Post No.: 0366
We took a look at liberalism, mainly according to what John Locke believed in, in Post No.: 0357. Let’s now take a brief look at some of Immanuel Kant’s thoughts…
Immanuel Kant believed in the ‘categorical imperative’, which is at the core of his deontological philosophy of moral reasoning. Deontological ethics states that right or wrong is inherent in an action itself rather than its result. Morality is not about an act being a means to an end, even if that end outcome is good. He therefore rejects utilitarianism.
Deontological ethics are sometimes referred to as duty, obligation or rule-based ethics for they revolve entirely around duty rather than emotions or consequences. Whether an action is morally right or wrong depends on a set of rules that judge the action itself.
Kantianism attempts to derive moral principles from a principle of rationality. Kant believed that people should all bear universal human rights, not because they own themselves but because they’re all rational beings – beings capable of reason. However, human rationality is a notion that’s increasingly being challenged under numerous scenarios according to the science of modern psychology. He argued that people are also autonomous beings – beings capable of acting and choosing freely. But this again, if taken strictly, is a notion increasingly being disproved in the fields of modern physics, chemistry and biology. This is not to therefore necessarily conclude that people shouldn’t have universal rights but these particular arguments are not persuasive support for it.
Kant wasn’t quite a libertarian because his definition of freedom is much more stringent. He agreed with utilitarianism in that we also have the capacity for pain and pleasure, and that we seek to avoid pain and gain pleasure, but Kant disagrees with Jeremy Bentham’s claim that pain and pleasure are our sovereign masters. Unlike Bentham, Kant didn’t believe that the only thing that’s good without qualification is pleasure. Rather, he believed that the only thing that’s good without qualification is the good will – “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will.”
And unlike Bentham, Kant believed that individual rights limit what can be done in the name of maximising aggregate happiness, as in utilitarianism. Both he and Bentham, though, believed that morality puts limits on what any given individual may do in the pursuit of his/her own self-interest – morality should constrain individual self-interest. For example, Kant argued that one should never make a lying promise even if it’s in one’s personal interest to do so, whilst Bentham argued that one should maximise everyone’s aggregate pleasure minus everyone’s aggregate pain, not only one’s own.
Kant believed that rationality raises humans above other animals. But this once more is a notion increasingly being disproved in science because research has discovered that many other animals possess great logic too – evolution reveals that humans are not distinct or special from the rest of the animal kingdom but merely on a part of a continuum of the animal kingdom. This was something that wasn’t understood in Kant’s time though and the prevailing belief back then was that God created humans fundamentally differently to other animals. (All I will say to that is woof woof!)
He didn’t quite believe that freedom meant being able to do whatever one wants though. He argued that when we seek the avoidance of pain and the gain of pleasure, we’re not actually acting freely – we’re acting as a slave to particular appetites and impulses that we didn’t choose i.e. acting on necessity. And he argued that freedom is the opposite of necessity. Freedom is not acting according to the physical laws of nature or cause-and-effect but acting according to a law one gives oneself. Acting morally freely is not about choosing the best means to a given end but choosing an end for its own sake. We are not to be instruments to some external or uncontrollable considerations but to be authors of and as ends in ourselves, he said. Human dignity is regarding people not just as means but also as ends in themselves and this is why it’s wrong to use people, even for the sake of other people’s well-being or happiness.
But if actions aren’t based on their utility then what gives an action its moral worth? Kant answers that it has to do with the motive, intention or the quality of the will with which the act is done. The only moral actions are those that are done for the sake of duty, not the sake of inclination, desire, impulse or preference. The intrinsic value of an action (categorical imperative) must not ever be overshadowed by an extrinsic value (hypothetical imperative). So you can take pleasure from doing something as long as it isn’t the predominant reason for doing so – the predominant reason should be because it is morally right in and of itself, according to Kant.
However, if we are to do the right thing for the right reason then what reason may that be? Who or what sets the rules for a deontological rule-based ethical philosophy?! The reason is certainly not for a desired result, argued Kant. If someone does something, even the right thing, for the sake of a self-interested outcome, or any targeted outcome, including prudence, altruism or compassion, then that lacks moral worth. It would be done for the wrong reason. Kant believed that acting morally via a sense of duty or principle – and not result or outcome – is the only way one can act freely and autonomously.
