kant on queueing, or why I am not a kantian

In response to my post on how not to think about cutting in line, Jacob Levy makes these important points:

I’m puzzled. This seems like the easiest of cases for a Kantian. I cannot will as a universal maxim that the cutter be allowed into line, because that would destroy the coherence of lining up. It’s almost as clean a case as lying: the wrongness lies in the self-contradictory character. You cannot simultaneously will queues and cutting.

Or, to put it differently: the cutter him or herself treats others as not-ends-in-themselves. Their time is not as valuable or important as his/her time. The one person who unilaterally, without the consent of every other person behind him or her, allows the cutter in thus *also* fails to treat those behind him/her as ends-in-themselves.

So basically Jacob has suggested that I have misapplied Kant’s theory to our line cutting case, and that either form of the Categorical Imperative can dispense with the problem successfully when properly applied.

Let’s take CI1 first, the universalization one. The first problem with it has to do with maxim formulation. We have to figure out a way of describing the action we’re thinking of taking in order to give it the universalization test. One good way of thinking about maxims is that they have an ACE form: I will do A(ction) in these C(ircumstances) for this E(nd). The trouble with maxims is that any given action can be described using a variety of different maxims. For instance, imagine that someone is thinking of robbing a store for some lifesaving medicine. If you test the maxim “I will rob a store when I am broke to promote my self-interest” for universalizability, it fails, making the action morally impermissible. But if you test “I will rob a store when I am dying of cancer in order to save my life,” that seems to pass the test, making the action morally permissible. But it’s really bad if Kantianism renders conflicting deontic verdicts on what is actually just one action. And, in our queueing case, it’s not clear what maxim we ought to use, and whether using different maxims will generate conflicting verdicts as in the robbery case.

But Kant tends to give examples with the broadest maxim possible, so to be charitable, let’s go with that. The broadest possible maxim for line cutting is probably “I will let someone into the line when they ask me, in order to help them out.” Jacob has suggested that “I cannot will as a universal maxim that the cutter be allowed into line, because that would destroy the coherence of lining up,” meaning that letting cutters into the line is morally impermissible. Case closed?

Let’s back up a bit. Here’s what I wrote originally: “it seems that making into universal law a rule allowing people to cut in line is not logically impossible nor catastrophic in practice.” There is way more packed into that claim than meets the eye. I was actually saying that a maxim allowing cutters into line passes both parts of Kant’s universalization test: first, that the world where people follow that maxim not be logically contradictory, and second that it not involve any contradiction in the will. Things get really sticky here, because it’s hard to argue about the qualities of counterfactual worlds, and Kant is pretty sketchy about describing the weaker condition that maxims not involve contradictions in the will. But, I’m happy to assume for the sake of argument that I was wrong and Jacob is right and that, on Kantianism, the broadest possible maxim regarding letting people into a line is incoherent, or logically impossible in practice.

Unfortunately, Kantianism still comes out looking bad. Why? Because an absolute prohibition on letting someone into a line is crazy. The line cutting case closely tracks a common criticism of Kant (the origins of which are unknown to me), the “murderer at the door” objection. Here’s the thought experiment: you’re sitting at home, and a Jewish person comes to the door, says the police are after him, can he hide in your attic? You say sure, and no sooner than he hides than do the police come to the door and inquire as to his whereabouts. The commonsense moral intuition is that you should lie, since the situation is very high stakes and you can help save the man from certain death at the hands of the police. But Kant thinks that maxims permitting lying to achieve one’s objectives are logically impossible for everyone to follow, because in such a world meaningful communication could not exist. So there is a perfect duty to tell the truth and it is impermissible for you to lie, even to a murderer at the door, and (according to an objector) that makes Kantianism implausible on its face. I think that the line cutting situation is a close parallel, and that any moral theory which forbids letting anyone into a line even when the costs are very, very low or when the stakes are very, very high, is implausible. So, Kantianism has jumped out of the pot and into the fire, so to speak: getting over the maxim formulation problem means that it is not indeterminate, but the murderer-at-the-door-type objection shows that its deontic verdicts are simply incorrect.

And, while I granted it for the sake of argument, I don’t think that the line cutting maxim is incoherent, I actually think it violates merely the weaker condition of being contradictory to will. That would mean that letting people into the line is an imperfect duty (a sometimes-duty) instead of a perfect duty (an always-duty). And, like I said in the original post, Kant doesn’t say anything too useful about when & where we should fulfill our imperfect duties. So that’s unsatisfying, too.

Now, let’s look at Jacob’s proposal for how CI2 can handle the line case: that we view both the cutter and he who permits cutting to be failing to treat others as ends-in-themselves. Each seems to be subjecting the people in the back of the line to a plan of action to which those people would not or could not consent (that might not be true, but it’s unimportant). That means that cutting in line is impermissible, because it necessarily involves failing to respect people in this way.

Here’s what I said previously about CI2:

I agree with Fred Feldman that, while the moral intuition that using people is morally bad is surely correct, it is not a particularly informative guide to action (”On Treating People as Ends in Themselves: A Critique of Kant”). The most plausible interpretations of CI #2 read it as requiring that either one help others achieve their goals, or specifically their rational goals. But, presumably, both a person who wants a place in line and the people behind you in line have goals, even rational ones, which conflict. You can’t help both. So Kantianism doesn’t seem to generate any kind of specific answer to our question.

I’ll elaborate a bit. “Respect” is great and all, but if respecting persons is to be our guide to action, we need a good way of figuring out what respect amounts to, in practice. The best understanding of “respect” on offer is that it consists in not merely refraining from using people, but actually taking their own goals seriously and helping to promote them at least some of the time. Also, note that Kant thinks that every single human person has infinite moral value. As such, Kant forbids any attempts to make moral tradeoffs, say, by harming one person to the benefit of a larger group.

These considerations leave a Kantian very little to work with in the queueing case. On the one hand, she is supposed to respect everyone all of the time, and to manifest this sometimes by fulfilling an imperfect duty to take up others’ (rational) goals as her own. On the other hand, she may not decide whose goals to promote by assigning greater moral value to the group of line-waiters who will be inconvenienced by letting someone in, or by assigning a lesser moral value to the single line-cutter, because everyone concerned has infinite moral value, according to Kant. What the heck is she to do? I have no idea. So, while Kantianism isn’t necessarily false,  it is not terribly useful (in the sense of being action-guiding) in the line case.

So, in conclusion, I think Kantianism is great insofar as it successfully captures two very important moral intuitions: that moral rules need to be universalizable, and that disrespecting people by using them for one’s own ends is impermissible. But there are some serious and, in my opinion and to my knowledge, unresolved problems with Kantianism as a standalone theory of normative ethics.  Jacob’s comments and the available replies go to show that these two moral intuitions by themselves are perhaps necessary but not sufficient for thinking about how to act, in the line case and in general.


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