Over the past year I’ve been refining my understanding of the core claims of Kantian ethics. I’ve realised that I have deeply Kantian intuitions about a lot of issues, and I understand these intuitions better now that I can put them in Kantian terms. Consider two exercises of state power: riot police suppressing protesters by non-lethal means, and soldiers shooting protesters to death. I feel more uncomfortable thinking about the first: there’s something altogether more sinister about it than the second, even though the second is much more sad.

I think that the reason is that non-lethal weaponry is designed to take away people’s agency, and it often achieves this aim by means of emotional manipulation. Riot police use so-called “baton charges” to incite fearful retreat. Protesters have reasoned that in their political situation, they have a duty to resist the incumbent government. Riot police seek to unseat this conviction and cause fear to determine what the protesters will do. In Kantian terms, the riot police fail to respect the moral agency of the protesters by seeking to unseat the moral personality’s determination of what the protester will do.

A controversial example that Kant uses to make this point is the axe murderer case. Kant asks us to imagine that someone bangs on our front door and begs us to hide him in our house, because someone who wishes to kill him is coming up behind them. We do so. When the axe murderer arrives, he goes door-to-door and asks us whether the intended victim is in each house. Kant says that it is morally wrong to lie to the axe murderer and say that the victim is not in your house. How could this be? Surely there is a moral duty to protect the victim from being killed? Indeed there is, but when it comes into conflict with the duty not to lie, that second duty wins out. That’s because respecting the moral agency of individuals is paramount. In this case, we would fail to respect the murderer’s agency if we didn’t allow him to take the decision to murder or not murder the victim; by lying to him we (disrespectfully) bypass his choice as to whether to do it.

It’s obviously crazy to say that we are morally required to give up the victim. Kant gives the wrong answer in this case. However, the case definitely reveals a requirement to respect other people’s view of what they should do, and give them a chance to do it. Similarly it seems like we shouldn’t give semi-automatics to our riot police, but there’s something wrong with a lot of what they do.

During the recent campaigns about Britain’s EU referendum, some criticised Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigning on the grounds that he failed to make an emotional appeal, instead asking people to make their own rational decision when they come to cast their vote. So he lost out the emotional appeals other people were making. It seems that he was successfully respecting individual agency. You’ve got to give people a chance to live up to their own idea of what they should do.

I’m not sure how to reconcile these various ideas, and I’m not sure what it says about me that I find non-lethal weaponry as uncomfortable as I do.

“non-lethal weaponry is designed to take away people’s agency”

You don’t think that lethal weaponry takes away people’s agency? Let me assure you, the agency of a dead person is zero. You don’t get any less agency than that.

“the riot police fail to respect the moral agency of the protesters”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another would be to say that the protesters still have agency, that they still get to decide what to do, it’s just that the “economic incentives” about the courses of action available to them have altered. They can choose to stay put, if they can master their fear (an act of pure agency) are willing to accept the new consequences.

How would you interpret Nudge Theory in the light of Kantian ethics? Is giving people the freedom to do anything they want, but just providing extra incentives for them to do what you want? Is that a removal of people’s agency, or respecting of it?

What about almost any kind of social interaction, where people (naturally, unconsciously) attempt to increase their social capital with the people around them?

Comment by karellen Thu 07 Jul 2016 18:35:08 UTC

Indeed, dead people certainly don’t have any moral agency, and that’s what I find so difficult about these examples. Of course we have a duty not to tell the axe murderer that his intended victim is hiding in our house, but at the same time, there’s something wrong with lying to him and taking responsibility out of his hands.

Kant has quite a crude psychology in which you are either acting out of reason, or you’re acting out of emotion – this motivational dualism has no middle ground. So I’m not sure there is room for any “acts of pure agency” that you describe. But that’s not the point. The question is not whether the protesters can master their fear or not, but whether the riot police are doing something wrong by seeking to make it harder for them to master their fear. The consequences are completely irrelevant as to whether this kind of action (inciting fear to cause that to determine what they do) is acceptable.

My first thought about nudge theory from a Kantian perspective is that it fails to treat people’s agency as an end in itself. Its aim is the wellbeing of the individuals who are being nudged, and the aim is to nudge their agency so that their agency serves the end of this wellbeing. But then that agency is merely a means to that end, not an end in itself.

You ask a very general question about social interactions and I’m not sure I have much of use to say. Do bear in mind that Kant says we can use people as means so long as we don’t treat them merely as means: otherwise it would be impossible to go into a shop and buy something.

Thanks for your feedback.

Comment by spwhitton Thu 07 Jul 2016 23:04:42 UTC