxes. Your dead-beat brother-in-law has been living in your garage and paying you rent in cash. Should you report this as income?

  1. You decide that you will not.
  2. Your maxim is: money the government can't trace, I won't claim.
  3. Reformulate as a universal law: cash the government doesn't know about, needn't be claimed as income. Can you agree with this as a universal law?
  4. You decide that it effectively is a universal law already, but in any case there is no logical reason it shouldn't be one.

This action does not violate reason and so is ethical under the C.I.

Insanity and Sophistry

It should be clear without tedious restatement that Kant's Imperative is effectively identical to Sartre's. Kant's formula is even more vulnerable than Sartre's to diminished mental incapacity or deranged motives. A depressed or enraged person is not going to be able to step through that algorithm, while a paranoid or manic person might take positive delight in spinning devious "maxims" that permit anything.

Kant's Imperative is also just as open to sophistical warping. You can load up the "maxim" with detail so as to make the "universal rule" the very opposite of universal, and thus sanction anything. As Matthew Stewart says of Kant in his wonderfully sardonic survey of philosophy, The Truth About Everything,

...he is, like Socrates, making consistency the criterion of moral virtue. Unfortunately for Kant and Socrates, there is no contradiction in being bad. It might be bad to be bad, but it is not illogical to be bad. Also, a lot of things that are not self-contradictory are neither good nor bad. Whatever Kant believed about what is good or bad, his philosophical attempt to locate the good and bad in reason is as old as Socrates and just as futile.

Not Proactive

Neither imperative is proactive. They aim at preventing us from doing the bad, or at choosing the best at the point when we are going to act in any case. They do nothing to explicitely urge us to go looking for new, good acts to perform.

Hidden Appeal to Conscience

Both Sartre's and Kant's imperatives are supposedly derived by reason from first principles, but it seems to me that both derive their emotional force from a hidden, unstated appeal to very conventional conscience. Both amount to exactly what your mother might have said when you were bad: "What if everybody acted that way? How would you like that?"

There is nothing wrong with your mother's question; it was probably very effective in shaming you. But I find something something suspect with exploiting that back-door appeal to the conscience you were taught in childhood, in the context of a supposedly rigorous philosophical argument.

Lack of Community Norms

Yet another fundamental flaw in the Golden Rule and in both Imperatives is that they do not permit the rest of the community any input as to what are and are not valid choices. Under all three rules, everything must be decided by the individual at the moment of choice. The individual who is even marginally or temporarily insane is not constrained in any way, and the sophist can bend the Imperatives with ease.

An ethical framework needs to do more than supply an algorithm for making choices. It needs to list specifically what are good and bad categories of choice. That is the only way it can hope to influence the temporarily deranged and block the rationalizer.

In other words, we still need something like the Ten Commandments: a concise list of general actions whose preferability does not change with the state of mind of the chooser.

Here's how Kant's and Sartre's Imperatives stack up on our four criteria:

Prescriptive Prescriptive of how to choose, not what to choose.
Authority Philosophical authority; derived from first principles.
Compact Compact and easy to memorize.
Coverage Wide coverage is easily subverted by rationalization.

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