From the Onion:
LHASA, TIBET - Deng Hsu, 14, said Monday that he is “totally getting into Western philosophy.” “I’ve been reading a lot of Kant, Descartes, and Hegel, and it’s blowing my mind,” Hsu said. “It’s so exotic and exciting, not like all that Buddhist ‘being is desire and desire is suffering’ shit my parents have been cramming down my throat all my life. Most of the kids in my school have never even heard of Hume’s views on objectivity or Locke’s tabula rasa.” Hsu said he hopes to one day make an exodus to north London to visit the birthplace of John Stuart Mill.
This is going up on my office door.
As this first tweet in a series of thoughtful questions from my friend Bear Braumoeller points out, the difficulty for my argument that George W. Bush ought not to be compared with Osama Bin Laden is attempting to sort out intentions.
In my most recent post on Noam Chomsky’s comparison of Bush and Bin Laden, I ascribe terrible intentions to Bin Laden and less terrible intentions — in fact, I wrote “good intentions (insofar as he didn’t set out to kill civilians)” — to Bush. I have to leave open the possibility that I might be wrong, of course: Bush might have intended to kill lots of civilians. But I suspect not. For all of his many faults and for all of his terrible policy choices, I’ve never seen any evidence that Bush intended to kill civilians in Iraq.
I mean, it’s inconceivable that they didn’t know that civilians would die. A LOT of civilians. Tiny ones. Before acting.
Braumoeller is right that sanctions are a terrible policy and I said so to him on Twitter. The people who implemented the sanctions— not limited to Bush, of course — ought to have chosen a different policy for a great many reasons. I am very confident about arguing that sanctions seldom impact the elites — like Hussein in Iraq — and most often harm the people, those we say we’re trying to assist. If I had to choose a policy, I wouldn’t choose this one … because, historically, it hasn’t achieved the aim it purports to achieve. From a range of policy options, I’d select one that has a better track record. But that’s quite different from making the choice not to implement sanctions because of their possible negative consequences in the future. So, what I want to suggest is two-fold.
First, we can guess at the possible (and even the likely) consequences of our actions, but guessing is the best we can ever do. We won’t ever know for sure what the consequences will be — even if we’ve already tried the same policy — until we’ve taken the action and then looked at what has happened as a result. That’s why Kant rejects consequentialism as a way to make decisions: it doesn’t help us to make decisions in the same way that, for example, the categorical imperative helps us. For Kant, the policy we should adopt is the one that is right and the way to determine a policy’s rightness is to consider whether or not we could will its universalization, not whether its consequences will be good or bad.
Second, what this entire discussion demonstrates, more than anything else, is the single biggest problem with consequentialism: we can use the theory to make any sort of argument we’d like. In other words, we can make a case for taking the actions that Bush took and we can make a case for not taking the actions that Bush took … using the components of utilitarian consequentialist theory. Here’s how that works:
Bush could have reasonably guessed at the terrible consequences of both the war and the sanctions, and should have chosen different policies because of these consequences. But, using the same logic, he could have done that guess-work and concluded that the benefits for the greatest number of Iraqi civilians outweighed the costs. There’s nothing wrong, according to consequentialism, with sacrificing some people if the result is good for a greater number of people. These are the two sides of consequentialism and they allow us to either condemn Bush for his terrible policies based on their consequences or to excuse Bush for selecting policies based on a “greatest-good” calculation.
The same simply cannot be said about Bin Laden, which was my original point. For whatever similarities there might be in the consequences of their actions, their intentions were very different. We don’t have any reason to believe that Bush knew sanctions would kill a great many innocent people and that he then chose that policy because it would have those consequences. We know exactly that about Bin Laden.
MTV made is easier on me, as Episode 2 of the Third Season of “Jersey Shore” literally contains nothing of interest to anyone … except Kantians!
Now mostly it’s about Sammi and Ronnie. They go to church, they go out to eat together, they skip Sunday dinner with the rest of the gang, they fight, they cry, and they question the status of their relationship.
As “Rookie of the Year” candidate Deena notes, “There’s really no reason for Sammi to be here; she’s like a piece of furniture.”
That said, to my mind, the episode really revolves around the fact that Vinny is apparently a Kantian and Snooki does not understand the Categorial Imperative.
Snooki wants to hook up with Vinny, as they did in Miami last season, but Vinny now demurs. The reason he does so, it seems, is that he cares for Snooki as a person and he expresses this much like a good Kantian would express the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, namely that he desires only to treat her as an end in herself rather than as a means to an end.
Snooki, unsurprisingly, does not understand. Rather than embracing the strict dictates of Kantian morality, she veers in the other direction and continues the heavy drinking and unpredictable behavior for which she become famous.
Sadly, Vinny learns one of the most difficult lessons of Kantian moral theory: you might act according to your duty — in this case, treating Snooki with respect and dignity — and still get an unhappy result. Whereas Vinny actively sought the good for Snooki, as was his duty, things cannot possibly end well for her. This is the difficulty of morality: it doesn’t always lead to happiness.
That said, it’s important that we not hold Vinny — or Kantian moral theory — to account for what becomes of Snooki; though the result will surely be bad, it’s nice to see Kant’s theory put to a practical test and come through validated.
If only Snooki could have been made to understand the impossibility of willing that her actions should become a universal law … but then “Jersey Shore” would be a very different show than it is.