Problems in Immanuel Kant’s deontology ethics

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Immanuel Kant is a celebrated proponent of the deontological ethics in the field of philosophy. “Deontology is a Greek word derived from the word deon that means duty (Cherkasova, 170).” This theory states that human beings have a moral obligation to act according to set rules and principles whether or not it would yield a desirable outcome. The theory of deontology is either religious or secular. Religiously, the set rules and principles under the deontological ethics are derived from a divine commandment under religious laws. “Kant was the earliest proponents of the secular deontological ethics in 1788 (Cherkasova, 169).” He argues that the maxims or rules in his secular deontological theory are derived from human reason.

According to this theory, a person may engage in wrong acts provided they yield admirable outcomes. “A person’s acts and outcomes of their acts are judged independently (Kant, 50).” Further, this theory is based on the view that rationality is a unique characteristic of human beings that is exercised when making decisions. “Based on the concept of reasoned thought and rationality, a human being is expected to act and make decisions that uphold their moral duty or law (Darwall, 130).” Immanuel Kant’s theory argues that human emotions, feelings, consequences, and inclinations should not play a role in making moral decisions. “Morality according to this theory should, in itself provide a framework and basis of rational rules or maxims to guide moral decision making and actions independent of human desires, intentions and inclinations (Kant, 60).” Therefore, what is considered truly good and moral is a person’s good will to act in accordance with the moral duty to uphold the law. Kant reaffirms this argument in his stamen in the Groundwork of Metaphysic of Morals by stating, “Nothing in the world, indeed nothing even beyond the world can possibly be conceived which could be called without qualification except a good will.”

In his groundworks the Critique of Practical Reason and Metaphysic of Morals, Kant gives a detailed argument on categorical imperatives and the role they play the deontological moral theory. He states in his Groundwork of Metaphysic of Morals that “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” From this statement states the three formulations of categorical imperatives.

First, that a moral rule should not be connected to any specific physical details that surround its proposition. It should, therefore, be applicable to all human beings because they possess the unique characteristic of rationality. “For an act or decision to be considered moral, it must be independent and universal (Kant, 100).” This implies that all human beings have a duty to act by rules or maxims that do not result in any logical contradictions. In addition, that the duties arising from this moral theory are imperfect duties but remain morally binding. This is because human beings are not perfect and moral decisions are based on subjective preferences and interpretations of humankind. Therefore, the imperfect duties are usually never completed in the real sense and are circumstantial since they are not constantly performed.

The second imperative formulation can de deduced in Kant’s statement in his Groundwork of Metaphysic of Morals that “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.” This imperative means that every rational act is considered as an end owing in mind that most ends are usually subjective since they are only pursued in accordance with a hypothetical imperative. “This is a conditional demand that dictates how a person has to act in order to achieve a particular end based on rationality (Kant, 150).” Therefore, in order to achieve objective ends, rational action should be based on free will. However, it has to be in line with the firm imperative formulation, thus, a perfect duty is imposed upon every human to ensure that they do not use others or themselves as a tool merely to achieve some end. In other words, a person has a duty to observe his or her moral duty to ensure that an end sought promotes equally of everyone.

The third imperative formulation stems from Kant’s statement in his Groundwork of Metaphysic of Morals that “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” This means that autonomous will is not dependent or subjugated to a person’s interest. “That moral rules and maxims must be universal and binding in order to have a possibility of harmonization of the kingdom of ends (Kant, 200).” Therefore, human beings have a perfect duty to ensure that their actions promote universality and disallow any incoherent and unstable natural affairs. The only reason why it may be impossible to universalize the duty and will is due to the contradiction in conception and will.

In summary, Kant’s conclusion on what connotes the principle of morality is based on the concept of goodwill and a perfect duty. In addition, that failure to observe the categorical imperatives is both irrational and immoral since it is viewed as self-contradictory. “Our rationality dictates our duties and the proper means to achieve them after discovering them (Kant, 300).” Since morality is universal according to this moral theory, reason is also universal by virtue of being human.

