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Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii , 1784. “Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative”. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). KANT AND MODERN PHILOSOPHY. Modern philosophy begins with René Descartes (1596-1650).

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kant and modern philosophy
  • Modern philosophy begins with René Descartes (1596-1650).
  • However, Kant is regarded by many as the greatest of all the modern philosophers.
  • Indeed, with Plato and Aristotle, Kant is often considered to be one of the three greatest philosophers.
  • Kant made great contributions in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.
  • The Critique of Pure Reason widely regarded as a masterpiece, and the greatest single work in philosophy since the Greeks, perhaps since Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
man nature and rationality
  • Kant notes that “everything in nature works according to laws.” However, humans differ from other parts of nature in that humans alone can according to principles.
  • Thus, Kant recognizes the rationality of human beings.
  • Humans are rational in having a “conception of laws,” or principles.
  • Our rationality enables us to understand the correctness of moral laws such as “keep your promises,” and to know the difference between right and wrong.
free agency
  • Human beings are also free agents, that is, we have free will, or can freely choose between options, including moral options. That is, we can freely choose to do right or wrong.
  • Because of our rationality, we can understand the difference between right and wrong. And, because of our rationality, we can understand moral laws which it is our duty to accept as binding.
  • Our freedom to choose means then that we are capable of freely acting on this knowledge. That is we can freely choose to do what is proper.
reason and agency
  • Knowing how to act morally requires reason. Thus we must be able to deduce and understand the principles of correct moral behavior.
  • Having understood what is the right thing to do, we then act in a morally correct way when we freely choose to act according to the moral law which reason has recognized to be correct.
  • Kant calls our ability to act according to principles, or our capacity to use our free will to do the right thing, practical reason.
  • Thus, for Kant, the will puts to use or practice the principles of reason insofar as they concern moral behavior.
rationality and desire
  • Kant recognizes that people are not only rational agents but we also have desires and appetites.
  • However, as a rational agent, a person can choose to do what is right in spite of the influence of desires and appetites.
  • When desires and appetites, or what Kant calls “subjective conditions,” would lead a person not to do the morally correct thing, or when morality and desire conflict, the moral person acts according to reason to do the right thing, in spite of the influences of their desires and appetites.
moral worth
  • For Kant, a person of moral worth does the right thing, and does so in spite of the influence of desire and appetite which may lead her to do the wrong thing.
  • And, for Kant, moral worth is the most important attribute which a person can have.
  • Moral worth is more important and more admirable than such “talents of the mind” as “intelligence, wit, and judgment” and is more important than such “qualities of temperament” as “courage, resolution, and perseverance.”
  • For Kant, “these gifts of nature” - intelligence, courage, and so forth - may also become bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them is not good.”
good will i
  • As seen, Kant recognizes that such things as intelligence and talent are good and valuable, but he thinks that moral worth has absolute value, and is more important than anything else which we might admire in a person.
  • We have also seen that, for Kant, we are obligated by reason to follow objective moral laws even though we may not do so because of the influence of subjective conditions, or desires and appetites, on the will.
  • A person’s will to do the right thing, the thing which reason can identify as the morally correct thing to do, is a good will, and one which does not is not thoroughly good.
good will ii
  • A person of moral worth is a person of good will in freely choosing to do the morally correct thing whether or not she is under the influence of desire to do otherwise.
  • And Kant says that “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, excepta Good Will.”
  • Again, things like intelligence, talent, courage, and diligence are good, but if they are not backed by good character or a good will, then they can be put to bad use by a bad person. For instance, Hitler.
good will iii
  • A good will is necessary to make sure that what Kant calls “gifts of fortune,” such as wealth and power, do not lead us astray as moral beings.
  • Even things which are thought to be “good in many respects,” such as “self-control and calm deliberation,” “have no intrinsic unconditional value, but always presuppose a good will.”
  • Not only are such things not absolutely good, as a good will is, but they can be put to bad use if not backed by a good will. Thus we may admire qualities such as self-control and calm deliberation, but, if not backed by a good will they “may become extremely bad.” For instance, Kant says that “the coolness of a villain makes him far more dangerous” [than he would have been had he lacked the self-control and calm deliberation that coolness implies].
good will iv
  • For Kant, a good will is not good because of what it brings about or helps to bring about, but because it isgood in itself.
  • A good will, considered by itself as it is in itself, is much more admirable than anything which it brings about.
