Disputing Thrasymachus with the Categorical Imperative and the State of Nature

Should we be moral? Thrasymachus, an ancient Greek cynic, would say that we should not. He believes that morality is a tool used by the ruling power to profit from the weak. Furthermore, he believes that people should do whatever they want, whenever they want, to get what they want. This is illustrated in a quote of his, “In any and every situation, a moral person is worse off than an immoral one.” Plato took this as a challenge and tried to reveal the error in Thrasymachus’ statement. Since then many philosophers have attempted to answer this question of “Why be good?” Thrasymachus’ challenge can best be answered using a mixture of Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Thomas Hobbes’ State of Nature philosophies.

Kant’s philosophy of ethics revolves around reason and humanity. Humans should act as humans. As humans we differ from the other animals in so far as they have the capability to be rational. Humans always have the option of being rational and using reason. Because of this capacity to rationalize or actions, we can make decisions and can be judged based on them. Kant places the ethical value on human reason because it is the cause of choices and without options nothing can be judged ethically. If we lived just as animals, on instinct, our actions would be neither good nor bad.

Kant believes that humans make two kinds of actions, involuntary and voluntary acts. Involuntary acts are basically instinctual acts that we do to survive (breath, sleep, sneeze, etc.), and we cannot help but do these. Therefore these actions have nothing to do with ethics. Voluntary acts, actions that are chosen, are ethically valuable, and, therefore, the focus of Kant’s philosophy.

There exist two types of voluntary acts, the Hypothetical and the Categorical Imperatives. The Hypothetical Imperative is founded on the desires of each human, and is also very conditional just like a hypothesis with its “if/then” circumstances (if I desire to eat meat, then I will buy a hamburger). Because of this, actions under the Hypothetical Imperative are not morally valuable.

The Categorical Imperative is quite the opposite; it is the Non-hypothetical Imperative. It is based on any action that is not situational. These are the types of acts that should just simply be done. What matters when making actions is not character but the will of the individual. Humans should strive towards having a good will and being committed to doing what is right. This is illustrated by a quote of Kant’s, “Nothing can possibly be called good, without qualification, except a Good Will.” To make this clearer, Kant means that the only thing that can naturally be judged as good is the will that follows the categorical imperative, because it is the only thing that is rational that strives toward goodness.

Kant suggests that a good will is one that chooses to be moral because it is moral. One cannot be have a good will on accident. Similarly, one cannot have a bad will simply because they are inept at completing their duties (you cannot be denied a good will because you could not speak up in a crowd to say what was moral). Therefore, willing is enough. But what should the good will actually will? The good will should make maxims in accordance to the Categorical Imperative. These maxims should be general. The more general the maxim is, the better. Therefore, the best maxim will be universal. Furthermore, through reason the Categorical Imperative can be used to test maxims to see if they are contradictory. Any maxim that can be made into a universal law and does not contradict itself is a good law. Breaking a good law, by definition, must be bad. However, it is very hard if not impossible to use the Categorical Imperative to prove that a law is perfect. But in practice we can reveal immoral maxims, and this at least is a step towards goodness.

Kant has a second version of the Categorical Imperative. This version is specifically designed towards humanity. We should never treat people as a means to and end, but, instead, as the end. For Kant, humanity is equivalent to rationality. As we have seen before, humans have the capacity to reason. Kant believes that this capacity should be respected, and it is wrong to do otherwise. This doesn't mean that we can never receive help from others, just that we cannot use humans as a means for just helping ourselves.

For Kant, ethics is not an issue of caution or carefulness. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. If it is wrong we should not do it. He believes that our rationality comes from a place in our inner self, called the rational self. The rational self is the same thing as the will.

Concurrently, Kant claims that there are two wills, the Phenomenal and the Noumenal Will. The Phenomenal Will is the conscious will that appears when you make decisions. The Noumenal will is the true will itself. However, we can never know the Noumenal Will because we can never know things, as they are themselves. We can only recognize things as they happen phenomenally. At first we can never know if the Noumenal Will is rational. However, it follows logically that it must be. If it were not rational then humans would make act on instinct. If this is the case then nothing is ethical. However, we know from experience that we have a type of free will in choosing our actions. Therefore the Noumenal Will must be rational.

Another important aspect to Kant’s ethical philosophy is the belief in ultimate justice or divine justice. One needs faith in ultimate justice, the belief that one is to be judged on their moral actions some time or another (divine justice suggests that there is an afterlife where one is judged) (134). Without this faith, a person has no reason to care about the doing the right thing. There is no incentive to being good by just using Kant’s reasoning alone. As stated before, these actions need free will to be judged as moral or immoral. Without belief in immortality, ultimate justice and free will Kant’s ideas lack foundation.

This is not a problem in Thrasymachus’ case, however, because he is an ancient Greek (just like Socrates and Plato). This means that he had to believe in the Gods and an Afterlife. Because of this belief Thrasymachus cannot except to evade judgment forever. This is not practical. Furthermore, it is obvious that Thrasymachus believes in the idea of Free Will because it is necessary to even talk about mortality. Without Free Will we would not have the option to make decisions and could not act with reason. Thrasymachus obviously values reason and argues that a system of morality exists and cannot, therefore, reject the notion of Free Will.

