Sunday, 13 November 2016

Kant: How to Make Ethical Decisions

It's time to write a philosophy post. Yay!

Kant: An Introduction

Taken from the OCR Textbook for AS and A2 students.


Immanuel Kant is very popular amongst my class for several reasons;

-Firstly, he has a lot of quotable quotes which are fantastic for using in exams to back-up a point you are making. For example: 'Ought implies can'.
(I could go into a lot of detail about this quote, but would rather get on with explaining Kant's philosophy.)

-Secondly, his theories comes from a mindset of pure reason. This makes them very easy to follow because it is essentially just cause and effect. This makes it easy to remember Kant in a hurry. Simply go through all of the steps in his reasoning you remember, and then when you reach the part you have forgotten, see what fits. You usually cannot go too far wrong.

And so, onto the Theory itself! Today, I will be looking at Kant's Theory for creating the perfect society. Essentially, the ethical side of Kant. The philosophical side will follow shortly.


Kant's Moral Theory

The idea of a 'Good Will' is Kant's starting point for morality.
It is essentially all that matters for Kant in moral decision-making (whether to kill a baby and save a thousand people, or save the baby and kill the thousand people).

For Kant, abilities, talents, virtues and consequences mean nothing in an ethical decision, because each of these are outside of our control. Therefore they are possibly not 'Unconditionally Good'. They could be, but that would not be because we made them that way. Therefore they cannot be trusted to be good, so we must turn to something which we do have control over to help us make ethical decisions for a consistent good outcome.

For Kant, the only thing which is absolutely 100% under our control at all times is out 'will'. Therefore it is the one thing which we can ensure is always unconditionally good, thereby always securing a good outcome to our ethical decisions.


So, how do we know that the 'will' is good? How can we make sure it is? It is possible for our will to become not good?

These are all very good questions, and ones which Kant answered.
For Kant, what made the 'Will' turn into a 'Good Will' is doing Duty for Duties sake.
What he meant by this was that if we do our duty for a reason- self-interest, affection, fear- then our motives are not pure.
However Duty for Duties Sake is a pure motive, and therefore whatever we do as a result of our pure motive must be logically correct. Kant argued that a good will chooses duty for duties sake.

As an aside, Kant made a special note about gaining pleasure from doing your duty. This kind of pleasure should not be used to affect moral decision making, or help us know what our moral duty is.

So overall, you are moral if you give money to the poor so long as duty commands it.
If you give money to the poor out of love then you are not acting morally. We must only give if it is our duty to.


So, how do we find out what our duty is?
It is all well and good only acting in accordance with our duty to make sure we choose the correct path in a moral decision, but how do we know what our duty is to guide that choice?

Kant looked for an answer to this question. He wanted an objective way for people to tell what their duty was. Or to put it a different way, he believed that pure reason could give the will commands, (or as he called them, imperatives) so that it knew what it's duty was.
He made a distinction between these imperatives:

'Categorical' and 'Hypothetical' Imperatives.

Hypothetical Imperatives are commands which only apply if the agent (a fancy word for person) wants to achieve a certain goal. These are like the optional chocolate sprinkles on top of your vanilla milkshake sundae.
For example: if I want to lose weight I ought to go on a diet and exercise more. Therefore my duty will become to diet and exercise, because my pure reason is giving my will the command of dieting and exercising.

Categorical Imperatives are moral commands which apply to everyone regardless of gender, age or ethnicity. These do not depend on anything to be a part of your duty, and are based on objective a priori reason.
These Categorical Imperatives essentially are there to test whether your action is in accordance with pure practical reason.

So our actions must satisfy all of our Categorical Imperatives, as well as our Hypothetical Imperatives, to be considered our duty.
If an actions breaks one of these Imperatives, then the action is not a result of pure reason, and therefore it is not guaranteed to be a moral action.


So if Categorical Imperatives are based on a priori reasoning and are objective, and are the same for everyone, then can we not write a list of them?