  • For instance, the good will which brings about happiness is much more deserving of respect than is the happiness which it produces.
good will v
  • Even if a good will accomplishes nothing, it is still to be admired as something which “has its whole value in itself.”
  • So whether a good will is useful in producing results or not, it is still of the utmost goodness in itself.
  • The value of a good will then lies entirely in itself and not in what it produces.
good will vi
  • For Kant, “a good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, but is good in itself.”
  • Because the value of a good will lies entirely within itself, it is still good whether it results in anything which is either a good or a bad effect of it.
  • The good will then “has its whole value in itself,” and “its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor take away anything from this value.”
morality and consequences i
  • Kant says that “the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it, nor in any principle of action which requires to borrow its motive from this expected effect.”
  • Thus, unlike any consequentialist theory, Kant says that it is incorrect to look for the moral worth of an action in its effects.
  • The reason for this is that expected effects of actions, such as improving one’s own condition, as in egoism, or increasing the happiness of everyone likely to be effected by the action, as in utilitarianism, Kant says “could have been brought about by other causes.”
  • And, if that were the case, then “there would have been no need of the will of a rational being.”
morality and consequences ii
  • Recall that, for Kant, it is in this will “alone that the supreme and unconditional good can be found.”
  • And if that is where the supreme and unconditional good is to be found, then it is not to be found in the consequences of an action, whether those consequences mean a better life for oneself, as in egoism, or in a better life for everyone affected by the action, as in utilitarianism.
  • To that end, Kant says: “The pre-eminent good which we call moral can therefore consist in nothing else than the conception of law in itself, which certainly is possible only in a rational being, in so far as this conception, and not the expected effect, determines the will.” (His italics.)
morality and consequences iii
  • Thus, for Kant, the moral person does what is right because it is right, and does not do right because he or she is considering the likely effects of doing right for himself or for anyone likely to be effected by the action.
  • For Kant, the goodness of a good will “is a good which is already present in the person who acts accordingly [that is, a person who acts according to moral law], and we have not to wait for it to appear first in the result.”
  • The goodness of an act is not then judged by its consequences, as in a consequentialist theory, but is due to a good will, or willing to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
moral motives
  • For Kant it is the moral person who is to be respected and revered. However, you are not an intrinsically moral person if, although you do the right thing, you do so for the wrong reason.
  • For instance, you may keep a promise, not ought of knowing that it is the right thing to do, and acting on that knowledge, but because you perceive it to be to your benefit to do so.
  • A moral person is motivated to do the right thing because he recognizes that it is the right thing to do, and so acts out of principle.
morality is universal
  • According to Kant, you don’t act correctly for a subjective reason, such as pleasure or happiness, if you are a moral person. Rather, you act out of principle.
  • This means recognizing an objective rightwhich applies to everyone.
  • What is morally right for one person is morally right for everyone, which is what is meant by saying that morality is universal.
duty i
  • That morality is universal and objective, rather than local, historical, and subjective, means that every rational agent has an obligation to do what is right.
  • Thus it is your dutyto do what is morally right as an objective matter.
  • Kant’s ethics is called deontological. The word deontology comes from the Greek words deon for duty and logos for science. Thus deontology would be the science of duty.
duty ii
  • A deontological theory of ethics stresses a person’s duty to do the morally correct thing regardless of consequences.
  • For deontological ethics, some acts are morally obligatory whether their consequences are good or bad for human beings.
  • Because of lack of consideration of consequences, a deontological theory is nonconsequentialist.
  • The deontologist will typically hold that his moral standards are higher than those of the consequentialist.
  • An imperative is a command that I act in a certain fashion.
  • Kant talks of two kinds of imperative, or two kinds of “command (of reason),” namely, hypothetical or categorical.
  • A hypothetical imperativeconcerns an action which “is good only as a means to something else.” (His italics.) A categorical imperative concerns an action which “is conceived of as good in itself.” (His italics.)
hypothetical imperative i
  • A hypothetical imperative is conditional.
  • That is, it depends on certain things, and concerns what needs to be done in order to attain an objective.
  • An imperative (a command of reason to act in a certain way) is hypothetical when it concerns an action which is good only as a means to something else.
hypothetical imperative ii
  • For instance, if you want to begin collecting art, then your ability to collect good art will be dependent or conditional on your ability to recognize good art.
  • It is therefore imperative that you learn something about art so that you can tell the good from the bad. And the hypothetical command of reason in this case would be: “If you want to build a good collection of art (the hypothetical) then learn about art (the imperative).
