by Robert Gressis
Today, I was dropping my son off at school when I saw a desirable parking spot. Like just about every parking spot near my son’s school, it required parallel parking. So, I rolled past the spot, put on my turn-indicator, and waited for the cars behind me to clear so that I could back into it.
What happened, though, was that a car drove right up to my bumper. I could no longer reverse. Since time was fleeting, I had to drive forward. This driver then pulled up to where I had initiated my parallel parking and proceeded to parallel park in the spot. My spot.
This was irritating, and it’s not the only irritating thing that has ever happened to me with regard to driving or parking. Here’s another example: many years ago, I noticed a driver making to pull out of a highly desirable parking spot near the movie theater. I dutifully drove up near to where she was going to pull out and put my indicator on. No one else was around. The driver opened her door, got into her seat, turned on the engine, and slowly backed out. Because of my position, and the direction in which she wanted to drive, she pulled out in front of my car and then drove away. As I was about to pull into the spot, a car sped up and took the spot. My spot. This also was irritating.
Though I think both bad parkers were annoying, here’s one thing I don’t think they were: immoral. And yet, I suspect that both Kant and utilitarians would describe them as immoral. Though some utilitarians might not think them immoral (let’s say the drivers who stole my spot both got a thrill from taking what wasn’t theirs, and that my irritation was comparatively trivial, maximizing overall utility), the ones who don’t think it immoral would think it morally obligatory! That also seems wrong; much more wrong than thinking it immoral.
Because I know Kant better than I know Utilitarianism, and because I think Utilitarianism is significantly easier to apply than Kantian deontology, I’ll explain why Kant thinks such bad parking is not just irritating but out-and-out immoral, and why Kant thinks that bad parkers are not just rude but out-and-out evil.
To oversimplify: on Kant’s view, morality is about universalizability. At least from the moral point of view, everyone is not only of great value, but also of equal value. Consequently, morality is not only about treating other people well, but also about not treating yourself or your in-group as though they’re deserving of more rights or privileges than others. Straightforwardly, then, on Kant’s view it seems like the two bad parkers acted immorally when they stole my spot. First, they didn’t treat me well: I was following social convention — conventions that are perfectly fine — and according to those social conventions, those spots were mine. Second, they weren’t treating me as being of equal value to them: if I had done the same thing to them, they would have been furious. (This is just a presumption on my part, but I’m confident that it’s correct.) But getting furious when I do to them what they do to me makes sense only if you think that, for some reason, you deserve special treatment and I don’t. I.e., it makes sense only if you think you’re my superior.
This gets to the next element of Kant’s theory. On Kant’s view, someone who thinks he’s morally better than someone else – someone who thinks that he is entitled to a kind of moral treatment that others aren’t – is “radically evil.” Now, ‘radically evil’ doesn’t mean very evil, as though you are Hitler, but rather, “evil at your root.”
Of course, clarifying radical evil in that way does make it look like you’re very evil. After all, if you’re evil to the core, isn’t that just what it is to be very evil? No, what it means is that your fundamental orientation to morality (Kant calls this your Gesinnung) is incompatible with being a morally good person. Someone who is radically evil is someone who sincerely believes, at least sometimes, or in some spheres of conduct, that advancing his self-interest outweighs respecting the moral law. Whatever, at the end of the day, morality amounts to, if you don’t sincerely believe that morality always takes precedence over advancing your self-interest, then you’re radically evil. That said, Kant does think that some people are eviler than others; e.g., Stalin is eviler than, say, Rod Blagojevich.
Given what Kant thinks it takes to count as morally evil (you sincerely believe that it’s sometimes right to advance your self-interest over respecting the moral law) and what it takes to count as morally good (you sincerely believe that it’s never right to advance your self-interest over respecting the moral law), it’s not surprising that he accepts a doctrine he called “Rigorism”: the idea that there are only two kinds of people: morally evil and morally good.
Now, Kant doesn’t think that someone who acts immorally occasionally is ipso facto radically evil. Acting immorally out of weakness of will doesn’t make you radically evil. What is crucial to being radically evil is that you sincerely believe that advancing your self-interest over being moral is, at least sometimes, OK.
So let’s go back to the bad parkers. It wouldn’t surprise me if the bad parkers sincerely thought that their taking the spot was ok. Maybe they think something like, “it’s just parking” or “all’s fair in love and parking” or “I was in a hurry.” Regardless, from Kant’s point of view, their bad parking was immoral (not only because it didn’t treat me well but also because they would vehemently object if it were done to them), and the bad parkers were radically evil.
I think this is wrong. Bad parking is not immoral, and bad parkers are not radically evil. I don’t quite know why I think this, but I suspect the reason is that parking just isn’t that important.
I’m sure it can sometimes be that important: if you park in an ambulance’s spot, for example. But just the everyday, annoying parking behaviors we’re all subjected to (or engage in ourselves, from time to time) –- ensuring that someone can’t parallel park so that you can parallel park yourself; vulturing someone’s parking spot that they’ve been waiting for; double parking so that you can run into and out of a building –- well, they’re a drag, but they’re not that big a deal. They’re ill-mannered, but not immoral.
