Kantian ethics C/B grade summary notes


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Kantian ethics AO1

  • The good will is one which has the right moral motivation. We must do our duty out of a sense of duty – not because of our own personal feelings or desires.
  • Hypothetical imperative means something we should do if we want to or desire to.
  • Kant thinks morality cannot be dependent on our personal desires – so our duty must be to follow categorical imperatives – which means something we should do in all situations, regardless of how we feel/desire.. 
  • Kant thinks everyone is equal because we are all the same – we are all beings with reason who have goals. No one is special or superior to anyone else. In that case, it morality has to apply to everyone equally as well. So, something can only be morally good if it is universalizable – if everyone equally can do it.
  • The first formulation of the CA – only do an action if it is universalizable – if it is possible for everyone to do it. 
  • E.g. It’s not possible for everyone to steal, since if everyone stole there’d be no property and then no one could steal. So, stealing is always wrong. 
  • E.g. It’s not possible for everyone to lie – since if everyone lied, there’d be no honesty or trust, and then no one could lie. So, lying is always wrong.
  • The second formulation – always treat persons, never merely as a means but always at the same time as an end.
  • Always treat people as if they have their own goals in life. It’s wrong to treat people as if they only exist as a means to your ends/goals.

Clashing duties

  • Sartre gave the example of a soldier could either go to war to defend their country, or they could stay home and look after their sick parent.
  • Both actions are universalizable and neither treats people as mere means, therefore both actions are their duty according to Kant’s ethics.
  • Yet, they cannot do both – the duties clash – so they actually cannot both be a duty. So, Kant’s ethics doesn’t tell us our duty.

Defence of Kant

  • Actions like that are ‘imperfect duties’ – where there are multiple ways to fulfil them.
  • E.g. the soldier could help his country by staying home and making bombs
  • Or they could pay someone else to look after their sick parent.
  • Kant’s saying – you can find a way to fulfil both duties, so they don’t really clash.

Kant ignoring the moral value of emotions

  • Kant says an action is only morally good if done out of a sense of duty.
  • If you do an action because of your emotions, then that’s not moral goodness.
  • However – this means giving to charity because of empathy is not morally right/good. Most people would find that absurd.
  • Bernard Williams said Kant was wrong for this reason.

Defence of Kant 

  • Kant would respond that your feelings are an unreliable guide to moral goodness – so it’s better to just act based purely on reason and duty.

Optional: counter to the defence

  • We can’t act without emotion – Hume argued we are emotional beings. Freud pointed out how difficult it is to even understand how emotions affect us. 
  • Kant is too optimistic in thinking we can act without emotion.

Kant vs consequentialism 

  • The murderer at the door scenario critique of Kant 
  • If a murderer asks where their victim is, and you know, Kant says you cannot lie – but this seems counter-intutive, it seems to ignore the morally relevant disastrous consequences of lying in that situation.

Defence of Kant

  • We can’t control/predict consequences – Kant says if you lie about which direction their victim went in, but then unknown to you the victim had doubled back and gone in the direction you pointed the murderer, you would be responsible for their death. 
  • Kant is making the classic critique of consequentialist ethics which is that we cannot predict or control consequences and therefore we cannot be responsible for them, Kant concludes.

Optional further evaluation: 

  • We cannot predict/control consequences 100%. However, we can control and predict them to some degree. So, we are actually responsible for them to that degree. 
  • So, Kant is wrong to think we should only focus on the abstract action in itself, consequences also matter ethically.