A Short Overview of Kantian/Deontological Ethical Theory

Kantian ethical theory is one of several moral/ethical theories that provide the following: 1) a method for deriving moral rules and guidelines and 2) a justification and criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

So like cultural relativism, which was discussed beforehand, the Kantian theory of ethics seeks to establish an organized approach to how morality is formed and how various actions can be judged and analyzed in terms of their moral legitimacy. As we will see, however, there are vast differences between the two methodologies.

Kantian ethical theory is named after its founder, Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German thinker of the Enlightenment Age. It is important to keep in mind the context in which Kant formulated his ethical theory. During this optimistic time period, there emerged a strong belief in the ability of human reason to help understand the world and solve its various problems – including ethical ones.

Thus, Kant sought to establish an approach to morality that would be reason-based. Indeed, Kant believed that to be ethical is to be perfectly rational, and that the most rational behavior is naturally the most ethical one. He also believed that behaving morally was a matter of obligation for which there could be no exception or loophole – hence the emphasis on rules rather than on consequences.

For this reason, the Kantian approach to morality is classified as a type of Deontological ethical theory. Derived from the word deon, which is Greek for duty, this ethical theory holds that there is an innate aspect to a given moral rule that makes it either good or bad. Put another way, it judges the morality of an action not on, say, its consequences or utility, but on said action’s adhere to a rule or set of rules.

Thus, Kantian/Deontological ethical theory is based around established rules and guidelines, and as such, considers morals to be unconditional, obligatory, and universal. So it is best defined as a rules-based or duty-based system of ethics. For a Kantian ethicist, the ends of an action never justify the means; rather, it is the action itself that is intrinsically good or bad. We can’t control consequences anyway, since there is no telling whether a particular action will lead to the intended results.

Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives
But what does it mean to have a moral system that is obligatory and rules-based? Keep in mind that Kant is not trying to create any moral rules himself. He’s not directly telling us what is good or bad. Rather, he wants to establish a universal method for determining what is moral. Basically, he’s giving a way to test the legitimacy of other moral rules and actions.

The core of this approach is something known as the categorical imperative. This is a command or recommendation of action that is completely absolute. For example, “you should never lie” or “you should always keep your promises.” Kant contrasts this with the hypothetical imperative, which is a dictate that is based around certain conditions or desires. An example of this would be, “you ought to tell the truth if you want people to trust you, or if you want to be a good person.” A hypothetical imperative usually contains keywords such as “ought,” “should,” or “if” in order to connect the command to a particular condition or motive; categorical imperatives have no such considerations: basically, it’s “you ought to do something, period.”

Intuitively, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with believing that you should tell the truth for the sake of winning people’s trust. After all, this appears to be a perfectly rational expectation and motivation, and Kant was all about basing morals on reason. So why does Kantian ethical theory hold that rules must be unconditional in order to be legitimate and rational? What’s so irrational about conditional morals?

The problem is that having one’s actions contingent upon particular conditions builds into them a loophole: if you don’t care about the conditions, you have no reason to follow through with the moral action. If I don’t care whether or not people will trust me or see me as a good person, I have no reason to tell the truth. I’ll only be moral insofar as doing so meets certain relevant desires, circumstances, or environments.

Thus, the categorical imperative obliges us to behave a certain way out of duty, with no other external or ulterior factors in mind. This makes for a more reliable moral system, since it ensures that we do indeed always tell the truth or behave justly no matter what. But what compels us to follow these categorical imperatives? Why should we be good for the sheer sake of it? And how do we determine what should be a categorical imperative?

The Formulations of the Categorical Imperative
Kant’s answer to these questions is based on an appeal to reason: just as hypothetical imperatives ought to be done for certain desires, categorical imperatives ought to be driven by rational considerations. The first formulation, or principle, for determining whether an act is morally permissible is as follows:

Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law

In other words, when you’re considering doing something, ask yourself the following:

1)      What rule would you be following were you to go through with the act? This would be the “maxim” or guideline for said action.

2)      Would you be willing to have this rule become universal law, to be practiced by everyone else around you at all times?

