A Survey of Ethics: Part 2

Kant and Deontological Ethics


Last week, I tried my best to summarize Aristotle’s ethics, as well as to provide a short critique of his views as I perceive and understand them. This week I’m travelling a bit north geographically, leaving the ancient Greek isles behind for 18th century Prussia. The second philosopher whose ethical system I’m going to consider is the great Immanuel Kant.

Oh that fucking Kant (sorry, I had to).

Similar to Aristotle and his Nichomachean Ethics, Kant educed his ethics in his Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. His is a very serious departure from Aristotle. In explicating his views and ideas, I hope to illustrate (at least implicitly, as this piece is not a strict comparative analysis) the extent to which the two systems differ. Of course, I also hope to throw in my hindsight-inflected interpretation, making sure to allow plenty of room for 21st century snottiness.

I. Somewhat a Summary

To begin, I think it best to define what exactly this multisyllabic monster of a word, “deontological”, means. Deontological ethics is the frame by which the moral value of one’s actions, whether he or she did something right or wrong, whether he or she is good or bad, is based on his or her adherence to rules. This is in sharp contrast to the virtue ethics considered last week, in which the ethical valence of an action is measured by its coherence with somewhat common notions of virtuosity and goodness. In Aristotle’s view, one isn’t compelled to obey any rules, per se, in order to be a good person. Virtue isn’t cordoned off by collective agreements on what goodness is in the form of rules. This isn’t the case for Kant.

In Kant’s philosophical cosmology, rational knowledge bifurcates: there’s material knowledge on the one hand and formal knowledge on the other. Formal knowledge is logic; pure and based on suppositions, principles, axioms, and premises that have nothing at all to do with the physical world. As a system it’s independent of observation, and its conclusions hold in every possible, Leibnizian world. Then, much like a 20th century Feigenbaum diagram, material knowledge also bifurcates: there’s natural science, a hodge podge of theories that explicate nature and natural law, and there’s ethics, which is centered on what Kant classifies as laws of freedom. It’s obvious, from the distinction between science and ethics, that Kant presupposes that human beings aren’t just members of the natural world. In his view, there’re natural beings that abide by natural laws (laws according to which everything does happen), and there’re rational beings that can abide by laws of morality (laws according to which everything ought to happen). The two forms are not mutually exclusive. Human beings, for example, are indeed natural beings, in that natural law applies to them most definitely, but they’re also rational beings — ethical laws, maxims that dictate what should happen, are accessible to humans in ways they’re not accessible to non-rational natural beings (like ducks… ducks, as far as everyone in this world knows, don’t concern themselves with ethical dilemmas). So, in Kant’s classificatory method (which he largely borrowed from the Greeks, though his justification/rationalization for using it seems to be his own), knowledge is kind of like a lopsidedly talented Cerberus: two of the heads share similar characteristics, while the third just sort of dangles there.

Moving on to the actual philosophy, the main distinction Kant draws is between empirical philosophy (philosophy based on experience) and pure philosophy (philosophy that derives its central tenets from a priori, or solely rational, precepts). When pure philosophy is entirely formal, having to do with symbols and systems of symbols, it’s logic. When it has to do with what he defines as “definite objects of the understanding”, or somewhat determined things, objects whose images and forms can be apprehended mentally, it is metaphysics. Natural science and ethics, then, are each composed of an empirical and a rational dimension.

A proper moral philosophy must rest purely on its rational part. Nothing empirical, nothing based on experience or the experience of experiencing, can be allowed to form the basis for generating deontological principles. What a human ought to do should have nothing to do with the world in which he or she lives. It must instead be based on a priori principles that can apply to all rational beings, regardless of their respective environments. The reason Kant insists on this being so, I think, is that if morality were to rely on experience, then there would be no point in trying to develop a universally applicable ethics. Just as importantly, moral actions aren’t moral simply because they’re performed in accordance with moral law. An action is ethical if and only if it is performed because it is moral law. It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which an action only accidentally complies with the accepted ethical norm (e.g., A man gives a homeless and starving boy his food because he didn’t like the food, and not because he wanted to feed a hungry child). This focus on intention is the key to Kant’s whole perspective. In his view, a rational being’s character is the central factor when considering the morality of its actions. What we call character, Kant calls the will. A good will is, for him, the only thing good “without qualification”. This good will is not the only good, but within the Kantian frame it must be the source of all other goods. But what is this good will exactly? How to best fix and define it? To understand good will, it’s necessary to consider duty.

