KANTIAN ETHICS

 


German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an opponent of utilitarianism.  Leading 20th century proponent of Kantianism:  Professor Elizabeth Anscombe (1920-2001).

 

 

Basic Summary:  Kant, unlike Mill, believed that certain types of actions (including murder, theft, and lying) were absolutely prohibited, even in cases where the action would bring about more happiness than the alternative.  For Kantians, there are two questions that we must ask ourselves whenever we decide to act:  (i) Can I rationally will that everyone act as I propose to act?  If the answer is no, then we must not perform the action.  (ii)  Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes?  Again, if the answer is no, then we must not perform the action.  (Kant believed that these questions were equivalent).

 

Kant’s theory is an example of a deontological moral theory–according to these theories, the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfill our duty.

 

Kant believed that there was a supreme principle of morality, and he referred to it as The Categorical Imperative.  The CI determines what our moral duties are.

 

the following is an exerpt from the notes of Professor Eric Barnes...

Morality and imperativesWhat does it mean for one's duty to be determined by the categorical imperative?

What is an imperative?  An imperative is a command.  So, "Pay your taxes!" is an imperative, as are "Stop kicking me!" and "Don't kill animals!"

Hypothetical Imperatives:  these imperatives command conditionally on your having a relevant desire.  E.g. “If you want to go to medical school, study biology in college.”  If you don’t want to go to medical school, this command doesn’t apply to you.  Another example, your father says, "if you are hungry, then go eat something!" - if you aren't hungry, then you are free to ignore the command.

Categorical Imperatives:  These command unconditionally.  E.g. “Don’t cheat on your taxes.”  Even if you want to cheat and doing so would serve your interests, you may not cheat.

 
What is the connection between morality and categorical imperatives?  Morality must be based on the categorical imperative because morality is such that you are commanded by it, and is such that you cannot opt out of it or claim that it does not apply to you.

How does the categorical imperative work?  The categorical imperative has three different formulations.  That is to say, there are three different ways of saying what it is.  Kant claims that all three do in fact say the same thing, but it is currently disputed whether this is true.  The second formulation is the easiest to understand, but the first one is most clearly a categorical imperative.  Here is the first formulation.


1) First formulation (The Formula of Universal Law):  "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law [of nature]."


a) What is a maxim?  A maxim is the rule or principle on which you act.  For example, I might make it my maxim to give at least as much to charity each year as I spend on eating out, or I might make it my maxim only to do what will benefit some member of my family.


b) Basic idea:  The command states, crudely, that you are not allowed to do anything yourself that you would not be willing to allow everyone else to do as well.  You are not allowed to make exceptions for yourself.  For example, if you expect other people to keep their promises, then you are obligated to keep your own promises.


c) More detail:  More accurately, it commands that every maxim you act on must be such that you are willing to make it the case that everyone always act on that maxim when in a similar situation.  For example, if I wanted to lie to get something I wanted, I would have to be willing to make it the case that everyone always lied to get what they wanted - but if this were to happen no one would ever believe you, so the lie would not work and you would not get what you wanted.  So, if you willed that such a maxim (of lying) should become a universal law, then you would thwart your goal - thus, it is impermissible to lie, according to the categorical imperative.  It is impermissible because the only way to lie is to make an exception for yourself.

 

Kant on Moral Worth
 

The Moral Worth of Persons:  Kant also has something to say about what makes someone a good person.  Keep in mind that Kant intends this to go along with the rest of his theory, and what one's duty is would be determined by the categorical imperative.  However, one can treat this as a separate theory to some extent, and consider that one's duty is determined by some other standard.  Keep in mind that what is said below has to do with how one evaluates people, not actions.  A person's actions are right or wrong, a person is morally worthy or lacks moral worth (i.e., is morally base).  A person's actions determine her moral worth, but there is more to this than merely seeing if the actions are right or wrong.


a) Background concepts:  This chart should help explain the basics.

           


b) The basic idea:  Kant argues that a person is good or bad depending on the motivation of their actions and not on the goodness of the consequences of those actions.  By "motivation" I mean what caused you to do the action (i.e., your reason for doing it).  Kant argues that one can have moral worth (i.e., be a good person) only if one is motivated by morality.  In other words, if a person's emotions or desires cause them to do something, then that action cannot give them moral worth.  This may sound odd, but there is good reason to agree with Kant.


