Kantian Ethics – A Brief Introduciton

I will briefly explain deontological ethics and focus on Kantian ethics.

Kantian ethics is a branch of deontological ethics, also known as the theory of duty. Kant manual is the most prominent philosopher of deontology who argued against utilitarianism by suggesting that our actions should be such that they would become universal laws. for Kant, being happy and being good are two distinct things; he suggests that if we seek pleasure and hope that it makes our lives better, it would lead to a very confused life because it’s not very easy to achieve happiness. Kantian ethics attempts to answer what one ought to do in a moral dilemma, which is the same approach that utilitarianism takes but their path to how one ought to act is different.

The concept of universal law comes from Kant’s assumption that all rational beings would seek to do good and so rational decisions are ones which can be applies in every culture and in every part of the world. Some examples of universal laws or maxims in Kantian ethics are: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t break a promise, etc.  There is no single book which lists all the maxims that exist but we should take the maxims we are aware of very seriously and don’t break them. for example, some people might think hat telling white lies is ok because it doesn’t cause much harm to anyone but as Kant would suggest if everyone started telling white lies then there would be no need for a duty to not lie.

Good will

Good will is an important aspect of Kantian ethics. Kant believes that goodwill is the only thing that is good without qualification (always good). The notion of goodwill is closer to the idea of a good person. According to Kant, most of us would agree that a person who acts without any motivation or a hidden agenda is a trusted person. For example, a person who donates to charity to save on tax dollars isn’t really a person of goodwill because his good act has a hidden agenda. Most of the people who act without looking at any consequences or benefits are using their power to reason. So, Kant believes that goodwill and reason will combine to create happiness in the society.

Categorical Imperative

Kant’s categorical imperative, which is the main point of his theory, is as follows:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which [you] can at the same time will that it becomes a universe law.

Kant makes it clear that any decision that is made has to adhere to some universal maxim. There is no justification for breaking any of these maxims. For example, if you are hiding Jews from the Nazi army, you are required to give them to the Nazis if they ever ask you for them.

Categorical Imperative Version 2

Another version of the categorical imperative is also available. Pojman summarizes Kant’s account of morality by suggesting that categorical imperative can be summarized as follows:

Never use another person merely as means but always as an end

Pojman points out that a rational agent would never use another person as a means to an end which that person has not agreed upon. If person A befriends person B for some person gain then that act is clearly immoral. This doesn’t apply to all situations; if both persons use each other as means then it won’t be a violation of the categorical imperative. For example, when you go to a bank teller to deposit your money, you are using that person as a means to deposit your money but since that person is also using you as a mean for income then it’s right.

Advantages of Kantian ethics

-Doesn’t require much thinking to apply; just follow the rules.

-takes personal qualities into account to certain extent.

Disadvantages of Kantian ethics (there are more)

-Doesn’t provide a decision procedure for every action

-There is no one rulebook which one can refer to for clear guidelines

-following of duties may lead to alienation

-there is no moral motivation that agents can get from following duties

Overall, I would say Kantian ethics is better than utilitarianism because it takes personal qualities and individualism into consideration to some extent. Kant relies on goodwill and the power of reason to follow duties; according to him, a rational person will follow duties. Most people would agree that a person who is motivated to do good from a pure heart without an agenda is a good person. He is open to criticism but his theory still surpasses utilitarianism.