Tuesday 5 January 2010

The Kantian system of ethics: introduction and defense

For this essay I shall be writing on Immanuel Kant. Kant was a brilliant philosopher of eighteenth century Prussia, but his history and life are not of interest to the purpose of this essay. The purpose of this essay is to behold Kant’s system of morality. I shall examine this system by first looking at Kantian ethics and then at some of the beneficial aspects of it. I shall also examine a few objections to this system and show how these objections are not significant.

There are several important items in Kantian ethics; these being the use of reason, the importance of duty, the significance of the good will, the categorical imperative, and human dignity. {Oliver A. Johnson and Andrews Reath, Ethics: selections from classical and contemporary writers (Belmont, C.A.: Thomson Higher Education, 2007) 183-205.}

Reason is that rational human thought that enables us to contemplate, question, and answer. There are two methods of thinking, rational thought and emotional thought. Emotional thought has no intelligent credibility and leads only to fickle, flawed guidance; it should only be used as a thermometer and trusted as a broken one. Emotions change with the most trivial of influences, and can be manipulated intentionally or accidentally by a myriad of options viz. food, music, light, smell, and imagery. The pressures of a schedule or the passionate speaking of a charlatan or the enticing photographs of an advertisement all influence emotions. To be guided by emotions can be equated to a sailor using a spinning child’s top as a compass. {A top being a commonly cylindrical or conoidal device that has a tapering point on which it is made to spin and that is used especially as a toy. To select north as the direction in which such a toy falls would be fickle guidance indeed!} Emotivism is useless in ethics. Reason is rational thought, and by reason we can understand what emotion confounds. Rational thought takes input and analyzes it using information gathered elsewhere and at other times. Reason uses logic and intelligence to explain what needs to be understood. Through reflection and examination we can learn what are the natural laws that govern the world around us.

The categorical imperative, that being the principal of do as you would be done by, is an important aspect to ethical reasoning. The categorical imperative is a counter for the self-exception clause. All to often one of high moral standards will conjure excuses or reasons for a breach of ethics when the situation involves themself. It is hard to see clearly when one is in the middle of events, and so it is easy to hold oneself to a different standard. The categorical imperative is designed as a kibosh for this self-exception. The categorical imperative states to act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. {Oliver A. Johnson and Andrews Reath, Ethics: selections from classical and contemporary writers (Belmont, C.A.: Thomson Higher Education, 2007) 196.} This way, when someone is going to conduct an action, that person can ask if it would be desirous for everyone to behave in the same manner; if the action does not pass this test, it must be amended or abandoned. The categorical imperative is not a method of determining right from wrong but merely an aid; it is a filter to check for double standards and to ensure the absence of inconsistency. This is not for the purpose of obtaining uniform results, but for the purpose of maintaining rational consistency.

“Nothing in the world ... can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.” {Oliver A. Johnson and Andrews Reath, Ethics: selections from classical and contemporary writers (Belmont, C.A.: Thomson Higher Education, 2007) 183.} The good will is what makes actions good. Many things that would be otherwise considered good may actually be bad in the absence of a good will. The good will is not good because of what it accomplishes but it is good in and of itself. It is good because it is willing. It is the intentions, not the results, which declare what is and is not good. It is not what is intended but the intention itself that is important.

A right action must be done from duty. If the action is against duty it is not a right action even if it does have some apparent benefit. The good will of doing one’s duty is more important than a seemingly desirable result. If an action is not done from duty but rather from selfish intentions, that action is lacking the good will and is not good. An action could be done in accordance with duty but not from duty, and that action would have no moral value. The worth of an action is in doing it from duty with a good will. It might be one’s duty to do something, but if that person does it for reasons other than duty, the action being dutiful is merely coincidental. An action must be done because of a sense of duty and not selfishness to possess any ethical worth.

Every human has dignity. This dignity must be respected. All of humanity must be treated with this respect; one must always consider the value of a single human being. It is important to treat a person as an end and never as a means. Whatever course of events is planned and for whatever reason, if it involves a person, it is necessary to imagine that the course of events stops at that person, and what that will mean for that person. If someone were to lie to someone else in order to acquire something needed, the first would be treating the other as a means to acquiring the needed something. If the person were to be treated as an end, the end of being wrongly deprived, instead of as a means, the means of acquiring something, it becomes apparent that the maxim of the action is unethical. The person should be treated as an end, as if nothing would occur after the encounter with that person, rather than a step in the process of something else. This is the basic principle of human dignity, that a person is always an end and never simply a means.

