Kant*s Theory of Ethics

Is it ok to jump the queue for lunch because you can’t be
bothered to wait?
What would happen if everyone did the same?
There would be no queue to jump.
Jumping the queue whenever you feel like it is a
Kant’s approach argues that in order to see if something
is your duty you should see if you can consistently
generalise it.
Consider the following statements:
One should keep one’s promises .
One should not steal, cheat, kill.
Now construct arguments to show what our duty
is with regard to each of the following:
Cheating on tests
Polluting the environment
Voting in elections
Writing honest references for university applications
Then consider how convincing these arguments are.
Kant attaches a lot of importance to consistency (think
back to where else this has been mentioned).
Why do you think he does this?
Dual conception:
 Me
 One among others
 Do as you would be done to
The Veil of Ignorance
This is a concept which allows/requires you to be
 Person X does action p to person Y and that you are
either person X or person Y but you do not know
which one.
 How do you feel about the action?
 Do you think it acceptable or not?
Values and dignity
Again, looking at the dual conception idea; no one person
should be given preferential treatment but also no
individual should be discriminated against.
Consider the difference between objects and persons,
where the former have value and the latter have
Importance of motives
Kant says the moral value of an action is determined by
the motive behind it rather than the consequences of
the action.
 you are trying to be helpful but it turns out badly – you
are less likely to attract censure.
 You are trying to hurt someone but it doesn’t work out
– you will still be regarded as a bad person.
Reason or feelings?
Kant says that to be truly moral our actions should be
motivated by reason rather than feelings as feelings are
3 different motives for doing good:
1. You expect something in return
2. Sympathy
3. Duty
Consider the following:
 If a cat jumps into a pram, who deserves more praise
for removing it: someone who likes cats or someone
who is frightened of cats?
 Who deserves more praise: a person who helps
another person because they like them, or a person
who helps another person even though they don’t like
Criticisms of Kant
 Rule worship – moral absolutism.
E.g. lying is always wrong.
Which of the following would justify breaking a generally accepted rule?
1. you should respect the highway code but it’s ok to jump a red light when you
are late for work.
2. You should respect the highway code but it’s ok to jump a red light when you
are taking a critically ill person to hospital.
3. You should pay your taxes but it is ok not to pay them if you are short of
money this year.
4. You should pay your taxes but it is ok not to pay them if they are being spent
on a nuclear arms programme.
Conflicts of duty
 If a person has been unfaithful, should they confess
and risk making their partner unhappy or stay silent
and deceive them?
 If a terrorist group takes a civilian hostage and
threatens to kill them unless the government released
five convicted terrorists, should the government give in
to their demands?
Moral coldness
Kant’s approach leaves no room for commonsense
What often motivates us to “do the right thing” is feeling
rather than reason.
Could we argue that feelings are what connect us to each
other and reason is what isolates us.
One supreme moral principle – that we should seek the
greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Maximise happiness!
Actions are right in so far as they tend to increase
happiness and wrong in so far as they tend to
decrease it.
Theory developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1832) and John
Stuart Mill (1806-73)
What is happiness?
It is the sum of pleasures. A happy life is one that
maximises feelings of pleasure and minimises feelings
of pain. (Bentham)
Higher GRH means a morally better world and
a lower GRH means a morally worse world.
In favour of utilitarianism
 Simple method of deciding what to do. You have a
conflict of duties – which will bring the greatest
pleasure to the most people?
 Democratic theory – each person is the best judge of
their own happiness and each person’s happiness is
considered in determining GNH.
 Long-term considerations – smoking gives pleasure
but in the long run will cause more pain, so is a bad
 Egalitarian – e.g. distributing money from rich to poor.
How might a utilitarian justify or criticise the following:
Eating ice cream every day
2. Wearing seat-belts in cars
3. Forcing a reluctant child to learn the piano
4. Voluntary euthanasia
Practical objections:
How do we measure happiness?
2 scoops of ice cream = ½ a day at the seaside = one
evening with friends?
Can you measure the happiness of health or love or
Is a life of only pleasure actually a good thing?
 Can we predict the consequences of our actions?
 Imagine a married woman falls passionately in love
with a colleague at work and is wondering whether or
not to leave her husband.
What should she do?
Look at pros and cons and whatever maximises
the happiness of the people involved.
Can you see any problems with this approach?
Theoretical objections
 Pleasure or happiness is not always a good thing
 Actions should be judged by their motives rather than
their consequences
 Utilitarianism is incompatible with the belief that we
have moral obligations and individual rights
Bad pleasures:
Malicious pleasures: derived from the suffering of
Empty pleasures: do not help us develop our potential
or flourish
What problems are caused for utilitarianism if some
pleasures are ‘better’ than others?
In summary:
Utilitarianism – consequences more important than
Kant – motives (based on reason) are more important.
Utilitarianism – no room for moral obligations or human
Kant – too inflexible.
You can lie as long as it makes the majority happy,
against you can never lie even if it causes suffering.
 Imagine the following scenario:
 Smith, an orphan with no family or friends is in hospital for
a cataract operation. The man in the bed on his left is dying
of kidney failure and the man on his right is dying of heart
failure. Solution – kill Smith and give his organs to the
other men.
 Jones is malicious and spends much time trying to make
people in his village unhappy. One day you wait around a
corner and smack him on the head with a heavy object
before throwing him in the river. Result! Everyone else is
 As a utilitarian what would you say? What difficulties does
this create for utilitarianism?
Rule utilitarianism
Does an action conform to a rule that promotes general
Not ‘what will the effect be on GNH if I break this
promise?’ but ‘ what will the effect be on GNH if we
abandon the rule that people should keep their promises?’
Imagine you are the sole heir to your great-uncle’s $5
million fortune. He makes you promise to use the
money to start a butterfly farm. On his death you
give it to an AIDS charity. Is your action right or
What light can these moral theories shed on these
Is abortion ever justified?
Should drugs be legalised?
Are there limits to free speech?
Ethics are inescapable
Ethics are insoluble
Theories can help us consider the
possibilities but in the end we
cannot pass the buck and we have
to make our own decisions.
Useful language:
 Altruism
 Cultural imperialism
 Duty ethics
 Egoism
 Golden rule
 Moral absolutism
 Moral principle
 Moral relativism
 Rights
rule worship
self-interest theory
special pleading
veil of ignorance

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