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Describe Kant’s theory of Duty as the basis of morality (33 marks).
Emanuel Kant was a German Philosopher who lived in the late 18th century and was arguably one of the greatest thinkers of all time. He came up with a guide to morals in direct opposition to teontological or consequential theories. Many people use his ethics as a guide to living a moral life, but what exactly is Kant’s ethics? How did he believe we should face moral problems and how can we apply it in our every day lives?
Instead of situation based theories his theory was deontological ethics. This is a very absolute and objective form of ethics, which has been worked out using a rational thinking process. Kant believed that an ethical theory should be universalisable to be morally correct. This means it must be able to be applied to everyone all over the world regardless of situations or circumstances. Kant believed for this to be possible it must contain something that was ‘unconditionally and universally good’.
This must me something that is ‘intrinsically good’ which is good in itself, the highest good ‘without qualification’. This thing that determines the moral worth of our actions cannot be instrumentally good, something that only becomes good pending the results of the action or like some things such as happiness, which are possible of making a situation morally worse. Kant believed that there was only one thing that is the right thing for us to do in any situation to make us morally correct. He said that ‘a morally good man is a man of good will’.
Kant said that it was ‘impossible to conceive anything in the world as good without qualification, except good will’. For something to be of good will, it is not dependent on the goodness of what it effects or accomplishes. If it were, then it could not be considered to be of unconditional value and intrinsic goodness for it would become a ‘means to an end not an end in itself’. This leads us to therefore conclude that the consequences of any moral action are irrelevant.
Kant describes the most important thing as being ‘not what the act accomplishes but the motive behind the act’ (Moral Problems – M Palmer). However we may ask what exactly is the right motive to have? Kant simply states that ‘ a good wills only motive is to act for the sake of duty’. For an act to be universally, intrinsically good in itself, it must not be done because of its consequences, nor from self-interest, fear or as a means to an end, rather only because it is our soul duty to do it. We should always act for duties sake simply because it is the right thing to do.
We need to be very clear as to what this specifically entails. Kant is saying that we can not do a moral act because of self-interest. This is understandable because if we are doing it merely because we get something good out of it i.e. a reward or a good name then we are not doing it because we simply know it is the right thing to do. However we also need to be aware that this also includes the idea that we can not do a moral act because it comes naturally to us. We cannot do it because we derive pleasure or enjoyment from doing something we know is right or because we will feel good about ourselves if we help other people.
This is because we are doing it indirectly for self-pleasure and this again is wrong, it does not include the presence of good will. Even if duty does coincides with what we naturally do, it does not make the act intrinsically good because we are doing it for another reason besides doing it because we know it is our duty to do so. The fact that we happen to be doing what duty prescribes is just luck. It is wrong because the moment anything that duty says we should do becomes something we no longer enjoy, we won’t do it. We cannot be for example honest as long as it pleases us to do so. Kant therefore concludes that ‘this will fails to be good will, just as if they had acted from self-interest.
So far Kant has told us that a morally good person is a ‘man of good will’ and that a man of good will is one that follows where his duty lies. This is done for the very reason that it is the right thing to do and we have a responsibility to do it. It does not come from self-interest, calculating consequences, looking at specific circumstances or from pleasure out of doing something for someone else. However we still need to know ‘where our duty lies’ and what it is exactly that we are supposed to do to become man of good will who does what duty foretells him to do.
We can be sure however that because it is a deontological argument, that we have an absolute principle to follow that does not look at consequences of particular actions or changes in certain situations. It is absolute and definite and we can be sure that there are no exceptions to the rule. We also know that it has to be universably applicable ‘to everyone irrespective of their situation’ (M Palmer – Moral Problems). It therefore must contain something that all humans have in common so we can all know where our duty lies in different situations and Kant believed that this was Reason or rationality. He said that humans are rational beings, we are all capable of resolving problems using reason. We all have an innate intellectual power that we are born with which we can use to work out rationally where our duty lies.
Kant believed that it was unacceptable to look at consequences of a particular action and then decide if we should do it or not because there is not enough evidence for us to make a proper decision from. Rather we need to look at the actual experience of moral obligation and this is the feeling of what we think we ‘ought to do’. Following what our duty prescribes involves the idea that what we feel we ‘ought’ to do is what is right. We should all have a feeling of moral obligation; we all know the good and right thing to do so therefore we should do it. Therefore our duty becomes to obey our rational thinking which prescribes what the morally correct thing we ought to do is.