  • Thus learning about art is good, but it is hypothetical because it is a means to something else, namely acquiring a good collection.
categorical imperative i
  • Kant says that “There is but one categorical imperative, namely this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (His italics.)
  • (A maxim is a principle of conduct, such as ‘keep your promises.’)
  • Kant also puts the categorical imperative this way: “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become a universal law of nature.” (His italics.)
  • He further states the categorical imperative when he says “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” (His italics.)
categorical imperative ii
  • A categorical imperative is unconditional- ‘categorical’ means absolute, unqualified, or unconditional.
  • Kant’s categorical imperative is objectively necessary.
  • It concerns the necessity of a correct moral action itself without reference to any consequence of the action.
categorical imperative iii
  • According to Kant, all moral laws, or what he calls “imperatives of duty,” such as: keep your promises, tell the truth, and repay your debts, “can be deduced from this one imperative” [namely, the categorical imperative ‘act only on that maxim whereby you can will that it should become a universal law’].
  • Kant thinks that the categorical imperative is a general law to which particular moral laws, such as those just cited, must conform.
categorical imperative iv
  • We have seen that Kant thinks that the goodness of an act does not lie in its effects, but in the conception of the moral law according to which all rational agents should act, and so Kant is not a utilitarian or consequentialist.
  • In addition, Kant says that the conception of the correct moral law will and must “determine the will,” or tell us what is the correct moral action, and he says that this correct moral law pertains to everyone.
  • If we look to moral law for correct moral behavior, and not to the effects of actions, then we must ask what kind of law it is to which we are to look for morality.
  • The answer, for Kant, is the categorical imperative, the general law from which, and according to which particular moral laws can be tested.
testing moral laws i
  • To test a moral act one can ask: “What would happen if everyone did this?” Or, “Would it be okay for anyone to do this in the same or similar circumstances?” (Cf. Thomas Nagel.)
  • If what I am about to do is morally correct then, for Kant, it would be morally correct for everyone to do the same thing in the same circumstances.
  • If an action is morally correct then it is universalizable, that is, it is good for everyone, everywhere, everywhen.
testing moral laws ii
  • For Kant, a particular moral principle can be tested by asking if a rule pertaining to behavior which goes against the principle can be universalized.
  • And he says: “If not, then it must be rejected . . . because it cannot enter as a principle into a possible universal legislation” [cannot be a moral law applicable to everyone.]
  • Thus a test of a maxim or moral law such as ‘keep your promises’ is to ask if a principle pertaining to conduct which would break the law, such as ‘it is okay to make a promise which you don’t intend to keep,’ could be universalized.
test 1 making false promises i
  • Could the rule ‘it is okay to break a promise,’ or ‘it is okay to make a false promise’ be universalized?
  • If so, that is, if it would be okay for everyone to make promises which they don’t intend to keep, then making false promises would fit the categorical imperative and so would be morally acceptable.
  • But can making false promises be universalized? To answer this we must ask what would happen, or what the consequences would be, of everyone making promises which they do not intend to keep.
test 1 making false promises ii
  • Kant’s answer is that promises would cease to mean anything. Thus we could never count on the promise of another, or could never be sure that a promise was serious and will be kept if ‘it is okay to make a false promise’ is a moral principle.
  • Accordingly, the maxim ‘it is okay to make a false promise,’ “as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself.”
  • Notice that there is no hypothetical which precedes the statement of the moral law ‘keep your promises,’ such as “if you want to be well-liked” or “if you want to have a good reputation” then keep your promises.
prudence and duty i
  • If we looked at promise keeping as a hypothetical imperative which says: ‘If you want to be liked, then keep your promises,’ then it might be thought to be prudent to keep your promises given that objective.
  • Hypothetical imperatives, such as, ‘if you want a good grade, then study hard,’ are said to be prudential.
  • However, since a law which says that it is okay to break promises cannot be universalized, keeping promises is unconditional, and, as such, is something which we have a duty to do.
  • The categorical imperative is moralthenrather than prudential.
prudence and duty ii
  • Kant grants that it may in some cases be prudentfor a person to break a promise, but the moral question is whether it can ever be right?
