Kantian ethics – “Kantian ethics is a helpful method of moral decision making.” Discuss (40 marks)

Colour code:

  • Blue – Your argument  
  • Red – Argument against
  • Orange – Critical analysis
  • Purple – Scholars

Kantian Ethics’ deontological (duty-based) method is a polarising normative approach to moral decision making. The rejection of consequentialism leaves many modern thinkers to discard the concepts for being too rigid and abstract. It can, however, be said to have great strengths that could give significant benefits to a world that champions moral relativism. Regardless of its benefits, I will be proposing that its shortcomings make it difficult to declare it a “helpful” method for making moral decisions. The philosophers that I will be discussing in this debate are Jean-Paul Sartre, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Alasdair MacIntrye and Immanuel Kant’s own perspective.

Kant’s understanding of the moral law suggests that there are objective moral truths which are known through our reason. More importantly, Kant states that the “Good Will” is the only intrinsic good; we must act in accordance with duty and duty alone. As a result of this, Kant warns that consequentialist thinking would lead to actions being done for the wrong reason.  John Stuart Mill argued that Kantian ethics becomes consequential when you go through the process of universalising a maxim. He asserts that by asking about the logical coherence of a maxim such as ‘I ought to steal’ it is just a way of determining whether the outcome will be good or bad for society. Therefore, this raises questions about the validity of the entire basis of Kant’s understanding of moral decision making. This possible confusion means it might not be a particularly helpful guide to making moral decisions. 

Conversely, a significant strength of Kantian ethics is articulated through the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative. This states that all people should be treated as ‘ends in themselves’ and is best discussed in comparison to utilitarianism. Alasdair MacIntrye criticises utilitarianism for permitting horrific acts such sex trafficking. As long as the consequentialist thinking supports the majority, it appears that most acts are permissible. Kantian ethics rejects any such infringement of the rights of human beings. An act which directly harms a person can be rejected on the grounds that their dignity as rational beings must be protected. This demonstrates Kantian ethics can be helpful because most people appear to have an intuitive desire for freedom of self and to be protected from mob-mentality. 

The argument on intuition, however, has its flaws. It can be disputed that there is a much more serious fault to the problem of following Categorical Imperatives. In the thought experiment of the axe murderer, Kantian ethics is faced with what many people would argue is a common sense decision. The thought experiment poses the dilemma of whether you should lie to a murderer if you know the location of the person they are hunting. Kant would have you tell the truth because truth-telling is a Categorical Imperative. This is hard for people to sympathise with as it appears to reject very basic human intuition and empathy.

A further strength of Kantian ethics is the notion that all rational beings have access to the moral law through their ‘a priori’ reasoning. Following this, it means that all people have access to the same law and will know what is right and wrong. Furthermore, there are no problems when it comes to trying to calculate the best outcome with Jeremy Bentham’s hedonic calculus. If people reason correctly they will know that certain actions are always forbidden. This then becomes very helpful for making decisions. 

There are issues with this concept though. It can be fairly judged that what Kant is proposing is not easy for people to access. To suggest that all people will come to the conclusion of the Categorical Imperative just simply isn’t the case. Many people have limited access to reasoning, whether they have mental health issues or they are uneducated. To extrapolate this further, a feral child may never be able to use their reasoning to the same extent. This could suggest these people are no longer moral agents and advocate the categorisation of humans with animals. There is, moreover, the criticism of being too abstract. The postulations of the ‘summum bonum’ can seem to complicate matters, particularly as it can appear to be aiming to make moral decisions heteronomous or for a reward.

A final criticism comes from Jean-Paul Sartre who proposes that there are times where there will be conflicting maxims. If someone is faced with the decision of going to help their country at war or staying home and looking after their elderly mother, what are they supposed to do? Both maxims are Categorical Imperatives, yet one cannot be done. The existentialist approach to this dilemma would suggest that there is no correct answer. One must just make an authentic choice to do what they think is right. Conversely, Kant cannot give a satisfactory answer to the problem. Therefore it can be posited that following Kant’s ethics is not always possible in a practical way.

To conclude, I would argue that Kantian ethics would be helpful in a world where all people were capable of following the Categorical Imperative. The problem with this is that too many people reject this notion or are unable to act freely. This means that while it might give us a strong notion of what is moral, it might be useless when it comes to making many practical, everyday decisions.

Word count: 903

One thought on “Kantian ethics – “Kantian ethics is a helpful method of moral decision making.” Discuss (40 marks)

  1. Ultimately, every ethic is judged by “the best possible good and the least possible harm for everyone”. This is the only criteria that can be universally accepted, and thus becomes the final terms of any practical ethical question.

    A moral person is a person of good will. A person of good will intends the best good and least harm for everyone. As Kant pointed out, every other virtue can be as easily applied to evil ends (the courage to rob a bank).

    But a good will cannot be satisfied by a principle. To be useful, principles must be short enough to be easily memorized, like “thou shalt not steal”. And anything that short cannot possibly account for all the exceptional circumstances, like lying to the Nazi at the door asking if there are any Jews in the house.

    The Utilitarians have problems as well. First, unless the rule will turn out best for everyone, it cannot command universal agreement. Second, pleasure and pain are unreliable guides as to what is actually good or bad for us. Childbirth, perhaps one of the greatest goods, is also one of the most painful. And many things that give us pleasure are actually bad for us.

    Feelings are malleable. Therefore the correct sequence must be to (1) figure out what is objectively good for us, and then (2) choose to feel good about it.

    We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. This is pretty straightforward at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the needs for air, water, food, shelter are pretty obvious. But it gets fuzzier as we move up the pyramid to things like “self-actualization”. Still, because the formula works at the lower level, it gives us hope that we may set “the best good and least harm for everyone” as the basis of objective good — even if we disagree on what that might be.

    Liked by 1 person

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