Monday, February 22, 2010

State of Nature

By Hanno

Dr. Thomason suggested that one way Kant can answer the Gestapo problem [that on Kant's view, it is immoral to lie to the Gestapo even to save innocent lives, which appears to be a reductio, since it obviously is not only moral, but morally praiseworthy] was by claiming that people in Nazi germany were in effect living in a state of nature, and in the state of nature, there are no moral rules. Such a view has a long history, but it is not usually associated with Kant. Kant famously insists that morality is contextless, absolute duty, that applies everywhere all the time. Dr. Thomason is arguing that the usual interpretations are incorrect.

An essential feature of almost all conceptions of morality that descended from the Greeks [and that includes every major philosopher in the West through Nietzsche] is that morality is rational. One ought to act morally because it is rational to act morally. Unless you are an anti-moralist, or an anti-rationalist, there is good reason to accept this view: to deny it is to somehow make it that you ought to do something that literally makes no sense. Morality would be indistinguishable from taboo, and the answer to the question: why should I be moral? would get the answer: no reason. It is easy to see that such a view would immediately undercut any motive to be moral, and since morality is frequently burdensome [where it is not, there is no need for it], people would simply walk away from all talk of moral duty.

That kind of view, possible after Nietzsche, but at a price, was never an option before. Instead, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant, etc., etc., all agree that an action is good if and only if it is rational, and if something is moral then it must be good.

Hobbes began the state of nature view with these assumptions in mind. If some act was not rational, then it could not be good. In trying to develop the basis of political authority, he imagines the world without "a common power to keep us in awe," i.e. a world without government. He argues that in such a world, three motives would force us to do what is rationally in our self interest, anything. First, competition would drive us to be enemies, and since it is irrational to leave an enemy alive to wreak havoc on us later, it is rational to eliminate the opposition. Second, since striking first is always be best strategy, as in battles to the death, the person who would strike second may already be dead, self-defense makes enemies of us all. If we knew who was an enemy, we might avoid this problem, but as we do not, this becomes a serious problem. Even people who seem trust worthy may abuse our trust, and that would put ourselves at risk, something never rational. Co-operation becomes impossible.

To make an agreement where we depend on the co-operation of others is to put yourself in the same danger, and that is never rational. And if it is not rational, it is not good. If morality binds us to that agreement, then it is still not rational, and not good. So morality would be neither, which seems clearly wrong.

An agreement becomes rational only when there is sufficient reason to believe the other person will stick to the agreement. In the state of nature, there is no such reason, and hence agreements are irrational. Once there is a social agreement to abide by agreements, and sufficient coercive powers to bind people to their agreements, all agreements ["contracts"] not expressly forbidden by the common power to keep us in awe are binding and rational. This allows us to be moral agents: now that it is rational to keep agreements, we are morally bound to do so.

If Nazi Germany were the state of nature, then there would be no moral rules. It would be perfectly rational to lie to the Gestapo. It would be good to do so, then, though not morally good to do so. But the cost of such a view is high: it would also not be wrong for the Gestapo to murder innocent people. Such moral restraints are also part of the social agreement, and the assumption is that there is no such agreement. We would then have to say that is is not immoral to lie in that circumstance, but also that it is not immoral to kill. And this applies equally to all.

Nor would it be morally praiseworthy to aid others at risk to yourself. Indeed. this would, on Hobbes view, be irrational, too. It brings no good to yourself, and puts you at risk. Hence, on a Hobbesian view, we have several counter intuitive results. The person who aids a Jew is not being rational, and not doing a good thing. The Gestapo agent, who murders both the Jew and the protector, is also not doing a morally bad thing.

Moreover, to have this position, we would also need some argument to show that Nazi Germany was in fact the state of nature. There is no reason to think so on Hobbes view, at least. The common power did keep everyone in awe. Life was not solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, unless you were an enemy of the state. Those people would not be bound by the agreement, and not bound by morality. That is, Jews in the Third Reich could rationally resist, and use all the means of war to do so. But the people protected by the authority have no such philosophical recourse. We need some reason to think that the state of nature, and hence, a state of war, existed between the people hiding Jews and others. Only then can Kant claim that the moral imperative "do not lie" does not apply to those people living in Nazi Germany.

