Kantian Ethics: A Summary

Introduction and Context
Kant is considered to be one of the most important philosophers ever…EVER!  Therefore, everything he says it true.  The end.  Well, not quite.   Lets avoid appeals to authority and look at the arguments ourselves, shall we? 

As I mentioned in earlier posts the difference between the 3 main ethical theories (virtue, deontology, consequentialism) is a matter of emphasis.  While virtue ethics answers the question “what should I do” by emphasizing what a virtuous person would do (i.e., emphasizing things about the agent),  deontologists replies “you should do what ever you have a moral duty to do” (i.e., emphasizing properties of the action).  In a moment I’ll explain how we figure out what our duties are but for now, know that Kantian ethics has to do with moral duty.   This why it is often referred to as deontology (Latin deon means “which is binding” or “duty”).  

Ok, so the obvious question is “what’s my duty?”.  The short answer is that for any given situation you should figure out what principle (maxim) you are acting on and decide if you would want everyone to act on that principle.  As Kant says:

act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

So, in plain English, what does this mean?  It’s like this y’all.  Suppose you want to know if you should keep a promise.  Last week you borrowed $50.00 from a friend and you promised to pay it back this week.  Well, your favorite DJ is in town this week and tickets are $50.00.  Not only that but you’re going to need a new outfit.  Who the hell wears the same outfit two weeks in a row, right?  Am I right? And of course you’re going to need money for X.  The music is never as good when you’re sober.  

Anyway, enough about my your weekend.  What should you do about the promise you made?  Lets see what happens when we apply Kant’s rule (referred to as the categorical imperative or CI).  First, figure out what maxim (i.e., principle) you’re acting on.  Maybe something like “if your want to borrow money but know you won’t be able to pay it back, promise that you will anyway.”  If it became a universal law that everyone who made such a promise in similar circumstance broke it, then promises wouldn’t be possible.   Whenever you promised a friend that you’d pay them back, they’d know that nobody in your situation ever keeps promises, and so they’d have no reason to believe you.  By universalizing your behavior you’d eliminate the very possibility of there being promises.  In short, by universalizing your behavor a sort of logical contradiction is caused.  

Main Points
1.  The moral quality of an action is solely determined by the intentions behind it, not by its consequences.  Consequences, shmonsiquences…what I the nature of your intent?
Issue:  Is this true?  Can you think of counter-examples? 

2.  The appropriate moral action for any situation can be known by any rational agent; that is to say, reason gives us access to moral truth.  
Issue:  What is the necessary assumption about the relationship between reason and morality?  Is it true?  Can you think of counter-examples? 

3.  The only thing in the whole world that is good without qualification is a good will.  
     (a)  For example, the virtues such as courage, power, wealth, and honor may be good but they can all serve evil ends if the agent doesn’t have a good will.  A good will, on the other hand, is always good in itself, not because of any consequences that may follow from it. 
     (b)  A well-intentioned action way end up not having the intended consequence, but this doesn’t negate the fact that the will was morally good.  For example, I might give money to a homeless person with the intent of helping them.  However, they take the money, buy drugs and OD.  Assuming there was no way for me to reasonable anticipate the outcome, my act was still good because it was well-intentioned.  The unfortunate consequences are outside my control and so that they turned out bad does nothing to diminish the moral goodness of my act.  It’s not that consequences don’t matter at all, however, they don’t matter when we evaluate the moral worth of an act.  For this, we only consider the intent of the act. 
Issue:  Is the only intrinsically good thing a good will?  Can you think of counter-examples?  Is it true that we should take into account the consequences of an action in evaluating its moral worth? 

4.  The only appropriate motivation for a moral act is duty.  
     (a)  For example, suppose you want to impress someone you have a crush on.  You’re walking down the street with this person and you see an old lady who needs help crossing the street.  Even though it’s out of your way, you help the old lady.  However, the real reason you help her, (i.e., your intent) is not because you feel a sense of duty to help those who require help but because you want to impress your friend and show what a swell guy/gal you are.  For Kant, your act is not moral even though it had a good consequence.  
     (b)  The example that Kant gives is of a shopkeeper who doesn’t overcharge his customers.  However, he doesn’t overcharge because he acknowledges a duty to only charge what is fair and to not deceive people, rather he doesn’t overcharge because he knows, in the long run, it will hurt his business as people find out.  This is acting out of prudence rather than duty.  So, for Kant, the shopkeepers actions have no moral worth.  It is merely a happy coincidence that duty and enlightened self-interest align. 
     (c)  Some people are naturally disposed to helping others out of compassion.  But we cannot call actions moral that arise out of someone’s inherent disposition.  It’s just dumb luck that their particular inclinations line up with duty.  They did not exercise their will in choosing to do the right thing.  Morality demands exercising the will to act according to duty.  Their inclinations could have been otherwise.  However, someone who doesn’t feel compassion for others, yet acts out of duty to help them, is acting morally.   
     (d)  Recall in (2), that moral action is accessible to any rational agent.  So, if moral action depended on having the good fortune of being born or having the right upbringing to act morally, then moral action wouldn’t be possible for everyone.  Contrast this with Aristotle who said pretty much the opposite–people learn to be virtuous by establishing the right habits.  But if you don’t have the right dispositions or upbringing to establish those habits as a child/youth then as an adult won’t have the ability to be virtuous/moral.  It’s too late to form the right habits. 
Issue:  Does an action that arises from compassion devoid of moral worth because it wasn’t arrived at rationally?

5.  You can know whether an action is moral by identifying and evaluating the underlying principle (i.e., “maxim”) according to which it was done.  Two people can act in exactly the same way in the same situation, but only one will be acting morally.  To distinguish the two, we need to look at the maxim according to which each acted.
     (a)  For example, your girlfriend/boyfriend asks you “where were you last night?”.  You tell the truth that you were poppin’ bottles in VIP at Hakkasan with your ex.   Now, we need to ask what maxim you were acting on when you decided to tell the truth.  Suppose you accidentally posted a time-stamped instagram on facebook right around the time that you texted you bf/gf that your were at home working on your philosophy paper.   You told the truth because you were acting on the maxim “always tell the truth except if you think you can get away with it.”  However, suppose in a parallel universe, your Kantian twin tells the truth because he/she is acting on the maxim “always tell the truth *period*.”
Which one is acting morally?  According to Kant, it would be your twin.  But why?…(see: (6))

