Categorical Imperatives


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

Related Post Roulette

61 Responses

  1. Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

    I’m willing to share.Report

  2. Avatar Will H. says:

    For some reason, this reminds me of when Seinfeld called his mother on the phone to tell her that he was having a cookie before dinner, intentionally ruining his appetite.
    But really, if one cookie is all it’s going to take to ruin your appetite, then you must not have much of an appetite in the first place.*

    It’s not at all non-ordinary for persons respected in one field to comment about this-or-that outside of their field and be taken seriously.
    I remember reading here where someone said that their doctor said that being seated in the non-smoking section of a restaurant is like going to the non-peeing section of a swimming pool. Which sounds really catchy and all, but it really shows an ignorance of light industrial air distribution systems. Not quite the doctor’s specialty, but he’s taken seriously anyway.
    Look at all the stuff to do with Warren Buffet that people hang on.
    If Buffet announced the brand of toilet paper he purchased, sales would spike.

    * Terribly sorry, but I baked some cookies the other night, and although the cookies are all gone, the smell still lingers in the house.
    I am tormented by the Ghost of Cookies Past.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Will H. says:

      mmmm coookies…Report

    • Avatar NoPublic in reply to Will H. says:

      I went to an local chain restaurant before we went non-smoking here and was seated in the “non-smoking” section. I was literally 8 inches from a smoker. Separated by a waist high railing and a 4″ vertical step. The smoking section was the bar and the seating around the bar. Then a step up and a railing around to the non-smoking section which was one row of seating next to the smokers and one row separated from that by a server-width aisle.

      Air handling my ass.Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Not every society has a problem with homosexuality in its various manifestations. Back when I was studying linguistics, I ran across the Sioux and their winkte, men who assumed feminine caring roles, half man, half woman. The winkte were considered holy people.

    The Sioux completely institutionalized gender neutrality into their culture and it was far more than mere sexuality, though that’s all changing, the Lakota now have their own problems with AIDS and homophobia. These days, winkte just means “gay” in Lakota and they’ve had to invent the term winktewin for lesbian, though that’s sort of a recursion, woman-man woman. There were lesbians in ancient Lakota culture, they were just embedded in larger families. Often sisters would marry a single man. Remarkable culture, in horrible decline these days, but I do hope they make a comeback, if only as an example of how different human cultures approach the gender problem.Report

  4. As maxims go, “Find someone you can really love, body and soul” leaves something to be desired. Society is just not ready for it yet.

    Let’s review today’s current restrictions:
    1) Gender: Man and woman
    2) Polygamy: One man and one woman
    3) Incest: …who are not related
    4) Pedophilia: …and are of the age of consent

    Your simple maxim would toss out all four. Of course, homosexuality is nothing like incest, polygamy, or pedophilia, but are you sure this is truly the maxim you want us all to live by?Report

    • I’d argue that love is a two-way street, and you can’t really “love” a child on account o’ they’re not equipped to love you back, in the romantic sense of love.

      Incest is personally disagreeable, but I don’t know that it needs to be the government’s business. The genetic disorder probability issue is actually much less of a practical matter than, say, someone who has an actual inheritable genetic disorder, and we don’t prevent them from getting married to anybody. So the justification for preventing siblings from getting married is that we find it icky. That’s not a good basis for public policy.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to The Heathen Republican says:

      You figured me out. I’ve been scheming to marry the Brooklyn Bridge for like forever. And I woulda got away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids!Report

  5. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    What’s silly about this argument is that it presupposes that human beings have a complete inability to plan for the future and no understanding of reproduction. Say tomorrow the entire species gets zapped by an alien gay-laser; okay, now people are still going to figure out other ways to continue the species than penis-vagina intercourse- I guarantee it. Or they’ll just make penis-vaginal intercourse something like jury duty.Report

  6. I don’t suppose there will ever come a day when there isn’t someone, somewhere, writing something like “If everyone in the world were homosexual, the human race would die out.”

    I do have a hope, however, that there will come a day when it is not felt that such things require a response!Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to Tony Comstock says:

      But of course, if people keep writing aphorisms like that, then responses will eventually die out.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Will H. says:

        “From now on I’m thinking only of me.”

        Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”

        “Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”Report

        • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          Sort of like, if everyone had an identical genius IQ, the genius level of intelligence would just become average. It’s all about means type testing. If you had a class in which everyone tested 200 on an IQ test–if that became the “average”, would you have to completely change and redesign the entire curriculum to even things out? Could you have an entire class graduate from college at 12 years old?Report

          • Avatar JosephFM in reply to Heidegger says:

            Isn’t that actually sort of what they actually do? The IQ test is reset all the time to keep the average at 100, otherwise everyone’s scores would be ridiculously high.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          Ladies and gentlemen … The Prisoners’ Dilemma.Report

  7. Avatar Lee says:

    I just looked up the book referenced on Amazon and was surprised to learn that there are still people in honest-to-God 2011 churning out books on the self-hating left-wing intelligentsia. I thought David Horowitz had beat that dead horse to a pulp somewhere around 1997.Report

  8. Avatar Steve S. says:

    “If everyone in the world were homosexual…”

    …that would presumably include everyone but the questioner. So that individual, if male, would be under the horrific obligation of mating with every female of child-bearing age within spermshot. How awful.

    “this is a lousy argument. The refutation?”

    I can’t think of anything that needs to be refuted.Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to Steve S. says:

      I was under the impression that the rhetorical question as being posed by an alien that was bred in a lab.
      And because this is an alien lab, I was under the impression that this alien race (being somewhat more advanced than ourselves, breeding in labs and what-not while us Earthlings are still hoping to knock off a little in the parking lot) was in complete compliance with the local health ordinances in the operation of this lab, and this alien race might somehow receive adequate health care according to their needs, and without vivisection.
      Also, this strange alien race with their otherworldly custom and strange mannerisms might not be out to dick us around like we’ve done to every other technologically inferior civilization we’ve ever come across on this planet.
      But I’m probably just being overly optimistic.Report

      • Avatar Will H. in reply to Will H. says:

        But, of course, the very next alien spaceship that lands over here, if some alien comes out to say, “Greetings, Earthling! We come not to dick you around!” I’m not buying it.
        That Utopian crap works well at a distance, but once they start knocking on the door, it’s time to pump up the Mossberg.
        Unless they’re little midget aliens. Then I might let them make it.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Steve S. says:

      I can’t think of anything that needs to be refuted.

      I debated it too. Two things made me want to post despite the really weak argument.

      First, it does look Kantian. If you’re looking to validate a gut instinct against something, the categorical imperative is a really attractive option. What this suggests to me is that the categorical imperative itself is rather subject to manipulation. A lot depends on how we draw up our maxims.

      Second, I had that last line in mind forever, in one form or another. Just had to let it out.Report

      • Avatar Loneoak in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        That’s a terrible misreading of Kant and the categorical imperative (professional moral philosopher here). The two formulations of the categorical imperative: 1) Act always in such a way that you could universalize the maxim of your actions; 2) Act always in such a way that you treat others and yourself as ends and never as mere means. (This is not a fancy rewriting of the golden rule, the golden rule is actually very immoral for Kantians.) A maxim is a reason for acting, not the act itself. So the maxim here would be something like “When making decisions about whom I love and have sex with, I will primarily be concerned with the procreative success of the species.” That is a highly irrational maxim—it would obligate each and every heterosexual to measure the contribution of their mating choices to the survival of the species. If you read it through the second formulation, the problems become even more glaring. Making decisions about whom to have sex with on the basis of other people’s very, very distant interests (whether that sex act contributes to a far removed future of survival) is to treat oneself as a mere means for someone’s extremely vague ends.

        Kant himself would not have had the concepts or the vocabulary to say it, but I think Kantian moral philosophy obligates you to follow your sexual orientation, as long as your partners are freely and rationally choosing to participate.Report

        • Avatar David Cheatham in reply to Loneoak says:

          On top of that, as I pointed out below, I’m not even sure that ‘humanity continuing to exist’ is even slightly logical as a ‘interest’ of humanity.

          I, as a living human, want humanity to continue, but an eventual lack of humanity appears to harm no one, specifically because there is in fact no one to be harmed. You end up hitting a sort of divide-by-zero error if you try to calculate the ‘interests’ of a bunch of people who do not exist. What does ‘no one’ want? Nothing.