Funnily enough, I think Kant himself has a concept that could apply to bad manners: Spielraum. Spielraum — literally, “play room” — refers to that sphere of your life exempt from morality, even though it affects other people positively or negatively, sometimes noticeably. Kant thought this had to do with imperfect duties: whereas we all have perfect duties to not lie, steal, or murder, we all have imperfect duties to improve ourselves or help others. As it’s typically interpreted, what this means is that while we should never do what we have perfect duties against doing (we should never lie, steal, murder, etc.), we need only sometimes do what we have imperfect duties to do: just as long as we make it to a rule to occasionally dedicate ourselves to self-improvement or helping others, we’re in the clear.
In other words, from the perspective of morality, what Spielraum means is that we can occasionally let our hair down. We needn’t spend all our free time on helping others or self-improvement; we can sometimes do neither. Rather than work on my German or research what charities to give to, I can play mindless video games. (Not games like Bioshock, which arguably edify you. I’m talking about games like Monopoly, which objectively suck.) At least sometimes.
Why does Kant think we should have some Spielraum? Interpretations differ, of course, but a natural reason –- and one he actually gives –- is that we all have a need to be happy. If you can never relax, then not only will you not be able to be happy, but you will come to hate morality. In other words, what makes an overly demanding morality overly demanding is that it alienates you from morality.
If that’s why you need Spielraum, then perhaps you also need a different kind of Spielraum: the freedom to be a jerk. Why would you need the freedom to be a jerk? Well, you could give the same reason as before and say that people have a need to be happy; since, at least for some people, if they’re never allowed to be a jerk, then they can’t be happy, it follows that people need to be allowed to be a jerk or at least, within reason.
But I don’t think this will cut it: when it comes to Spielraum, it means not having to be sorry. You’re entitled to play stupid video games instead of improving yourself or helping others. You have space to yourself, because if you didn’t, you’d go nuts.
Yet I don’t want to say that the person who prevented me from parallel parking just so he could, or the person who snatched my spot despite my obviously waiting for it, doesn’t owe me an apology. Those people did me dirty. But I don’t think they acted immorally or are radically evil people because of it. And that’s because it’s just parking. I can find other parking spots, albeit ones that are farther away. I wasted some time, but not much time. Plausibly, this is almost always true when it comes to parking.
And this is the first reason why people should have the freedom to be a jerk. If you were to say that bad parking rises to the level of immorality, you risk alienating people from morality. Too many things fall under its ambit.
What about someone who is a bad parker, not because she was in a rush, or wasn’t thinking, or was just mad that day; what about someone who made bad parking a policy? Would that be immoral? Would she be evil?
I think even a policy of bad parking isn’t immoral, again, because it just doesn’t matter that much. Moreover, though I think someone who has a policy of bad parking is a full-on jerk, I doubt that such a person is radically evil.
But it really depends on why she has a policy of bad parking. If she has it because she truly think other people don’t matter as much as her, then bad parking is quite likely to be the least of her bad behaviors. She will doubtless do worse things: dissimulation, lying, manipulation, etc. But if she has the policy because she has the same attitude to parking that a lot of people have to Twitter — parking is not real life; it’s fun to see what you can get away with — then I can imagine her policy of bad parking coinciding with having a respectful attitude to morality (I think this may be true even if she loses her top when someone does bad parking to her, despite her constantly doing bad parking to others). I doubt treating parking as a small matter — because it pretty much is a small matter — would typically generalize to treating big matters with the same blitheness (unless it stemmed from the belief, not just that you are more special than others when it comes to parking, but from the belief that you are more special than others, period).
Long story short: jerks can be morally good people as well, and to the extent ethical theories don’t allow for that, so much the worse for ethical theory.
40 responses to “Kant and Bad Parking”
This is terrific, and fun!
It also provides an opportunity for me to ask you some things about Kant that I still think I understand inadequately. They are directly relevant to the characterization of his philosophy that you present here.
First, it sounds like you are attributing to Kant something in the orbit of Susan Wolf’s view in “Moral Saints.” Now, Wolf thinks Kantianism offers *one* version of moral sainthood. Do you think she gets Kant wrong?
Second, relatedly, I don’t see how Kant can fail to be in favor of moral sainthood, given what he says about categorical imperatives. And in actual life, won’t there always be categorical imperatives one should be obeying, such that the opportunity for Spielraum never arises?
Third, given that there is a category of action in which actions have neither a positive nor a negative moral valence — actions done in accordance with duty — is there not a “natural” demarcation principle built into Kantian moral philosophy?
Thanks, Robert. That was an enjoyable read.
Yes, I have had similar parking experiences. Perhaps everyone has those experiences.
There’s always the possibility that the drivers failed to read you mind. They thought it was there parking spot, and were annoyed that you were making it harder for them to use it.
This is the problem with moral questions. There is often a great deal of ambiguity about them.
first you said
“here’s one thing I don’t think they were: immoral.”
then you said
“on Kant’s view it seems like the two bad parkers acted immorally when they stole my spot.”
