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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