          OTOH, if you do claim they do have some interest, (and clearly their first interest is in actually existing at all), then it is, as you point out incredibly immoral to not have all the kids you can, continually, because it is vitally important that people who currently exist had parents that had children.

          I’m not sure I stated those options in any sane manner, but basically, either we should consider the fate of nonexistent people as part of the ‘universe of our actions’, in which case it is incredibly important we help them with that (Because if no one did that, we literally won’t exist at all. It’s life or death.), or we _don’t_ consider their fate, in which case we owe them no effort to try to make them exist whatsoever.

          There’s no sane middle ground there, at least not under categorical imperative. (And probably not under any moral theory, really. No theory can cope with the near infinite ‘rights of people who are not real to be real’.)

          However, I’m not quite sure why you dislike comparisons to the golden rule. ‘Do unto others as you would wish everyone to do unto everyone’ is a perfectly reasonable restatement of the _first_ formulation of the categorical imperative, and makes a fine comparison to the golden rule. (Later formulations would be something like ‘Accomplish the same things that you would like everyone to accomplish’, which wanders so far from the golden rule to be unrecognizable.) Do you just dislike the fact it is talking about the means, not the ends?Report

          • Avatar Loneoak in reply to David Cheatham says:

            A maxim is a reason or motivation for an action; the first formulation is about *why* you act, not about what act you do. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is about what you want to be done, not why you want it to be done. Kant wants you to universalize your motives, not the actions themselves.Report

  9. Avatar Lyle says:

    Of course that was true until artificial insemination was invented. Today one could concieve of a situation where men donated sperm but were anonymous, and a woman who wanted children could get inseminated. No need for any male-female relationships at all. (In fact you could just kill the men off at 18).
    Interestingly a few religious groups tried this such as the shakers, and proceeded to die out (no homosexuality, just no sex). Of course a lot of early Christians felt that no sex because Christ was going to return in their life times, and Paul says its better to remain unmarried. That marriage is for weaklings.Report

  10. Avatar J. Peron says:

    A better example would be: If everyone in the world joined a Catholic order (men as priests, women as nuns) the human race would die out.

    A least gay couples can use surrogates, an option that would be denied by the Church to nuns. So gay couples could still have children. As for priests, when they want a kid…. well, perhaps it is best not to go there.Report

  11. Avatar Boonton says:

    If everyone did exactly the same thing, the human race would die out.Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “If all women knew their place and all men knew theirs, we could continue on in perpetuity.”Report

  13. Avatar Chris says:

    Minogue’s worries about “the advancing of homosexuality as an equally valid sexual option to heterosexuality” makes at least one assumption that is contradicted by the empirical evidence: that homosexuality is entirely or at least primarily a personal choice (it also assumes that gay people don’t reproduce, which is an empirically false assumption). That is, it assumes that it is an “option” which people can consider (even if they do so unconsciously), and towards which they can be influenced by those who are “advancing” it as an equally valid one.

    This may not have needed to be pointed out, but I wanted to put it out there anyway. Since much of the conservative fear of homosexuality rests on their belief that the continued and even increased visible presence of gay people in society will influence others (particularly their children) to become gay, it can’t hurt to continually point out that, while it wouldn’t be the end of the world if their kids did end up being gay, it’s unlikely that any amount of gay pride parades, watching Bravo and HGTV, and receiving invitations for their cousin’s gay wedding is going to influence their sexual orientation, even if those things (OK, the first and the last at least) do advance homosexuality as equally valid.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Chris says:

      It’s a good note. I’ve recently thought about how my opinions might be different if I believed people are inherently straight and a few choose homosexuality for cultural reasons. Because some people really do believe that, and I think that, if you did believe that, maybe you really would see something like same sex marriage as a willful act of defiance against the order of things.Report

  14. Avatar David Cheatham says:

    I’m not entirely sure why ‘Humanity dying out because it doesn’t reproduce’ is _morally_ a bad thing in the first place. The Categorical Imperative requires is essentially a society-wide golden rule. You don’t do to others what you would have them do unto you, you do unto others what you’d have everyone do to everyone.

    But not having kids…who exactly is it hurting? The non-existent children? Huh? Now, as a fan of humans, I’d like humanity to continue. We’ve done a lot of stuff, and it’d be sad if no one knew, and I don’t see any aliens out there.

