4 Deontology: Doing One’s Duty


Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

• Explain the core features of a deontological moral theory.

• Identify the two main formulations of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and describe the core features of each.

• Apply each formulation of the Categorical Imperative to concrete moral problems.

• Discuss criticisms of the Categorical Imperative.

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Section 4.1 Introduction to Deontology

I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

4.1 Introduction to Deontology Do the ends always justify the means? Or are some actions moral or immoral in and of them- selves in ways that take priority over the goodness or badness of the ends? The quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s (1963) famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” expresses the idea that some actions are immoral in themselves and should never be undertaken, even when they might have good outcomes. In other words, using “immoral means to attain moral ends” (King, 1963, p. 19) would violate certain moral duties or obligations that apply to us unconditionally. (You can read the entire letter here: /frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf.)

Do we humans have such unconditional commitments or obligations? For example, suppose a parent says to her child, “I will be there for you no matter what.” Does that commitment depend on whether the good consequences of devoting herself to the child outweigh the bad ones? Or would this kind of commitment be one that a parent upholds no matter what?

The idea that we have unconditional or absolute obligations or duties is the basis of deonto- logical ethics.

In Chapter 1 we distinguished the major moral theories in terms of which of the three aspects of human action each con- siders most fundamental when it comes to moral reasoning and moral value. The three aspects of human action are as follows:

1. The nature and character of the person performing the action

2. The nature of the action itself 3. The consequences of the action

The three moral theories can be distinguished in this way:

1. Virtue ethics focuses on the nature and character of the person performing the action. 2. Deontological ethics focuses on the action itself. 3. Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of the action.

In Chapter 3 we discussed consequentialist theories, which maintain that moral reasoning should be primarily concerned with the consequences of our actions, and we focused on the

This Strange Word Defined

In classical Greek (the language of the early philosophers), the word deon means “duty” or “that which is necessary.” The ending -ology means “the science or study of something.” Therefore, deontology is the science or study of duty and obligation.

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Section 4.1 Introduction to Deontology

most prominent and familiar form of consequentialist reasoning, utilitarianism. According to this view, what makes something morally right is whether it brings about the greatest overall good for the greatest number relative to alternative choices.

While that approach had many attractive aspects, one concern was that anything could, at least in theory, be morally justified so long as the ends justified the means. This includes actions like killing innocent people, subjugating minorities to discrimination, coercing peo- ple, and so on; any action is fair game if it brings about a greater good or alleviates more suf- fering than not doing it. These concerns reflect an intuition that certain kinds of actions are simply right or wrong in themselves, regardless of the circumstances or outcome. If that is the case, these actions would be “moral duties,” and the underlying basis of these duties would be “moral laws.”

It is important to clarify that the deontologist does not claim that consequentialist reasoning is bad or that we should never think about consequences when making decisions. Obviously, it would be nearly impossible to make good decisions if we did not consider the outcomes of our choices. Rather, the deontologist holds that the moral value of our decisions—whether a choice is morally right or wrong—lies in something other than good and bad consequences. This means that when a certain consequence conflicts with a certain duty, it is more impor- tant to respect the duty. To put it another way, deontological views will maintain, in King’s (1963) words, that “it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends” (p. 19). However, as long as we respect those duties, it is perfectly appropriate to reason in terms of better and worse outcomes.

Rules, Laws, and Duties: Moral and Nonmoral There are, of course, many kinds of laws and duties besides moral ones. There are civil laws—the local, national, and international laws that govern our common political life. There are laws (or rules) that students must adhere to, that employees must respect, or that govern how a game is to be played. We sometimes speak of unwritten rules, like customs or standards of etiquette. These rules carry certain duties, such as a soldier’s duty to obey his or her orders, our duty as citizens to pay taxes, or the duties of a host or hostess when guests are over.

Duties established by a legal code, one’s role or occupation, or as rules of etiquette or custom are not necessarily the same as one’s moral duty. Not only can moral duties conflict with these other kinds of duties (which raises challenging questions about what one should do), they also have different grounds. However, noting certain characteristics of legal, social, or military duties can help us see what is distinctive about moral duties according to deontological eth- ics. In particular, duties are independent of interests and desires; they are unconditional; and they are exceptionless.

The first characteristic is that duties are independent of interests and desires; that is, they obli- gate us to do or avoid certain things regardless of whether we want to. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but that’s irrelevant when it is one’s duty to do so; similarly, if one has a moral duty not to lie, it doesn’t matter whether one would prefer to lie or whether doing so would suit one’s purposes.

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Section 4.1 Introduction to Deontology

Second, a duty applies even when violating it might have better consequences than respecting it; that is, duties are unconditional. For instance, when it comes to paying taxes, an individual could make the case that by not paying taxes, he or she could do more good than whatever the government would do with the money. However, even if that were true, it doesn’t elimi- nate the person’s legal duty to pay taxes; this law applies to all, regardless of circumstance. Similarly, moral duties don’t depend on whether respecting them would have better or worse outcomes than not.

Finally, a duty is exceptionless with respect to all who fall under its scope. Some laws have built-in exceptions, such as when the tax law requires all U.S. citizens to pay taxes except those who meet certain conditions. But generally, if a person falls under the scope of a rule or law, he or she must follow it, just like anyone else. This is why we are often outraged when it seems that those with money or prestige get away with things that everyone else cannot or when athletes are able to win by cheating—as if the laws and rules apply differently to them than to others.