There is good reason behind Kantian ethics. The principles of the system provide guidance that enables people to live together in peace and harmony. Selfishness is the blight of society that destroys both from within and without. A problem with selfishness is the phenomenon of maintaining a different maxim of behavior when it relates to the self then the maxim of behavior when it relates to others. Another problem is that of considering it permissible to exploit a person when it will provide something the selfish person thinks is expedient. Selfish people often think that they need something and that they even deserve it; if someone else has what they want the selfish person thinks that they have a right to have it, and may justify reasons to abscond said item. The principle of the human dignity and the categorical imperative, when properly followed, retard selfishness. When people are treated as ends and not means they are not merely steps in a process but are respected as human beings with dignity. The categorical imperative provides a rational groundwork for maintaining consistency. The categorical imperative causes people to treat others as they would want to be treated. These two principals provide an important basis for people to treat each other well.

When results are sought at the expense of the methods, there is no end to the evils that can be justified. This is the phenomenon that has racked peoples throughout history; if something, however heinous, is perceived as being necessary for a desired end, that something will be viewed as acceptable. People can do the wrong thing when they think it is necessary for them, or not do the right thing when they fear the consequences. When people are moved by duty, the ends are not important. Motives driven from duty demand the right action and forbid the wrong action regardless of the ends that are desired or feared. The ends can not be known, but only predicted. The actions that are performed for the purpose of achieving those ends are what are important, and these actions must be actuated by duty with a good will.

A good will and selfishness can not coexist. Selfishness drives people to pursue what will benefit them; a good will drives people to pursue what will benefit others. When people function with a good will, they do what should be done for everyone rather than what seems pertinent to their own desires. The will determines weather the person’s actions are just or unjust; even if a person manages to accomplish something desirable, if their intentions were coloured, then that person was not just in their actions. A person may be incompetent and accidentally effect an undesirable result, but if their intentions were honest and good, then the person can not be called evil; the results of their actions may be ill, but the person is not evil. It is important, however, that the person be moved from duty with a good will to do the right thing, and not simply to do the wrong thing to accomplish the right end. It is the method that must be done with a good will. An end sought with a good will is meaningless if the actions that are done to gain that end are not pure.

Some have said that the road to destruction is paved with good intentions. These people object to the value of the good will, saying that intending right is useless and only accomplishing right is meaningful. But would it be preferred that people act with ill intentions? If the road to destruction is paved with good intentions, how much more is it paved with bad? Evil action is not justified by good intentions, but neither are evil intentions justified by good results. Some people say that they prefer good results to good intentions, for good results benefit society when good intentions do nothing without the results; good results may be desirable, but the ethical worth of the individual is in their intentions, for that is the character of the person. The character of a person is where their moral value lies, and not in their accomplishments. Many factors control the results, and these factors are out of the control of the individual, but the rightness or wrongness of the individual lies in the individual itself, in the character, in the will. Good results may be desirable, but the ethical value is in the individual; morality is not about social harmony but about virtuous people. Virtuous people create social harmony. The righteousness of an action is not in what it happens to accomplish, either purposefully or accidentally, but in the purpose of the individual performing the action, in the motive of the method. Consider two cities, in the first everyone acts with ill intentions but accidentally always obtain good results, in the second everyone acts with good intentions but accidentally always obtain bad results; the first society would be better to live in but the second society would contain the ethical people. It may be more desirable to live in the first society, but such a society could not exist; evil intentions accomplish evil results more often than good, and the best way to ensure good results is to seek them with good intentions. Evil intentions do not seek good results, but merely stumble upon them accidentally on occasion. The best way to have a good society is to fill it with good people, nay, the only way to have a good society is to fill it with good people.