  • Whether or not something is prudent depends on its consequences. And Kant does not base morality on the consequences of acts, at least not after the consequences of considering the possible universalization of a law, such as making false promises, which would test a law such as ‘keep your promises,’ has been considered and rejected.
prudence and duty iii
  • In knowing how to behave morally, I do not need to look to the world and what the possible consequences of my action might be, I only need to look at whether or not a moral principle, such as ‘tell the truth,’ is consistent with the categorical imperative, that is whether or not the principle can be universalized, or whether or not I can will that everyone ought to tell the truth.
  • I only need to ask if the action which I am considering can be willed to be a universal law, and if it can’t be then it has to be rejected.
prudence and duty iv
  • Thus if the act which I am considering is making a false promise I have to ask whether or not making false promises can be universalized.
  • Since they cannot, because promises would then no longer be believable, the maxim of making false promises must be rejected.
  • For Kant, “the necessity of acting from pure respect for the practical [moral] law is what constitutes duty, to which every other motive must give place, because it is the condition of a will being good in itself, and the worth of such a will is above everything.” (His italics.)
test 2 suicide i
  • Is suicide okay for a depressed person if he or she reasons as follows?
  • a) To stay alive would be far less good for me than bad. b) I love myself. c) Because I love myself I do not want to see myself suffer. d) Therefore, I ought to commit suicide to end my suffering.

Old Man in Sorrow

(On the Threshold of Eternity)

Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

test 2 suicide ii
  • For Kant, the crucial thing for the morality of suicide is whether or not this reasoning to the correctness of suicide to end suffering from self-love “can become a universal law of nature.”
  • And he thinks that it cannot since, according to Kant, to commit suicide out of self-love is contradictory. It is contradictory because self-love is the very thing which motivates us to improve our lives.
  • However, the removal of life is not improvement of life, and so self-love which provided these contradictory options cannot be made “a universal law of nature, and consequently would be wholly inconsistent with the supreme principle of all duty.”
test 3 wasting your talent i
  • What if one is financially independent and is also exceptionally talented? What then does she owe, if anything to her talent? Is it okay for her “to indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural capacities?”
  • Kant notes that it is possible for people - even an entire culture - to neglect their talents in fact, to devote their lives to idle amusement. But the moral question is, is it proper?
test 3 wasting your talent ii
  • Kant says that it is not, since it is not possible to will that the neglect of talent should become a universal law.
  • He cannot will that we ought to neglect our talents since it is by means of our talents that we develop and improve our lives, and this is what a rational being aims for.
  • That is, a rational being will necessarily will that his abilities be developed since they are useful to him, and serve any number of purposes. Accordingly, he cannot at the same time will that they be neglected without contradicting himself.
test 4 concern for others i
  • Kant says that the world might in fact be composed of people who mind their own business and take no interest in the lives of others.
  • However, he says that it is impossible to will this lack of concern for others.
  • This is because there may be cases in which we need the help and consideration of others.
test 4 concern for others ii
  • But if we will it to be a universal law that no one should help anyone else, then we would thereby deprive ourselves of the very assistance which we require.
  • Thus in both willing it that no one should help anyone else, while desiring it ourselves when we are in need, we contradict ourselves.
  • Accordingly, it would be impossible to will a lack of concern for others to “have the universal validity of a law of nature.”
prudence and duty v
  • Kant takes the above test cases to show “that if duty is a conception which is to have any import and real legislative authority for our actions, it can only be expressed in categorical, and not at all in hypothetical imperatives.”
  • Thus one does not say, if you want to be well-liked, then help others in need, which is a hypothetical imperative which might be thought prudent for a person to follow. Instead, we see that we ought to help others since a principle which maintains that we ought not to help others in need cannot be consistently universalized.
  • Helping others then fits the categorical imperative which pertains to the universalization of correct moral actions.
persons and things
  • According to Kant, persons are rational agents who are ends in themselves.
  • Thus Kant says that “man and generally any rational being exists as and end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used . . . ”
  • For Kant, rational beings are persons and non-rational beings are things.
  • Persons are ends in themselves and have absolute value, whereas things are means to an end and only have relative value as means to an end.
persons and the categorical imperative i
  • Because persons are rational, they are ends in themselves for Kant, and not merely things which have relative value because they are only means to something else.
  • The status of persons as rational agents who are ends in themselves gives rise to a second way of stating the categorical imperative: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.”
persons and the categorical imperative ii
  • Although persons can sometimes be used as means to an end - as you use a teacher as a means to the end of getting an education - persons are never to be used merely or only as means.