Now, when we consider civil laws, a soldier’s orders, and other familiar laws and duties, we may think of examples in which break- ing the law or disobeying an order might appear to be the right thing to do. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders deliberately disobeyed certain laws in their pursuit of justice, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice stipulates that soldiers can and should disobey orders in certain cir- cumstances. But this is often because we recognize that there are higher duties than the ones prescribed by civil laws or military commanders, which is what we mean when we refer to moral duties or duties of justice. The features of laws and duties—their independence from desires, their unconditionality, and their exceptionless character—are the same whether we are referring to the sphere of moral- ity and justice or to the spheres of government, institutions, customs, and the like; however, their content (what they actually say) might be different, which is why it is important to avoid confusing these different spheres of duty.

How Can I Recognize a Deontological Moral Argument? In Chapter 3’s discussion of utilitarianism, we considered a scenario in which several people are desperately in need of an organ transplant, and a doctor determines that Sally, who came to the hospital with a broken arm, has a set of organs that could be harvested to save the five lives at the cost of her own. If your response is something like, “It’s just plain wrong to inten- tionally kill an innocent person,” you’re thinking like a deontologist. If you say, “It’s unfair to the victim, since she had no say in that” or “We shouldn’t simply use people in this way” or “What would happen if everyone did that?,” then you’re getting closer to Immanuel Kant’s ideas, which we will look at later in this chapter.

KaninRoman/iStock/Thinkstock Deontological arguments are often raised when debating the moralities of war and military operations.

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Section 4.1 Introduction to Deontology

Examples of Deontological Thinking

The following are examples of familiar statements that reflect deontological thinking:

• “Racial profiling by law enforcement officers is wrong, regardless of whether it may make a community safer.” The thought is presumably that racial profiling violates the basic dignity of profiling victims.

• “Everyone has a fundamental right to an education and a basic minimum of health care.” The term fundamental is key here since it implies that people have these rights regardless of whether providing them makes the majority of people better off.

• “Abortion should be allowed because a woman has a basic right to determine for herself whether to have a child.”

• “Abortion is wrong because every person has a basic right to life from the moment of conception.” As we see from these two statements, deontological claims about rights and duties often conflict, raising questions about whether there actually are rights or duties associated with certain individuals and which ones should have priority. Someone may agree that a woman has a basic right to determine for herself whether to have a child but deny that she has a right to an abortion on the grounds that the fetus’s right to life is more fundamental. Others may believe that the fetus has a right to life but that a woman’s right to choose is stronger. Still others may agree that every person has a fundamental right to life but deny that the unborn fetus is a person with such a right. Either way, a deontological argument for or against abortion should be distinguished from one that focuses on the impact of abortion on society, the woman, or the fetus.

• “While it may be morally justified to conduct a military operation that kills innocent civilian bystanders, civilians should never be intentionally targeted.” Deontological arguments are frequently invoked when determining what may or may not be done to achieve military aims, regardless of how beneficial certain actions might be.

• “No one should be subject to medical experimentation without giving informed consent.” Medical experimentation promises great benefits for humankind as a whole, and those benefits can tempt us to use people against their will for the sake of “the greater good.” Deontological principles are often invoked to prevent this.

• “I cannot tell a lie.” According to legend, George Washington, the first president of the United States, chopped down a cherry tree when he was a young boy and uttered these words after being confronted by his father. If he had lied, he probably could have avoided punishment while not causing any greater harm, but he refused to engage in such justification and instead adhered to a basic rule against lying.

• “When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick it’s the right thing to do, and it prevents the next pandemic from reaching our shores” (White House, 2016). This is a quote from President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech (Obama frequently used the phrase “it’s the right thing to do” in his speeches). Note that the remark about the beneficial consequences is an addition to the claim about helping these countries being the “right thing to do,” not the primary reason for it being right. This suggests Obama believes that we have a duty to help these African countries independent of whether it brings about the greatest overall good.

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Section 4.1 Introduction to Deontology

To take another familiar example, it is often the case that invoking the language of rights, especially universal rights, can signal the presence of a deontological argument. This is espe- cially so if the claim to such rights is independent of their potential benefit to society. To claim that a person has a right to something is to claim that others either have a duty to provide it or not to interfere with his or her pursuit of it, so long as doing so doesn’t violate someone else’s rights. For example, if a person has a right to an education, communities or governments would either have a duty to provide the opportunity for education or at least not interfere with a person’s pursuit of it. The broader social benefits of education might be important, but deontologists would claim that a person would have such a right regardless of the social benefits (for more on this, see the Going Deeper feature Kant and Contemporary Moral Values at the end of the chapter).

Finally, we can also get a good sense of the deontological approach by thinking about how we teach children about right and wrong. Suppose a child doesn’t want to share a toy with his brother. What do we say? We might say something like, “It will make your brother (and me) happy, and so more people would be happy than if you kept it to yourself.” That’s an appeal to the better results—the greater happiness—that will result from the action. However, we may instead say something like, “How would you like it if he didn’t share his toy with you?” Here we are ignoring the consequences (or considering them less relevant) and instead focusing on what’s fair—what we should always be doing (i.e., always share your toys, even if you would rather keep them to yourself ). That’s a deontological way of reasoning.

