Lecture 36: Kantian Ethics II lecture objectives



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Lecture 36: Kantian Ethics II
Lecture objectives:

  • To clarify the Kantian distinction between perfect and imperfect duties in relation to famine relief (O’Neill)

  • To identify the limitations of Kantian approaches to moral disagreement

  • To outline Ross’ prima facie principles alternative


Class exercise: Tarasoff case
Utilitarian theories tend to be conceived as beneficence theories, interested in promoting the overall good/well-being of all. Thus acts are chosen for their utility (effectiveness in maximizing well-being).
Kantian theory looks to the maxims of agents, thus it can only assess intentional moral acts. But of course, as O’Neill stresses, a good Kantian cannot just claim that his intentions are good and then do whatever he chooses. Recall that what is a properly moral will is a good will (See first set of lecture notes on Kant). Our intentions reflect what we expect the immediate results of our action to be. The second formulation in particular specifies the sort of intentions that are morally right for action. Provided that the agent uses no other as a mere means, he or she does nothing unjust. If some of his or her intentions foster others’ ends, then he or she is sometimes beneficent.
Our intuitions suggest that consequences do matter, but it is clear that consequences are not the only things that matter. Our intuitions also tell us that some actions should be performed just because their right and others avoided just because they are wrong.
Kantian theory tends to form a basis for some prominent modern theories of justice and human rights theories. Human beings are to be valued in themselves. As rational beings, we are all capable of and have a plan of life that we rationally pursue to varying degrees of success. We adapt our actions and choices to accord with our conception of our own good.
Second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: The formula of the end in itself

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


Therefore, out of respect for the rational autonomy of moral agents, we should never treat anyone as a mere means and always as an end in him/herself. That the CI admits of no exceptions means that this applies to all human beings and hence this approach provides a solid basis for a universal conception of human rights.
Kant’s distinction between perfect and imperfect duties:
Perfect duties:

    • must always be observed (without exception)

    • e.g., duty not to lie, duty not to kill innocent persons, duty to keep promises, duty not to commit suicide

    • duties of justice what is right


Imperfect duties:

  • prescriptions concerning general ends

  • must be observed on some occasions, usually at our discretion

  • e.g., duty to develop one’s talents, duty of beneficence or charity

  • duties of beneficence what is good


If there is a conflict, a perfect duty always overrides an imperfect duty.
primacy of the right over the good
Hence, we have what is called the primacy of the right over the good. This does not mean that we should not be concerned with pursuing the good of others but that our first priority is that we should pursue the right. In cases of conflict between the right and the good, the right should prevail. Hence, although the consequences of lying may mean that the well-being of someone may be promoted, to lie is to violate the CI, which is the basis for all morality, and thus one should not lie even if it means that the well-being of someone is not promoted as a result.
Recall what the CI requires of us: “Can I, as a rational agent, consistently will that everyone in a similar situation should act this way?” If the proposed action is one that would be wrong if performed generally, then the particular action is wrong too – even if it would not, in the case at hand, not have harmful consequences or if it would have, in the case at hand, have harmful consequences. What matter is that one cannot consistently will that people make a lying promise, for example.
In relation to the second formulation, O’Neill defines duties of justice as requiring that one never treat someone simply as a means (in pursuit of my end) and duties of beneficence as sometimes requiring that we foster other people’s ends.
O’Neill’s account of the duties:

treating someone as an end = not treating them as a mere means (duty of justice) = negative duty (preventing direct harm of one’s maxim-based actions and not willing harm to someone else) = respecting the rational autonomy of agents

Justice requires that we act on no maxims that use others as mere means.”


Re. Perfect duty

If someone is rationally autonomous, then s/he can pursue his/her own ends according to a rational plan of life, so there is no need or right for us to intervene, even on his/her behalf.

To treat someone as autonomous, to respect their autonomy, to respect their capacity to be rationally self-determining, is to not prevent them from acting autonomously or to act in such a way that values them only instrumentally, i.e., as a mere means.
treating someone as an end = fostering some of their ends (duty of beneficence) = positive duty (promoting someone else’s good) = promoting someone else’s good

Beneficence requires that we act on some maxims that foster others’ ends.”


Re. Imperfect duty

Beneficence is oriented toward promoting someone’s good, seeing it as worth promoting for its own sake.



