Is Kant’s system of deontological ethics feasible and desirable?

Kant argues that “it is impossible to imagine anything at all in the world…that can be called good without qualification- except a good will”[1] as “a good will seems to constitute the indispensible condition even of our worthiness to be happy”[2]. This is Kant’s opening to his view on morality in which he explains that all post-Kantian morality has been based on a posteriori foundations where we take happiness to be the good. What Kant proposes is a theory opposing this in the sense that the moral good is a priori and comes from out will to do what is right via a sense of duty to do what is morally good. This a priori moral good Kant calls the categorical imperative which is a highly desirable concept of morality to have although it requires some amending before it can be seen as a feasible model for morality.

To understand the categorical imperative we must first explain the whole moral system Kant is in favour for beginning with the first point. It is argued “the moral worth of an action done out of duty has its moral worth…in the maxim…with which the action is decided upon…not in actualizing the object of the action”[3], meaning moral satisfaction does not come from the actualization of some abstract goal such as eudaimonia, pleasure or virtue, but from the moral act in itself. This is because the moral worth of an action can “be found…in the principle of the will…the crossroads between its a priori principle…and it’s a posteriori motivation”[4], or in other words our duty to act morally and our desire to be seen as being moral, thus the will acts as a synthesiser combing the a priori duty with the a posteriori desire into one simple product which drives us towards moral action.

What is meant here by the term duty is “the necessity of an act done out of respect for the law”[5], only by the law Kant is not referring to man-made law but an overarching a priori universal law. This universal law can be understood as an ‘I ought’ statement as “I ought never…act in such a way that I could not also will that my maxim should become a universal law”[6] so not only ‘must’ we act in accordance to our maxim but it must be a maxim compatible with the universe so that everyone can adhere to it at all times without exception, or as Kant puts it “moral laws must hold for every rational being”[7]. Therefore any maxim devised by our will must first go through the test for universalisability to ensure it is an universalisable maxim, if it passes it becomes an objective principle, if it fails it becomes a subjective principle.

Now “an objective principle…is called a commandment…the formulation of this commandment is called an Imperative”[8]. So any objective principle which passes the test for universalisability is an imperative of which, Kant argues, there are two kinds; hypothetical imperatives which “declare a possible action…to the attainment of something that one wants”[9], and categorical imperatives which “would be one that represented an action as itself objectively necessary, without regard to any further end.”[10]. An example of a hypothetical imperative would be ‘to succeed in passing this module I ought to study Kant well’ the reason this is hypothetical is because it relies on the ‘I’ in question to want the success of passing the module but not every one wants this, a majority of people care nothing for the success in passing a Kant module, thus it cannot be willed upon everybody. However an example of a categorical imperative might be ‘I ought not to lie as I have a duty to adhere to the principle of honesty’ this can be universalised as we can will everyone to tell the truth consistently otherwise there would be little or no room for honesty.

Kant claims that there is one golden categorical imperative which rests above all others and it is “act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”[11], as was stated earlier only Kant goes on to explain that one maxim of such a kind ought to be taken more importantly than others “a human being…does exist as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be used…a human being must always be viewed…as an end”[12]. If we all adhere to this moral maxim then we shall move towards a moral utopia in which we all follow the universal law that is the categorical imperative, Kant calls this utopia the ‘kingdom of ends’ about which he says “a being who must regard itself as making universal law by all the maxims of its will…leads to a…very fruitful concept- namely, that of a kingdom of ends…the systematic union of different rational beings under common laws”[13]. Hence the categorical imperative is to treat others in such a way that we can will everyone to treat each other in the same way in order to bring about this moral utopia.

A supporter of Kant’s theory is the developmental psychologist Kohlberg who drew up a model which maps the moral development of individuals. Kohlberg came to realise that a majority of individuals today are grounded upon stage four moralities with some elements of stage five moralities[14]. Thus modern society is grounded upon what Kohlberg calls ‘conventional morality’[15]. However Kohlberg argues that Kant’s deontological ethics is beyond the morality of the majority of modern individuals as it is grounded upon stage six moralities. From this it could be argued that since politics and social thinking is moving towards an age of post-modernism then we too should me moving into ‘post-conventional morality’ based upon stage five-six morality (or possibly stage seven). Therefore in Kohlberg’s view Kant’s moral theory is highly desirable, thus we ought to strive towards a kingdom of ends and live by the categorical imperative.

Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative has also been applied, to some extent, to the political sphere by Rawls in his theory of social justice. His idea of selecting principle of justice from behind a veil of ignorance where “no one knows his place in society, his class…or social status, nor…his fortune in the distribution of natural assets”[16], this ensures that we do not select principle which benefit us at the expense of others which can be interpreted as Kant’s categorical imperative of not using people as a means to an end since by exploiting others to gain their fair share of resources we have used them as a way (a means) to acquire our desire (an end). Rawls even argues that for this categorical imperative, although never actually mentioning it in such a way, to work there must first be a principle in place which ensures “no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune”[17], this principle is the principle of political equality, this principle ensures that all individuals are covered by an equal distribution of political freedoms so that those of higher social status are able to manipulate and exploit those lowering down the ladder. Furthermore we can see the direct link between Rawlsian justice and Kantian ethics by a point brought up by Scruton, “if we are to find an imperative that recommends itself on the basis of reason alone, then we must abstract from all distinctions between rational agents”[18]. Or to explain this in another way to build a categorical imperative we must place ourselves behind a veil of ignorance. Therefore not only is the categorical imperative desirable but it also has some practical application.