  • Thus something like slavery is morally reprehensible since you are treating a slave as a thing and not as a person, you are using a slave as a machine or an instrument of cheap labor and not recognizing his or her essential humanity.
  • All rational beings are subject to the same universal moral laws which conform to the categorical imperative of acting on a principle which you can will to become a universal law.
the kingdom of ends i
  • The community of rational beings who act under a system of common moral laws Kant calls a kingdom.
  • Each person must recognize himself as an end in himself and must recognize at the same time that every other person too is an end in himself. This is our duty according to Kant.
  • Kant says that “all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.”
the kingdom of ends ii
  • That is, every person is subject to the second form of the categorical imperative, the law which says that it is our duty to treat each person as an end in herself and never as merely as a means to an end.
  • Whenever a person is treated as a means to something else, it must be recognized at the same time that she is an end in herself.
  • According to Kant, when we all recognize each other as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to an end, then our community, our kingdom, becomes a community of persons treated as ends in themselves, or what Kant calls a kingdom of ends.
kant and morality i
  • We know that, for Kant, respect for the moral law is of the utmost importance.
  • And Kant thinks that we should not consider the value of our own pleasure or well-being or that of others over the moral law.
  • Contra at least act utilitarianism, in a contest between increasing happiness and the moral law, the moral law should win.
kant and morality ii
  • Some people think that Kant’s devotion to the moral law can have absurd consequences. For instance, he said that it is our duty always to tell the truth. As such it would not seem permissible ever to tell a lie, even to save the life of another person!
  • We have an obligation to tell the truth since lying cannot be universalized, and we have an obligation to help others for reasons seen above in the fourth test of the categorical imperative. Might we not then need to lie to help another? And doesn’t this raise a problem about conflicting duties?
  • However this might be dealt with, since moral rules like telling the truth, are both universally valid - for everyone, at every time and at every place - and thus admit of no exceptions - for Kant we have an absolute duty to follow them.
maria s problem i
  • Maria von Herbert was a young woman who wrote to Kant for advice.
  • Maria was in love with a young man who also loved her until she was honest with him about her having had a past sexual relationship with another man.
  • Her honesty about the past affair causes the man to lose his love for her, and this in turn so depresses her that she considers suicide.
  • In fact, the only thing which prevents her from committing suicide is Kant’s ethics, which prohibits suicide.
  • The problem for Maria is that Kant’s philosophy does not help her in dealing with the pain which she now experiences.
kant s response to maria i
  • Perhaps the first telling thing here regarding Kant’s role in this matter is that he asks a friend what he should do, rather than being able to decide for himself.
  • Why would someone who has written works in moral philosophy, which tell people what to do and what not to do, need advice from someone else?
  • Kant writes back to Maria and tells her that the man’s indignation is justified, but that she was right to have told the truth, since it is our duty to tell the truth.
kant s response to maria ii
  • Kant also tells her that, with time, the man will return to her if his love for her was genuine and moral. If he does not return than his affection was more physical than genuine.
  • Kant also tells Maria that she must meet her misfortune with composure, and says that “the value of life, insofar as it consists of the enjoyment we get from people, is vastly overrated.”
  • This quote perhaps is telling, since someone who gets little enjoyment from others may have little sympathy or feeling for others.
  • And as Langton points out, Kant thinks that Maria deserves to have lost her love, and that her suffering is appropriate punishment for her immoral behavior.
maria s problem ii
  • Maria writes again to Kant and says that she has lost her interest in life, which is pointless, that her soul is empty, that desire is gone, and she says that “each day interests me only to the extent that it brings me closer to death.”
  • Maria also asks Kant to write back to her with specific details about how to deal with her problems, and also asks permission to visit him.
  • For Langton, Maria’s life with its problems “constitutes a profound challenge to Kant’s philosophy”
moral motivation duty and feeling
  • Langton reminds us that, in Kantian ethics, “an action has moral worth when it is done for the sake of duty; it is not enough that the action conforms with duty.”
  • Thus, for Kant, if we do something moral we ought to do it out of respect for duty, and not, for instance, due to sympathy.
  • According to Kant, the person who treats persons out of duty to the version of the categorical imperative which says to treat persons as ends and never merely as means, and yet who has no sympathy or feelings for others, is more moral than someone who is sympathetic.
