What is up everyone, welcome to another thrilling article about the topic that is always on everyone’s mind: what is the right thing to do? We have already seen two theories, namely Aristotelian virtue ethics and utilitarianism. Kantian ethics will be the last main ethical theory that we are going to discuss. So, don’t worry, things are not going to be too complicated. Granted, ethics is still a complex field of inquiry, but I believe that with these three main theories, you are sufficiently equiped to deal with moral problems of your own. Let us dive into this theory by Immanuel Kant, and see what his main insights were.
Summary Kantian Ethics
This type of ethics is called deontology, and deontology sort of means the study of duty. Deon is a Greek word meaning obligation or duty, and logia is a Greek suffix that we use to denote the study of something, or knowledge of something.
So Kantian ethics is all about our duties as a human. He thinks that there are sort of universal moral laws, and that it is our duty to follow these, regardless from our individual wants or needs. For example, one of these laws could be that you should never kill a man.
The Categorical Imperative of Kantian Ethics
So how do we come up with Kantian universal rules to figure out what the laws are of our behavior? Easy, for this he formulated the so-called categorical imperative. What does this mean? Well, categorical means that it is absolute in a sense, there is no disputing. And the word imperative means something like a demand. So the categorical imperative is like an unconditional demand, which cannot be disputed and should be followed at all times, no exceptions. This categorical imperative is the grand source of our duties as humans, and we must act in accordance with this at all times.
Now, what is the categorical imperative exactly? Actually there are multiple formulations of it, I will discuss the most important two with you now. The first one is:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
Okay, so you probably have no idea what this means, and let me tell you, when I first heard of these things I had no clue what it meant either. Someone had to explain to me what it meant, and now I understand it. Allow me to do the same here. Let’s take a look at the first part. It starts out with “act only according to that maxim”. Okay, so we need to act, behave in a certain way, according to something that is called a maxim. What is a maxim? Well, it is sort of a sentence that expresses some sort of truth. For example, the sentence: I will not go swimming after a big meal to stay safe. So the general outline of a maxim is the following: I will do something under some condition for some end goal.
Okay, so now we know what a maxim is, the rest of the first categorical imperative says that we should only follow those maxims, that we at the same time would want to become a universal law. With universal law he means that everyone on earth should follow this maxim. Let’s take the eating before swimming example again. Do we want this to be a universal law? Well of course, if everyone followed this rule, less people would die from drowning in the world, and that would lead to less tragedy and so on. This would be quite good for the human civilization as a whole.
Okay, so that works. Let’s look at another example. How about stealing? Say that you are in the shop and you want to save some money, so you steal a couple of items. Is this okay to do? Well the maxim that would accompany this action would be something like: I should steal if I want to save money. Okay, now we have a maxim, then we ask the question, do we want this to become a universal law? Well, no because, if everyone started doing this, then all the supermarkets and shops would go bankrupt because people are stealing their goods the entire time. This would cause the economical food system as we know it to collapse, where would we get our food then? A lot of people would probably starve, and we would have to start hunting again or something. Kant calls such an unfavorable situation a contradiction.
This is the way to determine right from wrong. First formulate the appropriate maxim, then check if it can be a universal law, that is to say, will the world break down if it is? If nothing crazy or absurd happens, then you know that it is the right thing to do.
So, the first formulation is more about general stuff you should do, activities that you do that only concern you. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is more about how you should treat other people. The second formulation is
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
What does this mean? The first part basically states that you should treat people in a certain way. The second part says that you should never treat people merely as a means to an end, but as an end as well. Let’s unpack this further. Using something as a means to an end, is quite straightforward, we have a lot of technology that we use to achieve some end.
We use people in this way as well. Say you are sick and need to go to the doctor. At this point, you will use the doctor as a means to an end, namely, as a means to heal yourself. We do this with people all the time. But this is okay, as long as the other person freely chose to this himself. It is different if we force the other person to be a means for our end. This was done with slavery in the past for example. Someone becomes your property, your means to certain ends, and the other person does not get a say in it.
But this is also true if you choose to deceive someone. Say you are a mischievous salesperson and you want to trick people to buy your lame product that no one really needs. If you try to deceive your customer by telling him or her all sorts of lies, then you are treating that person as if he or she was a thing. You treat that person only as a means to your end of making the sale and earning money. However, if you tell the truth about the product, and the customer can freely choose if s/he wants to buy it, then you are not treating that person as merely a means, but also as an end in itself. Seeing someone as an end means that you acknowledge that that person is a free entity, and has the right to make his own decisions. When you deceive someone you are treating the other person as a mere means, not as an end. Therefore, deceiving people is wrong.
So that is Kant’s take on ethics. He is the guys who loves universal rules, and states that there are no exceptions to these rules.