However, we still have not established what the ‘supreme principle of morality is’. This one rule that we all must follow as a means to our rational thinking is something which Kant calls the categorical imperative. By imperative we mean something that tells us what actions would be good in the form of a command, usually using the words ‘I ought’. A categorical imperative therefore is an act that is solely good in itself or intrinsically good. The act is done because of the very ‘nature’ of the act itself and not to achieve something else as a means to it. It is done only ‘for its own sake’ and is free from ulterior beneficial motives.
On the other hand we have hypothetical imperatives as an opposite. These acts are done because of a desire to achieve something else. For example if I exercise more I will become fitter. It tells us what acts are good as a means to something else. Palmer uses the example of telling the truth to illustrate the difference between the two. A categorical imperative would be ‘tell the truth’ because it is good in itself and always is the right thing to do. The hypothetical imperative would be ‘if you want to be trusted, tell the truth’ because we are gaining something for ourselves by doing the right thing i.e. we are trusted.
Once we know the distinctive feature of the principle of morality, we can analyse it more deeply so we can specifically know exactly what it is that defines a moral act as being good. Kant said that a morally good act had intrinsic value. This is where something is good and valuable in itself. The very nature of them makes them valuable regardless of anything else. For example Kant believed that Humans were of intrinsic value and therefore should be treated as an ‘end in themselves’.
The opposite to this is therefore is instrumental valuable which is when something is good only because of what it can achieve and therefore is treated as a ‘means to an end’. Kant said this is not how we should treat other human’s i.e. to use them to gain something for ourselves. He is saying that all humans should be treated equally and the same, we should treat everyone as we would treat ourselves. So for example, racism would always be wrong in the eyes of Kant. This links to the Christian idea of the Golden rule to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ which Jesus, the ultimate example of human goodness, instructed his people to follow.
The final and key feature that Kant placed emphasis on when concerning the categorical imperative was the acts ability to be universalisable. A key quote he used was ‘ I ought never to act in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’. By this he is implying a method we can use to see exactly what laws are good because they have ‘moral worth’. Kant stated that if the law can be applied to everyone in the world without being contradicted then it is good. For example we can universalise the maxim ‘do not murder’ to all of society regardless of any situation without there being contradictions.
By contradiction, Kant means one of two things, Contradiction in the Will or Nature. If we cannot universalise an act because of either one of these contradictions then we must conclude that it is morally wrong.
By contradiction in the law of nature, Kant is referring to rules that cannot be applied because they are ‘straightforwardly self contradictory’ – (M Palmer – Moral Problems). The maxim or rule can not be applied universally because it contradicts the laws of nature meaning it physically is impossible to do. For example the maxim ‘never speak until you are spoken to first’ is not possible to keep because if everyone applied it then no one would talk at all because we would always be waiting to be spoken to. From this we can see that following this maxim would not be the good thing to do.
The Contradiction in the will is not when something contridicts itself, rather a maxim that the person involved ‘could not possibly want to see universalised’ (Palmer). We may find that if it was applied universally we could be in the situation where we would not want everyone to apply it because it would help us if they didn’t. For example the maxim ‘do not give money to the poor’ because we may find ourselves one day, through no fault of our own, poor and homeless and then we would want people to give money to us to help us survive.
Kant gave one simple rule to following universalisabiltiy and this was ‘ Act only on a maxim through which you can at the same time will that it be a universal law’. With this he prescribed a formula which we can all follow to see if a maxim is universalisable. Before acting we have to ask what rule we would be following if we carried out this act and this is the maxim. Then we are to ask ourselves if it was possible and would we would be willing for it to be followed by everyone at all times in all places. If it cannot then it is a contradiction in either the law of nature or in the will. Then quite simply, if it can be universalised do it, if not then don’t.
In conclusion we can see that to follow Kants deontological ethics we must ‘act solely in accordance to duty and for the sake of duty only’ (Palmer – Moral Problems). It has been a very popular theory, which many people follow, sometimes without being aware of it. However we do need to ask is it of practical use in out lives today? Can we honestly say that it is useful, practical and realistic when making moral decisions? In my next section I shall be looking at these questions in a little more depth to see if we can logically come up with an answer.