Other conceptions next


C. Ewing said...

I'm assuming the next post will show us why the government of Nazi Germany did not (in some form or fashion) count as a sovereign power?

Hanno said...

I can give an two arguments for that, but I have no idea why Kant would think so. I'm hoping Krista will enlighten us.

C. Ewing said...

Poor Krista. Being a Kant apologist probably gets old after a while.

Krista said...

What gets old is schooling people who miss Kant's point consistently (friendly kidding!).

Kant's justification for the state is that it is the means through which the innate right to external freedom (freedom in action) is ensured. We might have the right to freedom no matter what, but it is meaningless in the state of nature because there is no way of making sure we can exercise it when we want to. In other words, we cannot truly be free in the state of nature because we will always be in danger of existing only in a power relation.

In the state of nature, power is the only currency and you either have it or you don't. So, that means that the only relations that are possible are power relations, which we might categorize as either exercises of force or forms of manipulation. The Nazis use force; the people subject to the Nazis use manipulation (which is an exercise of power by controlling information). And, since we only have power relations, ethics/virtue is impossible: there is no "right" or "wrong" sort of power relation. All power relations are non-moral (in the ethics sense) and non-rightful (in the political sense).

All that said, I've been thinking about this and I don't think Kant needs to go so far as saying the Nazis create an state of nature, just an unjust state.

This part is not my specialty, but I think Kant would say that the Nazis aren't a legitimate government because they do not enact laws based on the general will. The general will comes from the social contract, but it's a regulating force rather than an actual agreement: the sovereign uses the idea of the general will to determine what laws to make. The general will is made up of all citizens, so the sovereign has to enact laws that the citizens could not reasonably reject. The key there is "could not reasonably": we make laws that any rational citizen could accept considered in the abstract, not that any particular citizen could accept. No rational citizen could accept a law that his ethnic group (whatever that may be) could be murdered.

In preparation for this post, I went back through the DoR. As it turns out, even though Kant argues that the right to rebellion is incoherent, he does not then argue that citizens must obey every law. In fact, he says that they must obey the sovereign "in whatever does not conflict with inner morality" (6:371).If the state is illegitimate, Kant agrees we can engage in civil disobedience. Hanno, you might get your wish: lying to the Nazis could be an act of subversion in an unjust state!

C. Ewing said...

What gets old is schooling people who miss Kant's point consistently (friendly kidding!).

S'ok. If I resented/disliked being schooled I wouldn't bother asking questions in the first place. Sometimes, when the medicine tastes bad, it just indicate that it's doing its job.

Did you ever read my follow up on the other thread?

No rational citizen could accept a law that his ethnic group (whatever that may be) could be murdered.

What about a caste system? It's not the same as enslavement (which Kant would surely dismiss on moral grounds), and so it's not obvious (at least to me) that such a system ought to be rejected (on a Kantian view). Admittedly, I'm not aware of Kant's political obligations.

i.e., could the Jews be reduced to being the untouchables of Germany?

As it turns out, even though Kant argues that the right to rebellion is incoherent

How so? Perhaps, you could break down the argument in a future post?

Hanno said...

Ah, Krista, that is SO Rousseau! didn't Kant come up with anything original ;] My discussion of Rousseau may be coming up in a week or two.

The anti-revolution provision then only kicks in with a legitimate authority, one acting in accordance with the general will. It is not really a revolution without that, as you simply overthrow a power relationship, not a political one.

The Pre-revolutionary French "government" was not a legitimate authority. It has its power from force. If force is legitimate, then it is legitimate to use for against force, too.

Once an authority is legitimate, you are bound by it, and once bound, you cannot coherently rebel, for reasons that I can explain. [Very Hobbesian, too]

Unfortunately, outside of Ancient Greece and the roman Republic, there has never been anything which satisfies Rousseau's conception of 'legitimate' and it is probably that very little will satisfy Kant. the requirements for being 'truly free' are very high. and as always, the question of who gets to determine what the general will is, and when the government is not acting in accordance with it are rather, uh, thorny problems.