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Kantian ethics Essay

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Kant argued for the use of a normative ethical theory based around the idea that all men have a similar common goal; his theory was absolute (meaning one must follow a common set of rules no matter the scenario) and deontological (focused on actions themselves rather than the outcome of said actions). Kant advised the use of this theory despite it being a priori, meaning he had no observations or experience of the theory in practice.

Kant believed that all men have duties which they ought to fulfil, not to gain a desired outcome or avoid a less desirable outcome, but simply because it is their duty. For example, if we can assume it is always wrong to kill people, it would be considered immoral to kill someone even if that action saved the lives of hundreds of people. Similarly, if you consider a foetus to be ‘alive’ then it would be immoral to terminate it no matter the affect it would have on the mother’s physical or mental health. Nearly everyone would find fault in the former, notably fewer for the latter, yet I would hope that the majority would still disagree.

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David Gauthier suggested that as morality is an agreed concept, designed so that people cannot run amok doing as they please with no consideration for others, an absolutist theory cannot function as rules are subject to interpretation. Let us briefly consider the foetus example once more, if the rule states that it is immoral to take a life, what should be considered a life? Does life start at conception or at birth, or maybe somewhere in between. For this reason, though an absolute theory should be applied to every situation, the rules do not necessarily mean the same thing for every single person.

Kant said that in order to create a duty one had to pass it through three tests, the first of which being the law of nature. This law states that in order for something to become a duty it must be capable of being universalised, so everyone must be able to follow said duty ad infinitum. So, for example: ‘jump the queue’ could not become a duty as if everyone jumped the queue there would be no queue to jump. Though this seems sensible, it is possible that immoral acts could be universalised. For example ‘lie to people’ could be universalised even though it is a traditionally immoral act. Not only that but the rule could easily be manipulated by phrasing things differently, for instance ‘everyone called Hector Benjamin Stellyes can jump the queue’ could be universalised as it would most likely only apply to me.

To counteract these faults Kant put in place a second law, the law of wills. This stated that for something to become a duty it must be desirable for the population. This rule however, also has faults. In order for a rule to satisfy an entire population (and if this theory was applied worldwide that would be nearly 7.5 billion at the time of writing) it would have to be extremely broad, leaving it open to being interpreted in drastically different ways. If the rule said that one simply had to please the majority, what happens to those who disagree? As all duties are absolute and universal, one would have to do something they disagreed with in order to be moral citizens.

Kant attempts to rebuttal this with his argument that all humans still have free will, even though they should follow their duty they don’t have to; humans remain autonomous. However, some would suggest that though humans are nearly always capable of independent thought, it is human nature to be moral. A psychological study by Yale in 2013 on a number of babies that were as of yet unaffected by modern culture (they couldn’t read, speak etc.) making them almost purely instinctual showed that it is human nature to be ‘good’. If society tells you that there are a set list of moral acts, most people will conform to these acts to the best of their ability.

So far, we have a set of rules and how this set of rules are constructed, so now I ask: why should anyone follow this philosophy? If we should not consider consequences when doing our duty, what reason do we have to do so? Kant believed there to be two separate reasons to perform any action: the hypothetical imperative and the categorical imperative.

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