Kant, Deontology, & Respect for Persons

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1 Kant, Deontology, & Respect for Persons Some Possibly Helpful Terminology Normative moral theories can be categorized according to whether the theory is primarily focused on judgments of value or judgments of obligation 1

2 Judgments of Value: X is good (or X is bad ); X is valuable (or X is nugatory ); X, yum! (or Yuck, X! ) Philosopherspeak: Value judgments concern the good Judgments of Obligation: You ought to do X ( You ought not to do X ), X is right ( X is wrong ); You have a duty to do X Philosopherspeak: Obligation judgments concern the right Utilitarianism, as we ve seen, is a theory that takes judgments of value to be primary. According to U, in order to know whether some act is morally permissible, we must first assess the utility or disutility (i.e., the value) that will flow from that act. For U, the right making property of an action has to do with the aggregate utility that it creates. Philosopherspeak: U could be said to assert the priority of the good to the right. 2

3 As we ve also seen, U can be criticized on the grounds that it treats as morally flexible (defeasible) certain things that perhaps ought not to be so flexible, such as considerations of justice, rights, promises, etc. Similarly, U (and especially AU) seem to allow individual agents to make exceptions. E.g., generally speaking, a norm of honesty promotes utility, but in particular circumstances telling a lie may produce more utility than holding to the norm. (Consider: Lying to an enemy in wartime) Deontological Ethics (D) This is the general term for moral theories that take judgments of obligation to be primary. In a Nutshell: An act is morally required because we have a duty to perform it. Period. No exceptions. Notice: No exceptions doesn t necessarily entail absolute. It may be, for instance, that different duties apply differently depending on circumstances (Cf. W.D. Ross s theory). The central point for any D theory, however, is simply that rules are rules (i.e., they are to be followed just because we have a duty to do so.) 3

4 Absolute Moral Rules Some (indeed, most) D theorists do nonetheless maintain that there are at least some absolute moral rules (no exceptions + no circumstances in which they do not obtain). G.E.M Anscombe ( ) is cited by Rachels as an example. Anscombe was a fierce critic of consequentialist views like utilitarianism. A convert to Catholicism, her own ethical views were aligned with Aristotelian virtue ethics (about which more later). Under an Aristotelian/Thomistic conception, killing innocent people is always wrong (even in war): Thus her opposition to Truman and US use of the atomic bomb. A Problem for Absolutists Anscombe: [I]t has been characteristic of [the Hebrew-Christian] ethic to teach that there are certain things forbidden whatever the consequences threaten, such as: choosing to kill the innocent for any purpose, however good; vicarious punishment; treachery idolatry; sodomy; adultery; making a false profession of faith (1958, 119) Indeed. But why ought we to accept the authority of the Hebrew-Christian ethic? Without some rational account of what makes these things wrong, we are faced with same old objections to DC and NL theory. 4

5 Immanuel Kant ( ) Kant s moral philosophy: Concerned with the moral authority of reason (i.e., reason alone, without reference to experience). In the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant says that he aims to construct a pure moral philosophy, perfectly cleared of everything which is only empirical, and which belongs to anthropology. Like Anscombe, Kant maintains that there are some absolute moral rules (in fact, ultimately, exactly one). But in contrast to NL theory, he aims to articulate moral rules not in terms of how the world works, but in terms of our nature as rational beings. Kant s Theory I In contrast to U, Kant s theory is strictly deontological. I.e., the rightness or wrongness of an action has nothing to do with the consequences that the act brings about: An action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined. The moral worth depends, therefore, not on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition according to which, without regard to any objects of the faculty of desire, the action has been done. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) 5

6 Maxims? By maxim Kant means the rule that you would be following if you were to perform some action. In effect: If everyone behaved this way, what rule would they be following? Example: You are in a financial jam and you lie on a loan application to obtain money that you know you likely can t pay back. The maxim of this action might be something like It is permissible to overcome financial trouble by lying. Or, as Kant might more bluntly put it: It s OK to lie. How Does This Get Us to Absolute Rules? Kant: Your willingness to act on a specific maxim expresses your commitment to a general rule, i.e., a commitment that extends beyond this particular case to cover you and everyone else in any relevantly similar case. This claim is not as nutty as it might seem. In fact, Kant insists, it is a matter of ordinary logic. (And logic is something that we rational beings ought to be eminently capable of.) To give it a name, we might call the principle at work here the generalizability of reasons 6

7 The Generalizability of Reasons Consider the following dialogue: Me: You: Me: The Audwagen Serpent is a really bitchen car. It has plenty of power with its 300 horsepower V6. Yet, it gets better than 60 MPG on the highway. And it is safe: It has roll cage construction and side-panel airbags. So what do you think of the Volksdi Locust? It s a piece of crap. You: But the Locust has a V6 engine that gives better than 300 horsepower, it gets 62 MPG highway, and it too has roll cage construction and side-panel airbags? Practically anyone can discern that I ve made an error of some kind in the previous dialogue. And, notice, it s not a factual (empirical) error about cars. We could substitute sports teams or wine coolers (or works of art?) and the error would still be there. The error: I ve been logically inconsistent. If X + Y + Z are jointly sufficient for me to judge something a bitchen car, then I should be willing to judge as a bitchen car anything else that has those same properties. (Either that or specify at least one more property required for a car to be bitchen ) 7