  • Kant thinks that sympathy and feeling are burdensome. It is reverence for the moral law which is to be respected, and it must prevail over all human “inclinations and desires.”
persons and things i
  • Kant does not reply to Maria or honor her request to visit him, but now considers her mentally deranged and sends off her letters to an acquaintance.
  • Langton says that evil for Kant is “the reduction of persons to things” (the second version of the categorical imperative).
  • Langton points out that, in the society in which Maria lived, “women must perpetually walk a tightrope between being treated as things and treated as persons.”
persons and things ii
  • Langton points out that Maria would have had to contend with “the sexual marketplace, where human beings are viewed as having a price, and not a dignity, and where the price of women is fixed in a particular way.” (Her italics.)
  • Langton: “Women, as things, as items in the sexual marketplace, have a market value that depends in part on whether they have been used. Virgins fetch a higher price than second hand goods.”
  • Langton remarks that this is to treat a person as a thing, and that such treatment must be evil according to Kant’s own philosophy. And she says that this is a point which Kant himself did not recognize, since he thought it was appropriate that Maria suffer as she did for her confession.
  • Is it different now?
  • Do women feel that they are sometimes or often treated as things, sex objects?
  • Do men now look at women that way?
  • How are women first looked at?
  • Do women see themselves as the equals of men?
  • Do men see women as equals?
persons and things iii
  • Kant’s ethics says that we ought always to tell the truth, and so Maria had an obligation to tell the truth about her past. However, Langton suggests that, by telling the truth, Maria is transformed from a person into a thing, “used merchandise,” because of the attitudes of the culture in which she lived.
  • Langton thinks that perhaps Maria can be permitted to lie because the culture in which she lives is evil. It is evil since it sees unmarried women who are not virgins as things rather than persons.
  • The idea is that, knowing that she will be treated like a thing if she is honest, she may lie in order to protect her status as a person.
persons and things iv
  • But further, Langton thinks that Maria may even have a duty to lie, on Kantian theory, since it is part of Kant’s ethics that each person has a duty of self-esteem, an obligation to respect herself, and a duty to recognize that people are not, like things, for sale at any price.
  • Maria’s duty not to treat herself as a thing, or to allow herself to be treated as a thing, means that she ought to lie to protect herself from such treatment.
the kingdom of ends
  • Remember that the Kantian Kingdom of Ends is the world in which every person respects every other person, and where no person is treated merely as a means rather than as an end, a community of persons treated as ends in themselves.
  • Langton says that Kant “thinks we should act as if the Kingdom of Ends is with us now. He thinks that we should rely on God to make it alright in the end.”
  • This is the idea that the virtuous person who is not rewarded for his or her morality on earth will be rewarded by God in the afterlife.
  • But Langton says that “God will not make it all right in the end. And the Kingdom of Ends is not with us now.”
  • And she adds that “Perhaps we should do what we can to bring it about.”
persons and things v
  • Maria von Herbert never got to visit Kant and she finally killed herself.
  • In not treating her with the respect and sympathy which she deserved, Langton thinks that Kant ended up treating Maria as a thing rather than as a person.
  • See the study questions at the end of the article.
two ethical traditions
  • The German tradition in ethics focuses on reason. The focus of this rationalist tradition is “on persons and our duties to them.”
  • The British tradition in ethics focuses on feeling, and on attitudes, thoughts, and judgements as they relate to or are prompted by feeling. The focus for the sentimentalist tradition is “on all beings that can feel pain or pleasure and directly prohibits cruelty to all sentient beings.”
the superiority of the british tradition
  • Sommers will argue that the tradition based on feeling is superior to the tradition based on reason.
  • For Sommers, the German tradition in ethics helped in the German attitude towards the Jews in WWII. This is because Jews were reclassified as nonpersons by the Nazis, and only persons have respect and moral protection in the German tradition in ethics.
  • For Sommers then, there must be something defective in German moral philosophy.
moral patients doing wrong and wronging
  • Sommers points out that there is a difference between doing wrong and wronging. “You can do wrong by damaging a tree, but you do not thereby wrong the tree.”
  • Sommers quotes Geoffrey Warnock’s definition of a moral patient as “Any being that a moral agent can wrong.”
  • Sommers: “According to the central (Kantian) tradition in German moral thinking, the domain of moral patients includes all and only moral agents, excluding many nonrational beings as nonpersons or ‘things.’”
rationality and moral consideration
  • According to the German tradition in ethics, you cannot wrong a nonrational being or thing. Rather, in this tradition, we only owe respect to persons.
