Kantian deontological ethics

AQA Philosophy
Moral Philosophy

A ‘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.

Acting in accordance with duty and acting out of duty

Acting in accordance with duty is different from acting out of duty. Kant illustrated this with the example of two shopkeepers who both lower their prices, but one out of a sense of fairness to their customers, while the other did it to get more customers. Suppose that lowering prices was their duty because of particular circumstances. The first shopkeeper lowered their prices for that reason and so acted out of duty in that their action came out of a motivation to do one’s duty. The second shopkeeper acted in accordance with duty in that their action was what duty required of them, but they had ulterior motives which meant their action did not originate from a dutiful motivation.

Hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives

The first formulation of the categorical imperative

‘Act only according to that maxim by which you could at the same time will it become a universal law’. – Kant.

This essentially means that we should only act on a principle if it is logically possible for everyone to act on it. 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, or whether a contradiction arises. There are two types of such contradictions:

Contradiction in conception: 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 involving lying cannot rationally be willed into a universal law.

Contradiction in will: our will as rational agents is to seek the achievement of ends (goals). So, it would also contradict our rational will if we will something that could be disruptive to our ability to achieve our goals. For example, the maxim to refuse help from others is logically possible for everyone to follow, no contradiction arises in the conception of everyone acting on it. However, we might need help from others in order to achieve our ends. The universalisation of that maxim therefore contradicts our will to achieve ends. We should not act on such maxims.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative

‘Always treat persons, whether others or in yourself, always as an end, never as a means’. – Kant.

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.

Kant illustrates with the example of being waited on in a restaurant. Technically you are treating the waiter as a means. However, Kant says this is acceptable according to the 2nd formulation so long as they are also treated at the same time as an end. This requires that you treat the waiter with respect. That will ensure that although using them as a means, you are still treating them as if they have their own end in choosing to be a waiter and wait on you. If you disrespect the waiter, you are treating them merely as if they are there for your end.

Clashing/competing 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.

Integration: Kantian ethics is incoherent if duties clash.

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.

Not all universalisable maxims are distinctly moral; not all non-universalisable maxims are immoral

Not all universalisable maxims are distinctly moral. 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.

Not all non-universalisable maxims are immoral. If a rich person wanted to donate a lot of money to charity, that seems to be a good thing yet not everyone can donate a lot of money to charity, so that maxim does not seem universalisible.

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. In the case of the rich person donating to charity, the maxim of their will is really something like “help others as much as you can”, which is universalisible.

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. There is no rational way to think that the number of letters in your name are relevant.

The view that consequences of actions determine their moral value 

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? We can control consequences to a degree. Shouldn’t we therefore be responsible for them to that degree?

Kant ignores the value of certain motives

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.

Morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives (Philippa Foot)

Phillipa Foot argues morality is a system of hypothetical rather than categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is dependent the ends a person chooses. If you want Y, then you should do X. A categorical imperative is our duty regardless of our personal desires, ends, situation or the consequences. You should do X.

Kant’s ethics depends on the claim that reason can discover the categorical imperative and its formulations. Kant concludes from this that it is only rational to act on maxims that you can rationally will everyone to act on. It is irrational to act on non-universalizable maxims.

Foot argues that Kant is wrong about what makes action rational. Foot argues, on the contrary, that action is only irrational when:

‘a man acts in such a way which undermines his own ends’.

It can therefore be rational for one to act in a way they do not intend others to, so long as they don’t undermine their own ends. Our own ends are those that we have chosen for ourselves, i.e., hypothetical imperatives.

The result is that there is no such thing as a categorical imperative. Instead, Foot argues that morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives. For example, ‘do not steal if you want to remain part of society’. The best we can do morally as a society is appeal to people’s ends.

Integration: therefore, Kant’s theory fails because a fundamental premise of the theory fails – that morality is based on a categorical imperative.

However, Kant could be defended. Our reason tells us that we are rational agents and other humans are rational agents too. In that regard we are all equal. If reason tells us we are all equal in that we all have reason, then how could non-universalisible maxims be made consistent with reason? The only rational way to think that I should do something that everyone cannot do is if there were something unique or superior about me. Yet, there isn’t.

It might seem rational to do whatever act enables my ends, even if it involves acting on a non-universalisible maxim. However, for doing what everyone cannot do to be rational, I would have to think there is something special about me and my ends. Yet, there is no rational basis for thinking that. So arguably Kant is right that there is this link between reason and the categorical imperative. Arguably his account of rationality is correct.