Kantian ethics – “Ethical judgements about something being good, bad, right and wrong should be based on the extent to which duty is served.” Assess this view (40 marks)

Colour code: 

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

Immanuel Kant, in his work “The groundwork of the metaphysics of morals”, set out what he believed to be the correct approach to ethics. Kant’s understanding was morality is discovered “a priori”. His reasoning for this stems from what he believed could be understood from empirical observations. When we hear or see an action; we can not infer that what we have witnessed is moral or immoral entirely upon its physical nature. For example, if someone shouts aggressively at another person; the act of shouting is neither good or bad. We might not know the motives or the consequences of the particular action. However, we still understand when someone has done something immoral. For Kant, this moral knowledge is categorised as an “a priori synthetic”. A priori statements are those which are not dependent on experience and are therefore universal. Most knowledge of this nature is “analytic” (true by definition), but Kant theorised that some a priori knowledge could bring additional information from outside the subject. This is the “a priori synthetic” and the moral law that our reason reveals fits this definition. Therefore, if Kant is correct, moral truths must be universal, absolute and if we are to be good people; we have a duty to follow the moral law.

With regards to the statement, I will be arguing that moral judgements should be based on the extent to which duty is best served. To make this case I am including the scholarly thought of: Niccolo Machiavelli, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls and Joseph Fletcher

An argument in support of deontology is the overcoming of flaws present in heteronomous decision making. If an individual performs an action due to intuition or a desired consequence (such as wanting to please another person), it is not clear that they have done anything moral. By following the the moral law, someone must be acting autonomously and for the sake of the moral law alone. Therefore, people cannot be excused of trying to achieve any end at the expense of others. The moral judgements are also easy because absolutism dictates they are always the same. This is arguably a stronger position to moral relativism in which any behaviour could be justifiable. If moral judgements cannot be analytic or synthetic, and true knowledge can only be known by these means; it makes it difficult to assign moral considerations with any true value.

Alternatively, from a political stance, heteronomous decisions might make sense to keep social order. The political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli argued that, for a ruler to maintain control, they must be prepared to use people as a means to the end of power. This might involve a powerful military presence or favouring a powerful elite to keep stability. In his book “The Prince”, Machiavelli explains how traditional virtues are not practical, noting that the cunning of the fox combined with the force of the lion are needed to be a leader. To attempt legislating for a “kingdom of ends” could lead to you being taken advantage of, or worse, being overthrown by an invading military. 

A potential criticism of this point stems from John Stuart Mill’s view of liberty. Machiavellian politics could damage the freedom of the majority and, therefore, face challenges on a utilitarian basis. Alternatively, Kant’s perspective could sympathise with its practicality but still reject its moral character. It is this type of example which Kant’s postulates for the “Summum Bonum” are built from. 

Another argument in favour of moral judgements being served for duty is the protection it offers to human rights. As rational beings, Kant believed that we have intrinsic value and therefore our dignity must be protected. Any purposeful act to harm another person could not be accepted because we cannot rationally will those particular maxims. Kant uses an example of a shopkeeper who contemplates misleading a customer on the price of shop items. The process of the Categorical Imperative would state that the shopkeeper must be honest for the sake of duty, rather than to appear trustworthy. By making this distinction, people are always prioritised over selfish motives. Finally, John Rawl’s veil of ignorance would challenge people to think about what sort of society they would opt for if they did not know which position they would find themselves in after making the choice. It can be argued that the rational choice would be one where all people’s rights are respected, rather than the utilitarian model that countries largely adopt worldwide.

In opposition, Kantian ethics’ attempt of protecting the dignity of all rational beings can be considered too rigid and logical,  leading it to lack the type of empathy that many would associate with being a good person. For example, if someone is in severe pain and wants to end their life by means of voluntary euthanasia; this could not be universally willed and therefore is an immoral act.  Joseph Fletcher’s Situation ethics, however, would be more flexible and could justify this action providing it is the most loving thing to do. In exceptional circumstances, a moral system can benefit from considering differing situations as individual cases. 

On the other hand, there are issues with consequentialism that Kant could raise with “exceptional” cases. As human beings, we do not have the capacity to predict the long term ramification of our actions.  If following hypothetical imperatives, you are responsible for any bad consequences that happen in the future. 

In conclusion, providing Kant has successfully proven moral judgements to be a priori synthetic, the moral law we access must be absolute. People (as rational beings) are put at the centre of his ethics, and because of this, if all people acted in accordance with duty, the dignity of all people would be protected.

Word count: 945

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