Beware The Idle Kantian
If everyone did as I think, would it be moral?
Act only on the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law
Occasionally I think, and write, about market failures and muse about Inadequate Equilibria. And in the popular discourse around it, there exists a peculiar form of argumentation that’s been bugging me for a while. This is a notion that goes something like this: we used to do X. However X is inefficient and Y produces better results for many who tried it. Therefore we should all switch to using Y. "This is a good strategy to try for some" becomes "this should be the new equilibrium."
I call this the Idle Kantian problem. Categorical imperative misapplied from thinking the question “if everyone did as I, would it be moral”, into the statement “if everyone did as I think it would be moral”.
To be an Idle Kantian is to believe that any proof that an action isn't a universal law means that its not lawful and should be toppled forthwith. It’s a worry that all acts will eventually aim to become universal, and therefore the proof that one can’t is sufficient to sink it.
So education, especially schooling, is broadly considered in the online sphere to be broken. It's been said as akin to jail, forced internment, inhumane, and worst of all, counterproductive. The alternative is the rising tide of homeschooling. Where the kids seem well adjusted, learn better and have better long term impacts.
With this as the evidence, the argument goes, we need to tear down the educational establishment since it's obviously a relic of ye olden days when we needed worker drones, and not applicable to today when we need smart, curious, intellectually rigorous folks. But this can only work if we could scale up the very artisanal way that we're praising, and that's just hard!
Media used to be the fourth estate, a clear bastion of guarding our liberal values. But as many have pointed out regularly, the articles printed are outrageously lopsided. What's far better is to build your own distribution, to reach the audience directly. When you look at the large accounts, mostly technology, you realise that they have huge followings and don't need a big media conglomerate like NYT to broadcast your words. If you're already successful this works very well, but for the rest the fourth estate is still indispensable.
Artists were used to the travails of dealing with greedy middlemen. If you were a painter you needed representatives, gallery owners, critics, journalists and many more who were engaged in guiding your path to the world. But now, they are eager to go direct, build an audience, sell directly, engage directly. Since this has become possible we can now refer to its rise as a passion economy. This would mean that the artists would have to get a whole new set of skills, and the vagaries of public opinion means that the median might well drop.
Scientists have a reasonably clear career path. A whole lot of education, followed by the treadmill of paper publishing and peer review ad infinitum until you hit the magic land of tenure. But this is broken. Instead we need to break with the old stodgy institutions and blow them up, and build new ones instead. Which contain the belief that it's only through the destruction of the old that change can occur.
As vaccinations get more complex, with boosters and more, there's a feeling that we can't control or even track who's done what. As the ease of tracking decreases, it's effectiveness as a tool decreases. And therefore, the argument goes, we shouldn't use it at all. Which ignores the reality that we keep plenty of records of the nature and track things pretty well, even if not perfectly.
When I feel like I want to invest in a risky venture, suddenly the government steps in front of me and says stop! Are you accredited? Do you know what you’re buying? Have you satisfied [suitably onerous criteria] to ensure you’re eligible for this scheme? I get angry at this, because I want to be able to spend my money any way I want. Clearly I’m able to do it. So I argue all restrictions need to be relaxed. But then I ignore that what’s perhaps okay for me isn’t okay if generalised to everyone, since if this rule changed on Day 1 they’d get scammed out of their life savings on Day 2.
Being an idle Kantian is to have an overwhelming impulse for negative universalisation.
To assume that the strategy you discovered is bad because it will not work for everyone, or good if it was applied everywhere, is to state that universalisability is the key yardstick, same as what good ol' Immanuel started with. To define the categorical imperative is to do the hard work of figuring out if your action should indeed become a universal law. To be an idle Kantian is to sidestep the hard work and affirm that of course it should be so.
That in turn is to believe that we have to replace strategies wholesale, and if something only helps for a portion or at the margins its not worth engaging in.
It's also that using universals as the yardstick for measuring actions drives you away from analysing the actual benefits or drawbacks that they confer. You miss the trees for the forest.
This notion is related to a close cousin. This is the efficient market hypothesis, where if you believe you're doing what you think everyone else is also doing, then you don't have any special insight or should expect any added rewards beyond what the market provides. While this makes the set of actions to be done circumscribed to the pointless or the crazy (or crazy insightful), that's only true of a very small subset of situations in any case.
The second is the notion of slippery slopes, where you try to figure out the benefit of your actions by think through how each action makes the subsequent action more likely, in a runaway feedback loop. But this is more a statement about our predilection for the adjacent possible, and not about whether if everyone did the same action the world would be better. It tells you the directions some strategies might snowball into, but not whether the strategies themselves have universal applicability. One’s utilitarian, and the other is deontological.
Slippery slopes take as granted the moral stature of the eventual world that the action cascade would result in. Idle Kantians argue for the morality of the world as desirable or not based on the universality of an action. Idle Kantians can even use the slippery slope argument to argue for the inevitability of the social contagion that would result in their actions becoming ubiquitous. But the different between them remains the difference between the “it will happen” and “this should happen” camps.
There are entire professions dedicated to not being Idle Kantians. Finance is one, where your entire edge often revolves in being able to do an action such that, if everyone else did it too, will be made irrelevant. Writing is another, where the novel you write or the essay you write has to be one that you wanted to write, not the one that would be best if everyone else wrote too.
Medicine today is stuck here in most ways (which is why experimentation is so discouraged). Oftentimes you want the doctors to do the thing that others would do if they were in that same position, to remove negative variability. But not always. Half the conversations still revolve around the fact that things don’t work on everyone, whether that’s vaccines or medicines, and use that as the basis for dismissing whole fields.
The solution to this Idle Kantian problem is what my friend Sam calls being a Humble Experimentalist. The Humble Experimentalist tries things out to see if they work. If they work they are tried more often, or scaled up. And eventually we may reach a new equilibrium. This new equilibrium might comprise only one strategy, or both, or several mixed in varying degrees. Much like the megafauna mix of a natural habitat, it can't be predicted easily in advance, nor are they exclusively home to only one.
The key here is the understanding that if something not being for everyone is really an indictment on it, then understanding that we need multiple approaches for everything is its counterpoint. The natural endpoint is heterogeneity.
Which means the Humble part is at least as important as the Experimentalist part. Its the understanding that new universals are not attained by proclamation, but rather by a process of accretion.
It means an acceptance that all solutions are subject to the vagaries of our circumstances, and that things work well for different reasons for different people. Bayesian updating should lead you to update away or towards solutions based on their efficacy when you see them used, but this shouldn’t be binary. It means that the task we have as critics is not to hair-trigger-pull our hunt for silver bullets, but to realise that diversity of process is a feature, not a bug.