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As opposed to Consequentialist theories of ethics (Mill), Deontological (from the Greek meaning duty or obligation) ethics focus not on the rightness or wrongness of consequences, but on the nature of an action intrinsically itself being right or wrong.
Kant is probably the greatest modern philosopher when it comes to moral theory. The foundation of his moral theory is reason, or rationality. If we want to discover moral truths about the world, we need not look to authority, utility, religion or tradition. We as individuals all have the capacity to reason our way to moral law.
Kant’s argument that to act in the morally right way, one must act from duty, begins with an argument that the highest good must be good without qualification. Things like pleasure and intelligence are not good in themselves without qualification. I could take pleasure in the suffering of other people, which is not good. I can use my intelligence to devise high-tech bombs that kill people, that is not good. For Kant, there is only one thing that can properly be called good, and that is the will or intention of the moral agent – a will that is informed by reason and conforms to the moral law.
To follow one’s duty in deontology is to adhere to the moral law. What moral law is this? The categorical imperative, which in its first formulation states: I am never to act otherwise than so that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (principle of universalization).
In simple terms, when it comes to the first formulation of the categorical imperative, when I am about to perform an action I must step back and ask myself “Can I rationally will than everyone in the world perform this action?” (Ex. If I am about to tell a lie, even if telling that lie has good consequences, I must ask myself can I rationally will that everyone in the world be allowed to lie. Kant’s answer is simple: No. It would fail the test of contradiction in that if everyone in the world lied, then there would be no trust in the world and no one would really want to live in a world like that).
Even if an action passes or fails the first formulation of the categorical imperative, one must still consider the 2nd Formulation of the categorical imperative, which states “Act as to treat humanity whether in your own person or that of any other as an end, never as a means only” (the means-ends principle). Why? Because Kant thinks that every individual person is free, rational, autonomous and equal. If we disrespect the dignity and intrinsic value of human beings, we are disrespecting human nature and that is unacceptable to Kant.
Perfect and imperfect duties correspond to categorical versus hypothetical imperatives. Kant’s three perfect duties are killing, lying and stealing. We are ABSOLUTELY bound by duty to never do these actions because they violate the categorical imperative. All other actions are considered hypothetical (If I want more money, I must go out and work; If I want to feed the poor, then I can volunteer at a soup kitchen). These are imperfect duties.
1.) As opposed to focusing on consequences, what do you think of Kant’s emphasis on the nature of actions themselves to dictate moral rightness/wrongness?
2.) Reflect on Kant’s notion of duty as being fundamental to ethical judgment. In other words, do you think people have the duty or obligation to act in a certain way even if they do not feel like it? What is present in Deontology that is missing from utilitarianism as a moral theory?
3.) Consider Kant’s examples on suicide and making a false promise that we discussed in class. Why do they violate the categorical imperative?