Thursday, 28 March 2013

Kantian Ethics - Higher Philosophy

Kantian Ethics
Higher Philosophy: Moral Philosophy

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Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (22 April, 1724 – 12 February, 1804) was born, and grew up, in a fractious and hostile Europe.  During his lifetime the Holy Roman Empire collapsed; the people of France rose up against the French Monarchy and aristocracy; those who considered themselves enlightenment asserted themselves over the populous becoming the same elitist rulers that those before them had fought and reasoned with.  Kant saw an awful spectacle of human depravity and knew that it was simply wrong; that one did not need to experience evil to know it.  Scottish philosopher David Hume (7 May, 1711 – 25 August, 1776) wrote of causality and how we, at times, assume Y follows X because we place unquestioning trust in science.  Kant, on reading Hume’s work, declared “I have been awakened from my dogmatic slumber” and set out to develop a new approach to knowledge, reason, and morality, in two of the most important philosophical writings: A Critique of Pure Reason and Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.


Deontology is derived from the Greek word ‘Deon’, meaning duty or obligation, and the suffix -ology, meaning the study of.  Kantian ethics is a deontological branch of ethics.  It is within the Normative Ethics family meaning its purpose is to formulate moral laws to determine what is right and wrong.  Deontology is a non-consequentialist theory where morality is determined by the action, intention, thought, and motivation, with no regard for the consequences.  Consequences, to an extent, cannot be predicted; therefore we should focus on what precedes the consequences when determining right and wrong.  Consider this:

You are punched in the face.  You fall and hit your head.  The paramedics take you to A&E where your skull is x-rayed to determine any damage.  The radiologist notices an ominous shadow on your x-ray and recommends an MRI to further investigate.  To your shock, and amazement, the doctors notice cancerous cells in the early stages of forming a brain tumour.  The, now in police custody, thug who accosted you has saved your life!  Consequentialism demands we release the man and throw him a party for saving your life.  

Regardless of the consequences the man has still punched you in the face with enough effort and force to warrant a trip to A&E.  Deontology allows us to determine morality independent of the consequences.  The action itself, your state of mind, your reasons for acting, your reasons for not acting, are paramount when deciding if the action is right or wrong. 

Duty vs. Inclination

If deontology is the study of duty then Kant had to first explain what he meant by it.  For Kant duty is what one ought to do; simply, it’s what you should do in any given situation.  On the surface this can leave us still confused.  Kant is trying to write a philosophy that is accessible to all.  At this point he is simply building up the story.  Kant is saying that right, as in morally right, is what we should do.  This means then that we have direct control and choice over morality.  He compares this to inclination.  Imagine you’re walking through a door whilst talking to friends, you hold the door as you walk through it and at the same time someone enters behind you saying “Thanks!”.  The person has assumed that you held the door open where in actuality your mind was elsewhere.  Why should your action be praiseworthy if you didn't mean it?  Inclination, for Kant, does not deserve or require any recognition.  Sure the person was happy the door was held open but this is a consequence which, for Kant, has absolutely no bearing on whether the action is right or wrong.


Kant developed and built on his concept of duty.  It is our duty to act out of good-will, and it is good-will acting out of duty…if that makes sense.  Being a maths genius is good; being strong is good; having a maniacal laugh is good (sort of); however, without the will to do good these character traits can very easily be transformed in to the evil-super-genius bent on killing all mankind.

Sovereignty of Reason

Having the will to do good sits okay in our heads.  We can imagine a world where people want to do good deeds.  However, what do we mean by good?  These, arguably, are metaphysical and meta-ethical questions; before we can establish how we should act we must first determine what we mean by this word good.  This is the end product of Kantian Ethics – to determine what good actually is.  Kant first established that good cannot be determined by the senses or by our experiences as good then becomes a relative term that varies from person to person, and place to place.  Morality is to be reasoned.  Kant established that right and wrong cannot be a posteriori knowledge, contingent on any number of variables; instead morality is a priori, knowledge that is necessary and independent from the world.  Kant believed there were moral absolutes that we, like Leibniz’s block of marble, can discover through reason.

Kant’s World

Kant wrote of the Summum Bonum, the ultimate good.  This is a place where happiness and virtue (ultimate moral good) co-exists.  This is the world in which Kant wanted to shape.  Kant would, later, refer to us as Moral Agents, where we are each responsible for our own morality.  We would make decisions ourselves without relying on others or using anyone to accomplish our goals.  A Kingdom of Ends was a thought experiment where Kant spoke of a world in which all human beings are treated as ends in themselves, rather than being used as a means to the end.  We need to look back at Kant’s background as well as 18th Century Europe to get an understanding of how Kant arrived at this point.  The poor, across Europe, were being used and exploited by the powerful and the rich to benefit only those in power.  Kant’s strong Christian background compelled him to act and design a world where such things weren't even considered.

Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his
maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.

(Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 1785)


Kant has now laid the groundwork for his philosophy; he now sets out to explain how we decide what is right and wrong.  Maxims, in Kantian Ethics, are Moral Laws.  These are the rules that Kant aims to formulate into a moral code that, when used, brings about the perfect world he describes.  However, this is not the goal in Kantian Ethics.  Remember, at every step, that this is a deontological theory that compels us to disregard the consequences.  Every day we have these “should I…?” questions popping into our heads.  How, then, do we decide what is right to do.  These “should I…?” questions, if shown to be morally right, become “You should…” maxims.