But still, how do we determine what is right in principle or as a duty without it turning into a circular argument – that it’s right just because it’s right? And isn’t the ‘because it’s right’ part a teleological or consequential reason in itself?(!) If you want to follow Kant and do the moral thing then isn’t that self-defeating because you’re then trying to do something for the sake of something else – in this case, to be moral?! Everyone could end up making up their own subjective moral principles based on individual reason – yet if morality is completely determined by one’s own morals and rationalisations then how can this be enforced in civil society? If Adolf Hitler thought that negative eugenics was the right thing to do in itself then would that have made what he did or attempted morally right?! Even warmongers have good intentions. Or if morals are not considered to be subjective but objective to the point that they’re universal to all people then this cannot satisfy the free will or autonomy (acting on a law one gives oneself) part that Kant himself promotes!
If everyone exercised ‘pure practical reason’ then he claimed that we’d all come to the same universal moral principles – but has anyone found this ‘pure practical reason’ that stays constant no matter the time, place or person? Is this some hypothetical goal that cannot be reached in reality?
The categorical imperative would only apply universally, hence to test for it we could ask if the action under question could apply universally – “Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” For example, is lying morally acceptable? No, because if everyone felt free to lie, no one would have faith in promises, therefore promises would no longer exist, thus lies would no longer exist. But if a maxim for the ‘supreme principle of morality’ is that only practically universalise-able morals are allowed (i.e. morals that if everyone conducted, the world wouldn’t crumble) then is this about individual choice or freedom anymore? And at what level is this test of universality (e.g. to the specific situation or to all situations imaginable)? And wouldn’t we also be acting for the extrinsic consequential sake of not turning civilisation into chaos?!
Kant may reply that universality is just a test, not a justification, for whether an action is moral or not – but then this would therefore lead us back to square one in trying to find an answer to how to personally determine what is moral? We need to run this test in order to find out whether our actions are moral or not, and whether it is or not is dependent on its answer. A test is used to produce an answer, but if acting on that answer is wrong then what’s the use or point of that test?!
Well Kant believed that humans, as rational subjects, have ‘absolute value’, not relative value like ‘other objects’, and so his other maxim in determining what makes an action of moral duty is to act with yourself or anyone else in such a way that we or they are never simply a means to something else but as ends in themselves; with respect, dignity and not open to use merely as a means to something else. Kantian respect is not about the love like between a mother caring for a vulnerable child, nor is it about sympathy, altruism or solidarity – we shouldn’t love people for who they are in particular, but have a respect for humanity universally.
We can therefore apparently use other people as means to an end, provided we treat them with respect for their dignity. Yet how would the world function if one couldn’t hire anyone for capitalist wage labour (e.g. hiring an accountant to do the accounts if it weren’t for needing to have the accounts done in the first place, when such an accountant would never be hired just for the sake of hiring one)?
We cannot be sure of the consequences without the benefit of hindsight (e.g. would you have smothered the baby Adolf Hitler if you didn’t know what he was going to do when older?) hence acting on some deontological rules seems like a good general rule of thumb – and in most cases, doing the good thing (e.g. saving a life) will result in good outcomes. However, that test for the categorical imperative or duty was ‘if everybody did a particular thing then would civilisation fall apart?’ And if everybody constantly lied then civilisation would strongly arguably fall apart because there’d be no trust, as stated in an earlier example. But this means you cannot lie to protect a friend from an axe murderer who’s asking where your friend is! Despite Kant arguing that everyone would come to the same conclusions if only they were rational – not even he seemed to come to a rational conclusion, as evident in this example of not protecting one’s fluffy friend through a lie. Many things aren’t all-or-nothing, black-or-white. For instance, it’s good to sleep during some times but not others, so could it not also be considered good to lie in some situations but not others? Also, would revenge be considered moral because of the principle of tit-for-tat, or immoral because of the principle that it’s just wrong?
One of Kant’s key premises or assumptions is that morality and reason is objective and that everyone intrinsically knows what their duty is inside of them, even children. But this is clearly empirically incorrect, no matter how sincere everyone may be (e.g. how about severely mentally-impaired people, or even non-mentally-impaired people depending on the contextual or situational factors?)
Major flaws in his ethical stance are the assumption that humans are completely rational creatures, and that there are no moral dilemmas that divide people’s reasons. That in turn means his assumption that ‘everyone would come to the same universal rules or principles if only everyone used pure practical reason’ is flawed. It seems appealing to believe that we should all know somewhere deep inside of us what behaviours are right or wrong in and of themselves, but some things have no clearly right or wrong answer, and some people are psychopaths or sociopaths who only care about themselves too.