8 How does this relate to ethics? Well Either the maxim of an action provides a sufficient reason for performing that action or it doesn t. If it doesn t, then you had no sufficient reason for acting the way you did, that is, your action was irrational (nonrational). If you act on a maxim, then you are effectively committing yourself to a universal moral rule, since, if that maxim provides sufficient reason for you to act in that way, then logical consistency dictates that it ought to provide sufficient reason for everyone else. Imperatives Hypothetical Imperative: A non-moral imperative telling us what we ought to do provided that we have the relevant desire. ( If you want to go to law school, you ought to write the LSAT ) Categorical Imperative: An imperative that holds categorically, i.e., without exceptions. We can know such things, Kant asserts, because we are rational beings. I.e., we accept them because we accept the authority of reason 8

9 The Categorical Imperative (CI) First Formulation Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will without contradiction that it should be a universal law of nature This may resemble (a slightly pretentious version of) the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule (and that s not an accident, Kant would assert). But, in the context of Kant s theory, there more going on here. It may not look like it at first, but the CI can be thought of as, in effect, a test for logical consistency An Example (related to Kant s own, but in somewhat different terms): If, when I say I promise to pay you back, I know, according to the maxim of my action, that I mean I m not going to pay you back (I m just saying that I will), there is a clear contradiction: I promise = I don t promise (P = ~P) If whenever anyone says I promise they are entitled to mean, I don t promise, there can clearly be no such thing as promise keeping. Making false promises cannot be willed to be a universal law ( universalized ) without creating a contradiction. 9

10 Second Formulation Act in such a way that I will always treat humanity, whether in my own person or in the person of another, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end. For Kant all (but only) rational beings are genuine participants in the realm of morality. And it is precisely our rationality and our autonomy (our ability to and our requirement that we give the law unto ourselves ) which makes us the sort of creatures that are worthy of respect. So why should we never treat other people merely as means? Because, as a rational being, you wouldn t accept as legitimate any reason that was offered up for some action that you couldn t accept for yourself. Therefore, it would be inconsistent for you to treat another rational being any differently than you would want to be treated. In short, rational beings, for Kant, are creatures that both give and require respect. 10

11 Some Problems with the CI 1. How can we know exactly how to specify maxims? Couldn t they be relative to circumstances or intentions? Anscombe s point: It is permissible to lie in order to save a life might well be universalizable, even if It is permissible to lie is not. Kant seems to insist that there is only one relevant description for each sort of action. 2. Similarly, but more a bit more broadly, Kant s CI theory seems highly inflexible (certainly as compared to U). Consider: The Case of the Inquiring Murder ( The Axe- Wielding Murder at the Door ) 3. Moreover, Kant s theory (at least as it stands) seem to be unable to deal with conflicting duties. Perhaps (per Peter Geach) there never are any such conflicts in real life thanks to God s providence. This is...um, dubious, however. 11

12 Theories Compared: Punishment We ve noted earlier that the classical utilitarians Bentham and Mill were both practically-minded reformers. For Bentham especially, penal reform was a central concern. The status quo in Bentham s day: Capital punishment and public corporal punishment are commonplace (despite increasing opposition). Prison conditions were typically filthy, disease-ridded; abuses were common. The Panopticon Bentham, the philosophical radical, reckoned that prison conditions could and should be improved. For instance, by an improved prison design All prisoners may be observed at all times by unseen guards. Prisoners will come to behave as if they are being watched even when they are not. Bentham: So there s no need always to have a guard. 12

13 Utilitarian Justifications of Punishment Bentham s reforms are of a piece with a U account of punishment: Incapacitation: Incarceration promotes utility by taking criminals off the streets, preventing them from committing further crimes. Deterrence: Seeing criminals imprisoned may promote utility by discouraging others from criminal behaviour. Rehabilitation: Imprisonment can further promote utility by counseling/retraining prisoners, ideally returning them to society as useful citizens rather than criminals what doesn t seem to promote utility (or to do so only minimally and contingently through vengeance) is imprisoning or harming criminals simply for the sake of imprisoning or harming them. Yet that, in effect, is exactly what Kant s theory serves to justify 13

14 Kant s Retributivism For Kant (as you d expect by now), the goal of punishment can be nothing extrinsic. To imprison someone for the sake of incapacitation or deterrence is to treat that person as a means to our (social) ends. To try to rehabilitate someone (without her consent) is to deny her autonomy. Instead, Kant argues, punishment should be limited strictly to the goal of retribution: punishment proportionate to the crime, meted out for that reason alone an eye for an eye once again, this may not be quite as nutty (or coldblooded) as it sounds. If the guilty are not punished, then justice is not done. But in meting out punishment, we still ought to respect the criminal as an autonomous, responsible agent. The maxim of the criminal s action, universalized, entails it is permissible to treat people this way. By punishing the criminal in a manner proportionate to her crime, we are, as it were, respecting her decision: His own evil deed draws the punishment upon himself. (145) 14

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