When you said “they stole my spot” you shot your argument in the foot. You admitted it was theft. Now in what kind of world is “theft” not immoral? Theft can encompass many kinds of things, goods, money, time, opportunity, etc. In every case the thing that makes it theft is the unauthorized taking of something you are not entitled to and that belongs to someone else. That is always immoral. All the talk about radical immorality is, in this context, just an elaborate smokescreen.
My perspective, as a victim, would be this:
1) I can use it as an opportunity to develop greater resilience by accepting the blow and learning not to be hurt by it.
2) I can learn to be morally forgiving and tolerant. One can only learn this by being exposed to such adverse events.
3) I can use this as an intellectual learning opportunity by introspecting about it, as you have.
4) I can learn multiple perspective taking by attempting to put myself in the other’s positions and attempting to understand their circumstance and motivation.
5) I can use it as an opportunity to discover more about how society, in general, operates in these kinds of circumstances.
In short then, one should welcome these kinds of events for the great opportunities they offer for learning and improvement.
The most important thing one can learn from this is how oneself should behave. This is the most important thing of all.
“There’s always the possibility that the drivers failed to read you mind. They thought it was there parking spot, and were annoyed that you were making it harder for them to use it.”
Yes. One must endeavour to put oneself in the mind of the other person and understand their perspective. They are not seeing the same thing as you. Either you, or the other person might have misread the situation.
And by the way, I think the spielraum argument for acting like a jerk is a complete non-starter.
“Long story short: jerks can be morally good people as well”
Yes, because we are all a mixture of good and bad, hopefully on a journey towards becoming a better person. Life is a moral journey where we progress towards becoming better people. What matters is progress on that journey towards becoming more moral people.
Hi Robert, where does Kant talk about ‘Spielraum’?
I was expecting to hate reading this because Kant gets up my nose (for all sorts of reasons) but I found that you emphasized a few things which I related to, including the view that we shouldn’t set the moral bar too high if we want people to behave morally (if we do, many will just see morality in general as an alien imposition).
But I see no clear dividing between morals and manners. Manners (including driving etiquette) are morally relevant. For example, you allow someone coming in the opposite direction on a narrow section of road to go through before you and as they pass they give a slight wave of acknowledgement. Well, decent types do. But there are those (often, I have noticed, sour looking women driving massive SUVs) who don’t do this. In itself, it’s a very small thing but it is an indicator of something very important in terms of personality and attitude to life etc.. You talked about jerks and gave them a moral pass. My point is that this is based on a view of morality (seeing it as quite distinct from manners) which I think is unnecessarily narrow. There is overlap between morals and manners and personality. A moral pass is only meaningful in some imaginary world where clear distinctions can be made and maintained. Kant’s world, for example.
For me a jerk is a jerk and this matters for how I judge them. My judgements about people are rarely if ever purely “moral”, in other words. Why should they be?
Hi Robert, an enjoyable essay, but I’m not sure about your interpretation of ‘Spielraum’ – at least not with reference to the Doctrine of Virtue. You write: ‘what Spielraum means is that we can occasionally let our hair down’.
Found no mention of ‘Spielraum’ in the Groundwork nor in the CoPR, but found this in the Doctrine of Virtue (6:390.9– 17):
‘Es wird aber unter einer weiten Pflicht nicht eine Erlaubniß zu Ausnahmen
von der Maxime der Handlungen, sondern nur die der Einschränkung einer
Pflichtmaxime durch die andere (z. B. die allgemeine Nächstenliebe durch
die Elternliebe) verstanden, wodurch in der That das Feld für die Tugendpraxis
[See also ‘Vorarbeit‘, 383-27: https://korpora.zim.uni-duisburg-essen.de/kant/aa23/384.html%5D
There is no ‘Spielraum’ when it comes to perfect duties (that’s why they are ‘eng’/narrow); there is ‘Spielraum’ (latitudo) with imperfect duties (that’s why they are ‘weit’/wide). In the above passage Kant says that a ‘wide’ duty does not mean that there is a permission for exceptions, but only that a maxim of duty may be constrained by another: ‘e.g. the general duty to love thy neighbour [may be constrained] by [the duty] to love your parents’. That doesn’t mean we ‘can occasionally let our hair down.’ [See also Bernd Ludwig’s essay (p. 77) in Kant’s “Tugendlehre”, A Comprehensive Commentary, edited by Andreas Trampota, Oliver Sensen and Jens Timmermann, De Gruyter 2013.]
The Doctrine of Virtue is a late work by Kant, perhaps you are referring to something much earlier?
“VI. ETHICS DOES NOT GIVE LAWS FOR _ACTIONS_ (_IUS_ DOES THAT), BUT ONLY FOR _MAXIMS_ OF ACTIONS.” (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:388)
“VII. ETHICAL DUTIES ARE OF _WIDE_ OBLIGATION, WHEREAS DUTIES OF RIGHT ARE OF _NARROW_ OBLIGATION.
