Running The Red Light, Being Late For A Poker Game.


Kevin inquires:

I don’t know how you get to the maxim ““I would like to break the rule that I also think is essential” at the heart of “running a red light”.

I don’t consider traffic lights essential at all (what do you mean by “essential”, essential for what). There are any number of circumstances I would think it is adviseable to run a red light.

Traffic lights themselves are not essential, what is essential is the binding force of the law behind the simple traffic light: although most of us automatically press breaks when approaching a red light, the question that we almost never ask is “why?” – Why should I stop at the red light even if there are no cars going in the other direction? Isn’t the red light there simply to regulate traffic? If the goal of the red light is to help me, to make sure I am safe, to make sure I survive, i.e. if in evaluating my stopping at the red light, I only care about the consequences, then there’s plenty of reasons to run red lights all the time. Consequentialist ethics fails, Kant would say, because it is too dependent on contexts and circumstances, it does not therefore have principles, only contingent guidelines and advices, it’s not scientific then. Traffic laws are formulated in a way that at least attempts to communicate their categorical nature: do not run the red light, period. The question is, for Kant, where does the binding force of such law come from? Mostly from habit, we could say, but habit does not bind neither does fear of punishment or a prospect of happiness – all of these things are contingent, morality must be binding and therefore must be necessary.

When I sit at the red light and I really have to go to the bathroom and my house is right there and there are no cars around, I think about just running the light, my maxim is something like this: “It is ok to break the law in certain circumstances, even though I accept the authority of the law, in this situation I believe that it is ok to break it” – maxim as a principle of volition does not concern itself with actual circumstances as such, at least for Kant, it’s always abstract. Therefore what is then tested (whichever test you like, Kant has three, universalization being one of them) is not so much “if everyone runs the red light, what kind of world would it be?” but a principle of volition which in this case would be a principle that one both affirms the validity of the traffic law and finds it necessary to amend it in certain personal circumstances, i.e. one both thinks that the law is necessary and contingent – Kant thinks that one cannot will such a maxim because it is a contradiction (a point of contention, of course, as it all depends on what one means by “willing a maxim”).

As for poker, since it’s a game, one does not really lie because there’s an expectation that one will attempt to deceive one’s opponents. I think Kantian ethics sleeps soundly at night knowing there are people playing poker. In fact, to suggest that lying in poker is morally evil is to misrepresent Kant as some sort of uptight Christian. Poker deals with a very superficial arrangement where all partying agree to certain rules, one being that I will try to fool others into thinking I have something I might or might not have. I don’t see any problem with poker. Let me stop here, although I intended to do an explanatory post, I think that it’s really something that introductory books are for and I’d rather address specific issues, as I am not really that well-versed in the literature as to pretend to be a kind of introduction machine, even if it helps me a lot to think about these things. In other words, I’d like to assume some sort of familiarity with Kant, and of course my initial interest was not so much in Kantian ethics, but in normativity in general….

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15 thoughts on “Running The Red Light, Being Late For A Poker Game.

  1. Mikhail, one of the things that is frustrating in these discussions with you is that you play very fast and loose with the thought of the philosophers you’re sympathetic to, as can be clearly seen in this case. Kvond’s example of poker is salient. He is not suggesting that Kant is an uptight Christian, but is consistently applying the moral law. The moral law is unconditional and we are not to take account of anything circumstantial or empirical when applying the moral law. Kant says this directly. You are supposed to ignore anything that is specific. Consequently, poker would be immoral for Kant– at least in the case of bluffing –because it would involve deceit which is categorically forbidden by the moral law. That’s just the meaning of the word categorical. Moreover, it’s likely that the categorical imperative would tell us gambling is wrong in principle. You can’t make Kant whatever you want him to be. Perhaps it would be better just to concede that it’s a pretty ridiculous moral philosophy and that your moral thought is in fact quite different from Kants.

  2. I don’t think so, I’m willing to admit that some aspects of Kant’s rigorism get pretty ridiculous, like his refusal to allow for any justification for a revolution, but I can still see the logic behind his position.

