In Defense of Kant

by John Holbo on December 9, 2007

That attack ad is pretty compelling. But it simplifies – some would say over-simplifies – aspects of Kant’s philosophy. I thought a technical defense of Kant’s ethics might be in order.

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The Culture Wars Invade Philosophy « Philosophy On The Mesa
12.09.07 at 5:25 pm
An attack ad, a musical and a bit of philosophy « Entertaining Research
12.11.07 at 7:11 am



John Holbo 12.09.07 at 4:39 am

On the other hand, it might be objected that the video imports utilitarian intuitions about ‘the good of all of us’ that are inadmissible, from a Kantian point of view. (But no one ever said defending Kant without helping yourself to a little Good on the side was going to be easy.)


noen 12.09.07 at 4:43 am

Seemed rather Pragmatic to me.



Kieran 12.09.07 at 4:44 am

Well there’s also this.


Dan 12.09.07 at 5:19 am

I am concerned that their two formulations of the criteria a rule must satisfy in order to qualify as reasonable (viz. “the good of all of us” and to “work for all”) are not identical.


voyou 12.09.07 at 5:37 am

“Why don’t you try them out and see how they work.”

Damn, if Kant had thought of that, he wouldn’t have had to go off and write the Third Critique.


R. Vangala 12.09.07 at 6:01 am

What I’m hearing is an explication not of Kant’s moral philosophy, but of some kind of rule utilitarianism. To my mind, the latter is the more sensible doctrine of the two, so I think Kant would have done well to have watched this clip.


Jim Harrison 12.09.07 at 7:24 am

Hey, as things are going these days, rule utilitarianism would be progress. Half a loaf is better than none.


Tsmoss 12.09.07 at 7:25 am

The American people are sick of both parties’ distortions. Kant’s supporter try to rehabilitate him as a utilitarian, despite his obvious anti-consequentialism. And Nietzsche is no better. Setting aside the utterly ridiculous claims of his supporters that he’s some kind of libertarian humanist, how can he accuse Kant of crypto-Christianity when he himself construncts a mythology based on a prophetic figure teaching humanity a more enlightened and spiritually advanced state?

I’m so disgusted with the system that I don’t even know if I’ll go to the polls this year. If I do, I’ll probably vote for Stein. Iraq withdrawal plan is an Iraq withdrawal plan is an Iraq withdrawal plan is an Iraq withdrawal plan.


Tsmoss 12.09.07 at 7:35 am

Double post to add: I’m not sure, that, strictly speaking, this is even rule utilitarianism. It’s clearly consequentialist, but it appears to be dealing solely with common goods, i.e. not with aggregations of positive effects of individuals but only with effects that are clearly positive for everyone at once. There’s also a great deal of normative/descriptive confusion (e.g. “Rules are made for a reason”), with the effect of implying that we live in the best of all possible worlds.


MikeJ 12.09.07 at 8:38 am

Y Kant tori moo?


ben saunders 12.09.07 at 11:41 am

The focus on the good rather than rational consistency does seem utilitarian, but #9 has a good point that this focuses on the good of everyone rather than maximizing some aggregate – so it seems contractualist in the same way as Gauthier’s reconstruction of Hume.


Pablo 12.09.07 at 2:03 pm

Agree, Ben. Or it seems contractualist in the sense of Scanlon (and perhaps also Rawls, and Habermas).


elbujo 12.09.07 at 2:51 pm

The point that should not be made up willy-nilly strikes right at the heart of the indeterminacy in the universal law test.

Hegel for President!


engels 12.09.07 at 3:45 pm

I think that the significance of the ‘good of all of us’ clause may have been over-emphasised in some of the preceding discussion. It is perhaps worth noting that it only occurs in the first chorus and in the second it is replaced by the more ambiguous–some might say evasive–‘I know just what you mean!’

Due weight ought to be given to the lead-in and the verses. Before the music starts the presenter briefly sketches his position as ‘the rules have to make sense’, which seems strongly suggestive of a rational consistency standard. In addition, in a later verse the muppets sing:

Though you might think a rule is best for you

A rule should work for all the others too

which appears to gesture towards Kantian universalizability.

So perhaps Sesame Street’s interpreters will have to face up to the fact that there is more than one ‘fundamental principle of morality’ expressed in the song and these principles can not be regarded as logically equivalent.


ben saunders 12.09.07 at 3:59 pm

I suppose the problem is that what it is for the rules to ‘make sense’ is under-defined. Then again, that seems perfectly acceptable in this context – first introduce children to the idea that rules shouldn’t be arbitrary (moo) and then no doubt they can argue about the exactly which rules are justified and why next week.

My point was only that the utilitarian maximizing standard was not presupposed. One might argue that would justify rules to everyone (a la Harsanyi), but one could also show more respect for the separateness of persons. (I can’t be bothered to re-watch the video, but beleive there was some emphasis on acceptability to others)


alex404 12.09.07 at 4:04 pm

Some have already noticed that the host is defending a claim that rules have a certain social consistency element to them. From this I personally drew a Wittgensteinian moral. While the host’s talk appeared to reify rules, which is obviously problematic, his insistence on the intelligibility of rules is a little more flexible.

I found that one could interpret the host not as saying that rules are decided to exist for a reason, but that the constitution and possibility of rules lies in their social intelligibility. If this is correct, then we’re not dealing with rules as some sort of mental construct, but as acceptable social practices. If so, then we fall happily into the paradox of rule following, which I suspect these mutant teletubbies would have found quite enjoyable.


jacob 12.09.07 at 6:07 pm

Hegel for President!

Look, you can throw away your vote if you choose, but remember, a vote for Hegel counts as a vote for Nietzsche. Don’t waste your vote on a protest candidate.


Jon H 12.09.07 at 8:33 pm

If Kant were gay,
That’d be okay…

If I’m not mistaken, the guy singing was in the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q.


noen 12.09.07 at 9:38 pm

This is all in good fun of curse, but the song is really just a way to keep the little twerps from fighting all the time. You introduce the idea that instead of bashing Johnny over the head and taking the toy away from him by force you have the option of negotiating with him for an exchange. It saves on the yelling and screaming.

Now if we can just get our politicians up to the emotional level of a 4 year old we’d be getting somewhere.


the mountain 12.09.07 at 10:12 pm


Perhaps they are championing Parfit’s approach. ;)


JP Stormcrow 12.10.07 at 1:48 am

Everyone’s ignoring the essential question in this race: Is Kant “man” enough to waterboard John Ashcroft live right on the stage at the next YouTube debate?


mcd 12.10.07 at 2:41 am

Voting for Kant is imperative!


Western Dave 12.11.07 at 4:21 pm

Technically, they are Sprites not muppets and the show is not Sesame Street (PBS) but Johnny and the Sprites (Disney). Personally, I’m going with whoever Yo Gabba Gabba ends up supporting.


Spoon 12.11.07 at 11:43 pm

@ 19: You’re right, he played both Rod and Princeton in the original cast of Avenue Q.

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