“This proposition [i.e., VII] follows from the preceding one [i.e., VI]; for if the law can prescribe only the maxim of actions, not actions themselves, this is a sign that it leaves a playroom (_latitudo_) for free choice in following (complying with) the law, that is, that the law cannot specify precisely in what way one is to act and how much one is to do by the action for an end that is also a duty. — But a wide duty is not to be taken as permission to make exceptions to the maxim of actions but only as permission to limit one maxim of duty by another (e.g., love of one’s neighbor in general by love of one’s parents), by which in fact the field for the practice of virtue is widened. — The wider the duty, therefore, the more imperfect is a man’s obligation to action; as he, nevertheless, brings closer to _narrow_ duty (duties of right) the maxim of complying with wide duty (in his disposition), so much the more perfect is his virtuous action.” (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:390)
FWIW, I don’t interpret this talk about playroom/Spielraum as saying “hey, as long as you promote your own perfection and others’ happiness sometimes, then you’re good.” I see it as more like, “you should spend your free time promoting your own perfection and others’ happiness; however, the precise way in which you promote others’ happiness and your own self-perfection, not to mention the degree to which you spend your time on your own perfection as opposed to others’ happiness, is up to you.” But I’m in the minority here, so I just accepted the standard interpretation.
Still, even if you don’t accept the standard interpretation of Spielraum, there is this other line from Kant: “Adversity, pain, and want are great temptations to violate one’s duty. It might therefore seem that prosperity, strength, health, and well-being in general, which check the influence of these, could also be considered ends that are duties, so that one has a duty to promote _one’s own_ happiness and not just the happiness of others. — But then the end is not the subject’s happiness but his morality, and happiness is merely a means for removing obstacles to his morality — a _permitted_ means, since no one else has a right to require of me that I sacrifice my ends if these are not immoral. To seek prosperity for its own sake is not directly a duty, but indirectly it can well be a duty, that of warding off poverty insofar as this is a great temptation to vice. But then it is not my happiness but the preservation of my moral integrity that is my end and also my duty.” (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:388)
I have a comment below in response to you. The short version is:
1. I agree with you.
2. Most Kant scholars don’t.
3. There is still the fact that Kant says that if we have to give up happiness stemming from satisfaction of our true needs, we’re not required to do that, not to mention that if we’re finding ourselves so put upon by satisfying our imperfect duties that we’re tempted to give up on morality, that we can cater to our happiness.
Thanks for posting this fun and illuminating essay, Robert. I was not familiar with Kant’s concept of Spielraum, and you helped me see that his system was not as austere and rigid as I thought.
“When you said “they stole my spot” you shot your argument in the foot. You admitted it was theft. Now in what kind of world is “theft” not immoral? Theft can encompass many kinds of things, goods, money, time, opportunity, etc. In every case the thing that makes it theft is the unauthorized taking of something you are not entitled to and that belongs to someone else. That is always immoral. All the talk about radical immorality is, in this context, just an elaborate smokescreen.”
First, Kant would probably agree that it’s immoral. The talk of radical evil is *why* Kant would think that even the most minor wrongdoings are not only immoral, but make you an evil person. So it’s not a smokescreen, elaborate or rudimentary.
But I’m not agreeing with Kant. Remember, I’m saying that there’s a problem with his ethical theory because he would say that it’s immoral, but he shouldn’t. The main reason he shouldn’t say it’s immoral is that it just doesn’t matter very much. So: consequences matter. (Ernesto Garcia has an article making something like this point about Kant, many years ago. See here: https://philpapers.org/rec/GARAKT)
Second, in defense of the view that it’s not immoral: imagine you have a bag of M&M’s. You pour them out on the table. You’re talking to a friend, and while you two are chatting, a stranger walks by and steals one of your M&M’s. Are you prepared to say what he did was immoral? If you are, are you further prepared to say that he is a morally bad person for doing it? Maybe your answer is “yes” to both questions, but I don’t think the answer is *obviously* yes, even though he clearly stole it.
But going on, it’s not clear that stealing “my spot” is the same as stealing my property. Most of us would recognize that that spot is mine, as I have followed the rules in making my claim on the spot. But it wouldn’t *legally* be recognized as my spot, in the same way the M&M is legally mine. Now, maybe it’s _morally_ mine just as much as the M&M is mine. But I don’t find that obvious. I think, precisely because it’s part of a social convention that everyone knows is not legally backed up, it’s not morally mine in the same way as property I bought is mine.
“First, it sounds like you are attributing to Kant something in the orbit of Susan Wolf’s view in “Moral Saints.” Now, Wolf thinks Kantianism offers *one* version of moral sainthood. Do you think she gets Kant wrong?”
I think I must not have been clear in my essay, so let me describe the relationship between Kant’s thought and mine:
Kant would think that the bad parkers behaved immorally and were, in addition, radically evil. I think that the bad parkers didn’t behave immorally, and were not necessarily radically evil.
That said, maybe you’re thinking like this: “if Kant does indeed believe in Spielraum in the way you describe, then he’s not committed to moral sainthood. Is that right?”