Some of the problems identified with Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics are identified in criticisms of other philosophers and scholars. Robert Nozick is one of the philosophers who argued what was known as the Paradox of Deontology. He argues that it forbids acts aimed at maximization of the overall welfare of humanity. Further, “that deontology is a contradiction of the principle of permissible harm (Sherline, 150).” Utilitarian proponents such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill also criticize deontology. Bentham argues that it is a version of what is known as popular morality and the argument that the deontologist objective of achieving universal maxims and principles is impossible since natural and universal reason is a subjective opinion. “Mill, on the other hand, argues that the deontology moral theory does not provide conclusive moral guidance because it fails to specify what duties and rights take priority over others especially in cases of conflict (Mill, 150).” “He also criticizes the idea of categorical imperatives on the basis that its aim is to promote the notion that ends are a justification of the means, which Mill considers as a consequentialist argument (Hammond, 250).”

Kantian ethics is also criticized based on the argument that outcomes and actions are to be judged independently and outcomes should not be an evaluation of whether an action is moral or not. “It is equally not good to ignore completely the outcome of an action altogether (Hammond, 130).” It is projected that some situations would require an act that ends with a bad outcome in order to safeguard other inviolable good, for instance, killing one person to save other million lives. It is usually possible that human beings face moral dilemma is some situations where one is confronted with duties that seem to be conflicting. However, this is prohibited in the deontological moral theory and its strict and rigid application inevitably becomes detrimental in some situations. “Under the deontology theory, there are defined moral absolutes whereby some actions are generally considered wrong (Darwall, 180).” As a result, these absolute demean human ability to make sound decisions based on their intuitions.

Also, “it is argued that the moral duty imposed on human beings is a contradiction of common sense and natural inclinations since what is importance it the observance of the natural or moral law that acting based on our intuitions (Williams, 100).” Therefore, it is viewed as a weak and misleading theory when it comes to dictating and providing a guideline on developing virtues and living with upright character. It is also argued that a deontological society would never be democratic since it places too much trust in authorities and disregards the possibility of any wrong acts because of such overconfidence. Another major challenge facing Kantian ethics is based on the fact that some universal maxims are viewed as immoral and therefore not all maxims become a universal duty. “Without a distinction of absurd imperatives and moral duties in the theory, it causes inconsistencies and therefore it is a contradiction that the theory expects a consistency of the will of human beings based on rationality (Williams, 120).”

According to Arthur Schopenhauer in his “Critique of the Kantian philosophy” appended in his book The World as Will and Representation, Kant had the intention of tabulating his judgments as the basis of his reasoning. However, “he does not define important terms such as conception, reason, perception, object, subject among others that have caused difficulty in interpretation of his theory (Schopenhauer, 150).” Further, the deontology ethics do not acknowledge the importance of emotions and the role they play in decision-making.

According to Kant’s theory, decision-making entails making calculative and cold decisions independent of a person’s feelings. Philosophers such as Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams argue that impartial decision-making is practical when making factual considerations but impractical when making moral decisions. He further argues that impersonal and impartial decision making with regards to moral decisions is unacceptable because it leads to erosion of the sense of oneself and personal interests.

Works Cited

Cherkasova, Evgenija V. The Deontology of the Heart: A Study of Dostoevsky's and Kant's Unconditional Ethics. UMI, 1999, pp. 156-258.

Darwall, Stephen L. Deontology. Blackwell Pub,2003, pp.89-200.

Hammond, Peter J. Consequentialist Decision Theory and Utilitarian Ethics. European U Institute,1991, pp.44-107.

Kant, Immanuel, and Thomas K. Abbott. Kant's Critique of Practical Reason: And Other Works on the Theory of Ethics.1909, pp.23-200.

Kant, Immanuel, and H J. Paton. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Harper & Row, 1964, pp.10-400.

Mill, John S. Utilitarianism. Alex Catalogue, 1990, pp. 234-300.

Schopenhauer, Arthur, et al. The World As Will and Representation: Vol. 1. Cambridge UP, 2010, pp.110-205.

Sherline, Edward D. Moral Theories and the Paradox of Deontology. 1990, pp.34-300.

Williams, Bernard, and A W. Moore. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Routledge, 2006, pp.67-200.

June 16, 2022


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