Marginal cases and virtue

Children are marginal cases.

Talking about ethics in terms of autonomy, or rights — Kantian ethics —  famously leaves children, especially very young children, in an odd place. I have addressed this elsewhere in a couple of specific applied issues. In this post, I wanted to talk about the greater theoretical issue.On Kantian ethics, we grant autonomy in virtue of respect for our fellow humans’ ability to set and pursue their own ends. That is what makes a being intrinsically valuable for a Kantian. Inclusion in the moral community is predicated on a being’s rationality.

Young children, it turns out, are not so good at setting and pursuing ends that are actually in their interests. As parents, we are regularly stepping in to stop them from pursuing their ends. Their ends of not going to the doctor’s office, of eating only cookies, of playing with a power cord, of deciding their education. To respect their autonomy, as we do for an adult, would be to mistreat them.

Kantian ethics works reasonably well when talking about relations between adults, just as Newtonian physics works very well for a certain scale of object. But for very small things, Newtonian physics does not have all the answers. Likewise, there are cases where Kantian ethics falls apart. These are cases where rationality is not present – not just young children, but the severely cognitively disabled, people suffering from dementia, people in comas, and animals. These are referred to as the “marginal cases,” as if they are not a major, major part of our moral life. But our treatment of these people and animals is not at all incidental to our moral life. And Kantian solutions to how to treat marginal cases start to become tortured and ad hoc. The easiest thing to say about children is that we are custodians of their autonomy, and are responsible for seeing that they become as capably autonomous as possible. First of all, we’re not very good at that. If there are people who regret no decision their parents have made for them, who have no wish that their parents had done something differently, then I’m guessing those people are few and far between. But more importantly, what, then, are our obligations to those with severe cognitive disabilities, children with terminal illnesses, the comatose, and animals?

There are various ways of hashing this issue out while still retaining talk of rights. Again, they seem strained. Everyone agrees we must admit these marginal cases as worthy of moral consideration, but how?

Kant himself suggested that what was wrong about mistreating animals was not that they were themselves worthy of moral consideration. On his view, how could they be? It was that cruelty to animals encourages the worst in humanity. Which first of all, is a bit odd – is there really no wrong done to the animal? Just the practitioner? And it is odd in a second way – it sounds very much not like a Kantian argument, but a virtue ethics argument. In virtue ethics, it is not a specific kind of act that it wrong or right. Rightness and wrongness is a matter of developing virtuousness and avoiding viciousness. About aiming to be a certain sort of person. So on Kant’s view on animals, cruelty is not wrong as an act, but because it enhances a certain character trait – a vicious one.

It is looking at these marginal cases that enhances the appeal of virtue ethics over Kantian ethics to me. For suddenly the marginal cases are not marginal at all. We don’t have to twist ourselves into a knot to explain why we must care for our children without receiving their consent for all we do. We don’t have to give up on the severely cognitively disabled, or say that our obligations to them are only in virtue of their resemblance to someone more truly worthy of moral consideration. We can say that kindness and compassion are what we should aim to exercise in the treatment  of the not fully rational. We can also say that it is a virtue to help others who are not presently able to exercise their rationality learn how to do so – and thus explain why we owe children and the cognitively disabled help in becoming self-reliant.

Then the marginal cases are no longer marginal. They are as central as any other.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • RSS
  • del.icio.us
  • Digg
  • email
  • Print

14 thoughts on “Marginal cases and virtue

  1. Pingback: Marginal cases and virtue

  2. I especially liked this bit:   We don’t have to twist ourselves into a knot to explain why we must care for our children without receiving their consent for all we do. We don’t have to give up on the severely cognitively disabled, or say that our obligations to them are only in virtue of their resemblance to someone more truly worthy of moral consideration.

    With my own kids, I made it perfectly clear:  there were only two infractions I really took seriously:  lying and striking another person.    When they’d get fractious and rebellious, I’d tell ‘em to their faces:  this is what you’re supposed to be doing.   If you weren’t pushing back, I’d be worried as hell.   Fact is, you’re outgrowing your need for discipline as fast as you’re outgrowing your shoes.    If you demonstrate responsibility and I don’t treat you accordingly, yes, old Dad is being unfair.  And I’ll change.