    So if some magical meteor coming to close to earth meant that every single human born after today was gay, (and for some reason humanity didn’t decide set up a massive artificial insemination system, and totally restructure families and reproduction), and thus this generation was that last that ever lived, well, it would be sad, but it would hardly be _immoral_ on the part of those gay children to not have kids.

    If anything, the Categorical Imperative argues that people _shouldn’t_ have kids, because if everyone had them, if every woman on the globe had a child ever year, we’d be unable to function. Whereas if no one had kids, we’d just quietly fad into non-existence, although it might be touchy there at the end with a bunch of 80 year olds and no one to care for them.

    But that is the stupidly simplistic version of the Categorical Imperatives, which has never heard of ‘statistics’ or ‘moderation’. Society would also collapse if everyone drove their car at the same time, or as the article pointed out, attempted to cure cancer at the same time, but that doesn’t mean that no one should do those things.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to David Cheatham says:

      You have to be able to will that the maxim behind your action could become universal law.

      In these examples, I would say that the (proper) maxim behind your action cannot be “everyone must have kids” or “no one may have kids.” The proper maxim has to take into account circumstances. But then we’ve got a huge problem — which circumstances count, and for how much?Report

      • Avatar David Cheatham in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        We’ve got a huge problem anyway, as this is about ‘having children’, not ‘being gay’ in the first place.

        If it’s unethical to be gay because you won’t have children, then it’s clearly unethical to be straight and not have children…in fact, it’s _more_ unethical, simply because straight people can have kids much more easily than gay people, and have to actively stop themselves from doing so.

        And it’s hard to argue that gay _men_, or even straight men, have any responsibility here…there is _plenty_ of sperm to go around, and women could literally be churning out babies as fast as they wanted with almost no action from men. It’s _women_ who are failing to reproduce, and should be blamed entirely for it. If no men reproduced, we could shudder along for another few years, if no women did, we’d be instantly in trouble. (Please note I don’t actually think this, but I’m taking the argument to where it logically goes, and think the entire moral argument is stupid.)

        Likewise, gay people can certainly have children, and if the entire world somehow was gay, we’d surely be smart enough to quickly set up some sort of easy-to-use society-wide system of artificial insemination and adoption.

        This whole premise is stupid.

        I was just pointing out it was stupid in another way. The Categorical Imperative asks how ‘bad’ the situation would be if everyone did what you were talking about, what would be the harm to you, and everyone else?

        But if humans started reproducing, it’s hard to call that ‘bad’, or see what the harm to me would be. Okay, humanity dies out voluntarily…so? There’s an step missing where it is demonstrated ‘what if no one reproduced by choice’ is something we’d actually oppose.

        If the human race ends because none of us are bothering to have children…well, um, yeah, that’s obviously sorta what we were aiming for. It’s not likely we’d actually do that, but if we does, it’s hardly a question of ‘morality’…it is not immoral to not exist.(1) Just sorta stupid.

        1) Let’s not get into suicide here, which this isn’t. This is like, every year you go on vacation…until one year you stop going, and don’t go again. You are not ‘ending’ human life, you’re just failing to take action to do it again.Report

  15. Avatar Chris says:

    The proper maxim has to take into account circumstances.

    You’re not going to have a very good categorical imperative that way!Report

  16. Avatar North says:

    Maybe this is off topic but in pondering this hypothetical world with 100% homosexuality would this not be a world where every child born was desired/valued and that most of said children would also have been carefully planned and prepared for? That strikes me as not being a very scary dystopia.Report

  17. Avatar J. Peron says:

    Anyone consider what it would be like if EVERYONE had children? The “what-if-everyone-did-it” argument is just plain silly. Everyone doesn’t do anything outside of basic biological functions. Everyone breaths, eats, sleeps, drinks, but beyond that there is little unanimity.

    Yes, we would have one problem if everyone didn’t have children, and another problem if everyone did. Surely the optimum is somewhere in the middle. Surely the concept of division of labor, a time-honored economic construct, applies to having children as well. Not everyone should do it. In fact I can think of numerous cases where it was absolutely wrong for certain people to have any children at all.Report