Kantian Ethics

Quick revise

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) presented a Deontological argument so in his theory the ACTION is what establishes the morality/duty - you establish your duty and then do it

Kant said that moral statements are not like normal statements.

  • Normal statements are either a priori analytic (they are knowable without experience and verifiable through reason) or they are a posteriori synthetic (knowable through experience and verifiable through experience).
  • For Kant, moral statements are a priori synthetic – you can know something is moral without experience, and it can be checked with experience.

Good Will and Duty

Kant believed that there was nothing that could be said to be good except a good will:

Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785)

Something is good only when someone carries out their duty to do it – so goodness is based on doing the correct thing.

The Categorical Imperative

Kant specified that moral actions are absolute actions that must be done in all circumstances - there are to be no conditions attached.

Moral actions cannot be hypothetical (based on something else - e.g. if I want X I must do Y) because they become too subjective.

If an action is to be entirely objective, it must be universal and if it is to be made properly, the human must be in total control (autonomous) and assume all others are autonomous.

Therefore Kant has three key formulations of his Categorical Imperative

  • Always perform actions that may be made rules for everyone (universalisability) (Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. [Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785])
  • Always treat people as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. (Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means. [Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785])
  • Pretend you live as a member of (and as a leader of) the Kingdom of Ends where all people live as if these rules are totally valid ([E]very rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends. [Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785])

The Summum Bonum

Kant noted that if we are to do our duty then we must be able to be rewarded for our actions.

He talked about the summum bonum - the place where our happiness and our virtue (good actions through doing our duty) come together.

This is obviously not something that can be found on earth - we see bad people living happy lives and good people living unhappy lives - therefore the summum bonum must be able to be achieved in the afterlife.

Three Postulates of Pure Practical Reason

Following on from this approach, Kant postulated three things that were necessary for his theory to work, but which rationally must exist.

  • We must be free to be able to make decisions.
  • There must be an afterlife (or immortality) for us to be able to achieve the summum bonum.
  • God must exist in order to be a fair judge to bring us to the afterlife or not.

This is why Kant is referred to in discussions about the Moral Argument for the Existence of God.

Strengths of Kantian Ethics

  • It is universal so everyone is treated equally and given equal value.
  • Human life is given particular value.
  • You have particular rules to follow - you know where you are with the theory.
  • It promotes good will, which is beneficial for society
  • There are no references to the future or to consequences, which cannot be known.

Weaknesses of Kantian Ethics

  • It does not seem to account for the complexities of life – universalisability cannot work as no two situations are the same.
  • For example, would you tell a known murderer where his victim was? (Kant says we have to.)
  • It does not account for any particular duty we may have for certain people (e.g. family).
  • It does not account for times when two absolutes clash.
  • Some would say that sometimes human life has to be sacrificed to stop others or more people being killed or suffering.