    But since you’re just kids and learning about this stuff, I have to be responsible for you.  Believe me,  telling you not to do something stupid is not a chore I particularly enjoy, mostly because you’re not stupid, you’re just kids.   Just remember, the whole point of living in my house is so you can grow up and move out and make your own rules there and raise your own kids.   When that day comes, you’ll remember this one, some huffy kid stomping his foot and wailing about “Dad’s being so unfair!”

    Kant makes two serious points about how autonomy works:  first, we know it’s not a mere matter of rules and regulations.    That’s no guide to rational autonomy, we have to transcend those laws to see the reasons behind them.   But he makes a second point, about how we must respect the notion of Humanity as expressed in each person, how this is not a matter of ends and means.   A cognitively impaired person is no less a person.  It’s hard to express how that works out in our care of such persons but at the risk of oversimplifying to the point of error, when we deprive such persons of what autonomy lies within their power, we do them no favours.

    Sigh….  It’s such a complex point.

  3. Awesome post Rose. As someone who is kind of Kantian, a few quibbles:

    1. While the formula of humanity does lend itself to an understanding that places autonomy center stage, the formula of universal law, strictly speaking doesn’t. While Kant intended that the various formulae of the categorical imperative to be equivalent, that is clearly not the case because we can derive different duties from different formulae. So, the various formulae are not equivalent. That said, it is the formula of universal law that seems more defensible. It is also under the formula of universal law that we can derive direct duties towards animals and the intellectually disabled. Basically, we cannot will any sincere maxim that restricts the scope of our duty of benevelonce to only humans.

    2. Kant’s argument against ill treatment of animals is not ad-hoc because Kant argues that we have a wide duty towards our own moral perfection.

    3. There is nothing wrong with being both a virtue theorist and a Kantian. A professor in my department is a Kantian Virtue theorist. The moral virtues for Kant are moral understanding, empirical understanding, empirical power, the moral commitment, strength of will etc.

    4. In the end,  acting out of kindness and compassion is not really that different from acting from a duty of benevolence or out of a concern for the happiness of others. There might be some differences, but such differences are beyond the scope of our current discussion.

    5. The matter of justification: it sems rather intuitively obvious that compassion etc are virtues. The problem is trying to show it. At least Kantianism has a fairly decent argument going for it. And it starts from very minimal premises. The formula of universal law is justified on the grounds that “ought” implies “can” and that the fundamental moral principles are valid for all possible beings. Very roughly, any maxim which would be counterproductive if everyone acted on it could not count as a fundamental moral principle. That is because the funamental moral principle has to be such that everyone could at the same time act on it.

    • Murali,

      Thanks for the comments! You are right about 5. It is harder to get any sort of grounding for virtues and vices. Kantianism has that going for it. One of my main hesitancies with going whole hog virtue ethicist.

      But, per your 3, I think virtue ethics is a way to have your cake and eat it too. It’s a way you can talk about duties, and consequences, and character traits.

      I agree the different formulae are not co-extensive and I simplified that here. But I do think you have to tie yourself in knots on each formulation to include marginal cases. How do you see them fitting in on universal law? I took it that universal law was not that if everyone did it, it would be counterproductive. Rather, that if everyone did it, it would result in contradiction. Anyhow, if the cognitively disabled are not members of the moral community, I don’t see why you couldn’t expose them on mountaintops on universal law – one could argue that it is productive, or that it wouldn’t yield a contradiction.

      Kant on animals strikes me not so much as ad hoc, but as un-Kantian. And it’s weird to argue that a category mistake (that is, you are in a way mistaking the animal for something really worthy of moral consideration) should be the basis of a moral duty.

      • Kant on animals strikes me not so much as ad hoc, but as un-Kantian. And it’s weird to argue that a category mistake

        In a way you’re right. Actual Kant was wrong about duties towards animals. What I hope to show below is that Kant’s categprical imperative would have given us a direct duty towards animals.

        I took it that universal law was not that if everyone did it, it would be counterproductive. Rather, that if everyone did it, it would result in contradiction.

        Doing something counterproductive is a practical contradiction. Let me try to spell this out a bit more. The formula of universal law (FUL) is a 2 in 1 kind of principle. There are two tests that are being carried out and failing either one makes a maxim immoral albeit in slightly different ways.

