A Deontological Supreme Principle of Morality

deontology categorical imperative Kant

Most people who are familiar with the term deontological ethics are likely acquainted with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative most famously set out in his The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (hereafter referred to as Groundwork). Descriptively speaking, I think most people follow a sort of ethical intuitionism; prescriptively speaking, I think most people would subscribe to some hybrid form of ethical consequentialism. Deontology, particularly given the widespread misinterpretation and misunderstanding of Kant’s deontological moral philosophy, is often regarded as a sort of wooden formalism which is meant to be universally and unquestioningly adhered to, leading to scores of counterexamples where it would dictate we take actions that are clearly morally wrong. But it is actually quite difficult to fully ground any system of ethics without what Kant would have thought of as the supreme principle of morality.

Let me first briefly discuss what a categorical imperative is by contrasting it with what Kant called a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical is an if-then statement: if A, then B. What we almost universally think of as ethical systems are hypothetical imperatives: if I value A, then I ought to do B. For example, if I value maximizing human pleasure and minimizing human suffering, then I ought to subscribe to utilitarianism. What Kant was seeking was a categorical imperative, one that sets out what we ought to do without appealing to a hypothetical. There is no if-then, there is only a duty to abide by the supreme principle; only a when-do: when confronted with x, do y, not because doing y is some means to an end, but because y is an end in itself.

Kant’s famous dictum is that “I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law” or even more strongly “so act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature” (both quotes from Groundwork). What most accounts usually fail to mention is that this wooden formalism is merely a way of putting into practice what Kant sees as the supreme principle of morality: “act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never merely a means.” This is because all ends that can be produced are the product of rational beings.

But this post isn’t meant as an explication of Kantian ethics, or a thorough defense of his project. Instead, I am proposing an evolution on this Kantian supreme principle of morality. Namely that we can reconceptualize Kant’s “rational being” who is an “end” in themselves in terms of consciousness.

Each individual’s consciousness is absolutely unique and non-fungible. If, say, your child dies, you can’t just “replace” them with a new child, because each of the two individual children were a consciousness that is absolutely unique from each other. A computer or smart phone, however, is not conscious and is therefore fungible – it doesn’t matter which particular “token” phone you have because all that matters is its functionality, and each phone of that “type” has the exact same functionality. The fact that the matter composing each token phone of a certain type is not numerically identical to the matter composing all other token phones of that type does not bestow any extra value to any particular token phone. It is the phone’s functionality that gives it value, and the functionality is replicable and fungible.

Each individual consciousness, on the other hand, are not simply tokens of some type, but are absolutely unique. That a particular consciousness is the consciousness that it is cannot be determined by anyone else, and once that consciousness ceases to exist, it is lost forever. The scarcity of something, which is a function of how difficult it is for that thing to be actualized in existence, is the primary locus of value attribution by sentient beings (at least all the ones we humans know about). Since every individual consciousness (as the consciousness that it actually is) is not something that can be purposefully made and can never be reproduced or recovered, making each individual consciousness the most scarce entities in existence. Thus, the supreme principle of morality is grounded in the absolute uniqueness of each individual consciousness.

From here we would have to analyze consciousness itself and what confers for us why consciousness has any value in the first place. It is not just the consciousness is rare, but that for us (subjectively) consciousness is valuable in the first place. Its value stems from the fact that, without consciousness, there would be no such thing as value. Consciousness is what gives value, and therefore is a necessary precondition for value in general to even exist. Thus, the value of consciousness is borne in its existence as that which gives value. Get rid of consciousness and value itself becomes moot.

From here we can infer that the level of a consciousness’ capacity as a subjective valuer further increases the (subjective) value of the consciousness. In other words, the greater the degree of consciousness, the greater its value. This is why, for instance, we give greater moral value to humans than we do dogs, and more moral value to dogs than to ants. As I talk about in the linked post, there are issues with this idea of “levels of consciousness” that would have to be ironed out:

Given that different organisms have different levels of consciousness (with the lowest level being, perhaps, something like a dust mite, the highest being that of animals like dolphins, whales, great apes, and humans at the very pinnacle), we can then assign moral value to different organisms based on their level of consciousness. This is justified by the fact that humans treat other fellow humans as more deserving of ethical treatment than we do creatures with lesser consciousness – you’ll receive a greater punishment for the inhumane treatment of a person than you will for the inhumane treatment of a dog, and will receive no punishment for the inhumane treatment of an insect.