6.  The Categorical Imperative (CI) and how to distinguish between moral and non-moral maxims.  As you might have guessed, the way to figure out which maxim is the moral one (i.e., duty), you run it through the Categorical Imperative-o-Matic.  Lets look at the example in 5 (a) to figure out which of the two maxims is moral.  Remember, figuring it out isn’t a matter considering particular consequences, but of what is rational.  Basically what you need to do of each maxim is to ask whether we could wish it to be a universal law.  That is, could we wish that every person past, present, and future, would act according to that maxim.        
     (a)  Lets look at the first maxim:  “Always tell the truth unless you can get away with it.”  Now, what would happen if we universalized this maxim?  This would mean that anytime someone was in a situation where they thought they could get away with a lie, they’d tell a lie.  But if everyone did this, then lying in such a situation would be logically impossible:  if it is a universal law that people do this then anytime we ask someone to tell the truth in a situation where they could get away with a lie, we already know that they will lie!  Because we already know that in this situation people will lie (because it’s a universal law), then the lie doesn’t work.  Lying requires that people think you will tell the truth!          
     (b)  1st criteria for identifying whether a maxim can be universalized:  Because universalizing this maxim results in a logical contradiction/negates itself, reason tells us it is not part of the moral law and we should not do it.  In short, any maxim that results, through universalization in a contradiction/self-negation is evidence for the us rejecting that maxim as moral.  Maxims that are the opposite of the ones that lead to contradiction are called perfect duties.  E.g., lying leads to contradiction, therefore you have a moral duty to act on the maxim “always tell the truth.”
     (c)  Lets consider the second maxim: “Always tell the truth.”  If I universalize this law, that is, suppose that every person, past, present, and future always tells the truth then no contradiction ever results.  For this reason this second maxim is a moral law, and we are duty-bound to abide by it.
     (d)  Now, what about a situation where you have mucho dinero and you see a homeless person asks for some help.  You decide not to help them.  Lets figure out what your maxim of action is and run it through the categorical imperative to see if your action is moral.  Maxim:  “don’t help people even if you can.”  Well, if I make this a natural law, no obvious contradiction emerges.  So is it morally permissible not to help people?  Kant says it’s not just logical contradictions that tell us if a maxim is moral, it’s if we could “will that it become a universal/natural law.”  So consider that your current good fortune is a contingent matter. It could easily be otherwise and you might be in a position requiring compassion and assistance.  If this were the case, would you wish that is were a universal law that nobody helps those in need?  You couldn’t rationally wish this.  And since we need to consider universalization not from our contingent circumstances but from all possible circumstances we might be in, we could not rationally will that the maxim “don’t help people in need even though you can” be universal.
     (e)  Second criteria for deciding if we should act on a maxim : If we eliminate the contingent facts about our situation, could be rationally will our maxim into universal law?  Moral maxims discovered through this method are called imperfect duties.

7.  Categorical Imperative Vs Hypothetical Imperatives.  
     (a)  Lets start with hypothetical imperatives.  These are conditional statements of the form “if you want X then do Y.”  They usually have to do with goals or desires.  So, if I want to be wealthy, I should become a philosophy rock star.   If I want to be famous, I should get a reality TV show.  If I want to be wealthy and famous, I should be a philosophy rock star with a reality TV show (watch out Kardashians!).  What all hypothetical imperatives have in common is that they are contingent.  They are contingent on some end or goal (it could be moral or not).  If the goal or end changes, then what I should do also changes.
     (b)  Categorical Imperatives are, well, categorical.  Categorical means that it is absolute.  It does not change in relation to my goals or circumstances.  An imperative is a command.  So, a (the) categorical imperative is an absolute command that applies to all people across all circumstances.   In terms of application, whenever we find ourselves in a moral situation, whatever maxim the categorical imperative spits out is what anyone in that situation or relevantly similar situations is obligated to do; they have an moral duty to do it (or refrain from doing it).  There cannot be special exceptions.
     (c)  Kant’s classic example:  Recall the example of the $50.00 your friend lent you and you promised to pay back.  You consider acting on the maxim “keep your promises unless it’s going to inconvenience me.”  Now we have to run this through the CI and see if we can universalize it without giving rise to a contradiction/self-negation.  Ask, could I will it that it were a universal law that everyone breaks their promises when it’s inconvenient for them.  Well, if this did become a universal law, then the practice of promises would be undermined.  Consider how much stock you’d put in someone’s promise to pay you back the next time you lent them money.  The promise would be essentially meaningless because we’d know ahead of time (because it is a universal law) that people will break their promises if keeping them causes personal inconvenience.  The conclusion is that since the very practice of promise-keeping would be negated by this universalization, the maxim is not part of the moral law, and therefore, we should not act in accordance with it. 

