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Kantian Ethics

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Tyler Zimmer

on 3 February 2017

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Transcript of Kantian Ethics

Kantian Ethics
Intro to Kantian Ethics
Basic Ideas
Reasons and Intentions
The Categorical Imperative
Preview of Next Week...
Kantian ethics does not have much to say about value, about what makes a life worth living, what makes a life go well... is this a strength or a problem?
Do the FUL and the FH always go hand in hand? Or are they incompatible such that we must choose between them?
Are consequences irrelevant? Are numbers irrelevant?
How strict is Kantian ethics? Is it "rule fetishism"?
Northeastern Illinois University
Dr. Tyler Zimmer

Learning Objectives this Week...
Understand the basic components of Kantian ethical theory.
Learn to correctly apply Kantian theory to real-world examples.
Understand the contrast between Kantian theory and consequentialism.
Christine Korsgaard
John Rawls
Immanuel Kant
Kantian ethics begins by acknowledging the fact that
human beings are

rational agents
, capable of deciding what to do, which sets us apart from mere objects in the world.
Kantian theory is an attempt to figure out what follows, ethically speaking, from this fact.
Kantians argue that morality is fundamentally about
responding appropriately to the agency of other persons
What would be some examples of an
response to the agency of another person?
What is "rational agency?"
We are free.
We have the ability to decide for ourselves what goals to pursue, what projects to invest our time in.
We are not like passive, inactive objects in the world. We are not like tools.
We have the
capacity to engage in

practical reasoning,
i.e. reasoning about what to do.
We are not just beings who can experience pleasure or pain, as consequentialism says.
We are not simply "vessels for pleasure/pain."
The most ethically significant fact about us is that we are free, rational beings capable of acting for the sake of ends/goals we select ourselves.
The basic idea of Kantian ethics is that we should
respect the agency of other persons.
What does consequentialism say about the notion of respect?
What is the good?
What is right?
What is just?
Unlike consequentialists, Kantians
do not
base their theory on a conception of the good.
Kantians are basically agnostic about goodness: this does not interest them.
Their main interest is in rightness. They think the fundamental question is not "how can promote the good?" but "how should we relate to other persons?"
Kantians on
Kantians define this is negative terms: right action simply means "actions that avoid wronging other people."
Anything that doesn't wrong another person is considered
morally permissible
Wrongness is defined as: failing to respect the rational agency of other persons.

A contrast with consequentialism
Consequentialists only evaluate actions indirectly, in terms of whether or not they produce good outcomes.
Thus, for consequentialists, our intentions or reasons for acting don't matter intrinsically. Only the results/outcomes of our actions matter.
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions", says the consequentialist.
Kantians disagree with all of this.
Intentions matter.
Kantians argue that our
reasons for acting
are of immense importance to ethics.
One and the same outcome can be morally right or wrong, depending on how one brings it about, depending on what reasons/intentions an agent has for acting.
It's not enough to do the right thing...
we must do the right thing for the right reasons.
Some test cases...
Imagine two similar cases with the same result, I trip you. Only in one case I intend to trip you in order to cause you pain and in the other I trip you by accident while help you. Are these cases ethically identical? Is the first one worse?
Imagine that I accidentally cause a great deal of suffering by being negligent. Does that mean I did nothing ethically wrong? Why or why not?
What if I save you from drowning solely because I knew your parents were wealthy and would likely give me a big cash reward. Did I do the right thing?
Intentions, motives and virtue
It might be tempting to read Kantian theory as demanding that we always act for virtuous or benevolent, altruistic reasons.
That would be a mistake.
Kantians are not fundamentally interested in virtue. They are interested in respecting the agency of others.
Thus, our reasons/intentions for acting are only ethically significant in order to judge whether someone has failed to respect the agency of other people.
Being moral
does not
having virtuous motives, for Kantians.
Three Types of Motivation
From immediate inclination.
For sake of other ends.
From "duty."
You shouldn't do the right thing simply because you feel like it, because you feel a strong desire to do it...
This isn't good enough. Why not? Why shouldn't we expect that ethics and our desires will always line up?
Your desires are basically irrelevant. Sometimes we desire to do the right thing, sometimes not. This is irrelevant. When talk about "moral motivation" we are only talking about
, not mere

