Kant and Deontology
• Kant’s is a deontological and absolutist moral theory.
• ‘Deon’ is the ancient Greek word for duty. (‘Dei’ = one must.) Deontological moral theories permit or forbid different actions by arguing that each of them is right or wrong with respect to moral duties. Deontological theories state that actions are right or wrong in themselves, quite apart from their consequences.
• The most well-known deontological ethics are religious laws, which set out a code of rules that must be followed (e.g. Ten Commandments). Put simply, deontology is about following the rules.
• The most influential philosophical deontological ethics are those of Immanuel Kant. Kant doesn’t ground morality in God’s will, or in the seemingly arbitrary moral codes of particular cultures. Morality is grounded in reason itself, and the demands of morality can be discovered through rational reflection.
• There are a number of related principles in the Kantian system – understanding how these fit together can start to give us a foundation for understanding his thought.
• PERSONS AS ENDS: Kant argued that, as rational beings, human beings are required to treat each other as ends, not merely as a means to an end. No end is to be understood as worth more than a person, and we stand in relations of mutual respect. Kant refers to this as ‘the kingdom of ends’.
• PRINCIPLE OF AUTONOMY: Human beings are free and autonomous. Each person is supposed to be a maker and subject of moral laws. Human beings are self-governing, but must treat other people as ends.
• SOCIAL CONTRACT: The right moral rules are those which rational agents will freely choose to have govern them.
• UNIVERSAL LAW: We ensure that our moral laws do not compromise the principles of autonomy or people as ends by only willing those moral acts that can be universalized. This means that we can wish anyone in the same situation to behave the same way.
• This universal law generates examples of the categorical imperative. Categorical imperatives are obligations that bind us regardless of any consequences or circumstances or special interests (unlike ‘hypothetical’ objectives). The Categorical Imperative is the supreme principle of morality for Kant: it generates universal laws and duties.
• Kant argues that this universal imperative of duty can be formulated in the following way: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” Kant thinks that this will lead every rational being to agree to (and thereby legislate) the same moral laws.
• For Kant, only unconditional good will can properly be considered moral since it alone is unmoved by other considerations. Something done out of convenience or inclination cannot be considered truly moral.
• The freedom of the will is the supreme principle of morality in Kant’s system, and this is the reason why he rejects the idea that the consequences of an action have anything to do with their moral worth.
Filed under: Deontology, Ethics, Kant, Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics | 4 Comments
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