Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Killing Yourself to Live

First things first: sorry for not having posted in a while. I am glad to see Ragoth picking up the slack.

Now for some content. My main research interests lie in ethics and political philosophy, and my perspective on most issues could be called Kantian in a very general sense. I say "general" because (1) I find his philosophy rife with untenable dualisms (subject and object, theoretical and practical reason, etc.) and (2) because I disagree with him on certain substantive ethical and political claims. Nonetheless, I find the (very Kantian) project of grounding morality in the necessary and sufficient conditions of autonomy worth exploring.

Most of my "research" consists in armchair reasoning about the nature of reasoning. I ask, What constraints are there on rational action? There are quite obviously some constraints: an agent cannot intend to, say, eat an ice cream cone while simultaneously intending not to eat an ice cream cone. More controversially, there are still some people who think that an action is not fully rational unless it derives from a subjective principle of action that could serve in the giving of universal law. That is what it means to satisfy Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative.

For Kant, morality is inseparably bound up with autonomy. Moral action is free action, and we treat each other morally when we respect and honor each other's capacity for free rational choice. That is what it means to treat people as ends rather than as means. This is an idea that is still taken quite seriously. One prominent philosopher recently wrote an essay titled "Treating Criminals as Ends in Themselves."

Let us suppose that Kant is mostly right about these matters (as I do). When is it acceptable to treat people as unable (or at least severely limited in their ability) to make free choices? Obvious candidates are our dealings with small children and the insane. But what about severely depressed people? Or drug addicts? What would a Kantian doctrine on how society should deal with drug addicts look like? More generally, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions of morally permissible paternalism?

I don't have any hard answers. I am interested in what the audience thinks.

1 comment:

Ragoth said...

I agree with a good deal of this. I think it's important to note that we should probably be considering a continuum of consciousness or responsible/rationality. In typical development, you start off as "not conscious," slowly develop into some level of coherence, and through typical aging, start to decline again later on.

The real question is whether or not we want to put down lines of "human and in possession of reason" at some rather arbitrary point. Of course, we do this legally quite often (it's why we have verdicts like innocent by reason of insanity or guilty by reason of insanity), but I think a lot of philosophy tends to ignore just how subtle and wide-ranging that continuum can be. Some interesting stuff to think about though.