c) Why motivation is what matters:  Imagine that I win the lottery and I'm wondering what to do with the money.  I look around for what would be the most fun to do with it:  buy a yacht, travel in first class around the world, get that knee operation, etc..  I decide that what would be really fun is to give the money to charity and to enjoy that special feeling you get from making people happy, so I give all my lottery money away.  According to Kant, I am not a morally worthy person because I did this, after all I just did whatever I thought would be the most fun and there is nothing admirable about such a selfish pursuit.  It was just lucky for those charities that I thought giving away money was fun.  Moral worth only comes when you do something because you know that it is your duty and you would do it regardless of whether you liked it.


d) Why consequences don't matter:  A reason why Kant is not concerned with consequences can be seen in the following example.  Imagine two people out together drinking at a bar late one night, and each of them decides to drive home very drunk.  They drive in different directions through the middle of nowhere.  One of them encounters no one on the road, and so gets home without incident regardless of totally reckless driving.  The other drunk is not so lucky and encounters someone walking at night, and kills the pedestrian with the car.  Kant would argue that based on these actions both drunks are equally bad, and the fact that one person got lucky does not make them any better than the other drunk.  After all, they both made the same choices, and nothing within either one's control had anything to do with the difference in their actions.  The same reasoning applies to people who act for the right reasons.  If both people act for the right reasons, then both are morally worthy, even if the actions of one of them happen to lead to bad consequences by bad luck.


e) The wrong interpretation:  Consider the case described above about the lottery winner giving to charity.  Imagine that he gives to a charity and he intends to save hundreds of starving children in a remote village.  The food arrives in the village but a group of rebels finds out that they have food, and they come to steal the food and end up killing all the children in the village and the adults too.  The intended consequence of feeding starving children was good, and the actual consequences were bad.  Kant is not saying that we should look at the intended consequences in order to make a moral evaluation.  Kant is claiming that regardless of intended or actual consequences, moral worth is properly assessed by looking at the motivation of the action, which may be selfish even if the intended consequences are good.


f) Kant does not forbid happiness:  A careful reader may notice that in the example above one of the selfish person's intended consequences is to make himself happy, and so it might seem to be that intended consequences do matter.  One might think Kant is claiming that if one of my intentions is to make myself happy, that my action is not worthy.  This is a mistake.  The consequence of making myself happy is a good consequence, even according to Kant.  Kant clearly thinks that people being happy is a good thing.  There is nothing wrong with doing something with an intended consequence of making yourself happy, that is not selfishness.  You can get moral worth doing things that you enjoy, but the reason you are doing them cannot be that you enjoy them, the reason must be that they are required by duty.  Also, there is a tendency to think that Kant says it is always wrong to do something that just causes your own happiness, like buying an ice cream cone.  This is not the case.  Kant thinks that you ought to do things to make yourself happy as long as you make sure that they are not immoral (i.e., contrary to duty), and that you would refrain from doing them if they were immoral.  Getting ice cream is not immoral, and so you can go ahead and do it.  Doing it will not make you a morally worthy person, but it won't make you a bad person either.  Many actions which are permissible but not required by duty are neutral in this way.


g) Summary:  According to Kant a good person is someone who always does their duty because it is their duty.  It is fine if they enjoy doing it, but it must be the case that they would do it even if they did not enjoy it.  The overall theme is that to be a good person you must be good for goodness sake.

end of excerpt... 

 

 

A Problem for Kant’s Theory

            Kant’s view is that lying is always wrong.  His argument for this is summarized by James Rachels as follows:

 

(1)  We should do only those actions that conform to rules that we could will be adopted universally.

 

(2)  If we were to lie, we would be following the rule “It is permissible to lie.”

 

(3)  This rule could not be adopted universally, because it would be self-defeating:  people would stop believing one another, and then it would do no good to lie.

 

(4)  Therefore, we should not lie.

 

            The problem with this argument is that we can lie without simply following the rule “It is permissible to lie.”  Instead, we might be following a rule that pertains only to specific circumstances, like “It is permissible to lie when doing so will save a life.”  This rule can be made a universal law without contradiction.  After all, it is not as though people would stop believing each other simply because it is known that people lie when doing so will save lives.  For one thing, that situation rarely comes up—people could still be telling the truth almost all of the time.  Even the taking of human life could be justified under certain circumstances.  Take self-defense, for example.  There appears to be nothing problematic with the rule “It is permissible to kill when doing so is the only available means of defense against an attacker”.

 

 

            It is not necessary to interpret Kant’s theory as prohibiting lying in all circumstances (as Kant did).  Maxims (and the universal laws that result from them) can be specified in a way that reflects all of the relevant features of the situation.  Consider the case of the Inquiring Murderer (as described in the text).  Suppose that you are in that situation and you lie to the murderer.  Instead of understanding the universalized maxim as “Everyone Always lies” we can understand it as “Everyone always lies in order to protect innocents from stalkers”.  This maxim seems to pass the test of the categorical imperative.  Unfortunately, complicated maxims make Kant’s theory becomes more difficult to understand and apply.

