Wednesday 7/24

Deontology

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Synopsis

Today we took up an important alternative to Utilitarianism (which, remember, is an umbrella term referring to a cluster of distinct consequentialist moral normative theories), Kantian Ethical Theory. To understand KET it is important to understand Kant's objections to UET.

Kant distinguished between Hypothetical Oughts and Categorical Oughts. A Hypothetical Ought has the form of a conditional, and every implication of UET is a Hypothetical Ought of the form:

If you would maximize utility, then perform action X.

Hypothetical Oughts can never count as moral oughts for Kant in virtue of their logical form. In particular, Hypothetical Oughts are binding only to the extent that we have the appropriate desires. To see what this means, consider that the conditional

If P then Q

is true even if the antecedent, P, is false. (In general, a conditional is only false when its antecedent is true but its consequent is false.)

Hence if I have no desire to maximize utility, I have no reason to perform action X. The conditional

If you would maximize utility, then perform action X.

is still true, provided that I fail to have the desire to maximize utility.

But moral duties, for Kant, are absolute. That is to say, moral duties must bind unconditionally. So no Hypothetical Ought could be a moral duty. The puzzle is to understand how we can infer Categorical Oughts.

Just how does KET generate (imply) Categorical Oughts? To answer that question, we consider two formulations of the Categorical Imperative. The first formulation, in particular, is used as the basis of a so-called Kantian Deduction to show, for example, that everyone should tell the truth--i.e., lying is morally wrong. A Kantian Deduction can be schematized as follows. First, a proposed course of action is summarized in a brief description. This is the maxim referred to in the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative. Examples include 'I should lie', 'I should steal', and 'I should kill'. The Categorical Imperative, at least in its first formulation, is a criterion of universality. The biblical 'golden rule' is likewise a criterion of universality; there are many other examples. Roughly put, the Categorical Imperative requires that our actions be consistent. What Kant noticed was that acts like lying, stealing, and killing succeed only in contexts where the agent performing the actions is the only one performing the actions. If everyone lies, then the liar's action cannot succeed in its goal--similarly for stealing and killing. Another way to put the point is this: actions like lying, stealing, and killing are self-defeating.

With the maxim in hand, then, we universalize it to get 'everyone should lie', 'everyone should steal', 'everyone should kill'. Our job at this stage is to see if the maxim is consistent with its universal; is it possible to generate a logical contradiction? For maxims like 'I should lie' it is, since the success of my lying hinges completely on others not lying. Hence, by Reductio ad Absurdum, the maxim must be rejected. It is false. But if, for example, it is false that I should lie, then it follows that I should not lie.

What contradiction we get depends on the case at hand. But it is important to appreciate that we get a logical contradiction--something of the form, 'Q and not-Q'. Often students get confused and think that what Kant is saying is that if everyone lies, the world will be a very bad place and people wont get along very well. That is not Kant's point. That is how a Utilitarian might argue, and Kant was no friend of Utilitarianism. Kant denies that consequences have anything to do with morality. Rather, morality is a matter of absolute duty as dictated by logic.

KET is a fascinating theory insofar as Kant has come as close as anyone to wedding logic and ethics: The immoral action is illogical in the sense that it is self-defeating.

To be sure, in application the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative is usually more helpful than the first. There are various ways to interpret what it means to treat someone as an end, and never as a means only, which is the constraint at the very core of the second formulation. On one account, to treat someone as an end and not as a means only is to respect their interests as if they were your own. On another account, it seems clear that we use someone when we manipulate or cheat them. So the idea would be that we avoid treating them as a means only to the extent that we respect their autonomy. That is, we respect their right to make their own decisions and choices in treating a person as an end in themselves.

Bearing in mind once again that moral normative theories are not black boxes or moral computers, it may help you to understand how KET is applied in a given case if you to study the following example:

Case E