        The first test is the contradiction in conception test. This is the one we tend to be most familiar with. Kant uses the example of false promises. If everyone made false promises when it stood to benefit them, people wold cease to believe promises. Therefore, the act of promising would not exist. i.e. We cannot even conceive of a world where everyone made false promises when they stood to gain by doing so. The result is that supposedly we ahould never make false promises. (I’m not sure that Kant’s argument here ultimately works, but for now, it is sufficient for the example)

        There is, however, a second test, the contradiction in willing test. Here, I’ll use the duty of benevolence to show how it works. Consider the following maxim: Out of concern for my own well-being, I will refrain from helping others in any situation where I will not also benefit. Let’s call this maxim S1. Can we conceive of everyone acting on the maxim? Yes. However, could we will that everyone act on the maxim? Well, there are probably going to be many situations where my own well-being is compromised because someone didn’t help me out because he was only concerned about his own happiness. Where is the contradiction in willing? Well, the contradiction in willing is that the end for which I willed that I act on the maxim (in this case, my own well-being) is undermined if everyone esle were to act on that maxim. (That’s where the counterproductivity kicks in) This doesnt mean that we should never do anything for our own happiness. Rather, what this means is that we should adopt other people’s happiness/well-being as an end. i.e. its a wide duty: The more we do the better, although there are no hard and fast rules about any minimum we should be doing.

        I don’t see why you couldn’t expose them on mountaintops on universal law – one could argue that it is productive, or that it wouldn’t yield a contradiction.

        The idea is that most of our sincere maxims when it comes to animals could not be willed as a universal law.

        For example consider the following maxim: Out of concern for myself, I will not help any being incapable of reciprocating. However, there are many situations where we too were incapable of reciprocation and people helped us to our benefit (or we would have wanted them to). And there probably will be such situations int he future. So, in this way we have a duty of benevolence to those who cannot reciprocate.

        I probably don’t have the space here to cover all possible maxims, but if you want and have access to gated papers, you could take a look at this. A lot of my arguments are drawn from this paper. This is the Kantian Virtue theorist I was talking about.

         

      • Alas, don’t have time to read the article until the semester is over. But looking at your summation of it, I’d have the following questions: Are you still you if you don’t have rational capacities? Is that not what we value? What do we value then? Are rights and duties no longer correlative? What about someone with congenital cognitive disabilities or animals, who are not and never will be in a situation of being able to rationally will on a Kantian standard? Also, are you really not able rationally to will that someone not help you if you are incapable of reciprocating? Plenty of people think they would rather die than lose rational capacities. Also, just because we’d want someone else to help us when we are incapacitated still says nothing about whether it would be counterproductive as a universal law. I always took there to be a fairly strong distinction between the universal law formula and the golden rule.

        Also, it doesn’t feel like the reason I fail a cognitively disabled person or a child or an animal is because I cannot will it as universal law. Or if I take care of my children out of love and compassion and without a sense of duty I am acting immorally.

      • Rose, thanks for replying.

        Are you still you if you don’t have rational capacities? Is that not what we value? What do we value then? Are rights and duties no longer correlative?

        Presumably we are capable of benefiting and harming animals and the intellectually disabled or else the whole discussion is moot and we are back to treating them in ways that do not endanger our own moral sense. One axis along which they can benefit is that they can fel pleasure. At the very least the more pleasure they feel and the less pain they feel the better off they are. We may also consider including things like whether they are alive or not.

        Rights talk is complicated and I don’t like to tie it directly to moral duties. I like to keep my rights talk to things like fundamental social institutions. i.e. I don’t want to talk about pre-political (in the Rawlsian sense) rights. Also, rights are correlative with strict obligations. The duty of beneficence is not a strict duty.

         What about someone with congenital cognitive disabilities or animals, who are not and never will be in a situation of being able to rationally will on a Kantian standard?

        I don’t do a good job of going through all the arguments, but the paper does cover this. Basically the paper says that no such maxim can be willed (by most of us) as a universal law. You can either take my word for it or read the paper and see for yourself whether he has covered every angle. But we can not that even if not every angle is covered and some of the maxims could be willed as a universal law, we would still have dutie towards animals and I/DD people in most cases. The kind of situations where such maxims which could be willed are applicable and operative are few and may reflect some extraordinary circumstances.