 

 

Procedure for determining whether a proposed action violates CI1:

 

 (1)  Formulate the maxim:

I am to do x in circumstances y in order to bring about z.

 

Example:

I am to lie on a loan application when I am in severe financial difficulty and there is no other way to obtain funds, in order to ease the strain on my finances.

 

(2)  Generalize the maxim into a law of nature:

Everyone always does x in circumstances y in order to bring about z.

 

Everyone always lies on a loan application when he is in severe financial difficulty and there is no other way to obtain funds, in order to ease the strain on his finances.

 

(3)  Figure out the perturbed social world (PSW), that is, what the world would be like if this law of nature were added to existing laws of nature and things had a chance to reach equilibrium.   Note: assume that after the adjustment to equilibrium the new law is common knowledge -- everyone knows that it is true, everyone knows that everyone knows, etc.

 

Two questions:

Q1:  Could I rationally act on my maxim in the PSW?

This is the “Contradiction in Conception Test”

 

Q2:  Could I rationally choose the PSW as one in which I would be a member?

This is the “Contradiction in the Will Test”

 

 

The Kantian evaluation rule is this: we must be able to answer yes to both questions for the maxim to be acceptable. If we get a no answer to either, we must reject the maxim and try to find another one on which to act.

 

 

The deceitful promise (Kant’s 2nd example)

 

This is the example we have been using in spelling out the procedure. The maxim fails because I must answer "no" to the first question: I could not rationally act on the maxim in the PSW. There are two reasons Kant states for this: (1) promising and (2) the end to be attained by it would be impossible, since no one would believe what was promised him but would laugh at all such utterances as being vain pretenses.  Lying on a loan application would not get us anywhere in a world where everyone always lied when under similar circumstances.

 

The second part of the test is the "contradiction in the will test." It catches those maxims whose existence as a universal law of nature is conceivable without contradiction, but which cannot be willed to be such without contradiction. The next example is supposed to illustrate a failure of this test.

 

 

Indifference to the needs of others (Kant’s 4th example)

 

Here the maxim is something like the following:

 

In order to advance my own interests, I will not do anything to help others in need unless I have something to gain from doing so.

 

The PSW will contain a law of nature of the form:

 

To advance his own interests, everyone always refrains from helping others in need unless he has something to gain from doing so.

 

Now Kant would say that there is no problem in conceiving such a PSW (in fact, those of a cynical bent might think that the PSW is no different from the existing world). Applying the first question of the procedure, we see that we cannot answer no to the first question: it would be rational in the PSW to follow the maxim if everyone else is doing the same, because in that world everyone is indifferent to the needs of others, so the best way for you to advance your interests is to be likewise indifferent (for you will not gain anything through reciprocity of others by departing from the maxim).

 

However, according to Kant the second part of the test fails: I could not rationally choose the PSW, because "a will which resolved itself in this way would contradict itself, inasmuch as cases might often arise in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others and in which he would deprive himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he wants for himself (423)." That is, according to Kant it is not rational to choose a world in which you would not be helped if you were in need and no one was in a position to gain by helping you.

]

 

Perfect Duties and Imperfect Duties

 

If a maxim flunks Q1 (see above) then we have a perfect duty to refrain from acting on that maxim.

 

If a maxim flunks Q2 (see above) but not Q1, then we have an imperfect duty to refrain from acting on that maxim.

 

-Our Perfect duties (duties of justice) are negative in that they require that we never perform certain types of actions, and can only be fulfilled in very specific ways.

 

-Our Imperfect duties (duties of virtue) are positive in that they require that we sometimes perform certain types of actions.

 

Illustration:  We have a perfect duty not to murder.  This means that we must never murder under any circumstances.  We have an imperfect duty to help the needy.  This means that we should do so on occasion, where this does not conflict with our perfect duties.

 

Examples:

 

Duties                                    Perfect                                               Imperfect

 

To Others                             tell truth                                               assist others in need

don’t break promises                       help others achieve goals

                                                don’t steal, murder, enslave

 

To Self                                   no suicide or             

develop talents

                                                other forms of self-destruction

 

 

According to Kant, perfect duties (duties of justice) can appropriately be enforced by means of the public, juridical use of coercion, and the remainder are imperfect duties (duties of virtue), which are fit subjects for moral assessment but not coercion.  (Recall that Jan Narveson follows this distinction in his paper “Feeding the Hungry”)

 

 

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A case study for comparing Kant’s theory with Utilitarianism

 

Martha, as a home-service medical care volunteer, has cared for George through the final weeks of his fatal illness. Just before he died, George told Martha where a large sum of money he had accumulated was stored. He asked her to see that the money was given to the Society for Protection against Alien Control of the Earth (SPACE). Since George's illness did not affect his mental capacity, she agreed. But now that he has died, she is considering using the money to support the activities of the local Hunger Task Force, an organization that provides donated food to those who need it. George has no surviving friends or relatives, and no one else knows about the money. He left no written will.