Why, yes we can! That is just what Kant did. He created three Categorical Imperatives which all actions have to pass to become our duty.
These were;

1) Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Kant nicknamed this the 'Formula of the Law of Nature'. This basically asks everyone to universalise their principles or maxims without contradiction.
In other words, before you act, think whether you would like everyone in the same situation as you to act in the same way as you. If not, you are involved in a contradiction, and what you are doing is wrong because it is against reason.

For example, if I make it a universal law to 'always break my promises when it benefits me', then then end result would be that there is no point in anyone making promises. However this is inconsistent and so cannot be a moral imperative. 

2) So act as to treat humanity, whether in you own person or in that of any other, never solely as a means but always as an end.

Kant called this one the 'Formula of the End in Itself'. What he means by this is that we should not use others to achieve our own objectives, or in other words, use people as a means to an end.
He said we should not do this because other people are just as rational as we ourselves are. To use others as a means to our end is to deny them their right to be a rational and independent judge of his or her own actions. To do this would make ourselves superior to other people and different, however to make consistent ethical decisions we need to all be the same so that the action of one person is able to be universalised.
Therefore we must treat everyone as if you would treat yourself.

For example, Kant would argue that commanding someone to do something because you are in a higher position than them is amoral because it takes away their ability to choose to do the action as a result of their own ration thought. If they are not already doing that thing, it must be because they have decided for themselves rationally that doing that thing is wrong.

If the person you are commanding then does your action as a result of your command, and against their own rational thought, they are not acting in accordance with the first Categorical Imperative and are therefore not acting morally or consistently.
This causes a problem because Kant wanted an objective and universal method of determining our duty.


Kant saw these first two Categorical Imperatives as expressions of the same idea.
These first two essentially just say that action must be able to be universalised without contradiction, or else they cannot be willed to be universal laws.


3) Act as if a Legislating Member in the Universal Kingdom of Ends.

This third Categorical Imperative follows on from the first two. He calls it the 'Formula of the Kingdom of Ends'.

This Categorical Imperative means that everyone should act as if everyone else was an 'end', meaning a 'free, autonomous agent'.
This means that everyone has the ability to follow pure practical reason, and this reason must be applied to everyone equally and be impartial. People cannot simply make up their own morality however, they must follow pure practical reason.

4) Any Action that Ignores the Individual Dignity of a Human Being in Order to Achieve its End is Wrong

This one links with the second Categorical Imperative, but deserves it's own one to emphasise the point.
Kant is saying here that any action which intentionally harms another human to achieve an end is wrong


Phew, that was a lot of writing.

So now we have a way of knowing what to do in moral decisions; by following our duty.
This is the characteristic of a good will.
In addition we know that our duty is informed by pure reason, which is divided into two types of imperative; categorical and hypothetical.
Is that everything?

Yes, almost. Well done for staying with me this far!
We finally need a reason to follow Kant's Moral Theory.
While Kant's Moral Theory does work as a stand-alone theory on how to be good, Kant believed that people also required a reason to follow it.
For this end, Kant postulated (thought up) the existence of God and Immortality.

Kant believed that after death, in the next world, morally righteous people would achieve the 'Summum Bonum'.
The 'Summum Bonum' is the supreme good that we pursue through moral acts. It is a state where happiness and virtue are united. To explain a little more, if you are virtuous in this life, then you will be virtuous in the next life too, only you will also be receiving happiness for being good, which is not always the case in this life.

Therefore there must be a God to provide the afterlife for the Summum Bonum to exist in. Therefore God must exist (this is more related to theology than ethics, but it is necessary to know that God exists to be able to explain why the afterlife exists in ethics.)

Therefore, the destination of all morally good people is to the afterlife and the Summum Bonum.
A small thing to note here is that in order to act morally, you must not act under any motives other than duty for duties sake. Therefore if you act in accordance with your duty to gain the Summum Bonum, you are not acting morally.


I hope this helps someone out there.
If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section and I will be more than happy to provide answers.

Have a great day!

-Theologian Shadderz

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