Kant develops a deontological moral theory. (About duty/responsibility)

Duty: duty qua duty, duty for the sake of duty (categorical duties).

Key difference between utilitarianism: Not a consequentialism – regardless of consequences, and regardless of how you feel about it. Duties you MUST follow no matter how hard the world makes it to follow them.

For Kant: morality = shut up and do your damn duty!

Background: Kant was trying to respond to David Hume, who thought morality was rooted in the emotions (desires, feelings, etc.), and Kant rejected this idea.

Starting point: Hypothetical vs. Categorical (norms: how one should behave and what should one do)

– Hypothetical oughts: conditional, contingent (dependent on our desires). (instrumental)

Binding force; can get out of? YES

If you want…, please don’t do… (For example, if you want to get an A, don’t be absence for class.)

– Categorical oughts: unconditional, necessary, universal (applies to all rational people).

Can get out of? NO

Don’t… (For example, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t kill people…)

Moral oughts: == categorical oughts.

Morality is nothing about consequence, nothing about happiness, categorical oughts is absolute duties – duties no matter what consequences they bring.

Where do categorical oughts come from? – From Reason/Rationality.

The C.I. (Categorical Imperative) – a fundamental principle of human reason/rationality. All humans are the same insofar as they are rational. (basic rules, a principle of rationality)

Morality = rooted in rationality (thus has an objective basis).

Normal human beings are rational, the principle become general and common for everyone.

What is the definition of C.I. (categorical Imperative)?

– Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law!

Or more precisely: Always follow the maxim that you can will to be a universal law.

People are self-control most of time and powerful, so for Kant, the most important thing for morality is that we CANNOT be held morally responsible for what is beyond our control!

Motives (intention, reasons, can control) – Action (can control) – Consequences (external circumstances, cannot control)

Therefore, Kant gets to the conclusion that consequences are irrelevant to morality (According to Kant, CU is totally wrong)

The C.I. and C.I. Test: Apply the C.I. to particular actions and rules – to know whether an action X (or a rule X) is morally right or wrong, do the “C.I. Test”.

STEP 1: What the rule is the action following?

STEP 2: Would you accept this rule to be a universal law? I.e., would you allow this rule to be followed by all people, at all times?

STEP 3: a) If Yes, the rule is sound, it’s a categorical moral rule, and everyone should follow it at all times.

STEP 3: b) if No, the rule is unsound, it’s an immoral categorical rule, and everyone should NEVER follow it.

The C.I. Test and Self-Defeating (unsuccessful) Rules

STEP 2 is the key step, and it’s extremely difficult to understand and apply.

Criticisms of Kant’s C.I. and C.I. Test

Attack 1: “lie to save another’s life”, rather than “go ahead and lie”

Kant’s moral theory has an inconsistency: his theory does not allow a conditional rule to be moral rules, but then can still pass the C.I. Test and thus be a moral rule – contradiction.

Attack 2: Clash of Absolute Rules: refugee smuggler – either lie or allow all to perish, cannot do both.

Possible reply by a Kant supporter: there’s only one moral rule in the end: “Do the right thing.” (Horrible reply! Useless, empty of content and meaning!)

Attack 3: Kant’s morality is just too demanding (raised by one of Kant’s contemporaries)

Sometimes, when following a rule would bring truly consequences, we must break it. (e.g.: honestly revealing where the intended victim is hiding; honestly refusing to tell a white lie when you must).

Kant argues that we can never break a categorical moral rule (e.g., “Never lie!”)

Ends and Means, Value Theory and Animals

According to Kant, only human beings have intrinsic value (intrinsic worth) and dignity. Human have individual autonomy, we are self-governing, can decide who we want to be. Humans can appreciate the moral dimension in the world. All other things have instrumental value only (not intrinsically valuable), including animals. Thus, humans are special beyond all else – a single loss of human life is irreplaceable, lost forever!

1. Why do humans have special value?

1) Humans = self-conscious desires and the sole value-creators. We create values, and this makes us very special (Compare: Nietzsche).

Animals: have desires, but are not self-aware that they have them. Not value creators.

Objects: have only instrumental value – valuable only if we value it. Same for animals (only instrumental value).

Question: can we treat animals any way we want?

YES, and NO. We can because them only have instrumental value to us, but morally the rude actions aren’t beneficial to us, we shall still treat them well.

2) Humans possess rational agency (and thus dignity):

Free will (self-control) – responsible for our own actions.

Question: Can a dog be responsible? Kant says NO. (a dog cannot decide when to eat or when to go out.)

Autonomy – we decide our own paths and choices, independent from external control, we shape our destinies.

Set life goals/life plans – we determine who we want to be.

Act from reasons – we weigh reasons for and against an action/choice. (marriage: why I want to marry with him/her? Animals cannot think for a reason)

Act from moral reasons – only humans.

Question: Do animals have all this? Kant says NO.

2. The Good Will

Kant says morality exists only for rational agents who act from a “good will”, which is understanding what you should do from a sense of moral duty and respect for the “moral law” (i.e., from the C.I.)

Moral actions, from human beings, are the only kind of things in the world that have moral worth.

Moral values exist entirely within us humans – if humans are wiped out, then morality would entirely disappear as well. BUT: morality is not subjective, it is objective, universal, and categorical.

This is the interesting position that Kant takes on morality.

3. Kant’s Theory of Ends and Means

Another formulation of the general moral principle, according to Kant: Treat human beings always as an end, never as a means. [the “Ends and Means Principle”]

1) What this means:

Promote the welfare of other human beings, protect their rights, be kind to them, don’t harm anyone.

But more importantly, this means: need to respect peoples’ rational choices and decisions, and cannot manipulate others to achieve your own aims and goals.

Question: We use people all the time, is this principle wrong? As long as we are honest with others about what we want from them, tell them the truth and let them exercise their own reasoning and free will, then it is fine.

Question: If so, then they choose your goal as their goal as well!

Treat people always as an end and never as a means only: We can treat them both as a means and as an end at the same time (with informed voluntary consent), just don’t treat them only as a means.

Concluding remarks:

Not only must you treat others as an end, must treat yourself as an end also!

I.e., be responsible for your actions, be a free and independent, individual, and always try to be rational, fair, and moral!

Kathleen Li


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