February 21, 2022

You Kant Dismiss Universalizability by Scott Alexander

Source: https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/05/16/you-kant-dismiss-universalizability Author: Scott Alexander

Suppose you are a prisoner of war. Your captors tell you they want to kill your general, a brilliant leader who has led your side to victory after victory. They have two options. First, a surgical strike against her secret headquarters, killing her and no one else. Second, nuking your capital city. They would prefer to do the first, because they’re not monsters. But if they have to nuke your capital, they’ll nuke your capital. So they show you a map of your capital city and say Please point out your general’s headquarters and we’ll surgical-strike it. But if you don’t, we’ll nuke the whole city.” You decide to lie. You point to a warehouse you know to be abandoned. Your captors send a cruise missile that blows up the warehouse, killing nobody. Then they hold a huge party to celebrate the death of the general. Meanwhile, the real general realizes she’s in danger and flees to an underground shelter. With her brilliant tactics, your side wins the war and you are eventually rescued. So what about now? Was your lie ethical? Kant would point out that if it was known to be everyone’s policy to lie about generals’ locations, your captors wouldn’t even ask. They’d just nuke the city, killing everyone. Your captors are offering you a positive-sum bargain: Normally, we would nuke your capital. But you don’t want that and we don’t want that. So let’s make a deal where you tell us where your general is and we only kill that one person. That leaves both of us better off.” If it is known to everyone that prisoners of war always lie in this situation, it would be impossible to offer the positive-sum bargain, and your enemies would resort to nuking the whole city, which is worse for both of you. So when Kant says not to act on maxims that would be self-defeating if universalized, what he means is ^Don’t do things that undermine the possibility to offer positive-sum bargains.”^