Imperfect duties are constrained by the same requirements as perfect duties in so far as one cannot treat another as a mere means, but in the case where a perfect duty conflicts with an imperfect duty, we must defer in the first instance to the rationality of the agent and her conception of her own good, and hence act from the perfect duty.
In general, this is consistent with our intuitions that in general it is morally worse to cause harm than it is morally better to promote the good. Prevention of harm is the strong duty (never treating someone as a mere means) than promoting the good (fostering some of their ends.) This doesn’t, of course, hold across the board, however. For example, the pain of a needle seems to be a necessary evil for the purposes of providing the benefit of a therapeutic dose of medicine. Arguably, we might say that taking a needle falls in the balance on the side of preventing harm, e.g., preventing illness, than it does promoting more proximal and immediate good. Thus, vaccinating children both prevents harm and promotes their good. But this seems to be diverging somewhat from what O’Neill is referring to here.
Unlike a utilitarian, the Kantian does not need to compare all available actions and see which have the best effects. “They consider only the proposals for action that occur to them and check that these proposals use no other as a mere means.” In so doing, they satisfy the demands of justice on the Kantian view. This is suggesting that there will certain epistemic constraints. Our duty in a situation is that which is most rational. It is not necessary to weigh all possible contingencies and certainly not to weigh all possible consequences. In a particular situation, the maxim for action we should choose is the one that best meets the requirements of the CI. It is in the event of limited information that Kantian theory is most helpful because while we cannot identify the consequences of our actions, we can at the very least identify what our duty would be.
In choosing morally appropriate action, Kantian ethics gives the individual a great deal more latitude than does utilitarianism, which commands us to choose the act that has the best consequences. However, while allowing for more individual autonomy, Kantian ethics gives proportionately less guidance. The upshot is that the Categorical Imperative seems to function only as a kind of necessary condition of the morality of actions, telling us what we cannot do, and not as a sufficient condition that would specify, from a list of permissible acts, what we should, do.
Some limitations of Kantian theory

  • Counterintuitive:

always perfect over imperfect?

no exceptions to absolute moral rules?

  • Insufficient guidance

rules out morally unacceptable maxims but doesn’t tell us what’s morally required

what should we do when our duties conflict?
Ross’ prima facie principles:

  • Rational intuitionist


A duty is prima facie if:

it is always to be acted upon unless it conflicts on a particular situation with an equal or stronger duty

a prima facie duty is always right and binding, all other things being equal; it is conditional on not being overridden or outweighed by competing moral demands


One’s actual duty is:

what one must doing having examined the respective weights of competing prima facie duties in a particular situation.

one’s actual duty is determined by an examination of the respective weights of competing prima facie duties


we come to these principles by rational intuition and from moral experience; we have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong – we begin by directly recognizing that a particular act is right or wrong, and then go on to generalize our conclusion to encompass all similar acts

moral intuitions provide us with moral rules of a general kind, but are not absolute rules; prima facie duties are said to be “self-evident” in this sense (i.e., we discover the truth of the duties in our moral experience of the situation at hand, but this does not mean that they are true simply by considering them in the abstract, i.e., prima facie principles cannot be known to be a priori true), but our actual duty is not self-evident

how do we determine our actual duty? There is no overarching moral principle or system of ranking of duties. We can’t decide in advance what our actual duty will be, for we must attend to the details of the situation. As such, Ross stresses the importance of sensitivity to the morally relevant features of actual situations and the determination of duties on a case-by-case basis. There are no rules or set of rules that can help us here. The only guidance Ross gives us is that some duties are usually stricter than others. (That is, the tend to be stronger than others.) (See also below: How do we determine our actual duty?)

E.g., Non-maleficence overrides beneficence in cases of conflict; not killing overrides not deceiving; promising keeping usually overrides beneficence (but when the potential good is very great and the promise is comparatively trivial, beneficence becomes our duty)


Ross’ duties include:

  • Fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, non-maleficence

identifies several valid principles, which are not derived from the principle of utility or the CI, but which reflect our ordinary moral conventions and beliefs

unlike Kantian theory or utilitarianism, Ross’ list of duties is not based on any overarching principle

principles, duties, and rights are to be regarded not as unbending standards of absolute right, but as strong prima facie moral demands that may be validly overridden in circumstances with other moral claims

Ross is a mixed deontologist because he emphasizes the importance of duty while at the same time he emphasizes the importance of considering the consequences of action. Thus, he claims, we have a general obligation to produce good and holds that the tendency of acts to promote the general good is part of what determines their rightness.
How do we determine our actual duty?


  • One prima facie duty = actual duty

if we only have on prima facie duty in a given situation, then it is also our actual duty

  • Two prima facie duties = more stringent prima facie duty = actual duty

if there are more than one prima facie duty then the actual duty is determined by examining the respective weights of competing prima facie duties in a given situation. This means that we must rely on reason and our understanding of the particular situation, in order to judge rightly our actual duty.

in general, in case of conflict between two duties, the actual duty=more stringent prima facie duty; in case of conflict between more than two duties, the actual duty=that which has the greatest balance of prima facie rightness over prima facie wrongness.



  • More than two prima facie duties = actual duty is that which has the greatest balance of prima facie rightness over prima facie wrongness

but there will sometimes be problems applying these principles; ultimately we must rely on our rational moral intuitions, on our reflective considered decisions, on our judgment this is inescapable, says Ross, theory can’t help us. Morality is not neat and tidy. We can’t know our actual duty (the best we can do is think that it probably is our actual duty, but this is not to say that there isn’t a right answer, however our fallible human nature keeps us from knowing for certain)


But, if we intuit these prima facie principles, what if we have different intuitions?
Also, how should we actually weigh competing prima facie principles?


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