 

Kantian analysis

 

To run this case through the CI procedure, we first need to identify Martha's maxim. To do this, we look at the description of the situation and see if we can determine which sort of principle Martha would sincerely formulate as justification of her action. Recall that all maxims can be put into the form:

 

I am to do x in circumstances y in order to promote z

 

So we can determine the maxim by specifying what should go in for x, y and z. The following substitutions seem plausible:

 

x = break a deathbed promise

y = when doing so will allow me to do much more good for humanity

z = the goal of increasing human welfare

 

So the three steps of the CI procedure will look like this:

 

Formulate the maxim: I am to break a deathbed promise when doing so will allow me to do much more good for humanity, in order to promote the goal of increasing human welfare.

 

Generalize the maxim into a law of nature: Everyone always breaks deathbed promises when doing so allows him to do much more good for humanity, in order to promote the goal of increasing human welfare.

 

Figure out the PSW: In the PSW, it will be common knowledge that people break deathbed promises whenever they think they can do much more good for humanity

First question: Would it be rational to adopt and act on my maxim in the PSW? No, because in the PSW no one would ask for deathbed promises, because everyone would know that they are not genuine commitments. The maxim would not be an effective policy for promoting human welfare.

 

Since the answer to the first question is "No," Martha should not act on her maxim, since it fails the "contradiction in conception" test.

 

Utilitarian analysis

 

The steps here are as follows:

Specify the options

Specify possible consequences for each option

For each option, estimate the probability of each of its consequences

For each option, estimate the "utility" of each of its consequences

Identify the best prospect

 

It seems that the options Martha faces are these:

Keep the promise

Give the money to the Hunger Task Force

 

The following table specifies probabilities and utilities for each consequence of each option:

 

Option

Consequences

Probability

Utility (impact on human welfare)

Keep promise

SPACE gets the money and spends it on its own programs

Certainty

Low

Give money to HTF

HTF uses money to feed many hungry people

High

Very high

Action is discovered

Low

Somewhat lower than

 

 

We can use the information in this table to identify the best prospect. Since keeping the promise is certain to have only a small impact on human welfare, whereas giving the money to HTF is very likely to have a much bigger impact, with only a small chance of producing an outcome that is only somewhat worse than the certain outcome of keeping the promise, giving the money to HTF is the best prospect. Consequently it is the option that utilitarianism recommends.

]

 

Recall that there were two formulations of the Categorical Imperative:

 

Formulation I, the Formula of Universal Law [CI1]:  “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

 

Formulation II, The Formula of the End in Itself [CI2]:  “So act as to treat humanity, both in your own person, and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.”

 

So far, we have been discussing CI1.  Now, we will briefly turn our attention to CI2.

 

To use someone as a mere means is to involve them in a scheme of action to which they could not in principle consent.

 

In typical transactions (e.g. the exchange of money for goods) people use each other as means but not as mere means.  Each person assumes the other is acting out of his or her own motives and is not just a thing to be manipulated.

 

But in cases of promise breaking, deception, and coercion (to name a few) people act wrongly in using each other as mere means.  For example:  if George makes a promise to Joanne with the intention of breaking it, and Joanne accepts, then Joanne has been deceived as to George’s true maxim.  Joanne cannot in principle consent to his scheme of action since she doesn’t even know what it is.  She is being used as a mere means.  Likewise, one cannot consent to coercion because consent requires having a choice.

 

To treat someone as an end requires that one not use him or her as mere means.  Beyond that, we have a duty to promote others plans and maxims by sharing some of their ends, thus respecting others ends in the fullest way.  But people’s wants are many, diverse and often incompatible, so we cannot help everyone.

 

Thus, we have two main duties that derive from the CI2:

(1)  the perfect duty to act on no maxims that use people as mere means.

(2)  the imperfect duty to act on some maxims that foster peoples’ ends.

 

Kant believed CI1 and CI2 to be equivalent; he thought that each implied exactly the same duties.  We won’t concern ourselves with whether this is true (though it is plausible that they would have the same implications for the cases we have examined).