Friday, 24 October 2014

Morality 5 - Kantian Ethics

Higher RMPS Podcast
Kantian Ethics

This is available as an MP3 or to download as a podcast through iTunes
for Desktop and Apple devices, as well as PodcastHD for Android Devices. 

We have looked at one way of making moral choices that considers the consequences.  The more people that are happy the more right the act.  However, surely we can’t decide everything based on how many people are made happy?  “Hands up who wants homework” bellowed the teacher.  How many people would put their hands up?  Is it really in your best interest to do no homework?  There therefore has to be a competing theory.  Luckily for you there is, Kantian Ethics. 

Immanuel Kant was an 18th century philosopher.  Kant lived at a time when the poor and the weak were taken advantage of.  He had a simple idea…everyone should do the right thing and take care of each other.

Kantian Ethics is a non-consequential theory.  Unlike Utilitarianism the consequences of the act do not and should not matter.  Instead Kantian Ethics focuses on the act itself and your motivations for doing it.  Think about it, if you’re punched in the face and just by chance the doctors find a pre-cancerous tumour.  The person who punched you, under Utilitarianism, has to be praised as he’s maximised happiness.  Kantian Ethics allows us to say that the reasons why he punched you and the punch itself can be wrong regardless the consequences.  The ends, in Kantian Ethics, never justify the means.

Kant believed that the right thing to do was to act out of good-will, both goodness and the will to help other people.  He proposed that we need to use reason to figure out what to do.  Reason, remember, is the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically.  Kant believed that you don’t need to experience evil to know that it is wrong, you should be able to think it through and know it’s the wrong thing to do.

Kant purposed an ethical system based on reason.  You would be able to work out rules that you and others could follow that would always be the right thing to do.  The first step was to consider a maxim.  A maxim is a moral law, or rule.  How would you want the world to be?  Kant wanted a world where people would respect and care for each other; “never kill another human being” would be a maxim that would help create such a world.  However, Kant knew that there had to be a test to see if the maxim would fit his good-will approach.  “Always lie if you’re caught cheating” is a maxim, but is it acting out of good-will?

Kant’s test was the Categorical Imperative.  Categorical means ‘in every way’ and Imperative means “you must do it”, therefore if a maxim passes the Categorical Imperative then it is a moral law that must be followed in every way and every situation.  In Kantian Ethics you use your ability to reason, to think, and test your maxim with the Categorical Imperative to see if you should do it.

The first test of the Categorical Imperative is Universalisability.  Big word with a pretty simple meaning.  Universal means everywhere.  The first test is to consider if your maxim could be done by everyone, everywhere.  You’re looking to see if there are any reason why it couldn’t.  “Always give money to the poor” – could this be universalised?  Could everyone do this?  Well…no, what if you don’t have any money?  A maxim that passes the categorical imperative is good, meaning if you don’t do it you’re acting wrongly.  We would be saying people are wrong simply because they’re themselves poor.  What about our previous maximnever kill a human being”?  Could this be universalised?  Is it possible that everyone could follow this law?  I know what you’re thinking “what about self-defence?”…good point.  Remember though that everyone would follow this law, so the person wouldn’t be trying to kill you meaning you wouldn’t need to kill them.  So, in theory, the maxim “never kill a human being” could be universalised. 

The second test is the respect of persons test.  Kant said that no one should ever be used as a means to an end, but an end in themselves.  What this means is that your maxim should never use someone for it to be enacted.  Instead, your maxims should always be focused on helping people, not using people.  Respect of the person means to not use people as a means to an end.  Consider the maximget the students to pass Higher RMPS so the school results will improve”; through the maxim we would be using you for the schools ends.  If this was a Categorical Imperative then we would have to follow it.  Kant would never wish this as, just like the time he lived in, people would be exploited for the benefit of others.  Instead, what if the maxim was “get the students to pass Higher RMPS so they get a good result” then the focus of this law is you, and no one is being used.

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