Hope, captain of the ever-twisting Mind of mortal men

Monday 🌜

2227 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other... ]

I’ve spent a good portion of the day being super puzzled about what he starts to say on page 206-208 in section 5 in chapter 5, on “generality and fairness” and I’ve been reading and re-reading those pages, and I just couldn’t figure out what he’s even trying to say…. but, I think maybe I’ve figured out what the problem is. I mean, I seriously thought that I was going stupid or something. By the time I got to page 208, I was thinking to myself, “Who thinks this?” and “What is he saying?”

I think that the problem was that I don’t normally think about “Kant’s famous fourth example” in quite the same way as Scanlon had been talking about, and I was trying really hard to follow, but I just couldn’t understand why he was talking about it. But I realized that this was the problem, when I went searching online for what “Kant’s famous fourth example” was and I learned that most people think differently about it than I do.

I found a question about “Kant’s famous fourth example” at this forum (https://groups.able2know.org/philforum/topic/4172-1), and in the process of attempting to answer the original question posted there (after scrolling through others’ responses and finding them insufficient somehow), I realized that I simply don’t think about “Kant’s famous fourth example” in the same way that “most-other-people” think about it — and this is what was causing the confusion for me.

Well, I want to take note of my own [long] response to the question on that forum, so I’m going to record it here in case I want to reference it later; it might come in handy. So, for context, the original question went like this:


>> I don’t really see how Kant’s 4th example of being miserly to the poor creates a contradiction when willed. It looks like its vulnerable to the Bentham/Mill view that Kant only says its immoral because the consequences for following such a maxim wouldn’t be pleasant. Can anyone else help me out with this?

I’ve copied and pasted the example for expediency:

“A fourth, who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness and that he could help them, thinks: ‘What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven pleases, or as be can make himself; I will take nothing from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in distress!’ Now no doubt if such a mode of thinking were a universal law, the human race might very well subsist and doubtless even better than in a state in which everyone talks of sympathy and good-will, or even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but, on the other side, also cheats when he can, betrays the rights of men, or otherwise violates them. But although it is possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which, by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires.” <<


And my own response was this:

>> To start, a disclaimer: I’m not a Kantian or a Kant expert. I’m a Plato person.

Perhaps Kant means to try to explain an idea that he has, which is an idea that is similar to what is said in Plato’s Republic. (Regardless of whether Kant had read Plato or not. People can have similar ideas independently of one another. Also, Kant was obviously influenced by Christianity and defers to “Scripture” on several occasions, and it’s also a fact that some of the core beliefs of Christianity was at least indirectly influenced by Plato; perhaps Jesus himself was a kind of Jewish Platonist.) And so, I’ll include a little bit of Plato and explicate the concept presented there, and then come back to Kant. But, I’ll start by telling you where I’m going with this.

My view is that: I think it’s not consequentialist — if you read Kant in a certain way.

That last line seems important to me, where he says, “he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires.” (Of course, I don’t know what else is sandwiched around this quote that you placed here. I’m just offering a reasonable way to understand Kant, if he is to be not to be contradictory in an obviously petty way.) Now, writing often lacks the intonational emphasis of regular speech. I think that this can cause confusion sometimes. For a non-consequentialistic reading, try placing the emphasis is on the “hope” part rather than on the “aid” part — with the phrase, “of the aid he desires,” just simply being there to give substantiality to “hope”.

In order to capture the right “feel,” perhaps a quote from Plato might help (I apologize that I might be taking you away from Kant):

[Cephalus speaking to Socrates]
“But someone who knows he has not been unjust has sweet good hope as his constant companion — a nurse to his old age, as Pindar says. For he puts it charmingly Socrates, when he says that when someone lives a just and pious life:

Sweet hope is in his heart
Nurse and companion to his age
Hope, captain of the ever-twisting
Mind of mortal men.

How amazingly well he puts that. It is in this connection I would say the possession of wealth is most valuable, not for every man, but for a good and orderly one. Not cheating someone even unintentionally, not lying to him, not owing a sacrifice to some god or money to a person, and as a result departing for that other place in fear — the possession of wealth makes no small contribution to this. It has many other uses, too, but putting one thing against the other, Socrates, I would say that for a man with any sense, that is how wealth is most useful.” (Republic, 331a-b)

The point illustrated here by Plato is that when a person does “good” deeds (eg, acts out of good-will or at least not-intending-to-harm), they have no reason to think that others will want to harm them, at least by means of revenge.
A couple other points will help:
(a) Based on text elsewhere in the Republic (which I won’t cite here), Plato suggests the notion that it is “worse” to commit harm, than it is to be harmed.
(b) The sort of “better” and “worse” in (a) has to do with the state of the soul/story of the individual. And a person’s “inner-story” sort of depends on what-they-think-of-themselves, and/or what they think that they deserve or are owed — some might call it having a conscience, or something like that.
(c) One major tenet of Socratic philosophy is that we can’t presume to “know” what other people are thinking or intending, without examining them on their own terms. (That is why he asks them so many questions.) For Socrates, “knowing” is a conscious state that necessarily requires carnal actuality; it’s not a mere storage of a bunch of data in our heads (ie, a conscious state without carnal actuality). So, Socratic “knowledge” is a kind of technical term, since most people (following Aristotle’s way of usage) consider “knowing” to be the latter sort.
(d) For Plato, “good” is what is arising out of knowledge. “Bad” is what arises out of ignorance. (For example, it is only “bad” to engage in homosexual acts if one commits them out of self-ignorance — perhaps, in order to fit-in with a crowd. But the same homosexual act can be “good” if it is committed out of self-knowledge — perhaps, it is what makes one happy and complete. But homosexual acts themselves are neither good nor bad.)
(e) Just an additional point, it’s easy to think that whenever bad things happen to us, we think that the other person deliberately intended to harm us. But there is a difference between intending bad things to happen to someone, and bad things happening to someone by accident. Extensionally, the “bad-event” (ie, the “injury”) is the same in either case; there is no getting around the fact of a some things simply being “bad” for us. However, there is an intensional difference depending on what the intention (ie, “will”) was — and I want to say that this distinguishes between cases of “harm” vs. mere “injury.” [Perhaps this is the difference between criminal and tort cases.] There is also a difference then, between “good-will” and accidental benefits.