        Plenty of people think they would rather die than lose rational capacities

        We don’t have to go so far afield as to talk about losing rational capacities. We can just talk about cases where there is nothing you could do to benefit someone else. There are people who could help me whom I am in no position to reciprocate maybe because they are strangers whom I will only meet once in a while etc. For example if my bag bursts and everything falls out in the street and someone helps me pick stuff up and then moves on, I am not in a position to reciprocate. But I still appreciate such help.

        Also, just because we’d want someone else to help us when we are incapacitated still says nothing about whether it would be counterproductive as a universal law.

        Well, that depends on yourself. If you really have been and will be so self sufficient that you can easily afford to refuse help and engage only in equal exchanges, then sure, its not counterproductive. But most of us, if we are honest with ourselves will realise that we owe at least part of our well-being to others whom we cannot pay back and that there probably will be future occasions where similar situations arise as well.

         I always took there to be a fairly strong distinction between the universal law formula and the golden rule.

        There is. It only happens to look like the golden rule in this particular case. It stops looking like that when yor end is not your own happiness, but something else like maximising aggregate utility or whatever else have you.

        Also, it doesn’t feel like the reason I fail a cognitively disabled person or a child or an animal is because I cannot will it as universal law.

        Well, it is not directly so. Between the universal law bit and thehelping of some concrete person is adopting other people’s happiness as an end. i.e. you actually become concerned for other people’s well-being and not just help them mechanically. that’s why it is a duty of benevolence and not just beneficence.

        Or if I take care of my children out of love and compassion and without a sense of duty I am acting immorally.

        Two alternatives here.

        1. Love and compassion are part of benevolence. If this is the case, then nothing Kant says or should say (for consistency reasons) would find love and compassion problematic.

        2. Even if they are distinct from benevolence, it is not the case that acting out love and compassion is necessarily immoral. It is just not necessarily moral. We can easily imagine where acting out of love could end up being the wrong thing to do. What Kant is saying is that it is a happy coincidence that in this case your natural attachment to your child (i.e. that the fact that your child is happy makes you happy as well) led you to the right action. However much redit youdeserve for this, surely you deserve more credit for acting from reasons that will necessarily lead you to the right action.

         

         

         

      • Thanks so much for replying. Especially because, like I said, I find Kantianism better grounded and thus more appealing than virtue. I’ll read that article in just a couple of weeks.
  4. We don’t have to twist ourselves into a knot to explain why we must care for our children without receiving their consent for all we do.

    I am no philosophy expert but I wonder if there are serious attempts to create a satisfying deontological rule system that does not treat these cases as marginal. With the exception of animals it seems like any Catholic deontology, like by Germain Grisez, would reasonably address these cases. One could imagine grafting some animal rights onto this if desired. That graft might be unappealing but might be less so than ditching deontology as a whole.

  5. I don’t know much about ethics, Kantian or otherwise.

    But I do know several adults who could be described thusly: “Their ends of not going to the doctor’s office, of eating only cookies, of playing with a power cord, of deciding their education. To respect their autonomy, as we do for an adult, would be to mistreat them.”  I think this focuses too much on the end product of autonomy and too little on the process of it.  An adult who chooses to go or not go to the doctor is making an informed choice.  He may be working off misinformation, might improperly assess that information, or might have a different set of priorities the lead him to making a decision we disagree with.  But he has presumably arrived at that decision through a rational process.  And that ought to be respected.  Children are unable or are limited in their ability to engage in this rational process.  As such, it is appropriate, if not morally and ethically necessary, to make these decisions on their behalf.

    • Kazzy, I agree. That’s my point. And Kantian ethics does not have an easy way of accounting for that — i.e., that children are different, and we have different duties, and how to characterize those duties. Not that it’s never bee tried, it’s just usually an awkward fit.
  6. I think you go about this analysis precisely backwards. That a straightforward application of kantian philosophy leads to a different treatment of children and animals than is prevalent in the world is not an indictment of Kantian ethics, but an indictment of moral precepts commonly held in the world today. While there is surely a role for paternalism in parenting, any sincere Kantian not blinded by the current structures of power cannot fail to notice the ways in which modern society fails to treat children as ends in themselves, and disrespects their autonomy. There is significant room to apply Kantian ethics in this sphere without allowing our children to eat candy all day.

Comments are closed.