First, I don’t personally think he’s committed to Spielraum in the way I describe. But I’m in the scholarly minority here, so when I present what Kant’s views are, I’m just providing the scholarly majority opinion. Still, even that majority-opinion Kant, who holds that we all need some Spielraum, is pretty close to a moral saint. I can’t think of a Kant scholar who would deny the following claim: “Kant thinks that everyone’s central project should be following the moral law.” This must be Kant’s view for a couple of reasons:
1. His argument for our being normatively required to believe in an afterlife:
P1: ought implies can;
P2: we ought to be morally perfect;
P3: we can’t be morally perfect in this life;
C: there must be an afterlife.
P2 and P3 are together pretty close to entailing “morality ought to be our central project.” After all, if morality is stripped down, something like merely “don’t hurt others and don’t take their stuff”, then why would P3 be true? But if morality is much more demanding, then P2 seems like it’s telling us, “you’ve got to live your life in a pretty darn morally inflected way.”
2. Even on the mainstream view, we are allowed to have Spielraum for two reasons:
R1: if we didn’t, we would be tempted to violate the moral law and do seriously immoral things in an act of rebellion;
R2: we are entitled to pursuing our own happiness. But if we had to sacrifice what Kant calls our “true” needs in order to advance others’ true needs, then the obligation to contribute to others’ happiness wouldn’t be universalizable. (Because then everyone would be unable to become happy because he would be trying to make others happy, and then no one would be happy, or something like that.)
But these two reasons by themselves don’t give us *that* much Spielraum. It’s not like Kant thinks it would be ok for people to try to make themselves into people who are easily tempted to rebel against morality. No, you should spend a *lot* of time improving yourself (in particular, your ability to carry out your moral obligations) and helping others. The small amount of time you have left you can devote to playing Minecraft.
“Second, relatedly, I don’t see how Kant can fail to be in favor of moral sainthood, given what he says about categorical imperatives. And in actual life, won’t there always be categorical imperatives one should be obeying, such that the opportunity for Spielraum never arises?”
I think my answer to your first question answers this.
“Third, given that there is a category of action in which actions have neither a positive nor a negative moral valence — actions done in accordance with duty — is there not a “natural” demarcation principle built into Kantian moral philosophy?”
Hmm. Demarcation principle between what and what? Morals and manners?
Well, I’m not 100% sure I’m understanding you correctly, but as I interpret things, there are actions done in conformity with duty and actions done from duty. So far, so good. But I think that *all* actions done in conformity with duty can also be done *from* duty. It just depends on your motivation. If you do those actions in conformity with duty precisely because they are universalizable, and thereby respect people as ends in themselves, then you’re doing them all from duty. By contrast, if you always act in conformity with duty, but *never* from duty, then you’d be someone none of whose actions are immoral, but also where none of your actions have any moral worth. This is unlikely, but one way it could happen is if all laws and mores were in conformity with duty, and you followed them all just because you wanted to fit in.
This is very helpful, thank you. There’s more I want to ask about the last bit, but I need to think a little to formulate it.
I was astonished to find you defending jerks as follows
“And this is the first reason why people should have the freedom to be a jerk.”
First we need to understand what it means to behave like a jerk. It can mean variously, behaviour that is offensive, rude disrespectful, mean, nasty, hurtful, overbearing and overwhelmingly self-obsessed. It can be summed up as acting to satisfy immediate emotional/material needs in complete disregard for the needs of other people, in a way that is hurtful or offensive to them. Can that possibly be a good thing?
“then perhaps you also need a different kind of Spielraum: the freedom to be a jerk. ”
We already have that freedom but exercising that freedom invites punishing pushback from society(except on Twitter, which seems to be a paradise for jerks). This is a freedom that society has low tolerance for. For example, Dan severely limits posts that exhibit jerk-like behaviour, and for good reason, because they poison the conversation. In general, jerks poison societal interaction and thus are harmful.
You defend it as follows
“…rises to the level of immorality, you risk alienating people from morality”
In reply I can only say, tough luck. Jerks are the freeriders exploiting the moral behaviour of others and thus have already abandoned morality. They have chosen the path of alienation.
“Why would you need the freedom to be a jerk? Well, you could give the same reason as before and say that people have a need to be happy; since, at least for some people, if they’re never allowed to be a jerk, then they can’t be happy, it follows that people need to be allowed to be a jerk or at least, within reason.”
Yes, behaving like a jerk does give some people happiness and psychopaths also derive happiness from their pursuits. This is a sad truth but it is the worst possible justification when in fact there are countless beneficial ways to pursue happiness that is good for both the individual and for society. The Japanese concept of Ikigai is a really good framework for understanding this. See for example https://improvisedlife.com/2018/02/26/ikigai/
No Robert, your defence of jerk-like behaviour makes no sense whatsoever, Kant be damned.
Just as an aside, I invariably park rather far from my destination so that I can get in a useful walk and push up my step count. This has the rather useful result that parking spaces are easy to find. This illustrates the point that jerks can often be circumvented. For example, a smiling, pleasant, quizzical response with a hint of irony will deflate most jerks. That is because jerks need the feedback of having caused injury. Deny them that feedback and the exercise is mostly pointless.