    Bluffing in poker is not lying. Having cards up your sleeve is cheating. Kant is concerned with lying as an example, we can actually disagree with his conclusions, and people do, but lying is an example of how Kant thinks CI works, CI itself is of course a formula – where does this formula come from? Reason. Therefore we do not need anything empirical or circumstantial. I think it’s pretty clear in The Groundwork which is, of course, the investigation of the conditions of possibility, not the actual morality. In other words, the issue is first of all of the kind of analysis that Kant does in order to establish that ethical decision is even possible. I don’t think I’m adding anything to Kant’s ethical theory here or somehow substitute my ideas for his.

    I think that in order to dismiss Kant’s ethical theory one needs to first understand it and see what it is trying to do, I think much of our discussion is problematized by the fact that either I am not reading Kant correctly, in which case I am more than willing to hear counter-arguments, or you are not giving him a charitable enough reading having dismissed him ahead of time because you don’t like what he has to say.

  3. M.E.: “Bluffing in poker is not lying.”

    Kvond: With this I disagree, or rather, it opens up the vast legalistic problem implied in treating a maxim as a universal law.

    I personally define lying as “acting in such a way as to intentionally cause others to think that things are other than how you know them to be”. Now you can say that this is not “lying”, but great problem is, one woulld have to answer questions specifically as “what is lying” which would require reference to circumstances, and the interpretation of lying.

    Take, “don’t murder”. Well, is birth control murder? Is self-defense murder? Are any number of things “murder”. The entire pandora’s box of the defintion and interpretation of a term, which in legal circles gets played out by using and judging real world circumstances, and always under revision, is opened up.

    Now the rules of the game of poker require one to deceive others. This does not mean that it is not deceipt, but rather that it is qualified. One plays the game that way. One could just as easily say that lying, when given a lawful order to lie, also isn’t really “lying” because one is playing the game that way. There are any number of qualifications that can enter in, all of them seemingly forbidden by what is meant by “categorical”.

    Thank you though for taking the time to make your thoughts known to me. I appreciate it.

  4. I would add:

    M.E.: “what is essential is the binding force of the law behind the simple traffic light: although most of us automatically press breaks when approaching a red light, the question that we almost never ask is “why?”…question is, for Kant, where does the binding force of such law come from?”

    Kvond: Kant is not simply answering the question, “where does the binding force come from?” but he is also tell us how we should act in response to the binding force. A red light that is stuck, with us in the middle of the dessert, Kant would tell us we should not go through, even as our car runs out of gas (pretty silly). If he told me that our “feeling” of a binding force came from a “sense” that laws have a kind of universalizing pressure, I would agree with him. But instead though, he wants to tell me additionally, it seems, that I only act ethically if I follow this pressure without question. Ethical acts simply are more complicated than following the “binding force” which is only a tendency of influence that contextually should be followed (at least that is how I feel).

    Either that, and I have to be a bad man, and go through a stop light when I encounter it and suspect that it is broken.

  5. I personally define lying as “acting in such a way as to intentionally cause others to think that things are other than how you know them to be”. Now you can say that this is not “lying”, but great problem is, one woulld have to answer questions specifically as “what is lying” which would require reference to circumstances, and the interpretation of lying.

    That’s your problem right there – “personally defining” lying is great and all that this is where pre-Kantian ethics always starts, i.e. specific definitions, virtues/vices, good and evil – content cannot give us ethical principles, it can form habits and so on, but cannot prescribe. Let’s say your definition of lying is correct, bluffing is not lying still, because as your opponent in poker I try to discern whether you are bluffing or not, there’s an understanding that you very well might be trying to mislead you, you are not openly saying to your opponent “Oh well, I’m screwed with these pairs of 7s and 8s.” Still none of this has anything to do with Kantian ethics. If you play the game by the rules, including bluffing, you are moral only in the traditional sense, not in Kantian sense – for Kant all that matters is the maxim for your action and why you are willing that maxim.