If the action you’re considering meets these requirements, then you’ve devised a categorical imperative – a sound moral rule for which you must oblige yourself to follow absolutely. If not, however, then this action is not moral and therefore not permissible. So if I’m thinking about making a categorical imperative that states “you ought to lie,” I must measure it against the first formulation: would this be a maxim that I’d want to become universal? Would I want to live in a world were everyone has a duty to be dishonest in every circumstance? If I’m a reasonable person, I would most certainly be opposed to this.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative states the following:

Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.

What this basically means is that we should treat people as intrinsically valuable. Indeed, Kant held that human beings are valuable “above all price,” because unlike objects, a person is irreplaceable. Furthermore, objects can only serves as a means: a car is only valuable insofar as it serves its purpose as a form of transportation. People, however, have an inherent value to them that is beyond serving anyone else’s means. Humans have dignity.

But more importantly, they’re autonomous moral agents: they have free will and the ability to guide their actions. Because we humans are rational agents capable of making our decisions and setting our own goals, we are innately valuable. After all, without humans, there would be no conception of either morality or reason.

It is because of this that we should never be used as mere instruments for another’s ends. People must be respected as the rational, independent actors that they are, and must not be reduced to the roles of objects. Thus, a proper moral action must preclude manipulating someone for the sake of self-interest, or forcing them to commit actions against their will. Hiring someone to fix a problem wouldn’t be a problem given that they’re doing so knowingly and willingly; using a slave to do the task, however, would no doubt violate this formulation and make for an unacceptable moral maxim.

It is interesting to see how Kantian ethical theory would apply to the justice system. Kant would be opposed punishing someone to deter criminal behavior because he doesn’t deal in consequences and hypothetical scenarios. Recall that for the Kantian, morality is based solely upon the intent of a particular action and whether it comports with a rule – thus, consequences or other considerations don’t matter.

Instead, Kant would approve of punishment for the sake of retribution; rather then correct a criminal’s behavior, this sort of punishment simply addresses a wrong that has already been committed (albeit proportional to the crime, as Kant was keen to clarify). Furthermore, punishing a criminal treats them as an autonomous moral agent – i.e. ends themselves – and to not punish them would treat them as objects that have no self-guiding morals. In a sense, retributive justice acknowledges the criminal’s human dignity.

Pros and Cons of Kantian Ethical Theory
Kant put a lot of thought into his ethical theory, and he established a rather sophisticated universal methodology for determining proper morality. Even so, like any ethical theory, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

Among the greatest attribute of Kantian ethical theory is its consistency: because this theory is rules-based and absolute, it requires us to be consistent in our morality. Recall that the first formulation of the categorical imperative obliges us to follow rules only if we’d want everyone else to do so too. Similarly, if one accepts considerations as reasons to do (or not do) something in one case, then you must accept those reasons in others. To quote James Rachels, “moral reasons, if they are valid at all, are binding on all people at all times.” All this makes for a moral system that is as stable as it is rational.

On the other hand, this same absolutism is a major weakness as well, for it leads to a possible conflict of rules. What happens when we face a scenario that forces us to choose between two or more obligatory moral rules? Consider the two imperatives “never tell a lie” and “never allow innocents to die if you can help it.” Within the Kantian framework, both these moral rules would be unconditional.

But what happens if, during Nazi-era Germany, you’re secreting harboring Jews and the Gestapo come knocking on your door? In this instance, you’d be forced to choose between lying or letting innocent people die, thereby violating one rule by virtue of choosing another. Absolutism in such circumstances can be very troubling and arguably irrational: shouldn’t a rule be broken if following it would lead to harmful consequences?

Furthermore, Kant underestimates the importance of taking consequences into account when considering an action. He believed that we could never be certain of the results of our actions, whether they’re well-intended or not. But is this realistically applicable to all scenarios? Aren’t there certain cases where we could be pretty sure of the consequences? Moreover, Kant suggests that regardless of the consequences of our actions, what matters is our intention and adherence to an unconditional rule. But could we really be blameless if we commit an act that we’re reasonably sure would lead to more harm than good, even if we were being consistent in our morality?

Ultimately, while Kantian ethical theory provides some crucial moral insights, it also seems ill-suited to deal with the complex reality of many ethical problems.