What Justifies a Deontological Principle? Now that we have a basic sense of deontological moral reasoning and how it differs from utilitarian and other consequentialist reasoning, we turn to the much more difficult question of how this type of reasoning is justified. It is one thing to claim that something is absolutely wrong or absolutely right. It is another to explain why it is wrong or right. Why suppose there are any such moral rules, laws, or duties?

As we saw in the previous section, there are many sources of rules and laws that impose duties on us, and most are part of a code of conduct associated with an organization, commu- nity, or tradition (such as the military, a family or nation, or a religion). The justification for such rules and laws may lie in the way that they are necessary for social order and stability, such as the laws of a community. They may be integral to a particular activity, the way that the rules of baseball partly define the very game of baseball itself, and are justified by the fact that without these rules, there would be no game. Or they may be justified as essential for achiev- ing certain goods and aims, the way that a military code of conduct is essential to a well-func- tioning army, the way parental rules enable children to successfully grow and develop, or how the rules associated with a religious tradition are ways for the faithful to show due respect to the Divine and to fulfill the divine purpose for their lives.

Two points are worth noting here. First, in most cases, there is some sort of authority that establishes these rules and sanctions them (i.e., gives people reason to respect them). Political authorities like legislatures or rulers establish laws and sanction them by establishing pun- ishments for breaking them, similar to governing bodies in sports. In a typical family, children are under the authority of their parents; in the military, subordinates are under the authority of their commanding officers; in religious traditions, priests, bishops, elders, imams, lamas,

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Section 4.1 Introduction to Deontology

rabbis, and other religious leaders have authority that is usually understood as representing the Divine.

Second, in most cases, the laws and duties are understood as being limited to those within a certain scope, such as citizens of a country, members of a family, Major League Baseball play- ers, or members of the U.S. Navy. Many of the most difficult moral problems arise when these duties conflict, either within our own individual lives or between, say, different communities or between a community and a religious tradition. The question then becomes whether there are universal laws and duties with characteristics identified earlier—independent of wants and desires, unconditional, and exceptionless. Some religious traditions regard their laws as applying to everyone, even nonbelievers, on the grounds that their traditions represent the will of an absolute, divine authority. However, there are also versions of universal law that are not dependent on religious assumptions, such as those expressed in the Universal Declara- tion of Human Rights (UN General Assembly, 1948). Can we identify and justify such universal laws, and is there a kind of authority that would sanction them for everyone?

Historically, there have been two main ways of trying to answer this question. One is called the natural law theory, since it grounds the notion of moral law in an account of human nature. The other derives from the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who sought to show how certain moral principles can be true and authoritative for any rational person, regardless of background, culture, or creed, since they are based in human reason itself. We will focus our attention on Kant’s views, but for a brief overview of natural law theory, see the Ethics FYI: Natural Law Theory box.

Ethics FYI

Natural Law Theory Natural law theory received its strongest development and defense from the medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, who was heavily influenced by both the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Judeo-Christian tradition of which he was a part. This theory of ethics begins with the notion that humans have a specific nature, and there are certain goods that are part of realizing or fulfilling that nature. The natural law specifies actions that we must do or not do in order to achieve those goods and thus live well in accordance with our natures.

For example, given our nature as social beings, we can identify certain goods like friendship and community as essential to fulfilling that nature. The natural law might specify actions like showing respect and trust, caring for those in need, sharing in responsibilities, refraining from harming or taking advantage of others, and other actions necessary for maintaining strong friendships and communiites. Other goods that are often identified as essential to our human nature include life, procreation, knowledge, rational conduct, integrity, authenticity, spirituality and religion, health, aesthetic appreciation, play, pleasure and avoidance of pain, the natural world, justice and fairness, marriage, excellence in work and play, inner peace, and joy. Can some of these be defended as universal human goods that follow from human nature itself ? If so, can we specify actions that should be considered morally required or prohibited in light of human nature?

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

4.2 Immanuel Kant Think of a goal, preference, or commitment that you have that not everyone else shares. Per- haps you like certain foods that others find disgusting. Maybe you have chosen to return to college to advance in your career, when your boss thinks that you should focus on your cur- rent job. Perhaps you live in a community in which most people are part of a certain religion, but you belong to a different one (or to no religion at all).

What do you expect of people who may not share your sense of what is meaningful, in terms of how they treat you and that which you care about? Naturally, we don’t expect others to share our attitude, but we do generally expect them to show respect—respect for us and the fact that we find meaning and value in something, as well as respect for whatever it is that we find meaningful and valuable. There are limits to this expectation, of course, but for the most part we would say that others ought to respect us and the things we care about.

This would only make sense if we are committed to the idea that, as a general rule, people ought to show respect to other people and toward the objects of other people’s value and interest. In other words, it is by making reference to such a rule that I can legitimately claim that I am

owed respect, even if a person doesn’t agree with me about certain matters. Notice, however, what this statement further commits us to saying: If I can legitimately demand that others ought to show this respect toward me based on this general principle, then this principle applies to me as well. By saying that others ought to be respecting me, I am also say- ing that I ought to be respecting them.

Notice that we have just identified a moral demand or duty: One ought to respect others. But notice further where that demand comes from. It wasn’t imposed on me by God, society, parents, or any other outside source. Who imposed it upon me? I did! I can’t reasonably demand that others respect me unless I recognize a corresponding duty for me to respect others. To put it differently, the rational- ity of the expectation I place on others to respect me depends on some implicit idea that doing so is the right thing to do in general, but that means that it is not only right for them but also for me.

