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The Tyranny of Kant September 14, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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This study is from the “well, duh” file but it is still interesting.

Are rules made to be broken — or obeyed? Newly published research suggests your answer to that question depends largely upon whether you are mulling it over from a position of power.

“In determining whether an act is right or wrong, the powerful focus on whether rules and principles are violated, whereas the powerless focus on the consequences,” states the study “How Power Influences Moral Thinking,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “For this reason, the powerful are also more inclined to stick to the rules — irrespective of whether this has positive or negative effects — while the powerless are more inclined to make exceptions.” […]

…50 students were assigned to play the role of either manager or employee of a fictional company. “Participants were presented with two reward systems, of which one was outcome-based and another rule-based, and were asked to indicate which of the two criteria they thought was the fairest.”

The “managers” were more inclined to vote for the rules-based criterion, while the “employees” were more likely to contend that the ultimate results of a worker’s efforts were more important than whether they strictly followed company guidelines.

For the uninitiated, philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that morality is fundamentally rule guided. But as far as I know, Kant was not in charge of anything (except himself).

Actually, my reference to Kant here is a bit unfair to Kant. I don’t think this study tells us much about whether moral reasoning ought to be rule-guided or outcome guided.

The researchers did find one exception to this pattern. In a final test, which was constructed so that rule-based thinking would not work to the advantage of the powerful, participants in the high-power category were less inclined than their low-power counterparts to endorse playing by the rules. Self-interest apparently trumps abstract ethical concepts.

Hence, this belongs in the “duh” file. People in power like rules because they make or enforce the rules and can manipulate them to help preserve their dominance. People who lack power don’t like rules because they had no hand in devising them, can’t control their enforcement, and they work to their disadvantage.

Of course, anyone who has held a job already knows this.

Kant had a job—he was a professor of philosophy; but perhaps his department chair was benign. At any rate, I don’t think Kant was sufficiently aware of how rules can serve the powerful.

Although, apparently, he was right about the importance of autonomy.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Vince Reardon - September 16, 2009

One can infer from this study just how difficult it is to break with one’s rule-enforcing colleagues. I’m thinking here of insiders who see moral wrong-doing but lack the motivation or courage to “take on a sea of troubles.”

Ironically, the ethical dissenters I’ve interviewed and written about (Daniel Ellsberg, Richard Cook, Jeffrey Wigand, Rev. George Houser, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Nonie Darwish and Harry Wu) have all withstood a wide spectrum of offensive behavior and yet have admitted they would do it all over again. I find this response breath-taking, inspiring.

2. Moriae - September 16, 2009

I’m wondering why such responses, which are not nearly as rare as one may wish to think, are ‘breath-taking’ and/or ‘inspiring’? This is a tired old variant of “having the courage of one’s convictions.” It seems still that too many Americans have this taste for wooden idols. If the 20th century has taught anything, it is simply that such people are about as rare as dandelions, yet people willing to publically reconsider and seriously mull over the possibility that they may in fact be wrong are the rare ones.

Being able to withstand the slings and arrows of various opponents could be a sign of character, but it isn’t the fortitude that makes character, it is the ‘matter’ of what one is defending that makes it a difference between character and dogmatism. It takes no character at all to have an opinion, and even less to defend it, but it does take some character (and ‘courage’) to attack one’s own pet notions. Adamance is not at all a sign character. The monsters of the past century, not to mention any other previous century, weren’t lacking in adamancy; they were afraid of doubt. All of them were likely to be “willing to do it all over again” as well, and that is a truly regrettable character flaw.

3. Vince Reardon - September 17, 2009

Dear Moriae,

Thank you for your post. I must, however, disagree with you. There is nothing “tired,” “old” or “wooden” about the courage of the individuals I mentioned in my earlier post. I can only assume that you are not familiar with their life stories as I am. I interviewed each for my forthcoming book, “Legacy: Passing on Cherished Values in a Values-Starved World.” [www.legacylfeproject.com]

When you leak top secret documents of the U.S. government (the Pentagon Papers) and face potentially 100 years in jail, as in the case of Daniel Ellsberg; when you organize and implement the first Freedom Rides through the Jim Crow South in 1947(!), as in the case of Rev. George Houser; when you blow the whistle on Big Tobacco, resulting in a $368 billion dollar settlement paid by Big Tobacco over 25 years to the 50 states, as in the case Jeffrey Wigand; when you spend 19 years in the Chinese gulag for expressing your political opinions, as in the case of Harry Wu; when you leak documents to the New York Times because you believe NASA is covering up its culpability in the Space Shuttle disaster, as in the case of Richard Cook; when you stand up to Islamic extremism for your support of Israel, as in the case of Nonie Darwish; and when you ordain the first openly gay priest on moral principle to the condemnation of your church and congregation, as in the case of Bishop Spong, then I will hold you in high esteem too.

You characterize these moral exemplars as “common as dandelions.” I prefer to think of them as Freud thought of such moral models — positive deviants. They stand out from the crowd and make the lives of others better. I will continue to be inspired by their example. And, yes, a little breathlessly too.

4. WilliamRamsai - June 25, 2011

My wife is actually frustrated. They started OK, and the shopping center is closed.

5. erybrinkivy - January 19, 2012

Thats too nice, once i involves Asian countries wish it can create a rocking place for child.. wish that will be realized.

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