Kantian Ethics


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Introduction: Kant’s attempt to base morality on reason

Kant was part of the European enlightenment movement. An important goal Kant shared with other enlightenment thinkers was to bring religion and ethics within the boundary of reason, not of faith. Religious warfare had been greatly destructive in Europe. The problem was that those of different faiths could never come to agreement. Reason is universal, however. Countries never went to war because of disagreements about whether 1+1 was equal to 2, because everyone agrees or at least can agree on questions of reason. If ethics could be based on reason, Kant conceived that a harmonious society of rationality would be established. Everyone would either agree or there would at least be the hope and possibility of coming to agreement through rational discussion.

Aquinas’ Natural law had claimed that reason can discover the natural moral law in our nature. Kant, however, thought that reason could discover a moral law in reason itself. He claims that what it means to be human is to be a ‘rational agent’, which means to have reason and be able to make choices towards ends (goals).

Reason tells us that other people are also rational agents, so in that regard we are all equal. It seems to follow from this that if I did an action that couldn’t be done by everyone, then I would have to think that I was somehow special or better than others. However, reason tells us we are all equal. So, reason tells us that we should only act on principles that can be followed by everyone.

Kant called this the categorical imperative, something we have a duty to always do (you should do X). A hypothetical imperative is a moral action that a rational will adopts for reasons other than duty (you should do X if you want Y). As rational beings we may adopt ends that are not categorical, which makes them hypothetical. However, we have a moral duty to follow the universal moral law categorically, i.e., regardless of our desires.

Kant’s universal absolutist ethics was very influential on our current theory of human rights. He even thought of the idea of the United Nations.

The first formulation of the categorical imperative

This is the first claim that we should only do something if everyone can do it. Kant says ‘Act only according to that maxim by which you could at the same time will it become a universal law’. This is the test of universalizability. The maxim of your will is the moral statement of what you want to do. The test if whether you can rationally will that everyone do what you want to do. E.g Lying – Kant thinks lying cannot be universalised because if everyone were to lie, there would be no such thing as truth anymore. However lying depends on truth, therefore by willing everyone to lie, we would be willing the undermining of the concept on which lying depends for its existence in the first place. That is inconsistent and therefore irrational and therefore a maxim advocating lying cannot be rationally willed into a universal law.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative

Kant says ‘Always treat persons, whether others or in yourself, always as an end, never as a means’. This essentially means ‘don’t use people, or abuse yourself’. Our reason makes us a rational agent and thereby no better or worse than anyone else inasmuch as they are also rational agents. Rational agents have and seek goals which Kant called ‘ends’. To treat a person as if they were a mere means to an end is irrational as it contradicts the fact that they have their own end. Your treating them as a means is dependent on your viewing yourself as a rational agent who adopts means to achieve ends, but denying that another rational agent has their own ends is to contradict the basis on which you attempted to use them in the first place; that you are a rational agent who adopts means to achieve ends. It’s like suggesting that denying the intrinsic value of another human being amounts to denying your own. Kant claimed that all rational agents are therefore ends in themselves.

The third formulation of the categorical imperative – Kant argues that if everyone followed hiss ethics we would live in harmonious society, a ‘kingdom of ends’. Kant argued we should behave as if we did.

Duty & The Good Will

For Kant, a Good will is one which has the right intention when performing moral actions. Once we have used our reason to figure out our duty, we should then just do it out of a sense of duty because it is our duty. We should leave out personal feelings/desires and just do ‘duty for duty’s sake’. For example, if it is our duty to give money to charity, we should do it because it is our duty, not because we want to or because we feel empathy. The only morally good motivation for doing an action is out of a sense of duty.

The three postulates

Kant argues that reason can figure out this basis for ethics. However, he doesn’t think that ethics makes sense without three postulates. A postulate is something you have to assume to be true in order to have a basis for reasoning about something. Kant thought that there were three postulates we have to assume to be true if ethics is to be based on reason.

  1. God.
  2. Immortality (of the soul in an afterlife).
  3. Free will. Kant thought that without free will, we could not be responsible for our actions and thus surely ethics would be pointless.

Kant pointed out that good people are not always rewarded in life, and some times bad people do seem to be rewarded. This was unjust. For ethics to work, there needs to be justice. So, Kant thought that there must be a God who lets us in to an afterlife where good people are rewarded with happiness. Kant called this the ‘summum bonum’, meaning the highest good.