This duty, we might say, is imposed by reason. This is the core of Immanuel Kant’s account of moral duty: Duties are demands, obligations, or laws that

are ultimately grounded not in any external authority like God, nature, or society but sim- ply in that key characteristic that all humans share—our capacity to think about the reasons

Jaime Abecasis/imageBROKER/SuperStock Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a German philosopher who wrote about humanity’s moral duties to act consistently and to treat everyone with respect.

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

we have for acting in a specific way and to act accordingly. According to Kant, we have a duty to respect this capacity for rational action by ensuring that all of our reasons for action are consistent with others act- ing in the same way and to always treat this capacity as having inherent value. He calls this duty the “supreme principle of moral- ity” (Kant, 2008, p. 4) or, more specifically, the Categorical Imperative.

As we will see in more detail, the Categori- cal Imperative can be expressed in two ways. The first is the duty to act consistently. In other words, we should only do an action if it is the sort of thing we could will anyone to do in similar circumstances. The second is the duty to treat everyone with respect. Specifically, our actions must respect the dignity each person has as someone capable of making his or her own choices.

The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant spelled out these kinds of ideas in his most famous text on ethics, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, portions of which we will now examine. Start by reading from the begin- ning of Chapter 1, found here: .pdf. Read from the beginning of the chapter (page 5) through the first paragraph on page 6, and from the last paragraph on page 10 through the left column on page 12.

Acting Consistently Kant begins Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by proposing that the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will. “The good will,” he says, “sparkles like a jewel all by itself, as something that had its full worth in itself ” (Kant, 1785/2008, p. 6).

Think of times when someone did something that seemed admirable or noble at first glance but was actually based on ulterior, self-serving motives. For instance, consider a business owner who chooses not to cheat a customer only out of fear of getting caught or a person who is kind to someone simply because he wants help from her well-connected father. Does that lessen our esteem for their choices? On the other hand, suppose that someone tries to do something remarkably courageous, like save someone in danger at great risk to her own life, but fails despite her best efforts. Does that lessen our admiration for the person? If we said yes to the first case but no to the second, that gets to the heart of Kant’s idea—that it is the goodness and purity of the will that we value most, not the actual results.

Going Deeper: The Roots of the Categorical Imperative

To fully understand Kant’s ideas, it is helpful to get a brief sense of the social, political, and intellectual challenges for morality that Kant’s moral philosophy tried to resolve. It is also useful to see how the Categorical Imperative emerged from a consideration of both the idea of duty and the idea of autonomy. See Going Deeper: The Roots of the Categorical Imperative at the end of the chapter for more.

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

But if Kant wants to show what makes certain actions right or wrong, why does he start with this idea of the good will? The reason is that morality involves choosing the right action, and “choosing” is a matter of will. Thus, if we can determine what a person with a truly good will would do, then we can determine which actions are right or wrong. Since the goodness of the will doesn’t lie in the outcomes, it must lie in the motive. The person who acts out of good will isn’t simply seeking to gain something or avoid punishment, merely doing what she’s been told, or following her impulses. Acting from such motivations would presume that if she didn’t have something to gain or lose, wasn’t told to do the action, or didn’t have those impulses, she wouldn’t have a reason to act. Rather, the reasons that motivate good will are independent of these contingent factors.

In other words, the person who displays good will is making a choice that she would consis- tently make in any similar circumstance. We can extend this idea even further to say that she’s making a choice consistent with what she believes anyone in similar circumstances should make, regardless of who they are or what they could gain or lose. She is essentially saying, “This would be the right thing for me to do, and it would be right for everyone to do in similar circumstances.”

This is what Kant is trying to capture in his main formulation of the “Supreme Principle of Morality,” the Categorical Imperative: “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” (Kant, 1785/2008, p. 11).

Let’s break this down.

The Formula of Universal Law First, the Categorical Imperative says that we should only act on those maxims that we can will to be universal law. What is a maxim, and what does it mean to will it as universal law?

A maxim is basically the policy or principle that you follow when you make a conscious, deliber- ate choice. It describes what you take yourself to be doing and why you are doing it. Consider the following example:

Paul has been swamped at work and hasn’t had much time for school, and his grade has suffered. He knows that if he doesn’t receive a good grade on his final paper, he will fail the course, which will cost him a lot of money. He discovers that there is a website where, for a few bucks, he can purchase a paper that would get him a passing grade in the course. That would be cheating, of course, but on the other hand, the money he would spend on the paper is far less than what he would lose if he failed the course. So he considers purchasing the paper and turning it in.

Is this consistent with how Paul thinks everyone should act? His maxim in this case might be: “In order to get a passing grade, I’m going to purchase a paper and turn it in as my own work.” What if everyone followed this policy?

Consider a world in which anytime someone can get a passing grade by turning in a paper that they didn’t write, they will do that. If Paul somehow had the power to make this imagined world a reality—to cause it to be the case that everyone acted the way he is proposing to act— would he do so? This is what Kant means by the idea of willing a maxim to be universal law.

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

We can see that a world in which everyone turned in a purchased paper instead of their own would not be one that Paul would bring about, supposing he had the power to do so. In such a world, grades would become meaningless: no one would know whether a student’s grade was a result of their own work or someone else’s, and grades would no longer indicate what a student had learned and achieved. Since the benefits a student like Paul might hope to gain from a passing grade rely on the assumption that he has earned that grade by learning and achieving, and since one could no longer make that assumption in a world in which everyone was cheating, the benefits Paul is after would be lost.

