|Moral Philosophy Model Answer
Your close friend says she wants to tell you a secret but before telling you makes you promise to tell nobody. She then explains that the previous night she had been out with her friends stealing and had nearly been caught. The police are now asking questions and your friend says she needs an alibi. Your friend tells you that unless you lie to the police she will get a criminal record.
Explain and evaluate the advice Kantians would give to you in this situation.
Kant’s system of ethics is based on the idea of finding an objective system of ethics – a way of knowing our duty. He argued that morality is prescriptive; it ‘prescribes our moral behaviour’ that is to say, it gives us rules, which we must follow. This means Kant’s ethics are deontological – they are interested in whether or not we follow rules, not on the consequences of our actions. Using our God-given ‘practical reason’ gives us these rules or imperatives. Kant then distinguishes between two kinds of imperatives – non-moral or hypothetical, and moral or categorical.
Hypothetical imperatives are not moral commands, do not apply to everyone, and aim at personal well-being; categorical imperatives are moral commands as they are universal and do not depend on anything, especially our desires or goals. According to Kant, these categorical imperatives apply to everyone because they are based on an objective ‘a priori’ law: based on reason alone.
There are a number of different basic forms of the categorical imperative. In the first, Kant asks whether it is possible to universalise your actions or maxims without contradiction. In other words, before you act, ask yourself whether you would like everyone in the same situation to act in the same way. If not, then you are involved in a contradiction and what you are thinking of doing is wrong because it is against reason.
Kant uses telling lies as another example of his universal principle in action. He argued that it is never morally acceptable to lie. However, you might decide that it is morally right to lie in a particular situation, e.g. to save someone’s life. Kant would say that if lying were turned into a universal law it would mean that it would be morally right to lie in any situation. Since human relationships are grounded in trust, it would be impossible for any trust between people to exist if that were true.
Telling a lie is not universalisable, and therefore it is our duty not to lie. In the example, this means that you should tell the police the truth if they make enquiries about your friend. It may appear that this conflicts with our duty to keep promises to our friends, but for this to be a duty, it would have to be universalisable, and it is unclear whether this is the case.
The second basic form is the Formula of End in Itself. This means that we should not exploit others or treat them as a means to an end, as they are as rational as we are. To treat another person as a means is to deny that person the right to be a rational and independent judge of his or her own actions. It is to make oneself in some way superior and different. To be consistent we need to value everyone equally. There can be no use of an individual for the sake of the many – as is the case with utilitarians, who can sacrifice the few for the greater good of the greater number.
Kant argued that we have a duty to develop our own perfection, developing our moral, intellectual, and physical capabilities. We also have a duty to seek the happiness of others, as long as that is within the law and allows the freedom of others. So we should not promote one person’s happiness if that happiness prevents another’s happiness. It may be admirable to help others but not at the expense of self-destruction or self-harm.
This applies very strongly to the example. Telling a lie for the benefit of a friend would not be developing our own perfection, and the happiness of the other person in this example – the friend – does not fall within the law. Kant would consider it admirable to help our friend, but it is still not acceptable to lie – indeed, it is our duty not to lie.
Kant called the third form the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: “So act as if you were through your maxim a law-making member of a Kingdom of Ends.” Everyone should act as if every other person was an ‘end’ – a free, autonomous agent, who is able to make their own moral decisions. Therefore, it is your friend’s responsibility to turn themselves into the police, and you should act as though they will follow this maxim. Therefore, you should tell the truth to the police when they enquire about your friend, and refuse to act as an alibi.
This presents us with some problems with Kantian ethics, however. Just because Kantian ethics tells us that we should not lie to help our friend, this does not mean that we will feel comfortable to do this. Our emotional connection to our friend is bound to mean that we want to help them, and we might not wish to follow our duty not to lie in this example. Kantian ethics ignores or devalues these emotional intuitions in cases such as this.
Kantian ethics also fails in providing us with a clear answer when our duties conflict. In this example, we have a clear duty not to lie, but we also have a duty to protect our friends. Kantian ethics provides us with a very clear answer as to what to do in this situation, but it could be argued that the system of ethics is inadequate in providing moral solutions which take account of all of these factors.
Share with your friends: