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Immanuel Kant • Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was one of the most important philosophers ever. • Made important contributions to science and philosophy. • Argued that certain features of our minds structure our experiences. • For example, space and time, and cause and effect. • So, our experience of the world is always filtered through our senses: we do not have direct access to the world itself. • Morality must be based on reason. • Acting morally is acting rationally. • Acting immorally is acting irrationally.
“In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so. ” “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law. ” “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason. ” “Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness. ” “Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me. ”
Kant and Absolute Moral Rules • Suppose Instead of paying taxes, I keep my money and spend it on a vacation. • I get away with it. • have I done something wrong or immoral? Many would say yes! • So has the person who cheated on her exam and got away with it. So has the politician who intentionally lied to be elected.
But… • Suppose I return from my vacation and, as a result, I am a better father, worker, and citizen. • Suppose the person who cheated on her exam graduated and went on to being a great teacher who helped hundreds of underprivileged children get into good schools. • Suppose the politician who lied to be elected made great contributions to his country. Do these positive outcomes make up for what they have done? • Still wrong?
• Most people will probably say that regardless of the benefits that followed from the actions of these individuals, their action are still wrong. • They have cheated the system, after all. They have done unjust things, and therefore their actions are morally wrong. • Immanuel Kant thought so! • And how would he know that? • He developed a theory of morality (Kantianism) that can answer the hard question of how to determine right from wrong. • That’s quite an achievement!
Let’s just see… • The way to understand what is wrong with the actions in the examples just given is that in each case the person makes exceptions to some rules that everybody else has to follow. This behavior is inconsistent. • How do we justify our moral conduct? • 4 ways: 1. What if everyone did that? 2. How would you like if I did that to you? 3. The end justifies the means. 4. I would never do that because God prohibits it.
• Consider 1: What if everyone did that? This is taken to mean that if everyone did X, disastrous results would occur. So X is immoral. • Imagine the results if everyone cheated on their exams or if every politician lied to be elected or everyone failed to pay taxes. • Many people think that this is a good way to test the morality of our actions, or is it? • Common argument against homosexuality: If everyone did that, the human race would die out. • But there are priests or heterosexual couples who decide not to have children or men who have decided to remain celibate. • Would you ask them: What if everyone did that? What if everyone decided not to have sex or not to procreate? • It would follow that celibacy, priests, and couples that do not want to have children are immoral! But that can’t be right. • So, 1. is not a reliable way to test the morality of our actions.
• Consider 2: How would you like if I did that to you? This is essentially the golden rule—we should treat others as we would like to be treated. If you wouldn’t want to be lied to, cheated on, etc. then don’t do that to others. • The golden rule asks us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Great, right? Not so. • Kant explained why. Consider those people who enjoy being hit (masochists). They would love others to hit them. • Imagine: You remind a masochist of the golden rule: “Hey, treat me as you would like to be treated!” • The masochist: “Oh, wonderful! I will hit you, then, since I would like to be hit. ” • And what about the fanatic? Fanatics are individuals who have very strong principles—so strong that they would do anything to accomplish their goals. • Terrorists believe so strongly in their cause that they are willing to blow themselves up!
• The golden rule would justify this type of extremism: Imagine you reminded him of the golden rule: “Treat me as you would like to be treated” • And he would respond, “Okay, then I will kill you because your political and religious views are evil. And if my religious and political views were evil, you would have a reason to kill me. ” • The golden rule would permit immoral acts. The reason is that the golden rule depends on a person’s desires. • The morality of hitting people, or any other act, should not depend on a person’s desires. What if you have the wrong desires? • So the golden rule is not a reliable principle to determine the morality of our actions.
• What about 3? : The end justifies the means. This is utilitarianism: An act is right if it produces the best consequences. • Cheating on your test could be right if it leads to the best consequences. • Kant disagreed: Cheating is immoral, regardless of the consequences. • Utilitarianism disagree: Nonsense! Suppose Mary cheated on an exam. As a result she graduated. As a result she got a job in a lab where she found a cure for cancer. Wasn’t her cheating justified? Why are you so squeamish about it? If it wasn’t for her cheating, we would still have cancer! So she did the right thing. • But how can that be right? What kind of a moral principle is that, anyway? A principle that gives importance to the end results rather than the motive. If what’s important in morality is the end results, then one would be justified to do immoral things, like lying, cheating, killing, torturing. So this is not a reliable principle.
• Perhaps 4: I would never do that because God prohibits it. This is the divine right command. • Religions disagree on moral and immoral—often the same religion! • But there are thousands of them. Which one is right? • Worse: what if people acted in accordance with their religion’s moral rules only because they fear God’s punishment? • They would be acting out of fear: doing the right thing for the wrong reason! • What kind of morality is that? A morality based on people obeying rules out of fear? • In a perfect world, perhaps, but in this world we cannot run the risk of people doing the right thing out of fear. Why? What if they lack fear? What if they are not religious at all? • Religious morality is not reliable.
The Universalizability Principle • Kant understood these difficulties and proposed a solution: the universalizability principle. • And it goes like this: • UP: An act is morally permissible if, and only if, its maxim can be universalizable. • What is a maxim: The principle that you follow when you choose to act the way you do. For example, if you decided to cheat on your ethics exam, your maxim might be, “I will cheat on my ethics exam so that I will be able to graduate this year. ”
Maxim • Notice that a maxim has two components: 1. A statement of what you are about to do, “I will cheat on my ethics exam. ” 2. The reason why you want to do it, “I will be able to graduate this year. ” • According to Kant we all act on maxims. These are the rules we live by. • Vey important: We all have maxims. Sometimes I ask people why they act the way they act and they say, “I don’t know!” But that’s impossible. At some level, we all follow certain principles. If we don’t, then our actions are random. Moral decisions are not random. • Kant believed that the only consistent way to assess the morality of our actions is to determine whether our actions follow universal maxims based on reason.
• For Kant, the morality of our actions has nothing to do with the end results. Rather, it has to do with our intentions, i. e. , the motive behind our actions. • People often do the same thing but for different reasons. I dive into a river to rescue another from drowning because I was offered money to do it. You do it because you believe it to be the correct thing to do. • Kant would say my action was not moral because it was motivated by money. Conversely, he would praise you because you acted from a sense of duty—a good will. Actions are right only if they proceed from a good will. • In Kant’s terms, a good will is a will whose decisions are determined by duty, and duty is determined by reason.
You’re with Kant or with the Utilitarian • If you agree with the utilitarian, you would have to say that those who intend to do evil, but end up doing good, do the right thing, which seems inconsistent. • But if you agree with Kant, you can consistently say that those who intend to do evil are acting immorally, regardless of the outcome. • Kant’s view supports our belief that those who have good intentions, even if their actions result in something undesirable, they are acting morally and they should be praised for their actions. • Also it makes morality depends on our maxims, which we can control.
Universalizability • So the morality of an action depends on its maxim. But how does it work, exactly? • Kant proposes this procedure: • STEP 1: Formulate your maxim clearly: State what you intend to do and why. • STEP 2: Imagine a world in which everyone lived by that maxim. • STEP 3: Then ask, “Can the goal of my action be achieved in such a world? ”
• If the answer from STEP 3 is “yes” then the maxim is universalizable, and the action is morally permissible. If the answer is “no” then the maxim is not universalizable, and thus the action is not morally permissible. • He is not concerned about whether or not acting on a maxim is conducive to the best consequences or if God approves of it. He asks whether we could achieve our goals in a world where people uphold our maxims as universal moral laws. • Kant argued that this procedure enables us to reliably determine whether or not our actions are morally consistent and fair.
Don’t believe me? Try! • Supposed you question your civic duties. • Your maxim might be, “I will pay my taxes to support the police and firefighters. ” • Can I universalize this maxim? • Let’s test it. Imagine a world in which all citizens acted on my maxim. Would I be able to accomplish my goal? Yes. • In fact, if all citizens pay taxes, the police and firefighters will be supported. Thus, using the universalizability test, we can determine that we have a moral obligation to pay taxes.
Try Again • Suppose after a picnic in the park, I say, “I will pick up my trash to keep the park clean. ” • If all park visitors picked up their trash, then the park would be always clean; that is, if everyone acted on this maxim, I would be able to accomplish my goal to keep the park clean. • Since this maxim is universalizable, we know that we have a moral obligation to keep the park clean.
And Again: • Suppose you owe money to Joe and if you don’t pay him back he will break your arms and legs. No one will lend it to you because you have bad credit. I’m your last resort. You come to me and promise you will pay me back, though you don’t actually intend to. You have made a lying promise. • Are you justified in making a false promise? Let’s test it: your maxim might be something like this: Whenever I need a loan, I will promise to repay it even if I don’t intend to do so.
• Is this maxim universalizable? Let’s use Kant’s procedure: imagine a world in which everyone lived by your maxim. Could you achieve your goal in such a world? • Obviously not. Your maxim would be self-defeating. • If your maxim becomes a universal law, then no one would believe such promises, and so no one would be so crazy as to lend you money—and Joe would mess you up every time!
Test Your Maxim • Another example: Suppose you refuse to help others because you are selfish. Your maxim might be “I will not do anything to help others in need unless I have something to gain from doing so in order to advance my own interests. ” • But once again, if this were a universal law, you would not be able to accomplish your goals because at some point in your life you will need the help of others, but because they follow your maxim, they will turn away from you.
• So according to the universalizability principle, we can test any maxim. If the maxim turns out to be self-defeating then it is morally impermissible. • Self-defeating means that acting on our maxim would not enable us to accomplish our goals. • What follows? Acting morally is equivalent to acting rationally. And acting immorally is acting irrationally. Our moral duties are actions according to reason. • But is Kant right about this? What about those people who are perfectly rational but just refuse to comply with the right maxims? Imagine a person who understands that what he’s about to do is immoral but does not care. Is he irrational?
• Suppose this person reasons as follows: • People have a reason to do something only if doing it will get them what they want. • Acting according to one’s moral duties often fails to get people what they want. • So people sometimes do not have a reason to do their moral duty. • If people lack reasons to do their moral duties, then violating their duties is perfectly rational. • Therefore, it is perfectly rational to violate one’s moral duty. • But according to Kant if you have reasons to do something, then whether you like it or not, you must do it, even if you suffer as a result.
Hypothetical or categorical • Kant makes an important distinction to explain why the argument just given above seems valid. • He explains the distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. • When we test our maxims, as you recall, we ask whether the goal of our action can be achieved; we ask if a certain maxim will get us what we care about. But not all maxims are of the same nature. • Hypothetical imperatives tell us what we need to do in order to achieve our personal goals. For example, if I want a big job, I must get a college degree, and if I want to lose weight I must eat better, and so on. In order to accomplish such goals I have to do what is needed, and not doing so will be irrational.
• But if I decide not to get a big job or not to lose weight? If my desires change, then it is no longer rational for me to follow certain maxims. These commands of reason depend entirely on what I want. • But not all rational requirements are like these! • There are categorical imperatives. They do not depend on what I care about. They are categorical because they apply to everyone who possesses reason. • This is why Kant does not regard animals as moral agents—because animals are ultimately driven by their wants and instincts and not by reason.
• Categorical imperatives are not based on what I want. So one could never change her mind about the commands of categorical imperatives. Doing so would be always irrational. Consequently, we must obey these commands even if we don’t like it. • Remember what Kant says about the golden rule? It is not reliable because it depends on our personal desires. • Today you desire to help, tomorrow your desire might change. Kant: when you feel like helping you do something nice, but it’s not right because you acted from your personal feelings. • But what kind of morality is that? A morality that relies upon our personal feelings is unreliable and inconsistent. Therefore, right moral duties must categorical imperatives.
The Formula of Humanity • Holds that the rational being is “the basis of all maxims of action” and must be treated never as a mere means but always as an end. What this means is that all rational beings should never be exploited for personal gain. • What makes a being rational? Freedom and his free capacity to understand the importance of the moral law. A rational being can do the universalizability test and enforce duty. • A Martian who is capable of freely reflecting and acting on maxims is rational. • Animals cannot do that. • Also small children, the senile, people with severe mental disabilities (the so-called “marginal cases”) are not rational!
Autonomy • Also, Kant’s proposes the idea of moral autonomy: • All rational beings have authority over their actions. Rather than political leaders, priests, or society. • Kant argues that it is the will that determine its guiding principles for itself. • Rational beings, thus, are self-governed. • Kant calls this autonomy.
The Kingdom of Ends • All maxims must harmonize with the Kingdom of Ends. • This means that we should act in such a way that we may think of ourselves as “a member in the universal realm of ends”. • So our maxims (the ways we live by, the rules we act on) must harmonize with all individuals who are included in the Kingdom of Ends. • These are rational beings. • And consequently, we have a direct moral duty to the citizens of the kingdom of ends. • This also means, for example, we do not have direct moral obligations to treat animals nicely.
Direct vs. Indirect duty • Direct duty means that if I lie to you, for example (and you are a rational being according to Kant’s specification) I wrong you directly. • Indirect duty means that if you are not rational and I do something wrong to you, I do not wrong you directly. • For example, I do not have a direct moral obligation to treat a dog nicely. If I kick a dog and hurt him severely, I do not do anything wrong to the dog. I don’t owe him anything. • If, however, it is your dog that I kicked, then I did something wrong to you, the owner, but not the dog. • So I have a direct duty to you but indirect duty to the dog. • Kant says: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals. ” • What about people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, severe mental disabilities, small children? Do we have direct or indirect moral duties to them? We’re left in the dark.
• Well, Kant argues that if my maxim can be universalizable, we are guaranteed that acting upon it is always right, and thus morally permissible. • But it seems as though we can act on universalizable maxims and still do wrong: • When a thief robs a bank to gain money, Kant can show that the thief is acting irrationally because in a world in which everyone robbed banks, banks would run out of money. And consequently, the goal of the thief could not be achieved. But what if the thief’s goal is to put the bank out of business? Well, strangely enough, if everyone acted on the thief’s maxim, the thief’s goal could be achieved. So Kant’s principle would permit bank robbery, but that’s wrong!
• Consider Hitler’s maxim: “I will destroy all non-Aryans to achieve an Aryan world. ” • Can Hitler’s maxim become a universal maxim? Let see: Imagine a word in which everyone lived by that maxim. Could Hitler accomplish his goal? Yes! If everyone destroyed all non-Aryans, the world would be populated only by Aryans; and thus Hitler’s goal could be accomplished. Remember that the universalizability principle says: An act is morally permissible if, and only if, its maxim can be universalizable. It follows that Hitler’s act is right, which is spectacularly absurd!
But wait! What about the Kingdom of Ends? • The Hitler’s maxim could be universalized, all right. However, it violates the formula of humanity: “the rational being is the basis of all maxims of action” • This means that we must treat other rational beings never as means to our ends, but as ends-in-themselves. • Hitler’s maxim violates this principle because it requires that everyone treat non-Aryans as means to the accomplish a non-Aryan world. • But what about people with Alzheimer’s or dementia? Could one exterminate them all? • After all, marginal cases are not rational beings. • Fair enough: perhaps we—and not the principle or Kant—are mistaken. Maybe we’re formulating the wrong maxim? • But it gets worse!
• Suppose you must lie to save someone’s life: during the Holocaust, you are hiding some Jews in your basement. A group of Nazi soldiers knock on your door and ask, “Are you hiding any Jews in your house? ” Should you lie or tell the truth? Ask Kant, who would reason as follows: • We should act only on those maxims that can be universalized. • If you lied to the Nazis, you would be following the maxim, “It is permissible to lie to save people’s lives. ” • But this maxim could not be universalized because a world in which everyone lied to save the lives of others, people would stop believing one another, and then it would be impossible to lie. So your goal could not be achieved. • Therefore, you must not lie to the Nazis.
• What just happened? ! Kant told us that we must never lie, not even to protect the lives of innocent people! • If Kant is right, then whether we like it or not we must never lie—even in such a situation. “By a lie, a man. . . annihilates his dignity as a man. ” • But is he right? • Here is the problem: Why should you ask whether it is permissible to lie? Why should you phrase your maxim like that? Who decides? Perhaps you should phrase it this way: “I will lie when doing so would save someone’s life. ” Or this way: “I will lie to prevent the death of innocent people. ” Now these maxims would not be self-defeating. Imagine a world in which everyone lived by them. We all want that, don’t we? We hope that everyone would live by these maxims.
Kant was confronted by this objection and responded in an essay with the title “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives” (1797). His argument can be stated as follows: • We are tempted to make certain exceptions. But when we do it we are reasoning like the utilitarian—we assume that the end justifies the means. However, we cannot possibly know what the consequences of our actions will be. • Suppose that the Nazis hear a noise coming from the basement. They go downstairs and kill all the Jews who are hiding there—and they also kill you for lying to them. • So making exceptions to rules might be unexpectedly worse than following them. That’s why we should never try to determine the morality of our actions on the basis of their consequences.
• The problem with this argument. Sometimes we can know what the consequences will be. We do that all the time: We lock doors and shut windows to prevent burglars from entering our apartments; we don’t tell a friends that he is a terrible singer to avoid hurting his feelings. • Even if we don’t know the consequences, lying with the intent to save people’s lives is worth the risk. • It is what any individual with moral integrity would do. After all, Kant was concerned about consistency and fairness. • Being fair often requires that we break rules: Lying to the Nazis to protect innocent people’s lives is fair (the right thing to do). • That seems to be the point of Kant: Do the right thing for the right reason. If I lie because it is convenient to me, surely I am doing the wrong thing. But if I lie to save people’s lives, it would seem that I do what is right and for the right reason.
Okay, are you done? No, There’s More • For Kant, once we have identified the correct maxim, we have an obligation to act on it—whether you like it or not. • Suppose you are in the hospital recovering from an illness. I come to visit you and you are delighted to have some company. • You thank me for coming and I say to you I’m just doing my duty. • I’m not visiting you because I love you or I feel compassionate, but rather because I have a moral duty to do it—a categorical one.
• You would be very disappointed. • I am doing the right thing, but something’s missing. • Furthermore, who’s going to motivate me? • At one point my duty will be something that I don’t want or don’t enjoy doing. • Well, Kant says you would be irrational. • Okay, but who cares? • Kant’s ethics leaves us with a bunch of impersonal, objective, legalistic rules.
Conclusion • Kant believed that we must follow absolute moral rules dictated by reason, which he called categorical imperatives. • These rules, according to Kant can never be broken—there can be no exceptions. • Breaking rules = acting irrationally. • But which rules are we to follow? Well, those that pass the test of universalizability. • Unfortunately, the most telling problem is to decide how to formulate, how to phrase, our maxims. • It is not entirely clear, for example, why my maxim should be “It is okay to lie” instead of “I will do whatever is in my power to save the life of other rational beings. ” • Kant certainly did not give us a clear way to determine this. • Consequently, it is difficult to defend the idea of absolute moral rules. And so Kant’s theory seems fatally flawed.