Kant’s categorical imperative of treating agents as an end in themselves and not as a means to an end does, to a greater or lesser extent, the Christian ethic described in Matthew’s Gospel, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets”[19] as we would not want to be used by another as a way of helping them fulfil their desire so we ought not to do this to others. Even the utopia of a kingdom of ends has the distinct echo of the biblical utopia of a kingdom of God. Given Kant’s Christian upbringing it is of no surprise that his moral theory has Christian undertones even “Kant regarded…the categorical imperative as the philosophical basis of the famous golden rule, that we should do as we would be done by”[20] so it was by no accident that Kant’s theory was based upon Christian teaching.

However this is where the categorical imperative breaks down as Kant argues it is an objective principle done out of duty, but if being a Christian ethic then it is done out of a duty to God and therefore only those who follow the Christian religion making the whole concept a subjective, and hypothetical, system as it relies on the condition ‘if you are Christian then you ought to follow this rule’. It would therefore bear no force upon those of other faiths unless we do employ Rawls’ veil of ignorance to abstract ourselves from our religious beliefs and then agree on following Kant’s categorical imperative out of not a duty to God but a duty to each other as free, rational agents.

Another argument which can be made against the categorical imperative is that it can permit actions which are deemed immoral or even illegal under current ways of thinking. If we were to ask the question, if an axe murderer who comes knocking on our door asking if X (fill in the name of someone who cherish) is in are we then obliged to tell the truth? The utilitarian viewpoint is to argue we ‘must’ lie on this occasion as the misery inflicted upon the murderer by not killing X is outweighed by the happiness of X and yourself for having X still alive at the end of the day. However Kant argues that we ‘ought’ to tell the truth here as we have agreed to follow the categorical imperative and because of such we would not want to be lied to so we must not lie to others regardless. What is then even stranger is the categorical imperative also then demands us to kill the murderer since he is acting on the maxim ‘I expect to be able to kill others so I expect others to kill me’ so we have to first follow our maxim and then adhere to the murderer’s. This sounds controversial but if we refer back to Kohlberg’s then the utilitarian view on this is based upon stage four morality[21] whereas Kant’s view is stage six and therefore we should try to adhere to Kant’s view rather than the utilitarian view. However since the law and social conventions are still stuck in stage four morality to move into Kantian thinking requires a complete overhaul of the legal system, social conventions and the way we see morality, not as a pursuit of happiness but as doing what is our duty to ourselves and others. Such an overhaul is unfeasible as it requires a slow and steady series of amendments to what we now have to want we want at the end, thus for the time being the categorical imperative is not a feasible moral theory.

In the video game Final Fantasy IX we come across an interplanetary moral dilemma where the planet Terra is dying so Garland, the overlord of Terra, constructs a new planet called Gaia and creates a new race of conscious humanoid beings who are free, rational agents. The problem here is “all the people of Gaia were created…to house the souls of the people of Terra”[22] once Terra had perished, neither side had been informed about this and both sides are being used as a means to an end, in this case the end being to save the people of Terra from extinction. As the game progresses you find out “all parties are angry with this”[23] however it is not because they have been used as a means that they are angry but because they have not be informed about being used in such a way. A group of post-Kantian thinkers known as ‘moral autonomy Kantians’ uphold that “it’s morally acceptable for a person- by virtue of being a rational, autonomous agent- to give permission to be used by others”[24] so long as all parties are fully informed about is involved, for example in the world of Final Fantasy “players…can summon Guardian Forces (GFs) …for the purpose of defeating the enemy…these GFs must…agree to assist the player”[25] and the players are informed that their character loses its free-will during this period as the GF takes complete control of the character’s body, just as the GF is informed that when summoned it is open to harm from whatever beast it has been summoned to deal with. This means the categorical imperative to one that can be twisted so long as a form of social contract has been established between all parties, which Kohlberg states is a stage five morality and therefore is more desirable than utilitarian models we have in place currently. It also offers a more feasible model than the original, stage six moralities, categorical imperative as it does not require a large reconstruction of society.

To conclude Kant’s notion of an a priori morality based upon the categorical imperative where we treat each other as an end and not as a means to an end is one that is desirable, according to Kohlberg’s scale of moral development, but not feasible in the original format Kant provides, instead we should follow the slightly amended version proposed by moral autonomy Kantians which allows us to be treated as a means to and end so long as we have consented to be used in such a way if a feasible moral system based upon Kantian deontology. Personally I believe a more relative system of ethics is required and particularly favour Aristotle’s virtue theory (with a few amendments made), but what do you guys think?


[1] Kant. I, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 2002, 4:393

[2] Ibid, 4:393

[3] Ibid, 4:399-4:400

[4] Ibid, 4:400

[5] Ibid, 4:400

[6] Ibid, 4:402

[7] Ibid. 4:412

[8] Ibid. 4:413

[9] Ibid, 4:414

[10] Ibid, 4:414

[11] Ibid. 4:421

[12] Ibid. 4:428

[13] Ibid. 4:433

[14] See appendix one

[15] Ibid

[16]Rawls. J, A Theory of Justice, 1999, pg.11

[17] Ibid, pg.16

[18] Scruton. R, Kant a Very Short Introduction, 2001, pg.85

[19] Matthew 7:12

[20] Scruton. R, Kant a Very Short Introduction, 2001, pg.86

[21] See appendix one

[22] Arp. R and Fisk. S, 2009, ‘Objectification of Conscious Life Forms in Final Fantasy’, pg.74

[23] Ibid, pg.74

[24] Ibid, pg.74

[25] Ibid, pg.77

Posted on May 1, 2012, in ethical/political, philosophical and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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