Of course, there’s a lot more to this than what I’m saying here, but basically, if you do things out of an intention to harm others, then you have a “good reason” (ie, a reason founded on a fact and no way to dispel doubt against it) to be paranoid and think that others might do the same to you. Furthermore, this “good reason” lies in the fact that the existence of a harmful intention is no longer merely a hypothesis once you yourself commit an act out of ill-will; it becomes an actuality, because there is at least one instance of ill-will existing — your own. And since you have no “knowledge” (in a technical sense of the word) that yours is the only one, there is no way for you to erase the doubt that ill-will does in fact also exist in other people — or, perhaps more importantly, that in your version of the world at least, the existence of ill-will is a proven fact. Since your version of the world is the only actual place where you live, it could be said that your world is “worse off” because ill-will and acts of ill-will truly does exist there. (On the upside, the same would hold true for acts of genuine good-will. Perhaps there’s worlds in which both actually exist.)

In short, the point of the passage from Plato shows that if we are to have genuine “hope” (eg, perhaps a firm-belief that one “deserves” a good-ending, or a firm-belief that the world itself is ultimately good) that isn’t simply based on the random chance that one gets lucky, then we would want some kind of indication that such things (eg, good-will) could, and perhaps sometimes actually do exist in some worlds. Even if we don’t always have proof that they actually do exist in all worlds, we could still retain the belief that such things have the possibility of existing in some worlds, so long as we don’t destroy the possibility altogether. This belief could be strengthened into something like “faith” (ie, a firm-belief) if we have proof of there being at least one true and actual case of the existence of good-will (not just situations that benefit us) — but the only way that we can have such firm proof of there being at least one case of good-will is when it exists in our own world and when we are the actuators of that good-will. Such is the nature of things like “wills.” It is not something that can be assessed by consequences, as Kant would say.

Now to bring it back to Kant: again, the phrase “of the aid he desires,” is just there to give some actual content to the abstract notion of “hope.” If it troubles you, just simply replace the phrase “of the aid he desires,” with “of something good.” But, perhaps the replacement might sound too vague or abstract to be useful and you’d prefer to go back to Kant’s original language. If it doesn’t sound too vague, then I think the replacement is fine. The point is that the focus should be on “hope” and not on the particular content of what the hope is about.

But why is this non-consequential? Because of the sort of thing that “hope” tends to desire by its definition (ie, hope always aims for “the good” — even if “the good” is just simply for the good of the self or the good of one’s own world), and because of the sort of thing that a “will” aims for by definition (ie, a “will” is quite simply a choice, and whatever it chooses is just what is called “good”). Without genuine hope that is grounded in something substantive, there could no “good reason” (ie, founded upon facts and not merely conjecture or chance) for thinking that “the good” truly does exist at all, and one could only rely on random chance events as being the cause of any beneficial events. And if there is no “the good,” then that makes “choice” itself (ie, “will”) totally meaningless. And thus, it is contradictory to live in such a world in which one wants to have choices, but in which “the good” truly does not exist. One cannot have genuine “hope” if there is no difference between choosing this or that. It would be a “Good-less” or “God-less” world, and it wouldn’t make any sense.

I think that this is what Kant means.
And it is not consequentialist, despite what the cynical utilitarians like Hobbes think. Perhaps, they only say what they do because in their world, true-love doesn’t exist. Or, perhaps they would say that if you believe in true-love without having loved yourself, then you are a fool; it takes one to know one. Still, even worlds — worlds in which true-love has yet to show itself — these need rules and guidance in order to stay safe in the meanwhile. Maybe that is what consequentialistic moral-theories are intended for — to help those other worlds. In fact, perhaps it is these love-less worlds are the ones that are most in need of strong moral guidance…. (hmm, Jesus did say that he came for the sinners. Maybe it’s kind of like that.) <<


Well, that’s it.

There’s some extra bit of commentary-type stuff I added at the end, but I think I did some good work in explicating my interpretation of the situation (I think I literally spent like 2 hours writing it out).

But now, going back to what Scanlon started to say about “Kant’s famous fourth example,” I can see why he wrote the section. By my own lights, it looks like he’s trying to provide a rebuttal to those “utilitarianish” and/or “consequentialistic” type of thinkers who see a weakness in “Kant’s famous fourth example” — and this is relevant to Scanlon’s contractualism, since it is itself a version of Kantianism and employs a version of the “categorical imperative.” But, if you read Kant in the way that I have, then you bypass this so-called weakness altogether. That is, the criticism is itself an attack against a straw-man — and, of course, that is an illegitimate criticism. And insofar as contractualism and Kantianism is the same, the bypassing of the weakness in Kantianism is an equally fair way to bypass a potential weakness in contractualism.

But I think this realization helps me to get through this section, since I am now able to see it for what it is — that is, I think I can understand the point of the section. I can read it as a hypothetical rebuttal against a hypothetical criticism, rather than an actual rebuttal against an actual criticism.

Ah, tomorrow is Independence Day.

You know, here in Massachusetts, there are fireworks on the night/eve of the 3rd.

My best memory of a fireworks display was at Fort Jackson….