Kantian Ethics

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The Good Will and Duty

In the search for intrinsic ‘good’, Kant did not believe that any outcome was inherently good.  Pleasure or happiness could result out of the most evil acts.  He also did not believe in ‘good’ character traits, as ingenuity, intelligence, courage etc. could all be used for evil.  In fact, he used the term good to describe the ‘good will’, by which he meant the resolve to act purely in accordance with one’s duty.  He believed that, using reason, an individual could work out what one’s duty was.

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Free Will, God and Immortality

If our actions are pre-determined and we merely bounce around like snooker-balls, we cannot be described as free and morality doesn’t apply to us.   Kant could not prove that we are free – rather, he presumed that we could act morally, and for this to be the case we must be free.  He also thought that it followed that there must be a God and life after death, otherwise morality would make no sense.

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Synthetic A Priori

We do not follow predetermined laws.  However, we must act according to some laws, otherwise our actions are random and without purpose.  As a result, rational beings must determine for themselves a set of laws by which they will act. 

These laws are not analytic (true by virtue of their meaning), but they cannot be determined through experience (a posteriori).   Hume pointed this out when he said that you couldn’t move from an is (a synthetic statement about the world) to an ought (a statement about the way the world should be). The rational being has to determine the synthetic a priori – the substantive rules that can be applied prior to experience.

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The Categorical Imperative – Universalisability

An imperative is a statement of what should be done.  We have said before that Hume realised you can’t get a should statement out of an is statement.  In other words, experience can only give us hypothetical imperatives (If you want to be healthy, then you should exercise and watch what you eat).  A description of the way the world is cannot tell us the way we should act.

A Categorical Imperative is a should statement, but it is not based on experience, and doesn’t rely on a particular outcome.  Rather, it logically precedes experience, or helps us make sense of experience.   In another area of thinking, Kant showed that we must presume that time moves forwards – our mind imposes this on our experiences to make sense of them.  We therefore could never demonstrate or prove this through experience. 

It is like that with the categorical imperative: certain actions are logically inconsistent and would make no sense as universal laws, such as lying.  As a result, ‘Do not lie’ is a categorical imperative.   This understanding that our mind plays an active role in ordering and shaping our experience was revolutionary, and is Kant’s greatest achievement.

Kant states the categorical imperative as follows: I ought never to act except in such a way  that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.

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The Categorical Imperative – Law of Nature

Kant also states the categorical imperative as follows:

Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.

It is difficult to see how these two statements are different, and many texts treat them as though they say the same thing. However, I think they give a real insight into how Kant perceived the Categorical Imperative. Have a look at how the categorical imperative can be applied to euthanasia.

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The Categorical Imperative – Ends and means

A good will is one that acts in accordance with rationally-determined duty.  No character trait or consequence is good in itself.  However, as good is defined in terms of rationality, Kant argued that all rational beings were ends in themselves and should never be treated purely as a means to an end.  He put this two different ways:

So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end in itself, never as means only. So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.

These latter statements of the Categorical Imperative are really an extension of the statements regarding universalisability – we hold laws if we would will that all other rational beings would also follow them.  As a result, it would be contradictory for any rule to treat a rational being as a means to some greater end: there can be no greater end.  Put another way, I cannot prescribe a rule that, if held by someone else, would result in my being treated merely as a means to end.

The categorical Imperative, stated four different ways above, could be seen as a rational justification for following the golden rule that is the cornerstone of Christian morals (as well as most other religions): Love your neighbour as yourself.

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  • Kant's morality is very straightforward and based on reason, making it accessible to everyone
  • Duty is part of human experience
  • Morality doesn't depend on motives, consequences or religious laws
  • Categorical imperative gives us rules that apply to everyone and command us to respect human life
  • It makes clear that morality is doing one's duty and not just following feelings. We cannot assume what is good for us is good for everyone else- Kant's equivalent of the Golden Rule
  • It aims to treat everyone fairly and justly so corrects utilitarian idea that some can suffer as long as others are happy
  • Kant sees humans as being of intrinsic worth as they are the rational high point of creation. This means they cannot be enslaved or exploited (Basis of the Declaration of Human Rights)
  • Equal treatment of individuals gets rid of bias which sometimes influences decision-making
  • Categorical imperative tells us exactly what is right and wrong, giving us a clear sense of moral guidelines
  • Kant draws a clear distinction between duty and preference
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Advantages continued.....