The issue of clashing duties

Clashing Duties. If you had two duties which could not both be done, those duties would clash. This is a problem for Kant’s ethics because he claims that our reason can figure out what our actual objective duty is. If we cannot do an action, then it’s not our duty according to Kant who said that “ought implies can”, meaning that if something is our duty then we must be capable of doing it. If there are clashing duties, it looks like Kant’s ethics is flawed because if the duties clash and one cannot be done, then it can’t be our duty. However since that ‘duty’ was obtained by using the formula of the categorical imperative, it looks like the product of Kant’s ethical theory is not duty. Clashing duties cannot be our duty and thus if Kant’s method of universalisibility and treating people as ends produces maxims that clash, then his method doesn’t actually discover our duty. One popular example is a soldier who universalises that it is his duty to go to war and fight for his country, yet also universalises that it’s his duty to stay home and look after his sick mother. He cannot do both but both are universalizable and neither involve treating people as a mere means therefore both are his duty, and so there are clashing duties.

Kant’s response to this objection is to claim that if we think there are clashing duties, we are haven’t used our reason properly. He distinguished between perfect duties, where there is only one way of fulfilling them, and imperfect duties, where there are multiple ways of fulfilling them. We have a perfect duty to tell the truth because there is only one way we can fulfil our duty to tell the truth, and that is to avoid lying.  However, in the case of looking after a sick relative or fighting for your country, there are multiple ways in which these duties could be fulfilled. You could pay for someone else to look after your sick family member, or help the country’s war effort while remaining at home, perhaps by working in a factory, while then also being able to look after your sick family member. So it is possible to fulfil both duties because they are imperfect meaning they have multiple options for fulfilment which lets you choose the options that do not clash.

The issue that not all universalisible maxims are moral

The first formulation it seems could be abused. What if someone decided they wanted to steal, but edited their maxim from ‘I can steal’ to ‘someone with 6 letters in their name can steal’. This maxim could be universalised because if only a minority of people steal, the concept of property on which stealing depends would not be undermined by only a few people stealing.

This is a misunderstanding of Kant’s theory. What must be universalised is the maxim of your will. The will of the person who wants to steal has nothing to do with the number of letters in their name. Therefore the maxim they are attempting to put forward for universalization is not really the maxim of their will, which is simply that they want to steal.

What if someone for some reason really did think that the number of letters in their name meant that they should be allowed to steal though?

Kant could argue they are being irrational

The issue of Kant ignoring the moral value of emotions

Bernard Williams claims it is inhuman and ethically wrong to suggest that moral judgement should be free from emotion and an ethic like Kant’s which recommends it is therefore immoral. For example, giving money to charity because you feel empathy for suffering people seems like a moral act, but Kant would regard it as non-moral.

Kant would respond by arguing that something is either right or wrong regardless of how a person might feel about it. Those who think it morally good to give money to charity out of empathy are actually committing themselves to the claim that the goodness of the act consists in their feelings of empathy, at least in part. If they asked themselves why it was good to give money to suffering people, however, satisfying the empathetic feelings of the giver would generally not be considered a reason. The deservedness of the receiver of charity is not thought by anyone to depend on the presence of feelings of empathy on the part of the giver. Therefore, those who think it morally good to give to charity out of empathy should recognize, Kant would argue, that the goodness of their act does not depend on their feelings. Acting out of feelings is therefore failing to act morally.

Arguably it is actually impossible in practice to act without any influence of emotion on your moral motivation. So, Kant’s ethics may be good in abstract theory, but don’t work in practice given the kind of emotional beings that we in fact are.. This is what Hume argues.

Kant’s vs consequentialism

If a Nazi asked whether we were hiding Jews and we were, it seems Kant is committed to the view that it’s wrong to lie. That seems to go against most people’s moral intuitions because of the obvious terrible consequences to telling the truth in that situation. This puts Kant at odds with consequentialist theories like Utilitarianism.

Kant could respond that each person is ultimately responsible for what they do. As a rational agent, you are responsible for what you do, and the Nazi is responsible for what they do. Lying to prevent the Nazi from killing is to act as if you were responsible for the Nazi’s action, but you are not. You are responsible for what you do, and so you should not lie.

Kant points out that we cannot control consequences in the example of the murderer at the door. If we lied about where the victim was, yet unknown to us the victim had actually moved there, then we would be responsible for their death. So Kant is arguing that we cannot control consequences and thus cannot be responsible for them. So, they cannot be part of our moral equation.

