I was never persuaded by Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the highest good (because it is the only thing that humans seek for its own sake rather than for any other end). The reason I never accepted it is that it is either circular (happiness gets defined as whatever it is you seek for its own sake) or obviously wrong (we sometimes do things for the benefit of others).
On the other hand, Kant’s argument that the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will has always seemed extremely persuasive to me and founded upon a deep, virtually universal moral intuition. If I pursue my own happiness at the expense of what I know to be right, any happiness I thereby win is not a blessing but a curse. We root for the “bad guys” not to profit from their wrongdoing. Further, we judge the rightness or wrongness of actions by the state of someone’s will. If I accidentally save someone falling from a burning house while I am engaged in trying to rob it, my “action” is not praiseworthy: there was no intent to do good. On the other hand, if I try to do the right thing, but the facts later turn out to show that I was mistaken, my actions may be regrettable but not blameworthy. For instance, if I see a man accost a child roughly and interpose myself thinking to stop an aggression, I am not to blame for my action even if it turns out the man was trying to stop a child who’d committed a serious theft, so long as, if I had known the truth, I would have acted differently.
But surely, good intentions are not enough! If I know that my actions will cause harm, but do them anyway under the guise that my intentions are good, my actions are still wrong. Politicians do this all the time, in raising subsidies or the minimum wage or in creating monopolies or in innumerable other ways. So reckless or negligent disregard for the consequences of one’s actions is blameworthy. But you don’t really have good intentions if you are reckless or negligent! A well-intentioned person will try to figure out what is best to do, and then act on that understanding.
So it’s settled: the only good thing is a good will. But wait: there’s another problem. What if I act on a moral principle that is false but which I sincerely believe to be true? Am I acting wrongly if I vote for drug prohibition on the grounds that hard paternalism is sometimes morally justified? Am I acting wrongly if, wrongly believing that hard paternalism is morally justified, I nevertheless vote against drug prohibition? It seems that Kant’s answers must be “no” and “yes,” respectively. And I agree: under some circumstances, it is morally wrong for a sincere paternalist to vote against drug prohibition, even though drug prohibition is, in the final analysis, morally wrong. Whaaa…?
This was the hardest part of Kant’s philosophy (or Adam Smith’s too, actually) for my intro political philosophy students at Buffalo to swallow. And it may be hard for you too, dear reader. Can we make sense of it in such a way that does not lead to absurd conclusions like, “It would be morally wrong for Hitler not to have commanded the Holocaust”?
Reading Jerry Gaus’ Order of Public Reason has helped me to sort out this difficult problem. (He’s drawing heavily on P.F. Strawson here, whose work I had not previously read.) From page 253:
The reasons you have must be accessible to you, and as a real rational agent in a world in which cognitive activity has significant costs, rationality does not demand one keep on with the quest to discover less and less accessible reasons. . . [E]xpert advice and the growth of social knowledge allows increasingly sophisticated and complex conclusions to be accessible as reasons to all with simply an adequate amount of deliberation. Think about all the reasons to believe and act that one has after twenty minutes on WebMD.
To have a reason to act in a certain way requires that reason to be cognitively accessible to you. You are not to blame for failing to act on very subtle reasons that only specialists could know and of which you are justifiably unaware. Then there’s this on page 254:
[T]he practice of morality is not an elite practice such as physics or moral philosophy, but a basic human practice in which all adults who have grasped the Principle of Moral Autonomy are competent. We cannot ascribe to moral agents reason to accept infinite utility calculations, the noumenal self, or the original position. These may be elements of philosophical theories that explain or further justify people’s moral reasons, and the philosophers who advocate them may argue that they are in some way the upshot of what normal moral agents do believe, but they are the result of specialist constructions based on long deliberations, and even their teaching is difficult.
Again, having the wrong moral theory is not blameworthy. Ordinary people can be expected only to act according to their good-faith understandings of their moral duties, having done a “respectable (more…)