Dr. Ari Santas’ Notes on Kant’s Ethics I. Exposition



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Dr. Ari Santas’ Notes on

Kant’s Ethics

I. Exposition

A. Deontological Point of View

  • ever since ethics became a part of philosophy, there have been attempts to create a normative theory of right conduct

  • the main task of such a theory has been to find and prove a fundamental principle on which all rules and courses of action could be based

    • such a principle is supposed to state what it is that people should be trying to do, based on a theory of what rightness and wrongness consist in

  • corresponding to different points of view and emphasis, there have been different theories of right conduct

  • Deontology is one such theory, so named because of its emphasis on duty (deonto = duty; logy= theory of)

    • we find seeds of this thinking in Socrates (470-399BC) but the theory is not fully developed until Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

  • this theory, as we shall see, basically claims that there are certain fundamental duties that we must always follow, regardless of the particular outcome

    • e.g., keeping promises, paying debts, respecting others' rights

  • and in the absence of a call to duty, individuals can behave as they desire



B. The Concept of Duty

  • early on, Socrates noted that making rules subject to individual discretion (like in Subjectivism and Policy Egoism) is tantamount to making them meaningless

    • part of what it means to be a rule is that people will follow it, even if they are inclined not to

    • that is, our imperatives, if they are to be true imperatives, must be categorical (i.e., without qualification)

  • focusing on this, Kant erected a theory designed to capture the categorical nature of morality, yet at the same time, not burden us with so many duties that all freedom would disappear

  • unlike many of his predecessors, Kant contended that it is not achieving what you desire that makes something right

    • there must be a rational standard that goes beyond individual or even collective desires

  • following our duty, then, is main driving force in Kant's ethics, but it is not enough to simply abide by duty, we must do it for the right reason



C. Motives and the Good Will

  • rational action is the ultimate goal for Kant, both because this gives humans autonomy, and because it makes them do what's right

  • there is a fundamental connection between goodness, rightness, and rationality, according to this view

    • right conduct is rational conduct, and rational conduct is motivated from good motives

  • so if we do what's right, and do so for the right reason (from the motive of good will), then we are being moral

  • actions that comply with duty but do so for the wrong reasons are not morally praiseworthy

  • Kant's promise example

  • this can be summarized in three propositions:

1) an action has moral worth if it is done from duty

2) this worth comes not from purpose, but the good will of the agent



3) having good will means acting out of respect for the moral law

D. The Categorical Imperative: 1st Formulation

  • the question, of course, is how one knows whether their willing has been good, whether we've been rational, and not just rationalized our decision

  • Kant's answer is that rationality consists in universality and consistency

  • it is embodied in his preliminary statement of his ultimate principle of morality, the Categorical Imperative:

Always act so that the motive behind your action could be turned into a universally binding law, without inconsistency

  • in other words, consider your reason for acting this way as opposed to some other, and ask yourself:

    • "Could I will that everyone else did the same in these circumstances?" if not, then my action has no moral worth, it should therefore not be done

  • this imperative to universality and consistency is Kant's answer to the question of how one may know whether their actions follow a rational standard for right conduct



E. The Categorical Imperative: 2nd Formulation

  • at the same time, Kant wants to protect individuals

  • the main goal of his ethics is to insure that human dignity is preserved at all times

  • ingeniously, he argues that the rationality found in right conduct is the same thing that gives us our dignity

    • the reason, says Kant, that humans have a dignity which deserves protection and respect is that, unlike inanimate objects and lower forms of life, humans possess the capacity to direct rationally our conduct-- we have rational autonomy

    • ordinary things have only one type of value: price, which is merely instrumental and replaceable

    • by contrast, humans have intrinsic value: dignity, which makes us inexpendable

  • accordingly, Kant offers another statement of his principle:

Always act so that you treat humanity as an end-in-itself and never as a mere means to an end

  • in other words, respect the rational autonomy in each person


II Interpretation

A. Comparison to Plato’s Crito
Kant’s discussion of duty is reminiscent of one of Socrates’ speech in Plato’s Crito.

  • In an imaginary dialogue with the Laws, the Laws ask Socrates why he is trying to destroy them

  • This similar to Kant’s comment that there’s something about duty that is categorical


B. Contrast to Aristotle’s Ethics


  • Kant claims that actions do not have moral worth, even if they have moral results, unless they are done from duty

  • If one does duty because of a “warm fuzzy” one gets from doing so, the act is not worthy of moral praise

  • Aristotle, on the other hand, claims that unless someone follows moral duty with pleasure, it not a truly moral act—this is exactly the opposite view from Kant!


III Criticism
Beyond the obvious criticism Aristotle would have, there are three major criticisms of deontology:


  • first, when it is said that duty is necessarily categorical, that one cannot allow exceptions, we find the possibility open for disastrous consequences of following a perfectly good rule

    • truth telling to Nazis looking for a Jewish relative in your home?

    • promise-keeping to enraged gun owner who want to use it to kill someone?

  • second, a related problem is that of conflicting duties: if all duties are to be held categorically, what if two duties pull you in opposite directions?

    • for Kant, there can't be a hierarchy of duties

  • third, is it really true that all consequences are morally irrelevant, or only certain kinds (e.g., personal ones)?



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