Someone who wanted to cheat, then, would need it to be the case that almost everyone else is not cheating. In other words, they would have to say that, as a rule, people should not cheat (otherwise cheating would not be beneficial, as we just explained). So by cheating, they are making themselves an exception to that rule. To make oneself the exception to the rule—to say “people shouldn’t cheat (except me)”—is to act inconsistently with how one thinks most people should act. It is also contrary to the notion that moral actions are duties and that a duty is exceptionless, applying to everyone equally. Thus, we can see how Kant would defend the idea that cheating on a paper assignment is objectively immoral.

If this is correct, cheating on a paper is an example of violating a duty to avoid doing certain things. However, we also think of duties as actions that we must do, not simply those we must avoid doing. Actions that we are required to perform are called positive duties, and actions we are required to avoid are negative duties. These frequently go hand in hand. For example, if we have a negative duty to avoid cheating on a paper, we also have a corresponding positive duty to only turn in papers that represent our own efforts.

Ethics FYI

Categorical Versus Hypothetical Imperatives An imperative is something that must be done, as in, “it is imperative that you turn in your final paper by the last day of class.”

Categorical means that something is absolute and unconditional, independent of anything else (such as inclinations or purposes). The opposite of this is the hypothetical imperative, which means “if some other condition obtains” (like when we say, “Hypothetically speaking, if worse came to worst we would need a backup plan.”). For instance, “it is necessary to study if I want to get a good grade.” If we don’t care about getting a bad grade and don’t see any other value in studying, then the hypothetical doesn’t apply and we do not have a reason to study. Likewise, the principle of utility is a hypothetical imperative. It maintains that certain actions must be completed if they lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people; if that action doesn’t lead to the greatest happiness, then it shouldn’t be done.

A categorical imperative, then, is something that must be done, no matter what; there is no “if.” It is a duty.

Kant thinks all categorical imperatives can be boiled down to one—the Categorical Imperative.

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

What about actions that seem to be morally right and worthy of praise, but we don’t neces- sarily regard as required of everyone? For example, suppose there was a major earthquake that caused massive devastation in a poverty-stricken part of the world, and a person decides that it is her duty to donate half of her paycheck to relief efforts. Does this imply that everyone ought to do the same and that people who don’t donate half their paychecks to help earth- quake victims are failing to respect their moral duty?

Not necessarily. When we consider whether we could will our maxim to be universal law, this doesn’t mean that we think that everyone must do that action. In other words, this per- son would first consider whether a world in which everyone did a similar thing is one that she could consistently will. If so, the action is morally permissible. A morally permissible action is one that does not violate any duties, and thus we may perform that action. But an action that is morally permissible is not necessarily a moral duty. To show that an action is a moral duty, one would need to focus on the opposite maxim—in which one didn’t do the action—and consider whether it could be universalized. In this case, there wouldn’t seem to be anything strictly contradictory about a world in which no one gave half their paychecks to earthquake victims, and thus this particular action does not seem to be a duty. What may be problematic, however, is a world in which no one helped others at all. In fact, Kant argues that we could never will such a world, which shows that we do have a duty to help others in need. It is left to our best judgment to determine when and how to do so.

In sum, Kant’s principle that “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” has us ask of ourselves, “am I acting consistently with how I would want others to act, or am I making myself an exception to the rule?” He argues that if we make ourselves an exception, we fail to act on the kinds of motiva- tions characteristic of a good will, fail to respect our duties, and thus fail to respect what it means to act morally.

See Ethics FYI: Maxims and Their Universalized Form for additional examples of maxims and their universalized form.

Treating People With Respect Kant expressed the Categorical Imperative—the supreme principle of morality—in several different ways, or “formulas.” The one we examined in the previous section is usually called the formula of universal law, because it centers around the notion that our moral duty is to only engage in actions that we could will everyone to do, as if we had the capacity to make the action a universal law. We summed this up as the duty to act consistently, as opposed to mak- ing oneself the exception to the rule.

There is another way of expressing this duty, which is to always treat people with respect. This is sometimes called the formula of humanity, and Kant (1785/2008) expresses it like this: “Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means” (p. 29).

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

Ethics FYI

Maxims and Their Universalized Form Consider the following maxims and the corresponding universal law. What if everyone followed the maxim? In other words, would a world in which everyone acted according to this law be one that you could accept? The key is to consider whether the person proposing to act on that maxim would be making him or herself an exception to the rule.

Maxim: “When I can afford it, I will contribute $50 per month to the Red Cross to help alleviate suffering.”

Universal law: “Everyone who can afford it will help alleviate suffering by contributing $50 a month to a reputable aid organization.”

Maxim: “I’ll tell Pete the truth because I never want to lie to my friends.”

Universal law: “No one will ever lie to their friends.”

Maxim: “I won’t sleep with that person because I never want to act in a way that would make my parents ashamed.”

Universal law: “No one who wishes to avoid acting in ways that make his or her parents feel ashamed will do anything that has that effect.”

Maxim: “I’m going to try to return that guy’s wallet because it belongs to him, not me.”

Universal law: “Any time someone finds something that belongs to someone else, they will try to return it.”

Maxim: “Instead of giving lost-and-found the cell phone someone left on the table, I’m going to sell it on Ebay to earn some money.”

