A year or two ago shalmestere
and I watched a multi-part dramatization of the life of John Adams
. The first episode concerned Adams's defense of several British troops in the Boston Massacre
-- which seems an odd assignment for a budding revolutionary. Feelings were running high in Boston, and it was easy to whip up an angry mob; going to court to defend a bunch of British troops who had shot Boston civilians was a real danger to not only his political career but his and his young family's lives. But they needed a competent defense attorney, and nobody else would take the case. Eventually, he got the captain and most of the soldiers acquitted entirely, while two had their charges reduced from murder to manslaughter. Even though he and the soldiers were "on opposite sides" of the rapidly-growing conflict, he did what he thought law and justice demanded, to the best of his abilities. (His own memoirs about the episode make it clear that he felt this was one of the most noble and right things he'd ever done.)
We've been trying to downsize the piles of books all around the house, and one of my contributions to this effort was going through a shelf of books on religion and/or politics I'd acquired in college grad school and deciding which I was likely to ever read again. One was a thin paperback of Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals
, which I realized I'd never actually read the first time. It's not terribly long, so I decided to give it a try while commuting to and from work. (It beats trying to read the Times on my phone while standing up and holding onto a pole, exacerbating a mild case of texter's thumb.) I'm only about halfway through, but here goes.
What qualifies an action as moral? Kant points out that where an action has clear benefits for you, you may
have taken it for moral reasons or for selfish ones, and there's no way to tell. Likewise, if an action doesn't present you with a realistic choice, you may
have taken it for moral or other reasons, and there's no way to tell. If the posted speed limit is 55 MPH and I'm driving 25 because I have a flat tire, have I obeyed the law? Well, I haven't violated
it, but neither have I made a decision to obey it; I didn't really have the option of violating it, so my action has no moral quality at all. Likewise, if the speed limit is 55 MPH and I'm driving 45 because I'm on my way to a party I expect to be thoroughly unpleasant and I want to get there as late as possible, I'm not violating the law but neither have I shown my moral or law-abiding character by doing so; my actions have no moral character, being selfish and only coincidentally in accordance with the law. So although people may
be making moral decisions all the time, the only times we (or they -- people can be easily deluded about their own motivations) can be reasonably sure
they are doing so are when the action is contrary to their own obvious interests.
But taking an action against your own interests doesn't necessarily qualify as moral either: sometimes people lash out in a fit of nihilistic anger, destroying themselves and anyone around them for the short-term adrenaline rush. In order for an action to be considered as moral, it has to be done because it's in accordance with a universal principle
. And by "universal principle", he means a rule that you could reasonably want "all rational beings" to obey. That is, to decide whether a principle qualifies, imagine a world in which everybody followed it, and ask yourself whether that would be a good world -- or, somewhat more subjectively, whether you would like that world.
Of course, there may be things that we would want most
people to do, but perhaps not all
: I happen to like a world in which there are people crossing the Antarctic or flying to the moon or training sheep and sheep-dogs to put on fireworks shows
to Show That It Can Be Done, but it would be really silly, destructive, and wasteful to have lots of people doing those things. We can address this objection by applying a bit of modern game theory, allowing "mixed" or probabilistic strategies among the principles we imagine everybody following: would I like a world in which everybody, with probability 1/1000000, tried to do such-and-such? (Probably closer to Kant's intent, we can address it by erasing the specifics, and ask whether I would like a world in which everybody lived their lives according to such-and-such broad maxim.) Or is it a principle that I like when I
follow it, but I would rather nobody else did -- if so, it's not a moral principle.
Analogies with today's political situation are obvious. How many politicians today (at any level, not only Federal) can we say are doing something because it's universally right, rather than because it furthers their own individual interests or supports their team against the other team? The examples of Mitch McConnell, in blocking Merrick Garland's SCOTUS nomination for a year just because he could, and then eliminating the filibuster for SCOTUS nominees to approve two Trump nominees on narrow party-line votes just because he could, and Jeff Sessions, who despite his decades of other despicable behavior Did The Right Thing in recusing himself from the investigation of Russian involvement in a political campaign of which he'd been a major player (while meeting multiple times in private with Russian government officials), are illuminating.
Of course, it's always difficult (especially for politicians) to disentangle doing something Because It's Right from doing something Because It Will Be Seen As Right -- conspicuously "moral" behavior as a way of furthering one's own reputation and career. I believe a guy named Jesus had something relevant to say about keeping one's hands ignorant of one another.
I suspect the current occupant of the White House would probably find the whole topic bizarre: why would anyone ever
do something contrary to his own and his team's interests? "Moral" is an excuse losers give after the fact for why they lost. The only universal is that everybody is out for himself, so I'll act in a way that ensures my welfare at the expense of everyone else, because I assume they would do, and are doing, the same to me.
Enough for today: I'd better go make breakfast.