Always act in accordance with the CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE
Hypothetical Imperatives
Categorical Imperatives
Has an "if, then" structure.
If you want X, then take means Y to get it.
e.g. if you want to be healthy, then you should exercise.
Conditional... the "then" clause only binds us if we accept the antecedent (the "if..." part).
Kant thinks ethics cannot be conditional.
It cannot depend on things we merely happen to want.
It cannot be something we opt out of.
It needs to be unconditional. Categorical.
Categorical Imperative
This is a test we can use to determine whether not an action is ethically permissible.
It has two versions which, argues Kant, always coincide and merely amount to two ways of saying the same thing.
The two versions are:
Universal Law Formulation
"Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."
Think about the "maxim", i.e. the
for which you're acting. Formulate the maxim clearly.
Ask yourself:
what if everyone did this?

Figure out:
would it still be effective for me do this in that imagined world where everybody acted in that way?
The Formula of Humanity
The Formula of Universal Law
A Test Case...
Imagine that you need money and can only get it if you lie to your friend by telling her you'll pay her back next week when you know you won't.
What is your "maxim"?
"Do action
for purpose
in circumstances
What would happen if you universalized it?
Describe what the world would be like if everyone followed this maxim.
Would the maxim still be effective in that world? Would it still be rational for you to follow it?
If so, then your action is permissible. If not, then not.
Formula of Humanity
Whenever you interact with others, always make sure that you
respect them as ends in themselves
, and never as
mere means
Don't regard others (or yourself) as
objects or tools for the purposes/ends of others.
Make sure you never fail to respect the fact that someone is a human being, a rational agent like yourself.
Respecting the agency of others means respecting their right to make their own decisions about their lives.
No coercion. No deception. No manipulation.
Formula of Humanity
Another Test Case...
Suppose you wanted to know whether we have a general obligation to help others in need when the risk/cost of doing so is low. In other words, we want to know whether there would be anything wrong with refusing to help others when the cost of doing so is low.
Formulate the maxim
Imagine what it would be like if it were universalized
Determine if it would still be rational to continue following the maxim if everybody were following it too.
Paradigmatic Violations of the Formula of Humanity
Domination, oppression, subordination.
These all involve
people... bending them to your will.
Why follow the Categorical Imperative?
The categorical imperative is supposed to be a way of clarifying what moral wrongness is.
It is supposed to help us explain all of the cases where something unethical is happening, so that we can judge which actions are wrong (morally prohibited), and which are morally permissible.
The categorical imperative is authoritative because
it is the only rational solution to the question of what we owe to one another
Review of the Argument
1. Human beings are
, not objects or tools. Thus, whenever we act, we must respond appropriately to this fact.
2. An appropriate response
cannot be conditional
, nor can it come from something
to us (e.g. If you desire X, then be moral... or if God or some authority commands X, then you must do X).
3. The only appropriate response to the agency of ourselves and others would be one that we (as individuals) and others can see as
rationally justifiable from the first-person perspective
(the perspective of being an agent).
4. The Categorical Imperative gives us the
only rationally justifiable solution
to the problem of what we owe to other agents, how to appropriately respect them.
5. Thus,
we must always avoid violating the Categorical Imperative
if we're to act ethically and avoid wronging others.
Why is the Categorical Imperative the Solution?
We need a solution to the problem of what we owe to each other that is appropriate in light of the fact that we are all agents.
A solution would have to be rationally acceptable to all.
Thus, it would have to be a universal law.
It would have to be such that it regarded everyone affected as an agent, i.e. someone who matters, someone whose free, rational acceptance is required.
The categorical imperative gives us this.
Using as
... vs. Using as
mere means
Kantians say: you may interact with other people to satisfy your own ends... but your interaction must always at the same time respect the fact that they're agents.
You can use others as
to acheive your goals... but you cannot use them as
mere means
(as if they were nothing but a means and not an agent like yourself).
Note that the idea of
is a key, foundational notion in Kantian ethics.
This is new.