Universal law: “Any time someone can earn some money by selling something that belongs to someone else, they will do so.”

Maxim: “Even though using steroids goes against the rules of the sport, I’m going to use them because winning is everything, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to win.”

Universal law: “Everyone will always do whatever it takes to win, even if means breaking the rules.”

Read from Chapter 2 of Kant’s text here: 1785chapter2.pdf. Begin on page 28 with the paragraph beginning “But suppose there were” and read through the end of the next paragraph.

What does it mean to “treat humanity . . . as an end”?

We first need to clarify two key terms here: humanity and end (or as it is sometimes expressed, end-in-itself). It turns out that these terms are pretty closely related.

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant


In Greek, auto indicates “self,” and nomos is the word for “law.” So autonomous means that one’s own self is the source of the law that governs one’s actions; one is self-legislating. In other words, if we seek to explain why we acted in a certain way, we might say that we were forced to do so by someone else, that we did it instinctively or unconsciously, or that we were driven by some desire. Or we might say that we acted in that way because of our own independent choice. In the first case, someone else’s will served as the law that determined our actions; in the second and third cases it was something more like the law of nature. But in the last case, it’s our own will that determines our action, hence our self legislates how we act, and we are thus auto-nomous.

Humanity can mean many different things (like having a certain DNA), but Kant is refer- ring to something very specific: our capac- ity to set our own ends and act on them, rather than having our ends, purposes, and choices determined by some other being or force. Another word for this is autonomy. This is what distinguishes us from inani- mate objects, plants, and other animals, and so it marks out what is special or distinctive about our humanity.

In Kant’s system, our humanity is our capac- ity to rationally and autonomously set and pursue our own ends.

We can think of an end as the counterpart to being a mere means, or nothing more than an instrument for some other purpose. Think of what it is to call something an instrument or a tool. Consider a hammer, for example. Does it have any goals or purposes of its own? No, of course not. Its whole purpose is

to drive in nails or whatever else we want it to do; a hammer is merely a means to our ends. So treating it as a hammer is just to use it as a means for whatever we need. In Kantian terminol- ogy, it isn’t an end-in-itself; a hammer’s end (or purpose) is whatever we need it for, nothing more, nothing less.

However, if something is an end-in-itself, that means it has value beyond whatever uses or purposes it may have—it is worthy of respect. Correspondingly, to treat something as an end-in-itself means that our decisions respect this value by not treating it simply as a tool or instrument. According to Kant, humanity, in the sense we defined it, is an end-in-itself and should be treated as such. Why is this?

First, humanity, as we just saw, is the capacity to deliberately and rationally set and pursue one’s own ends, as opposed to a tool whose use is determined by the person using it, or a plant or animal whose behavior is determined by nature. The capacity to act freely is what makes us more than mere instru- ments or slaves to desire (our own or anyone else’s). It is what gives human life its special dignity.

But why does Kant think we should respect that dig- nity in the way we treat other people? Recall that at the beginning of this section we considered situ- ations in which we have certain interests or goals

moodboard/Thinkstock A hammer has no inherent value; it is merely a means to achieve an end. The person holding the hammer, on the other hand, has inherent value and dignity, making him an end-in-himself, not a mere means, according to Kant.

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

that are meaningful to us, but others don’t share them. How do we expect them to treat us? We would generally say, “I think that people ought to respect my own choices.” And we don’t mean “if they feel like it” or “if it benefits them”; we mean “if I make a choice about how I’m going to live my life, people ought to respect that, because it’s a choice I’ve thoughtfully and deliberately made myself.”

Why should we think that? How could I expect someone to respect and value my choices if it’s not something they would choose or even agree with? It would only make sense if I assumed that the very capacity to rationally and deliberately set and pursue ends was itself of fundamen- tal value and gave value to those ends.

This capacity to rationally and deliberately set and pursue ends is what we defined as humanity. And so, when we reflect on how we expect others to treat us, we seem commit- ted to the view that humanity itself is valuable and worthy of respect, regardless of whether it serves someone else’s purposes. It is an end-in-itself.

Reflecting on how others should treat us leads to a principle about how people should treat each other in general. This means that we have to acknowledge the value of the choices that other people make, even if we disagree with them. Why? Because they are also thinking, choosing beings.

The bottom line is this: We all recognize something valuable about the capacity we humans have to rationally and autono- mously set ends and pursue them. But if that’s going to have any sense to it, then it applies anywhere we find this capacity, no matter the person’s race, religion, gender, social status, history, prior decisions, or any other quality. Therefore, we have a duty to always respect this humanity in ourselves and in others, no matter what.

Misconception 1: We Must Always Accept People’s Choices There are two ways in which people often misunderstand Kant’s principle of always treating humanity as an end-in-itself and never as a mere means. The first is the following:

Does treating people as ends-in-themselves mean we have to accept whatever people choose or that we can’t challenge their beliefs (and vice versa)?

Not at all, for two reasons.

Are Other Things Ends-in- Themselves?

Do other things besides humans (or more specifically, rational beings) have value as ends-in-themselves? What about natural objects like mountains and rivers, plants, or animals? Do they have any purposes or value beyond what we assign to them? Those are tough questions and important ones. To answer them, we might consider the source of that value. If it is simply because we care about them or happen to find them valuable, this isn’t what we mean by an end-in-itself; rather, it’s merely an end-in-someone-else’s-eyes. When I care about something, does the fact that I care about it make it valuable? Or do I care about it because it’s valuable?

