Friday, January 27, 2006

Kant do it

Kant was a great philosopher who believed in the power of reason. He applied reason to many areas of philosophy, including the philosophy of art, maths and ethics. He is reknowned for his incredible theory of morality.

Kant believes that we can only have morality based on reason because morality based on experience is inconsistent and based on desires. He presses that we should "act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

By this, he meant that we could discover what was morally good and bad by taking an action, repeating it over and over again, and then observing the repercussions. For example, take the action of lying. If everyone was to lie all the time in society, no-one would ever trust anyone, and society would not function well at all. So, Kant says that a lie is an offence to mankind generally because it errodes the contract of truthfulness in society. On the other hand, telling the truth must be morally good because if everyone told the truth, then everything could be believed, and this makes things MUCH easier. Therefore, according to Kant, " the formal duty of an individual to everyone, however great may be the disadvantage accruing to himself or another".

Every theory in philosophy has a problem, and the problem with this one is this. Suppose that a murderer was after your mother, and he appears at your door one day with a large, shiny kitchen knife. He asks you if your mother is home. You have read Kant's Ethics of duty and remember that truth telling is morally good. So you tell the murderer that your mother is in...

Is this right? Kant would have led the murderer to his mother! But there are other things to consider. What if Kant did decides to lie about the whereabouts of his mother: "She's out right now, come back later". Meanwhile, his mother escapes out the back window and runs into the robber outside. We can guess what happens after the this. So maybe Kant should have told the murderer the truth, because then his mother would have known that he would, and then crept outside the window.

Kant's view sides with deontic moral philosophy, rather than Consequentialist. Consequentialist theories dictate that we should act in ways that will produce the best consequences. So, a Consequentialist would not lead the murderer to his or her mother, because this would probably lead to an undesired result.

However, Consequentialist theories have problems of their own. Suppose that there is a small community of foreigners living within a certain society, and the general population strongly desires for this small community to withdraw itself. The foreigners do not really mind leaving (but they don't really want to) and so their leaving will produce more happiness in the vast majority than unhappiness in the minority. Is it therefore moral to have them removed? This is counter-intuitive, and perhaps for deontic reasons.

It seems that our idea of morality lies somewhere between the extremes of deontic logic and consequentialist theory.

Further Reading:
  • Kant, Immanuel, 1994, "The Categorical Imperative" and "On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives", reprinted in P. Singer (ed.)Ethics, pp. 274 - 281


Doctor Marco said...

I tend to prefer the morality based on individual and societal benefit at the same time. However, I understand that there might be conflicts. For these situations I believe we should have a set of priorities just like the "Laws of Robotics" (I do not know if you have read Isaac Asimov)

Anonymous said...

i think your summarization of Kant's ethical theory is quiet incomplete.

Kant did say that we should prevent the fall of the institution of truth telling by not lying. However, the main reason which he thinks moral principles should be universal is because we will have logical contradictions if we don't universalize moral principles. For example, if i say it is right for me to bully others, but others can't do the same to me, am i contradicting myself? Is it logial to say that certain actions are both right and wrong? That is the main reason of why Kant grounds morality on reason.
I really think Kant's argument against lying based on the protection of society is weak, because here, Kant falls into the trap of consequentlism. If we should refrain from lying for the sake of preveting collapse of the society, we are concerned with the the horrible consequence of the collapse. However, we all know that Kant's not a consequentialist and he's not suppose to employ consequentialist reasoning while his main task is to avoid this type of reasoning. It is self-defeating.

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