  • Kant says that “All moral philosophy rests wholly on its pure part. When applied to man it does not borrow the least thing from the knowledge of man himself (anthropology), but gives laws to him as a rational being.”
sentience and the british tradition i
  • Sommers contrasts the ethics of Kant with that of Hume, and philosophers such as William Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, and the utilitarians who base moral obligation on compassion and feelings of benevolence.
  • For Hume and Bentham the moral community is not based on an entity’s capacity to think, but its capacity to feel and suffer.
sentience and the british tradition ii
  • For these philosophers, and the British tradition in ethics, “any sentient being can be wronged.”
  • (Sentient - adj {L sentient-, sentiens, prp of sentire to perceive, feel] (1632) 1: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions 2: AWARE 3: finely sensitive in perception or feeling. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.)
  • Kant labeled this approach to ethics “anthropological,” and found it “impure.”
sentience and the moral community i
  • What Sommers likes about the empirical approach of Hume, which is based on feeling, is that “cruelty or brutality to any sentient being is the very paradigm of indecent, inadmissable behavior.”
  • Sommers: “According to Kant, animals are not in the domain of moral patients and we have no direct duty to be kind to them. We do have an indirect duty to refrain from acts of cruelty to animals because such behavior could corrupt our character, and this could affect the way we behave to rational beingsto whom we do owe respect.”
sentience and the moral community ii
  • For Kant then, and the tradition which bases morality on reason, the idea is not that we should respect animals other than humans because of their capacity to feel pain, or that mistreating animals is not wrong in itself because animals then suffer, but because to mistreat an animal could adversely affect the way we treat each other.
  • Thus the mistreatment of animals is not wrong because animals are mistreated, but because the mistreatment of animals could lead to the mistreatment of humans.
sentience and the moral community iii
  • The problem with the Kantian philosophy on this issue, for Sommers, is that anyone who would not be corrupted by mistreating animals would not be doing wrong to mistreat them.
  • For Sommers, this shows that there is something wrong with the rationalist approach to ethics of Kant and his followers.
the nazi treatment of the jews i
  • Recall how sympathy loses to a bad morality for Himmler when, although he has sympathy for his victims, he recognizes that it is his duty to eliminate them.
  • Sommers recognizes that the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis “would surely have horrified Kant,” but “a moral philosophy which does not directly proscribe cruelty to nonpersons” makes it possible to mistreat any being which is not thought to qualify as a person.
  • For the Nazis, Jews did not qualify as persons. Accordingly, Sommers then points out that, “If Jews are like insects, killing them is not a crime against humanity.”
the nazi treatment of the jews ii
  • Of course, the Kantian could say here that killing or mistreating Jews is wrong for the same reason that mistreating dogs is wrong, because of its effect on the people who mistreat them. That is, by mistreating Jews, even though Jews are nonpersons, we might lead us to mistreat persons.
  • Sommers point though is that Kantian ethics allows for the mistreatment of certain peoples because they can be reclassified as nonpersons.
the nazi treatment of the jews iii
  • Sommers does not think that this reclassification of persons as nonpersons does not and will not happen in any moral philosophy which is based on feeling rather than on rationality.
  • Thus he says that “A people steeped in the sentimentalist moral philosophy [such as that of Locke, Hume, or Mill] regards all sentient beings [those capable of feeling and sensation, or pleasure and pain] as moral patients.” [as deserving of moral consideration.] And “such a people would view an openly cruel leader [like Hitler] as unacceptably immoral.”
the danger of the german rational tradition i
  • For Sommers, any ethics which is based on the notions of duty and respect rather than on kindness and compassion is wrong and dangerous.
  • The formal approach to ethics taken by Kant which is based on duty to rational agents leaves other being worthy of moral consideration outside of the moral community.
  • And it leaves open the possibility that certain beings who we would normally consider to be part of the moral community, such as Jews, would not be considered persons, and therefore not morally protected.
the danger of the german rational tradition ii
  • Such an arbitrary drawing of moral boundaries cannot happen for any ethics which is based on “benevolence and human compassion.”
  • And this is the case for the British tradition in ethics in which the focus is on basic sentience and feeling.
  • Sommers concludes by saying that “a moral theory that does not absolutely, ‘directly,’ and foundationally anathematize cruelty must be ruled out of court.”
  • According to Sommers, the German rational tradition does not do this, and so is not only inferior to the British tradition, but is dangerous.