  • Moral value of an action comes from it's intrinsic rightness so issues of teleological ethics are avoided
  • People generally do have the same ideas about morality
  • Ethical practice should be based on reason not subjective emotion
  • Most people recognise the idea of duty, it is part of what it means to be human
  • There is a difference between duty and inclination
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  • Kant's theory is abstract and not always easily appliable- it tells you what type of actions are good but not the right thing to do in particular situations
  • Alasdair MacIntyre says universability principle can be used to justify practically anything
  • Kant seems confused about whether his ethics are deontological or teleological. The basic idea is deontological but there is a future goal of the kingdom of ends
  • Some philosophers believe that Kants being in favour of freeedom and saying that moral agents must obey the principles given in the Categorical imperative contradict eachother. I am free as long as I obey these laws?
  • People rarely act purely out of duty as they always have some expectation of what they'll get in return
  • Some philosophers think putting duty above feeling is cold and inhuman- there is no place for love and personal relations in Kant's theory
  • Kant's view depends on some idea of God to explain the rationally ordered world, meaning atheists cannot accept this theory
  • Kant tells us in general terms to respect others and not treat them as a means to an end, but doesn't tell us what to do in individual cases
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Disadvantages continued.....

  • Philippa Foot, among others, have criticised Kant's theory doesn't help the situation of the double effect.
  • There are no exceptions in using people as means to ends which severely restricts our behaviour
  • Kant never addresses what a 'person' is (issues with abortion, euthanasia etc)
  • In some circumstances duties conflict. W D Ross claimed we should take duties Prima Facie (first sight) so follow it unless a conflicting duty appears to make a greater claim
  • Universalisable maxims are tricky when applied to moral dilemas
  • People are different and don't necessarily have the same sense of 'good will'
  • Not everyone is capable of making rational moral decisions
  • Every action we take involves love and compassion because we are human beings
  • It is human nature to consider the consequences before acting
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Overall, I think Kantian ethics has more weaknesses than it does strengths. Though treating humans as ends is a positive idea  and encourages the abolision of slavery, in some circumstances humans have to be treated as means to an end for the majority to benefit. For example in embryo research (though it is debatable whether Kant would deem that wrong as he never clarified what a 'human' is) Some may argue that this idea is strong because it is the basis for the united declaration of human rights, however others claim that these general terms only tell us what to do for the majority and do not tell us what do do in individual cases. Moreover, despite attempting to make his theory accessible to everyone by making it based on reason, it can be aruged that not everyone is capable of making rational moral decisions. Futhermore Kant makes his theory less accessible as depends upon the idea of God to explain rationality in the ordered world so atheists cannot accept his theory. This 'accessability' also relies upon the idea that people generally have the same ideas about morality however people are different and don't always necessarily have the same ideas and sense of 'good will'. Overall, this means Kant's theory isn't universal and can't work for everyone. Another reason Kant's theory is flawed is because it partly goes against human nature; it is human nature to consider the consequences before acting and some philosophers argue that it is natural to act out of emotion viewed as cold when you don't. Every action we take invloves love and compassion because we are human beings. Futhermore people rarely act out of duty without thinking about what they will get in return. Duty is part of human experience however if our decision-making is affected by thinking about what we'll get as a result of doing our duty, then the decision will not be moral. Finally, Kant's theory contradicts itself in that he is in favour of freedom yet says you have to obey the principles of the categorical imperative: you are free as long as you obey these laws? For these reasons I think that Kant's theory, though a positive idea and a valid basis for un-biased decisions, isn't practical to be used by the human race.

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