Actions have moral worth if they blossom, or come about, from duty, or a desire to perform an action. A man defending a helpless child from a group of hoodlums is performing a moral action only if his intention is indeed to defend the child because it’s the ethical and moral thing to do, and not because he enjoys street fighting or because saving the child would bring him joy. Kant draws three propositions regarding morality and duty that best reflect this point:

1. For an action to have genuine moral worth, it must be done from duty.

This, I believe, was explained sufficiently above.

2. An action that is done from duty doesn’t get its moral value from the purpose that’s to be achieved through it, but from the maxim that it involves.

Moral value is, again, not a function of the final result of an action, but of the desire to abide by the ethical principles underlying that action.

3. To have a duty is to be required to set in a certain way out of respect for law.

The law is the source of one’s volition and something that overpowers one’s performance. It’s not a function of desire. So, moral goodness “can’t consist in anything but the thought of law in itself that only a rational being can have —with the will being moved to act by this thought and not by the hoped-for effect of the action”.

After laying out all of these thoughts, Kant spells out the principle, the maxim, the categorical imperative according to which all rational, moral beings should behave:

I ought never to act in such a way that I couldn’t also will that the maxim on which I act should be a universal law.

This is it.

The categorical imperative.

Consider a scenario. Then consider your motivation behind a specific action you’d perform in that scenario. If you can will the principle on which said action was performed to be a universal law, then that is the moral thing to do. Should you steal? What’s the principle motivating you to steal? That you desire the thing you want to steal? Can you will that all rational beings should steal the things they desire? No, because that would lead to complete and utter chaos and destruction. QED, you should not steal if the only thing motivating you to steal is a desire for something.

That is, in an incredibly dense and nutritionally insufficient nutshell, Kant’s ethics. In order to be a moral being, one must abide by the categorical imperative, keeping in mind that said imperative is rooted in the a priori. This is Kant and so of course there’s plenty more that can be discussed and expounded upon, but I think this is about enough. That this is essentially it…

II. Somewhat an Opinion

I have to admit that out of all the philosophical systems I was exposed to, I found Kant’s ethics the most appealing. I found the focus on the will and not the action incredibly spiritual and penetrating. His emphasis on universality, on the need to develop an approach independent of the vulgar, individual experience was precisely right, I used to think. Of course, that’s also exactly the problem.

Kant’s philosophy, his whole structural approach to ethics, is problematic precisely because he so firmly believes he can do what we today know is almost, if not totally, impossible: extricate the empirical from the rational when it comes to something rooted in experience (i.e., Being human). The following quote should illustrate exactly what I mean:

Everyone must admit that if a law is to hold morally (i.e., As a basis for someone’s being obliged to do something), it must imply absolute necessity…that the basis for obligation here mustn’t be looked for in people’s natures or their circumstances, but must be found a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason.

Neglecting formal logic, in Kant’s view there exists the rational, the thing not muddied by physical experience, and there is the empirical. Though the two are often intermixed and intersect, Kant insists that they can in fact be separated, such that a moral philosophy can be “purified.” Similar to the issues I had with Aristotle’s ethics, Kant’s is simply far too rooted in presuppositions I believe are just wrong. Who cares if a logical system possesses an internal consistency if that system doesn’t translate properly to the real world? What does it mean to will universally when the variety of human experiences, and how deeply those experiences affect us and the way we perceive our environments/presents/futures/etc., ensures that a universal will may never cover the entire world, let alone all rational beings. A child who grew up in a Brazilian favela has a completely different view of what is universally tolerable from a child who grew up in a refugee camp in the Middle East from a child who grew up in the suburbs of the continental United States etc.etc. What we can take from Kant, though, is the emphasis on the character, the will, the intention. It is not the end goal, the result, that matters, but the desire that motivated the move towards that goal in the first place. The sort of self-awareness that allows for a more nuanced understanding of the self in relation to the non-self. Maybe this is the next step on the road to a proper ethics after actively engaging in one’s life and environment, as Aristotle encouraged us to do. Maybe the combination of an outward, empathetic consideration and an inward looking, unforgiving scrutiny is the necessary foundation for a genuine, human and humane ethics.

Maybe… maybe…

Ibn Ruqeyeh

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