“So: consequences matter. ”
Yes, which is why the courts have latitude in deciding a fit punishment for the crime. For example, a warning, community service, suspended sentence, fine(small or large), prison sentence(small or large) But it still remains a crime. Moral offences can be small or large.
“Are you prepared to say what he did was immoral? ”
Yes, what he did was immoral. Theft is always immoral.
“If you are, are you further prepared to say that he is a morally bad person for doing it?”
No, not without further information. We are all moral works in progress and we have many lapses in that progress, as my parish priest would tell you. It is the nature of that progress that determines whether we are morally bad people or not.
“But I don’t find that obvious. I think, precisely because it’s part of a social convention that everyone knows is not legally backed up, it’s not morally mine in the same way as property I bought is mine”
The absence of legal backing does not make a thing moral. For example, adultery is not illegal and yet most people would immediately condemn it as immoral.
And in any case law is nothing but a codified social convention.
The outraged reaction of most people when their parking spot is stolen is a vivid example of a social convention that defines it as theft. They call it theft and they regard it as theft.
I have come across as being strongly critical of your essay. I don’t want that to detract from my deep appreciation for what you are doing. You have made philosophy practical and relevant to the ordinary person by addressing moral concerns that they encounter in their lives. This is exactly what I believe that philosophy needs to do in order to recover its relevance. I have in the past proposed that EA should have a column modelled on the NY Times ethicist column. I think you have just published the first essay in the Agora Ethicist series. Well done.
It’s certainly possible, for example, that the person who took my spot didn’t realize I was waiting but then realized they had taken mine as they were getting in. Or maybe they were having a terrible day. Or they were in a terrible rush. Chances are, though, none of these things was true, and they just wanted a good spot and didn’t particularly care that social convention dictates that it’s mine.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a jerk just a jerk.
So someone tell me, did Kant consider himself so perfect in all behaviors, transactions and interpersonal relationships that he didn’t consider himself a moral reprobate? Did he consider everyone including himself to be sinners when they weren’t acting out in the romper room?
I don’t know if it’s applicable to the salient issue of moral behavior when parking and behavior in general but, it’s a known peculiarity of being encased in a two ton suite of armor with hundreds of horses at your disposal that often distorts the driver’s usual demeanor, turning the mild into raging and aggressive predators and acting as they never would as a pedestrian.
Did he think, I Kanthelpmyself?
I have lots of thoughts, but I’m not going to organize them. I’ll just number them to make it easier for you to reply to them.
1. How do you feel about the M&M example? Do you think that was immoral too? If so, do you feel the slightest hesitancy about that?
2. I’m not saying I think the answers to these questions are obvious! I’m more interested in people’s reactions. I could be talked into the idea that the parking behavior is, indeed, immoral. But I’m working through the idea that maybe morality just doesn’t apply for relatively minor transgressions.
3. And I agree that most people would be outraged. I don’t know if that itself means the behavior was immoral, though. People are outraged at all sorts of things, especially nowadays. That said, given that this kind of outrage seems to be rather non-political, I’m willing to bet that it is evidence of *something.* Maybe most people *would* say it’s immoral. Interesting if true! And further evidence that it is, contra everything I say above, immoral, is the fact that I would never even consider stealing someone’s spot, even if I was in a great hurry. I would do so if it was a matter of life and death. Maybe only if it was a matter of life or death.
4. Now, it can always be true that small rudenesses will likely eventuate in large immoralities, but it could also be true that they don’t. And even if they do, it doesn’t follow that those small rudenesses are themselves immoral.
5. Imagine someone regularly steals people’s parking spots. He gets beaten up occasionally, but he still likes doing it. Is he a bad person, do you think? If you think people are all works in progress, are you prepared to say that anyone is ever a bad person? If you’re not prepared to say of any particular person, even a hypothetical one, that he is bad, could you at least tell me what you think makes it the case that someone is bad? Kant, for example, has an answer to this: someone is morally bad (i.e., radically evil), if (and only if!) he is such that he °wholeheartedly believes* that his self-interest *sometimes* takes precedence over his moral obligations. If you aren’t prepared to tell me what would make someone bad, what do you think of Kant’s definition?
“But I see no clear dividing between morals and manners.”
There probably isn’t a *clear* dividing line between them.
“In itself, [driving etiquette is] a very small thing but it is an indicator of something very important in terms of personality and attitude to life etc..”
Is it? I think people may be more compartmentalized than that.
“There is overlap between morals and manners and personality. A moral pass is only meaningful in some imaginary world where clear distinctions can be made and maintained.”
I’m not saying that such people don’t have *vices*. But I don’t think vices are intrinsically morally inflected. They can get there, though.
“For me a jerk is a jerk and this matters for how I judge them. My judgements about people are rarely if ever purely ‘moral’, in other words. Why should they be?”