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

First, we are obligated to respect people’s humanity, which in this case is their capacity to rationally and deliberately set and pursue their own ends. When someone is acting in ways that seem to be irrational, immoral, or driven by desire or impulse, it is not clear that we have an obligation to respect their choices. For example, if someone is driven to make self-destructive choices due to an addiction, we don’t have an obligation to aid in their self- destruction. Or to take another example, if Mary has decided that she wants a promotion at work and spreads lies about her colleagues who also want that promotion, we have no obligation to respect her choice to spread those lies since Mary is clearly not treating her colleagues as ends-in-themselves.

Second, respecting another’s reasoned, deliberate choice doesn’t mean one has to simply accept what they have chosen. In fact, we can often show great respect toward people by offering them reasons we think what they are doing is wrong. When we offer people reasons, we are in effect saying, “I think you are a reasonable person, someone who can make rational choices about how to act. I don’t think your current choices are the best, and I’m going to try to explain why.” This attitude is captured by the famous quotation, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Tallentyre, 1906, p. 199). In other words, to respect someone does not mean we have to agree with them or approve of what they say or do. By the same token, another’s disagreement or disapproval of our decisions does not necessarily indicate disrespect.

Misconception 2: We Can Never Use Others The second common misconception follows from the claim that we should never treat a per- son as a mere means, as if he or she was just a tool or instrument. This raises the following question:

Does Kant say that we should never use people, period?

No. The claim is that we should never merely use people.

Indeed, it would be impossible to avoid using others. We depend on other people and others depend on us, in almost all areas of our lives; thus, we use people all the time. When students

seek an education, they are using the time and talents of their teachers. When we take our car to the mechanic, we are making use of his or her skills and labor, and we may also be making use of taxi drivers to get us where we want to go in the meantime. We depend on farmers to grow our food and rely on police, firefighters, and military per- sonnel to keep us safe and secure. People put themselves at the service of others by donating to charities, volunteering at ral- lies, serving in churches, and so on.

Given the ways that our lives are interde- pendent, there is hardly any area of life in

Kant and Contemporary Moral Values

Kant’s account strongly correlates with four familiar values or ideals: the Golden Rule, the value of integrity, the importance of fairness, and the notion of rights. To read about these correlations in more depth and how Kant’s theory can clarify these familiar notions, see Going Deeper: Kant and Contemporary Moral Values at the end of the chapter.

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

which we do not use other people and others do not use us. So it’s not wrong to use people; rather, our moral responsibility is to avoid merely using people. We ensure that people aren’t merely used by, for example, fairly compensating them, making sure that volunteers are act- ing of their own free will, or expressing appropriate gratitude and reciprocity.

The basic idea, then, is this: there is nothing necessarily wrong with using people or others using us, but when we do we must consider whether we are acknowledging and respecting the fact that we are all people who can think for ourselves and make our own decisions. Are we ensuring that the ends, goals, and choices of the persons being used are being respected just as much as those of the users?

Applying the Categorical Imperative General principles like the two formulations of the Categorical Imperative can sound well and good, but what do they mean when we put them into practice? That is what we will consider in this section.

Let’s rehearse the main points so far:

• A deontological theory of morality focuses on the moral value of actions themselves, independent of the character of the person performing those actions or their results.

• We have a duty to perform actions that are good in themselves and a duty to avoid those that are bad in themselves, regardless of whether we want to act otherwise or think that acting otherwise will bring better results.

• Kant maintains that we can sum up all duties in terms of a single, overriding duty: the Categorical Imperative. Categorical means “applying no matter what”; imperative means “something that must be done.” So the Categorical Imperative is something that must be done, no matter what.

• The Categorical Imperative can be put into words in two different ways. • In one formulation, it says, “I ought only to act on those maxims that I could will to

be universal law.” This is the formula of universal law. • In another formulation, it says, “So act that you treat humanity, whether in your

own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” This is the formula of humanity.

The Categorical Imperative Test We can test whether an action is morally required or prohibited according to the formula of universal law. Remember that the imperative is “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” Earlier, when we considered the example of cheating on a paper, we broke this down into four steps:

1. Formulate the maxim you are considering acting on (what you intend to do and why you intend to do it).

2. Formulate the corresponding universal law. 3. Consider the world in which this maxim was universalized into a law (i.e., imagine a

world in which everyone supports and acts on your maxim).

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

4. Figure out if there is a contradiction in this world (i.e., could the goal of your action be achieved?). • If there is no contradiction (the goal could be achieved), then the maxim is univer-

salizable and the action is morally acceptable. • If there is a contradiction (the goal could not be achieved), then the maxim is not

universalizable and the action is immoral.

When applying the formula of humanity, the basic question is, does my action respect the per- son as an autonomous rational agent?

We can think of this as having two dimensions to it: a negative and a positive dimension.

The negative dimension would be to never merely use other people. We can ensure this by asking ourselves if the other person could autonomously (i.e., rationally) accept the maxim of our action. Could they say, “Okay, I accept that”? Are we playing fairly, so to speak?

The positive dimension goes beyond simply not using people without their rational consent. Rather, we also respect human dignity and autonomy by actively trying to promote other people’s ends as much as possible.