Of course, the human tendency for sacralization means that this ethical principle based on “level of consciousness” is not (and likely never will be) perfectly applied. Pigs are relatively intelligent, but are still seen as food in western cultures, while an animal with comparable levels of consciousness, like the horse, is not seen as food in western cultures.

There are other problems with this consciousness argument as well. For one, if we are going to base ethical treatment on an organisms level of consciousness, we must confront the inconvenient fact that we cannot even say for sure that all humans have the same level of consciousness. For instance, what about infants, or those with severe mental handicaps, or those in a coma? How could we even consistently define what is meant by an organism’s level of consciousness? One way might be to say that it is an individual’s potential level of consciousness given the species that individual belongs to and the sort of consciousness-generating architecture (i.e. the brain) that individual possesses, regardless of how it is utilized in practice. This may work, with qualification, but this post isn’t meant as an exposition on levels and degrees of consciousness.

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From this supreme principle of morality we could maybe derive some of the following ethical principles:

The Principle of Wisdom

Expanding one’s knowledge and understanding of the world. Only through a deep understanding of both nature and humanity can a person grow in wisdom, thereby one’s conscious experience of the world. By learning more, and having a greater pool of knowledge to draw upon, provides a richer experience of one’s conscious existence.

Think about when a person becomes more and more of an expert on a genre of music. The person who is still a neophyte in that genre may complain that every song sounds the same. The expert, however, will be able to discern differences and thereby have a richer experience of listening to that music. In this instance, the expert’s capacity for conscious experience is greater. The same can be extrapolated to existence itself. The person who is more knowledgeable will have a richer experience of the world than the ignoramus.

The Principle of Companionship

The expansion of one’s understanding, and therefore their capacity for conscious experience, goes beyond individualized learning. There is much to be learned from interaction with other people. Not merely the knowledge they can bestow, but the practice of one’s emotional intelligence. By increasing one’s own capacity to experience – and even regulate – one’s emotions, the capacity for conscious experience will grow.

These sorts of emotional connections with people are best when they are deep and lasting. There is a greater increase in the depth and breadth of emotional intelligence when one engages in more meaningful companionship. This is also true of romantic connections, since shallow sexual encounters or serial monogamy will practice only the satisfying of an aesthetic form of happiness as opposed to a much deeper communal form of happiness.

The Principle of Temperance

The converse of the Principle of Wisdom is true as well: one ought to avoid those things that will decrease one’s capacity for conscious experience. Moderation in mind-altering substances will ensure that, while one may be able to achieve consciousness expanding experiences through the drugs, one does not narrow their world to an obsession with the drugs. Of course, people with a predilection for addiction are best to avoid the drugs altogether, since they are more likely to have their capacity for conscious experience shrunk by their obsession.

Also, engaging in activities that bring negative emotions should be avoided. Negative emotions lead to rumination, stress, and lethargy, which decrease a person’s capacity for conscious experience. The best way to avoid negative emotions is through the use of disciplined reason. Disciplined reason is the thoughtful consideration of the effects of one’s actions. I call it disciplined because the practice of reason should both A) take as much into account as possible when reasoning towards conclusions and B) be adaptable enough to take new information into account when it arises. By using disciplined reason, one ought to be able to overcome immediate desires that can lead to more negative feelings. Without the use of reason, the avoidance of negative feelings can lead to inaction or to actions that, while in the proximate future may avoid negative emotions, engaging the action will bring about more distant negative emotions. Procrastination is probably the most illustrative example of this.

The Principle of Potency

Given that we ourselves are conscious, our own consciousness is of primary value to ourselves. Because we do value consciousness, though, as not only the most valuable phenomenon in existence, but as that from which all value derives, it follows that the existence of our own consciousness ought to be prolonged as much as possible. Therefore, we ought to take actions that prolong our consciousness. Behaviors that ensure a longer consciousness – diet, exercise, avoidance of overly dangerous activities, refusal to commit suicide – ought to be employed.

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There may perhaps be more that we could derive from using consciousness as the supreme principle of morality. Indeed, I would say that it leads us to the rather unsettling conclusion that, if higher levels of consciousness have greater moral value, then it would be our ethical duty to create artificial intelligence with an even higher level of consciousness than ourselves. But that will have to wait for another post.