Hypothetical Imperative

Kant is trying to establish moral laws.  However, there are obvious some “should I?” questions that aren't moral questions: “Should I study for the exam?”, “should I do my homework?”, “should I go out with my friends?”.  These statements are conditional, if you do x then y will happen.  If you want to pass the exam (y) then you need to study (x); if you don’t want your teacher to moan at you (y) then you should do your homework (x); if you want to have fun (y).  These are Hypothetical Imperatives; principles that are only essential if you want to achieve a specific goal.  We can of course use moral laws in this formulation as well; however, we are still pressed by the problem of consequences in that it is only right because the conditions allow it to be.  Hypothetical Imperatives are therefore contingent and thus a posteriori.

The Categorical Imperative

Moral questions in the Hypothetical Imperative are conditional; however, since morality is a priori, and thus reasoned, there must be other imperatives that are necessarily good regardless of the conditions.  Kant expressed these as Categorical Imperatives.  If we consider what is being said in this term the language suggests that the product of this must be followed in every situation.  They should be followed, through duty and good-will, not because of conditions but because it is the right thing to do.  The Categorical Imperative is the pinnacle of Kant’s moral philosophy.  In this he outlines and explains how we ought to make moral decisions.  There are two ways this can be expressed:  Universality and Means to an End.


The first test of a maxim is to consider if the maxim can be Universalised.  A moral law cannot be conditional on conditions or persons; it has be something that is a necessary truth. 

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same
time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.

(Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 1785)

This is Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imperative.  If we consider the maxim “to get money I will lie” it initially appears to be a Hypothetical Imperative.  Until it has been tested by the Categorical Imperative it is.  We first create a thought-experiment where everyone in the world follows our maxim.  If the maxim can be universalised then it has passed the first formulation and can then be tested against the second.  However, there are two ways in which a maxim cannot be universalised: Contradiction of Conception and Contradiction of Will.

Contradiction of Conception

In our thought experiment every person in the world is lying in order to get money.  However, there is a contradiction in conceiving this.  If everyone in the world lies to get money then no one, ever, would actually get money as we would assume everyone is lying when it comes to finances.  Moreover, a lie is the opposite of the truth – however, if everyone lies then the term lie is lost as it has nothing to be the opposite of.  This is a logical contradiction of what is actually being thought.  Kant’s own example is the maxim “never pay back money you borrow”; this maxim also is a Contradiction of Conception as no one would logically lend money as they already know the person won’t pay it back.

Perfect Duty

If this maxim has failed universalization because of a contradiction it then follows that the opposite must in fact successfully pass universalization.  “Do not lie” has no logical contradiction and is therefore a Perfect Duty, something you should do, without exception.  Perfect duties include maxims such as: do not lie, do not steal, do not murder.  Failing to carry out these duties is morally wrong – lying, stealing, and murder are morally wrong.

Contradiction of Will

The second reason a maxim may not be universalised is the Contradiction of Will.  Consider the maxim “to be a happy person you can’t help anyone else”.  We will create a thought-experiment wherein we live in a world where everyone, seeking happiness, never helped anyone else.  I'm there, happy, or trying to be, but not helping anyone else in the world; and them, also trying to be happy, not helping me or each other.  There is no apparent logical contradiction in this.  We can think of a world, considering the pace and level modern society is developing, where this could be the reality in which we live.  It is a contradiction, however, as no rational being would want to live in such a world.  In such a world no one would come to my aid if I needed help.  Why would I want to live in a world like that?  If I want to live by duty and good-will I must also concede that from time-to-time I will need the help of others to achieve this.  This shows that such a world would never be willed by any rational being.

Imperfect Duty

As with the Perfect Duty it follows that if the maxim has failed universalization due to a contradiction then the opposite should pass.  “Don’t help anyone else” becomes “help those in need”.  There is no apparent logical Contradiction of Conception, moreover we can this is something that we know can be willed.  However, we also know that a maxim like “help those in need” might contradict a Perfect Duty.  These duties does now allow for any exceptions.  What if to help someone in need you have to lie?  You then have a conflict in these duties.  Perfect Duties should never be broken; therefore, Imperfect Duties allows exceptions, you do not need to follow them all of the time.  Failing to perform an Imperfect Duty is not morally wrong; however, if you do perform an Imperfect Duty it is morally praiseworthy.  Imperfect Duties include maxims such as: Help others when you can, develop your natural talents, develop your moral perfection.

Means to an End

The second formulation of the Categorical Imperative ensures the maxim does not use any living person as a means to an end.  Kant lived in a world where widespread abuses were common.  The poor toiled in squalor when the rich lived in luxury, quite often using the poor to further and support their lifestyle.  Kant put forward that when decide how to act in any situation we should never use person X to achieve our goal but instead make sure the goal of what we are doing is to help person X.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your 
own person or in the person of any other, never merely as 
a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

(Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 1785)

The End Product

At the end of our flow chart we have formulated rules of conduct, maxims, that are based not only on reason but are universalizable, to benefit all; no one is used as a means to an end to accomplish our outcomes, and the world, Kant hoped, would be a better place for all to live in.

1 comment:

  1. Incredibly useful, thank you so much!