Kant provides us with four examples and shows how the formula of universal law and the formula of humanity apply to each.

The examples are as follows:

1. Committing suicide 2. Making a false promise 3. Cultivating one’s talents 4. Acting benevolently toward others

We can immediately notice two things about this list:

• Two of these examples have to do with how we act toward other people (numbers 2 and 4), and two have to do with how we act toward ourselves (numbers 1 and 3). This shows that morality, on Kant’s account, is not merely concerned with how we treat others but also with how we treat ourselves.

• Two of these concern actions we have a duty to do (numbers 3 and 4), and two con- cern actions we have a duty to not do (numbers 1 and 2).

When considering whether an action is a negative duty (something one must not do), we apply the Categorical Imperative test to the maxim of the action, and if it fails the test, the action is morally prohibited. Thus, Kant argues that we have a duty not to commit suicide or make a false promise, and he tries to defend this by showing how a maxim of committing suicide and making a false promise would result in a contradiction if it were universalized.

When considering whether an action is a positive duty (something one must do), we consider a maxim in which one does not do it and see if that passes the test. If it does not, then we know the action is morally required. To demonstrate that we have a duty to act benevolently, Kant

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

considers a maxim in which one does not do so and shows that it cannot be consistently uni- versalized. Thus, it would be morally wrong not to act benevolently, which is to say that we have a duty to help others in need. A similar test would show that we have a duty to cultivate our talents.

Let’s look at Kant’s four cases and see this test at work.

To get the full account, see Chapter 2 of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals here: Read from the last para- graph on the left column of page 24 through the last paragraph on page 25. Then skip down to the first full paragraph on page 29 and read through the left column on page 30.

Test Case 1: Suicide I consider myself in a state of physical or psychological suffering (or expect to soon be in such a state) and decide that I would be better off dead than living in such misery. I propose to take my own life to avoid misery and suffering. Can a maxim of suicide pass the Categorical Impera- tive test?

1. Maxim: “Because I care for myself, and because I foresee that my life holds the pros- pect of more suffering than happiness, I am going to end my life.”

2. Universal law: Everyone will show care for themselves by destroying themselves when they feel that the future promises more suffering than happiness.

3. The world: We are caring for our humanity by destroying it. 4. Contradiction? Yes. My humanity has unconditional value, and by destroying it in the

name of a value (like happiness or the avoidance of suffering) that is conditional, I am destroying the source of value itself.

This is a very challenging and controversial argument, and even some defenders of Kant’s ethics have trouble understanding what Kant meant or doubt that this argument succeeds, at least in terms of the formula of universal law (Herman, 1993; Korsgaard, 1996; Guyer, 2005). But one way to make sense of it is to connect it to the formula of humanity (Velleman, 1999; Cholbi, 2000), which holds that I have an absolute duty to treat humanity (i.e., the autono- mous, rational will) as an end-in-itself, never as a mere means. To show respect to others means I cannot act in a way that treats their life as dispensable, less important than, say, the satisfaction of my own desires or the avoidance my own suffering. Moreover, I can reasonably expect others to respect me in the same way, which means I must will a world in which every- one respects the dignity and unconditional value of humanity (including my own) and no one treats a person (like me) as having less value than their own or someone else’s happiness or suffering. But by treating my own self as having only conditional value—conditional on how much happiness or suffering my existence brings into the world—I am making myself the exception to that rule.

To put it another way, to respect and care for oneself means recognizing and respecting the unconditional value of one’s capacity for rational, autonomous choice, which is incompatible, Kant thinks, with a maxim that would involve destroying it in the name of something with only conditional value, namely happiness and the avoidance of suffering. In other words, a

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Section 4.2 Immanuel Kant

contradiction arises in step 4 because one is saying, “Out of respect for my own self (that is, my rational will), which has the highest value, I am going to treat myself as less valuable than the suffering I expect to experience.” Since this is inconsistent and contradictory, one certainly could not will that everyone treat themselves this way.

Test Case 2: False Promises I imagine myself in a situation in which I need money, and the only way to get it is by borrowing it. I will only be able to borrow the money if I promise to pay it back, but I have no intention of doing so. Would it be wrong to make this false promise?

1. Maxim: “When I am in need of money, I will borrow some and promise to pay it back even though I don’t intend to do so.”

2. Universal law: Any time someone can get money by making a false promise, he or she will do so.

3. The world: In such a world, there would be no such thing as promises. 4. Contradiction? Yes. If numbers 2 and 3 are true, I won’t be able to do number 1; that

is, borrow money from someone.

The key here is step 3—if everyone made false promises, no one would believe anyone’s prom- ises, including my own. But I need people to believe my promises; otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get the money. So essentially I’m saying, “I want to make a false promise, but to do so I can’t have others making false promises. So I want there to be a general rule against false promises but I’m going to make myself the exception to the rule.” That, for Kant, is contrary to duty, so making false promises is immoral.

Test Case 3: Cultivating One’s Talents Do I have a duty to try to develop myself, to spend my time on things that involve using my higher human faculties, and to be the best that I can be? Or do I have a moral right to do whatever I want with my life, even if that means wasting my time on trivial amusements and superficial pleasures?

To consider whether we have a positive duty to cultivate our talents, we should look at the corresponding negative maxim—the maxim associated with not cultivating one’s talents. If that fails the test, then to not cultivate our talents violates our duty, which is to say we have a positive duty to strive to be the best we can be.

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