    Imagine a following scenario: you are teaching me how to play poker, you explain to me the rules of the game, but you fail to mention anything about bluffing, then if you bluff, you are in fact deceiving me because I was not told that this is an essential part of the game.

    No wonder you and Levi think that Kant was such a boring hardass with all his rules and laws – imagine a life under a Kantian sovereign, there would be no jokes (stories about things that actually did not take place, therefore are lies), no films or novels, no poetry or visual art (too deceptive and untrustworthy)… Am I in complete agreement with Kant’s moral theory? No, I read Metaphysics of Morals too many times, still I find his argument refreshing, especially, as I said before, for the global world that we live in.

  6. Kant is not simply answering the question, “where does the binding force come from?” but he is also tell us how we should act in response to the binding force. A red light that is stuck, with us in the middle of the dessert, Kant would tell us we should not go through, even as our car runs out of gas (pretty silly).

    C’mmon now, this is just plain wrong – where does Kant say that? Kant does not tell you how to act, he attempts to deduce a formal principle for any ethical action, a principle is not a recommended action. Jesus tells us what to do, Kant does not – he does have his metaphysics of morals, i.e. his content, but his strength is his formalism, not his content (a lot of which is absolute rubbish)

    But instead though, he wants to tell me additionally, it seems, that I only act ethically if I follow this pressure without question.

    No, this is again just not what Kant is talking about. Please, I realize you don’t like what you think Kant is doing, but I don’t think you fully understand what it is that he is doing. I’d like to help but I failed to see how, unless you give Groundwork another read…

  7. M.E.: “C’mmon now, this is just plain wrong – where does Kant say that? Kant does not tell you how to act, he attempts to deduce a formal principle for any ethical action, a principle is not a recommended action.”

    Kvond: “He says it here: ‘”Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’.

    Now this depends on how the maxim is phrased. If I phrase the maxim, “One should obey all laws without exception” clearly one cannot run a red light, even if you suspect that it is broken. Or, one could make the maxim, “One should obey all traffic laws”.

    It seems to me that in Kantians there is a dramatic need to refuse to actually state the maxim that is supposed to be follow, for once it is stated, it leads to absurdities when universally applied.

    In the above you have changed the requirement of a “maxim” (for instance obey all laws’) into a kind of vague, floating “the binding force”. Kant tells us to form a maxim, and then imagine it as universal law.

    Please tell me, what is the maxim in the case of red lights (a real, linguistic sentence).

  8. Please tell me, what is the maxim in the case of red lights (a real, linguistic sentence).

    There is no maxim for all the red lights, maxim is a specific subjective principle, a rule, if you will, that you follow whenever you make a decision to act in a certain way – maxims themselves do not give us moral or immoral actions. So in case of driving down the street and deciding when and whether I should stop, here’s a simple maxim/rule I personally follow:

    “Whenever I see the red light while I drive I stop”

    If there’s no change of light, clearly the light is broken, then there’s another rule I have (from traffic laws): “If the red light is not changing and it is reasonable to assume that it is broken, I proceed as if the light was a stop sign according to the traffic laws of my state.”

    Again, none of these actions have anything to do with morality in Kant’s sense – Kantian morality is not about specific laws or virtues or good vs bad actions, it’s about a formal principle for making a decision…

  9. With all due respect, I just don’t think you’re reading Kant correctly or that you’re misreading him. He’s quite clear that the moral law is unconditional. As a result you can’t take into account any empirical circumstances when applying the law. When asking yourself whether or not it is morally right to bluff in poker, the problem is the reference to poker. Poker is an empirical circumstance and therefore should be entirely ignored when applying the imperative. On the other hand, Kvond’s example of poker is probably not the best because it’s likely that Kant would argue that it is wrong to gamble, period. As such, the issue is moot. The broken traffic light that won’t change is a much better example.

    It seems to me that Kant’s methodology is very simple:

    First identify the action being contemplated. This would be located in the verb of the proposed action. For example, “bluffing” or “breaking a contract”, etc.