Kant can argue that Thrasymachus is wrong in multiple ways. Thrasymachus stated, “In any and every situation, a moral person is worse off than an immoral one.” However, Kant has found one situation in which it would not be beneficial to be immoral, the Afterlife where divine judgment will be handed out. Furthermore, Thrasymachus’ statement can be rephrased as, “A person is better off always being immoral than moral.” This could be tested by the Categorical Imperative using Kant’s statement “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” By definition if everyone were to live an immoral life all of the time, then nobody would ever act morally. If this were the case no one would ever trust or care for one another. This does not appear to be beneficial for the individual. If this quote were to be tested as a universal law it would turn out to be false.

What if Thrasymachus does not care for the trust from others? He is saying that each individual is better of being immoral which suggests that they are probably on his or her own. This is where Hobbes’ State of Nature philosophy comes in.

Hobbes proposes that before we agree to a social life, we live in a constant state of nature, where life is nasty, short, and animal like. No one can trust anyone else. Everyone is fighting for himself or herself, each surviving the best way they can. This sounds like a state that Thrasymachus can understand. However, Hobbes argues that this is no way to live. So how do we make our selves safer? We make agreements with other human beings to watch each other’s back, and in return we lose some freedom. By doing so we have an increased chance of survival and gain people that we can trust.

Thrasymachus might argue that Hobbes is wrong to assume this State of Nature is a worse state than any form of government. But how can this be true? First of all, we see no real practical application of someone in the real world trying to live in a State of Nature. Secondly, if the chance of survival increases because you join forces with others, it appears obvious that this is clearly better than living on your own. For example, if everyone lived on their own and had to find their own food, almost no one would be farmers because it takes to long to grow the food that you desire, and so will have to be scavengers. However, if people come together to form a group, then some people could harvest crops while others gathered food for the group. In this situation forming bonds in a group gets you what you desire which you cannot achieve otherwise.

Thrasymachus would say that in this situation, you may want to just steal what the group has, in turn, making you better off than the rest of the group. Kant would then argue that this is not possible because the Categorical Imperative reveals that humans cannot live that way. If everyone were to live by the notion of theft no one would trust anyone. This would just take Thrasymachus back to the State of Nature.

Thrasymachus might then attack the Categorical Imperative, claiming that it just conforms to traditional beliefs. He may say that it is these beliefs are essentially the ideals of what the supreme want individuals to believe justice and morality is. This would be an attack at the heart of Kant’s ideas, assuming that Kant foolishly developed a philosophy that empowers a false premise (i.e. that morality is good). However, this doesn't seem to be right. For the most part, people do not want everyone else to lie, cheat steal, kill, etc. chaotically. This would be a return to the State of Nature, which doesn't look pleasant at all. Kant admits that nobody is perfect; everyone has character flaws. Thrasymachus might ask about situations where we think of stealing as a good thing. For example, the only way to save the world is to steal a nuclear device from the enemies of the Earth. Here we would imagine stealing to be beneficial for everyone because it allows us to survive. Is it really bad to steal?

Kant might reply in the following manner. He could say that yes it is bad to steal at all times because of the issue of trust.  Furthermore, because the Categorical Imperative cannot reveal that not saving all of humanity is a flawed maxim that we cannot know whether it would be bad to act in any manner. Therefore, because stealing is bad and because it is not wrong to not stop our planets demise, we should let the world blow up.

However, in this situation someone will probably steal, out of fear or ignorance. Kant admits that human beings are not always perfect and do immoral things sometimes. And, it most likely the case in this situation someone could misinterpret the Categorical Imperative to mean never let people kill other people, never allow someone to harm others etc. Furthermore, because this situation does not happen all of the time it could be that out of fear of dying someone steals the device. Kant would not say that this person is a failure or an immoral person, just that they acted immoral, like humans sometimes do, but that the should strive to not act in this manner and follow what is right.

Lastly, there is the case of ultimate judgment. The answer to this challenge doesn't only address Thrasymachus; it is applicable to everyone. What if someone were to deny ultimate judgment? Hobbes might answer that ultimate judgment really doesn't matter. If one acts immorally they will threaten a return to the State of Nature. This alone will rear less beneficial situations for humanity. Even more so for the individual, because we live in a preexisting society, people will know if you act immorally all of the time. This is sure to bring about punishment in real life or at least no one will want to associate with you causing you alone to be in the State of Nature against everyone else.

The combination of the reason based Categorical Imperative and the State of Nature appears to reveal to Thrasymachus why humanity and even the individual benefits from being good. Through reason and the Categorical Imperative we can determine what is immoral and what we should not do. If one challenges the rationality of the conclusion if the Categorical Imperative we can see that it puts the person in a State of Nature, where the human has a harder time getting what they desire. Thus, people are not better off always being immoral; they do benefit from morality.