I guess it depends on what you think morality is about. Does it govern *all* human behavior, including how we think when we’re by ourselves? Does it govern all of interactions with other people? Does it govern only certain very serious matters having to do with harming or helping other people? If the latter, you won’t have a clear dividing line, simply because “very serious matters” is vague, but regardless, when your judgments about others *should* be moral depends on what morality is about.
Kant did not consider himself perfect in all behaviors (this must be true based on what he wrote about becoming morally perfect in _Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason_ (1793/96)), but I’m pretty sure that he thinks that he became a morally good person around the age of forty. This is based on what he wrote in _Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and Sublime_ (1763) (where he indicated that at the age of forty he had a profound change, one that he didn’t really delve into) and what he wrote in _Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View_ (1798/1800) (where he claimed that most people don’t have moral character until around the age of forty, and that when they develop character, they do so in a revolutionary act).
He probably thought most people were radically evil. This was probably his view because he thought most people imitated others around them (see the _Anthropology_, where he claimed that most people were “Nachahmer” (imitators), and he thought all societies were structured around immoral institutions).
I took your remarks in the spirit in which they’re intended. Thanks for clearing yourself up, but it’s a shame that we live in a time where people feel the need that remarks as even-tempered as yours have to be explained.
Thanks for the reply, Robert.
“Is [driving etiquette (e.g. polite wave of acknowledgement) an indicator of something very important in terms of personality and attitude to life etc..]? I think people may be more compartmentalized than that.”
I accept that people’s behaviour can often be compartmentalized and we should be wary of generalizing casual observations. So maybe those sour-looking and apparently rude women I mentioned only behaved like that when they were behind the wheel. I am quite open to that possibility. As another commenter mentioned, we do sometimes behave out of character when driving.
All I was suggesting really is that apparently trivial behaviours can be indicators of important things about a person. A chip-on-shoulder attitude, for example, can poison a person’s life, and you can sometimes see it manifested in small ways and in trivial contexts.
Clearly there is some kind of useful distinction to make between questions of politeness and questions of morals. We have the two words for a reason.
The case of charming gangsters (or other evil-doers) is interesting because the politeness in these circumstances is often interpreted as being superficial and manipulative; in other words as not genuine. In this way it adds to the evilness of an evil character.
What I am saying more generally is that certain approaches to morality, certain ways of seeing morality, involve the application of Procrustean conceptualizations, forms of mental compartmentalization etc. which distort our perspectives on social and psychological reality.
I look forward to your next essay in the Agora Ethicist series!
“1. How do you feel about the M&M example? Do you think that was immoral too? If so, do you feel the slightest hesitancy about that?”
Theft is theft. We must not confuse ‘kind’ with ‘degree’. At my company we had a zero tolerance policy that if a worker took out of the plant only one little washer he would be instantly dismissed.
The law makes provision for discriminating the degree of an offence and punishes accordingly. But the law does not say that the kind depends on the degree. Theft is always theft(kind), though it can vary in degree from the trivial to the heinous.
“But I’m working through the idea that maybe morality just doesn’t apply for relatively minor transgressions.”
And who decides on the borderline between the two, the offender or the victim. This will just degenerate into a borderline of convenience.
“3. And I agree that most people would be outraged. I don’t know if that itself means the behavior was immoral, though. ”
Immoral behaviour invariably has a victim. The victim suffers an injury and her expressions of hurt can be a guide to the nature and extent of the injury.
“I don’t know if that itself means the behavior was immoral, though.”
No, but it is motivation to look at and understand the context.
“4. Now, it can always be true that small rudenesses will likely eventuate in large immoralities, but it could also be true that they don’t. And even if they do, it doesn’t follow that those small rudenesses are themselves immoral.”
Whether a rudeness is small or large will usually depend on the context. A person who is habitually rude can be depended upon to exhibit small rudenesses or large rudenesses in different situations. This becomes an indicator of the nature of his character.
“If you think people are all works in progress, are you prepared to say that anyone is ever a bad person?”
Yes. If they make no moral progress and have no wish to make any moral progress against a background of generally immoral behaviour.
“what do you think of Kant’s definition?”
It is ludicrous. He completely fails to take into account the doctrine of Original Sin. Let us recast a colourful allegory into an account that is (more or less)supported by current scientific understanding.
We were all once primates like the chimpanzees, without language or an introspective cognitive apparatus. We behaved to satisfy our appetites, taking what we desired according to our strength and ability to seize the object of desire. Morality and fairness had no meaning because we were unable to conceptualize these ideas. We simply seized what we could, fearfully respected power and unflinchingly imposed fear when we could. These forms of behaviour were encoded in our DNA, as they are for all primates, because they conferred survival advantages.
Then something extraordinary happened. In the blink of an eye, we acquired language, the ability to conceive of the future, the ability for introspection and the ability to imagine what happens in another persons’ mind. The key outcome of this is that we could imagine a better future, desire a better future and work towards a better common future. And thus morality was born.