8.  The second formulation of CI:  Kant give a second formulation of the CI, which, if you run maxims through it, should yield that same outcome as the first version:  Always act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.
     (a)  What does this mean and how does it fit with Kant’s ethics?  For Kant rationality and autonomy are closely tied.  Moral action is only possible if people have freedom of will; that is, if you automatically, without exercising any volition, always acted according to duty you could not act morally.   Moral behavior requires the exercise of choice–i.e., choosing to act according to duty. Because freedom of will is the source of moral behavior, interfering with it would prevent an agent’s ability to act morally.  Since the first formulation would prohibit us from preventing people from acting morally, it follows that infringing on people freedom is is morally prohibited.  
     (b)  We cannot interfere with rational agents (i.e., treat them as means to some end that isn’t their own) because it would prevent them from exercising their own will freely.  For this reason we cannot treat people merely as means, but must treat them as ends in themselves.
     (c)  The qualification “merely” is important.  Sometimes, my action might treat someone as a means to furthering my own ends, but this is OK so long as I do it in such a way that also treats the other as an end in themselves (autonomous agent).   That is, I must seek consent (so they can freely choose to help me further my end) and/or my action has to also further a goal of the other agent.

10.  Kant vs Aristotle:  
(a)  For Kant emotions play no relevant role in morality.  Aristotle, on the other hand, thinks that part of cultivating virtue (moral behavior) is learning to feel the appropriate emotions for a given circumstance.  There is an appropriate amount of shame, compassion, anger, sadness, etc…for any given situation.  Learning to feel these emotions in their appropriate amount is part of being moral.  It is a necessary component.  Aristotle also says the appropriate mean of emotion for a particular situation will vary from person to person based on their character and their position.  In the face of violence, we expect a soldier to feel more courage than we do for a baker.
(b)  Kant thinks moral prescriptions are universal, categorical, and exceptionless while Aristotle advocates flexibility. Aristotle says “for among statements about conduct those which are general apply more widely, but those which are particular are more true, since our conduct has to do with individual cases, and our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases.”
Issue:  Who’s right? 

Common Criticism
1.  Reason is content-free and so the theory doesn’t provide any content.  Suppose you want to know whether we should build a park or a shopping mall.  The park will have some benefits and provide disproportionate benefits to some people.  The same can be said of the mall.  Because Kant’s ethics is value-free, it doesn’t seem to offer us any way of making choices between competing values–and presumably, ethics is all about values!  

Reader Comment:
I think I would rephrase that 1st “common criticism” of CI being content free to say it probably isn’t a comprehensive decisive test for every action you could possibly do. As your “ball park v shopping mall” suggests, there are quite a lot of situations where CI doesn’t give an obvious sign that you have an obligation to commit or refrain from doing something. I think Phillipa Foot (Foot some year, some page) suggests that this limited applicability of CI means it’s a side-constraint on our actions that might well be silent on a lot of our possible actions which are then decided on say, either our inclinations or on pragmatic, consequentialist grounds. On this reading, actions done on these latter grounds are not strictly speaking moral, but are just different, and not necessarily inferior(?), kind of acts.
From Jay Carlson, famous American philosopher

2.  Does the fact that a maxim yields a logical contradiction really mean it’s immoral? Without much effort we can come up with ethical dilemma where both maxims of action don’t yield contradictions.  How do we choose between the two if we can’t appeal to consequences? 

3.  The CI seems to allow some acts that we consider to be immoral.  There no logical contradiction in willing that “always use the most efficient means of medical research, regardless of animal welfare.”

4.  Regarding promise keeping, you could have the maxim “break your promises as long as you can get away with it and no one else knows that this is your policy”.  This would not yield any logical contradiction/self-negation of promise keeping.  If everyone acted according to this maxim, this would not harm the practice of promise-keeping.

There’s a possible reply which is that I would not will that people do the same to me; that is break promises whenever they can get away with it. 

5.  It seems odd to say that a compassionate disposition has no bearing on morality.  We often conceive as the capacity for compassion as very closely tied to morality.  For Kant a key issue with compassion is not that it’s bad or anything but that it clouds the judgment of whether the agent’s actions are moral are not (i.e., from duty vs disposition).

More Issues:  
What reason do we have to suppose that reason and morality necessarily align? 
If we say they don’t, then by what method can we arrive a moral truth (objective or subjective)? 
How do we know how to ask the right questions?  At what level of particularity do we consider the situation? 
If consequences don’t matter, how do we choose between two actions which are both moral? 

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