    Second, subtract the verb from all particular elements of the circumstances: that is, ignore who is involved in the situation, what the situation is, etc. It is only the verb that counts, all these particulars are irrelevant.

    Third, universalize the action.

    Fourth, ask whether or not the action becomes contradictory or impossible when universalized. For example, it is immoral to break a contract because I cannot consistently universalize the maxim wherein everyone breaks contracts. If everyone broke contracts no one would enter contracts and the rule would thus become impossible to follow because there would be no contracts (here I disagree with Alexei’s thesis that Kant is somehow a consequentialist. It is not a consequentialist logic here, but whether or not the maxim is logically possible when universalized).

    That’s all there is to it and it leads to a lot of strange results. Take the example of a woman who is horribly abused by her husband and who’s children are being molested by their father. What would Kant tell us in this circumstance? Perhaps she is contemplating divorcing her husband. What happens when we universalize the maxim? Well Kant tells us that we are to focus only on the action unconditionally. Marriage is a contract (he says this directly in the Anthropology). So for Kant the ethical question would be can we universalize the maxim whereby everyone breaks their contracts? The answer is no. Therefore it would be morally wrong for this woman to divorce her husband.

    I think all of us can agree that this is a circumstance where the woman has a moral duty to divorce her husband. But Kant’s ethical philosophy lacks the resources for giving us the reason that she has such a duty and leads to an absurd conclusion. That means that we need to go back to the drawing board and develop a moral theory that is actually reasonable.

  10. For 1 through 4, can you give me some examples from Kant? As in actual texts that I am misreading? Again, I appreciate your example of an abused woman, but I think you are talking about a Christian preacher here, not Kant…

  11. M.E.”If there’s no change of light, clearly the light is broken, then there’s another rule I have (from traffic laws): “If the red light is not changing and it is reasonable to assume that it is broken, I proceed as if the light was a stop sign according to the traffic laws of my state.”

    Kvond: Al this requires conditional interpretation. One does not follow an imagined to be universal law under the proviso that one doesn’t have to if conditions are different than expected (something is broken). The law’s application requires an interpretation of context to be implied.

  12. Not sure I follow – who says “all this requires conditional interpretation” and “law’s application requires an interpretation of context”? Again, you’re confusing “law” and “maxim” as in objective/subjective – traffic laws clearly have a provision of broken lights, none of this is even remotely problematic from either Kant’s view or commonsense view – what exactly is the moral dilemma here? Give me something to work with, I’m nor sure I understand what the issue is.

  13. I asked you for the maxim that would be followed and you unfortunately gave me a “maxim/rule”:

    M.E.: “here’s a simple maxim/rule I personally follow:

    “Whenever I see the red light while I drive I stop”

    If there’s no change of light, clearly the light is broken, then there’s another rule I have (from traffic laws): “If the red light is not changing and it is reasonable to assume that it is broken, I proceed as if the light was a stop sign according to the traffic laws of my state.” ”

    Rules are not universal, they are context dependent. When “x is the case do y”. Whether the situation is x or not is infinitely up for debate, and if it is up for debate, whether someone should do y (or not do y) is in question.

    One can logically say to oneself, to that the extreme example, the current situation is unique, so yes, when x is the case, one should always do y, (but x will never be the case again).

    (As a sidenote, but relatedly, you at some point scolded me for saying something like “universalizing a law” telling me that laws are already universal, and then gave me an example from Nature. I have to disagree with you there in several ways.

    1. First of all, the Laws of Nature were called such because they were seen to be Laws handed down from God, they were Laws in the sense that thinkers attributed the legislative powers of people (always context dependent) to God.

    2. Secondly, the so-called Laws of Nature are descriptions made by human beings, attempting to describe regularities in specific context. They indeed are context dependent themselves, given their source.

    3. Thirdly, much of recent science has argued that Laws of Nature are indeed themselves local laws, and may not “apply” in other situations in the universe, or other universes.

    Kants problem comes from the attempt to universalize his maxim.

  14. Pingback: Time, Turtles, Kant, and Correlationism « Larval Subjects .

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