What's of value? What do I have reason to want?
What do we owe to one another?
How should social/political/economic institutions be organized?
Why breaking promises (in most cases) tends to fail the universalization test.
Suppose you wanted to live by the following general "maxim": break promises to others whenever doing so furthers my interests.
Now, imagine what it would be like everyone did this...
If everyone lied and broke their promises, then no one would trust the promises of others. Everyone would know that promises meant nothing... so the practice of promising would be undermined.
But, without that trust, without the practice of promising, the general rule "break promises whenever it furthers my interests" would be pretty useless since no one would believe our promise in the first place.
So this "maxim" is not universalizable.
Hence it is morally wrong to act on it.
This is so, because I can only get away with breaking a promise if I hold other people to rules I don't hold myself to... My action only makes sense if I make an exception for myself, if I take myself to be above others, special, etc.
It would be like saying "promise-keeping is great... everyone else should do this, but I'm special and I think it's a great rule for everyone else but not for me."
Formula of Universal Law
This is the "what if everybody did that?" test.
Similar to (but
the same as) the Golden Rule.
The intuitive idea is this: we should hold ourselves to the same basic moral norms as everyone else.
If our "maxim
universalizable", then we are acting in ways that everyone could get behind... we are not making exceptions of ourselves.
If we act on maxims that are
universalizable, we are basically making an exception for ourselves that we wouldn't allow for others.
Onora O'Neill
Three Basic Questions in Ethics
say that "rightness" means "maximizing the good." So they say that the
good is prior to the right
reverse this. They say:
the right is prior to and independent of the good

The Good and The Right
Key Contrast
Kantians on

Kantians favor social, economic and political arrangements that respect the agency of all persons.
They tend to be strong advocates of democratic decision-making.
They oppose: economic exploitation, social oppression, political domination.
Examples of wronging others:
Patronization, infantilization.
Human beings aren't "machines for producing optimal outcomes", they are
rational agents
, so ethics requires that we consider both
our own reasons

for acting
as well as
the reasons for which others act

Reasons vs. Desires
Kantian Ethics
Contrast with Consequentialism
Another Contrast with Consequentialism...
We need to see how Kantians answer each one, and contrast their answers with consequentialism.
Moral motivation means acting "from duty",
because you reasoned about the situation and judged that your action was ethically right thing to do.
We are required to always respect the agency of other people whenever we're deciding what to do.
But how can we be sure whether we're respecting the agency of others when we're comparing different possible courses of action?
Two Types of Imperative
Another test case
Running Four-Way Stops
Suppose you decided you would act on this general maxim: "blow through four-way stops whenever I am in a rush."
Does this pass the universalization test? Why or why not?
What is the general "maxim" you'd be acting on?
What would it be like if everyone did this? How would this affect your decision-making?
Once everyone started acting on this maxim would it make sense to continue to follow it?
The maxim...
If everyone did it...
So, it doesn't pass the test. Therefore the maxim is wrong. We have a general duty of to aid others in need.
In order to better advance our interests, never help others in need (even if doing so is low-cost).
Everyone needs help. No one is an island. We may not all need help at the same time, but at some point in our lives we do.
But if nobody helped anybody else, the world we be a much harder place to exist in. It would be harder for everyone to advance their interests and achieve their goals. (Why?)
But the whole point of the original maxim was supposed to be that it helped us better advance our interests. Once everybody follows the maxim, however, it is harder to advance our interests.
Suppose you have a spouse or significant other who is planning to take a job that involves a great deal of stress and personal risk -- they want to work as a medical care provider in an area that is very poor, where people are very sick.
Let's suppose that they would be much less happy if they took this job rather than another in a low-stress, well-funded hospital.
A letter comes in the mail that says they got the job, and you must decide: should you hide the letter so that they take another job? Or should you give it to them knowing they will be less happy, more stressed, and more at risk health-wise?
The Formula of Universal Law
The Formula of Humanity
What are some paradigmatic examples of actions that fail this test? Why do you think they count as examples?
You are a doctor and you are certain that certain course of treatment will benefit a patient but you suspect that the patient will refuse it, thereby making themselves worse off. You realize you can give them the treatment (and thereby benefit them) without anyone knowing you did it. There's no chance the patient will ever find out, but they'll be better off. Should you do it?
Respecting someone as a rational being means
respecting her right to make her own decisions about her own life
and actions.
This tells against
coercion, deception
since these involve attempts to take other people's decisions out of their own hands, to
, or use them for one's own ends.
Allow others to exercise their rational agency freely, don't impose your will on them.
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