But there was a problem. Our DNA still dictated that we behave with selfish, savage self-interest. This was the Original Sin. We were torn between the savage dictates of our DNA and our benign wish, born of our cognitive understanding, to work for a common, better future. This struggle between our ancient nature and our modern nature continues to this day. Now DNA structures don’t disappear overnight. They slowly wither away if they no longer convey a survival advantage.
This is where we are today. The power of our ancient nature to dictate our behaviour has somewhat diminished and is partially held in check by our cognitive apparatus, assisted by the institutional structures that we put into place for this reason.
But the result is an uncertain, unstable one easily disturbed by large societal stresses.
This is why I stress the idea of moral progress. Moral progress means learning to subject the demands of our ancient nature to an acquired understanding of what is morally right and good, both for ourselves and our community. This moral progress is always a struggle between the two sides of our nature, which we sometimes lose and sometimes win. As we become better people we register more victories than losses.
and, by the way, rudeness can be understood as both an act of aggression and disrespect. It is an attempt to impose a cost on another person for their behaviour.
Thanks everyone for their comments, but now that Thanksgiving week has started, I no longer have time to reply to comments.
Dan, I am enjoying watching your latest video, Value and Obligations 1. Your presentation is very clear and persuasive. Except when you say that the modern concept holds because we no longer need a creator. Your ground for saying this is that the origin of the world can be understood in terms of science, which are based on the laws of nature. And this is where you go badly wrong. Where on earth(or anywhere else for that matter) did the laws of nature come from?
1) were they always there? How do you know that? Where is the evidence?
2) did they evolve? How do you know that? Where is the evidence?
What we do know to a remarkable degree of precision is
1) they are invariant in time
2) they are invariant in space
3) they are invariant in their effect
4) they are essentially mathematical in nature
5) they are orderly. They impose order on all fields and particles, without exception.
5) they are rational in the sense that they are capable of comprehension by a rational person.
These are truly remarkable properties which remind us of something else.
What we don’t know is
1) their origin. How did they originate? Where did they come from?
2) what gives them this extraordinary power to compel all particles and fields to obey with such absolute precision.
In short, science has not removed the need for a creator in the slightest. It has simply moved the goalpost and in so doing created an even stronger argument for a creator.
So, when some jerk ( I much prefer the term asshole) intentionally “steals” a parking spot from you, you should just chalk it up to the chimp in him; smack your lips, bare your teeth, tear up a few saplings – all mentally of course – and brachiate to another spot in empathetic consolation.
Isn’t it more parsimonious and granular to just say that Kant’s definition is unrealistically ridiculous regarding human nature and reality itself? At best it sets an ideal goal, at worse it condemns our species to being forever immoral beings. That he claims to have shed the shackles of ever falling short of his own stated perfection in behavior at age 40, makes me wonder if he is even serious or delirious. .
As this is not the topic of Robert’s essay, I won’t engage with it here. Obviously, I disagree entirely (which is why I teach the subject as I do).
Talk about moving the goal post. Beyond space and time.
Of course saying anyone “stole” a parking space is mere metaphor. It is not possible to “steal” a parking space, unless, I suppose, one goes to a privately owned parking lot and actually digs up the concrete and soil and carries these away. But then of course, these do not constitute a parking space except when they are in a place designated by communal consent to be a parking space, otherwise they are simply dirt and concrete. Because parking spaces only exist by social agreement within a social context. Hence there cannot be any moral violation involved – although there may be communally recognized laws involved, such as parking in a space designated for the handicapped when the driver isn’t handicapped and/or has no visible permit for doing so. A person doing that would still not be acting immorally, only annoyingly, and in violation of a regulation for which he or she could be fined.
It is well to bear in mind that those who act annoyingly, or rudely, or carelessly are simply behaving in that wise. Morals rarely enters into our behaviors or in our judgments of the behaviors of other. What Dan refers to as a moral saint seems to hold that the world is divided between the good, the evil and the ignorant. Actually most people are simply getting by, trying to live with their neighbors as best they may, often surrendering to impulse or carelessness, but hardly ever doing so motivated by any cruelty or wish to be “evil” – they merely want to assert themselves in a world where various restrictions impede self-expression or enjoyment.
That said, I think this is an informative and intriguing essay. I know of Kantian deontology in the broader sense that I think most well-educated do, but it has been quite some time since I tried investigating the details – and the details, as we find here, are actually rather interesting.
And that said, it must be obvious that I don’t have much use for Kantian deontology nor for any moral realism. In fairness to Kant, of course, he was writing at a time when it was becoming more and more clear that human ethics are just that, human, driven by individual psychology and expressed collectively through legislation. After several centuries of religious belly-aching during the Reformation, including threats of hell, of divine intervention, of actual violence, it was at last becoming clear that divine intervention was never happening, hell was purely an abstraction, and religious violence could only damage a people and not bring them to any salvation. What salvation they could hope for could only come through law. And my own sense is that Kant was more concerned with the problem of public ethics – legislated law – than I think most understand. Legislated ethics has the force of the State behind it – would this be enough to replace the now defunct, powerless (once drained of fanaticism) religious morality? And to what could the individual refer if the legislation itself was severely flawed?
Just some thoughts – thanks for the essay.