Thomas Nagel explained a scenario in which he considered Kantian ethics insufficient. {Oliver A. Johnson and Andrews Reath, Ethics: selections from classical and contemporary writers (Belmont, C.A.: Thomson Higher Education, 2007) 359-370.} He described a situation in which a traveler wrecked a car on a country road. The vehicle is inoperative and the passengers are seriously injured. There is no one else on the road and the only house in the area contains no telephone, but only a grandmother, her small grandchild, and a car. The whereabouts of the car keys is unknown to the traveler, and the grandmother finds the traveler’s story incredible and incarcerates herself in the bathroom. Nagel proposed twisting the child’s arm in order to compel the grandmother to divulge the location of the car keys, insisting that this was the expedient action to provide the passengers with the necessary medical attention. Considering the temporary pain of the grandchild a lesser evil compared to the permanent injury of the passengers, Nagel insisted that the action would be justified. Looking at it from the standpoint of Kantian ethics, the traveler may have the good will to rescue the passengers, but the intent of hurting the child is evil. The traveler may be moved from duty to save the passengers, but the duty to treat the grandmother and grandchild in a good manner would be violated. The most important aspect, however, is that of human dignity. The child should be treated as an end, the end of being tortured, rather than as a means, the means of acquiring the car keys. The grandmother should also be treated as an end rather than as a means, for what trauma will she endure from a stranger inflicting pain on her grandchild in order to steal her car. And the situation compels one to question, what were the traveler and passengers doing in order to fall into such a predicament? Were they driving too fast? Why should the grandmother and grandchild be made to suffer for the cause of lessening the pain of the traveler’s error? The traveler and passengers encountered great trouble, but what right have they to force the innocent residents of the country home to share in their trouble? Nagel is suggesting that it is morally right, or even morally obligatory, to torture a child, torment a grandmother, and steal a car when one’s actions bring harm on one and one’s companions, regardless of the involvement of the aforementioned child and grandmother. This scenario provides an interesting thought question, but in reality, would there be any other options? Nagel made the parameters of the scenario quite plausible but perhaps there would be a tertium quid (Latin for third way), perhaps there would be a different option that did not require the evil of Nagel’s suggestion. How badly injured are the passengers; is there a first aid kit in the house? Even if there is no other way, how could it be right to inflict the evils before mentioned on the hapless victims in the house? When considering the principles of human dignity and responsibility, it becomes apparent that Nagel’s suggestion is unethical.

There is an objection to Kantian ethics specifically targeted at the categorical imperative. This objection is that it is considered good to hold to a principle of “always give and never receive.” When put to the categorical imperative, this principle does not pass. If everyone were to give and never receive, there would be no one to give to, and the giving would never be permitted to occur. This objection to the categorical imperative is actually evidence in support of it. The principle of always give and never receive is a flawed principle, and the categorical imperative demonstrates this. It is possible for a society to have principles of etiquette that are impractical or unethical. It was the custom of some Inuit tribes for a man to share his wife with a visitor, who would have her for the night; this may be the custom of the society, and may be considered proper etiquette, but is in fact deeply unethical. Adultery is always wrong regardless of the laws or customs of the society or culture. Ethics is universal, not cultural. It may be considered plausible for a person to hold to the principle of always giving and never receiving, but this practice is in fact discourageable. If someone is willing to receive, that person should also be willing to give; and if some one is willing to give, that person should not deprive another of the joy of giving either. Refusing a gift is unkind, and a slight against the kindness of the benefactor. In some societies, the medieval Scandinavian societies for example, it is considered rude to refuse to give or receive hospitality, and refusing someone’s hospitality was an insult to that person’s honour and could even spark a feud. Principles that violate the categorical imperative are detrimental to social harmony. If enough people adhered to the principle of always give and never receive, it would become a great plague on society and the fallacy of this practice would be obvious. Both the practice of always giving without receiving, and the practice of always receiving without giving, are ill practices and should be avoided and never praised.

Kant devised an ethical system that has many beneficial aspects. The use of reason and the respect of human dignity are fundamental to morality. The categorical imperative assists in determining what should be considered good and provides a protocol for rational consistency. The Kantian value system promotes individual good character and responsibility. Respect of human dignity and consistent reasoning are necessary for a functional society. The objections to Kantian ethics suffer from flawed values and fallacious reasoning. Kant’s ethical system is indispensable for living a moral life.

{This is adapted from an essay that I wrote for a class paper. Due to online formatting constraints, I have attempted to replace endnotes with in-text notes. Other formatting has also been lost, and consequently this online form of the essay is inferior to the correctly printed version}

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