Arguably we are responsible for what others do. Kant pictures a human being as a rational agent who is ultimately an individual, responsible only for what they do. This arguably overlooks the fact that we exist in complex webs of social influence such that part of who we are depends on our interactions with other people. We exist in deep connection to other people and thus to that extent are in fact responsible for each other’s actions.

Furthermore, just because we can’t control consequences completely, does that mean they don’t matter ethically? Also, consequentialism isn’t arguing we can completely control the consequences, just that we should consider them when acting. Furthermore, we can control consequences to a degree. Shouldn’t we therefore be responsible for them to that degree?

Hume’s meta-ethics vs Kant

was greatly disliked by Kant and motivated Kant to create his own ethical theory. Kant thinks ethics can be based on reason and that we can and should remove emotion as a motivation for moral decision making. However, Hume claims that moral judgements being motivating means they must involve desire, which is an emotion or sentiment. It’s not enough merely to reason that we should do something because why would we care that we should do what we should do unless we had a desire to do what we should do? Hume claims that we just are the sort of being which cannot help but require desire in order to be motivated to do actions, which means Kant’s ideal of the good will is an impossible ideal.

P1 – moral judgements are intrinsically motivating.
P2 – Reason is not intrinsically motivating.
C1 – Therefore, moral judgements cannot be derived from reason alone.

Rational agents can put their emotion aside. The idea that reason and emotion are in conflict goes back to Plato, who saw human reason as aimed higher than the world at intellectual abstract ideas, in conflict with the body which anchored reason in the mere physical world with animalistic feelings. Kant too clearly thinks something like this and suggests that, as rational agents, we can and should try to separate our reason from emotional influence.

However, Hume claimed that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions”. There are everyday examples which illustrate this. When someone criticises your deeply held personal belief, your mind instantly starts thinking of defences. If it cannot think of anything, it starts getting angry and projecting negative psychological motivations into the critic. This looks like your mind has pre-conceived feelings and the role of reason and rationality is merely to provide ad hoc rationalisations to serve our prejudices. Our mind is more like a lawyer than a scientist.

It is our culture which determines our emotional feelings. Kant’s views on sexual ethics are an excellent example of how his supposed reasoned moral views were really just reflections of and rationalisations for his culture’s views:

Homosexuality is an “unmentionable vice” so wrong that “there are no limitations whatsoever that can save [it] from being repudiated completely” (p. 277).

A child that comes into the world apart from marriage is born outside the law (for the law is marriage) and therefore outside the protection of the law. It has, as it were, stolen into the commonwealth (like contraband merchandise), so that the commonwealth can ignore its existence (since it rightly should not have come to exist in this way), and can therefore also ignore its annihilation (p. 336).

Regarding Kant, there is a difference between the logic of his theory which arguably leads to fairly liberal views, and his own personal views which were rigidly traditional and conservative. Some argue that this actually demonstrates a serious critique of Kant’s ethics. Kant imagined that ethics could be based on reason, yet when it came to the practical implementation of his ethics to sexual issues, he was just as much a product of his culture as the most unthinking and unreasonable person in it.

Possible exam questions for Kantian ethics

Does Kantian ethics provide a helpful method of moral decision-making?
Can judging something as right of wrong be based on the extent to which duty is best served?

‘Excluding empathy and love from moral decision making is wrong’ – Discuss.
Are categorical imperatives our duty?
“Moral action is based on whether a maxim can be estabished as a universal law” – Discuss.
Should we take a deontological and absolutist approach to ethics?

To what extent is Kantian ethics is too abstract to be applicable to practical moral decision-making?
Critically assess Kant’s view that the hypothetical imperative cannot be the imperative of morality.
Is Kant correct that consequences are irrelevant to the morality of an action?
“The three postulates must be accepted in obeying a moral command” – evaluate this view.
“Kantian ethics is overly reliant on reason” – Discuss.
“Kantian ethics unduly rejects the importance of sympathy, empathy and love in moral decision-making” – Discuss.

Quick links

Year 12 ethics topics:
Natural Law.
Situation ethics. Kantian ethics. Utilitarianism.
Euthanasia. Business ethics. 

Year 13 ethics topics:
Conscience. Sexual ethics. 

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OCR list of possible exam questions