Criticisms of Kant - The Richmond Philosophy Pages

What Makes An Act Moral?
 A major difficulty for Kant’s theory is that it
seems that not every universal maxim is a moral
one – it could be trivial or amoral
 This shows that not every maxim that passes
universability is a duty
 Kant does not tell us how we can distinguish
moral duties from absurd imperatives for surely
it is possible to universalise the maxim ‘never
step on the cracks in the pavement’ – it is not
inconsistent to will everyone to do so
 Similarly, it is not clear how Kant could distinguish
moral obligations from social etiquette – someone
could easily will everyone to eat with a knife and
fork and be outraged at the thought of some adults
using their hands or just spoons
 Also, there are some maxims which cannot be
universalised on Kant’s account and as such must be
morally wrong for example ‘using contraception
when having sex’ is a maxim someone might have if
they don’t want children. But this cannot be
universalised because there would soon be no
human species
It Doesn’t Fit With Our
 There are aspects of Kant’s theory that fall
clearly outside of our ‘moral intuitions’
 For example, Kant’s scenario where a madman is
at your door with an axe asking if your friend is
inside goes against our moral intuitions. Surely it
is more moral to lie than allow someone to be
brutally murdered but according to Kant and the
categorical imperative it is your duty to tell this
madman the truth. Our actions here lead to a
murder – how can this really be moral?
It Doesn’t Tell Us How To
 Another objection is that Kant’s approach is
impractical because it provides no
substantive help in making moral decisions
when we are faced with moral dilemmas
 The Categorical Imperative does go some
way in this direction but if we encounter
conflicts between different duties Kant offers
no way for us to choose
 Jean-Paul Sartre criticises Kant by using an example of
his own experience during the Nazi occupation of
France – here a young man is torn between his duty to
his country, which impelled him to join the resistance
and which would probably lead to his death, and his
duty to his mother, who had already lost her other sons
to the war
 Kant’s ethical theory is of no use in helping him to
resolve this conflict since both imperatives are
categorical and yet they pull in different directions
 Kant seems to have believed that genuine moral
dilemmas of this sort could not occur, but the reality of
our everyday experience shows that this is not the case
A Response??
 W.D. Ross tries to address the problems levelled at Kant’s
deontological theory that it is counter-intuitive and
 Ross believes that through a process of experience and
intuition we build up a collection of moral principles
 He calls these principles ‘prima facie duties’ and they
include all the usual suspects: beneficence (the obligation
to promote the welfare of others), non-malevolence (the
obligation not to harm others), justice, promise-keeping,
honesty, etc.
 What is important is that these duties cannot be drawn
from one single principle and Ross recognises all these
prima facie duties as basic and irreducible
 Sometimes we are confronted with conflicting
duties. We use the term ‘moral dilemma’ to refer
to those real-life situations where we have two
duties of equal weighting that are in conflict
 The problem for Kant was that he believed our
duties are absolute and so we are compelled to
obey the command of each duty – where these
duties conflict, Kant provides no procedure for
resolving this conflict
 However, for Ross it is essential that prima facie
duties are not absolute (this is why they’re called
prima facie from the Latin term meaning ‘roughly
at first sight’)
It Doesn’t Acknowledge The Role
of Emotion
 A further objection to Kant is that he encourages
a cold and calculative approach to ethics by
demanding that we put aside our feelings for the
fellow suffering of others
 Kant’s claim that emotions are irrelevant, and
that the only appropriate motive for moral
action is a sense of duty seems to be at odds with
our intuition that certain emotions have a moral
dimension, such as guilt and sympathy or pride
and jealousy – don’t we regard that possession of
such emotions itself as morally praise- or blameworthy
 We also may doubt whether it is even possible for us to set aside
our self-interest and the concerns and desires that make us
individuals, and to think of ourselves, as Kant wants us to, as purely
rational autonomous beings engaged in universal law-making
 Bernard Williams argues that the impartial position that Kant
wishes us to adopt may be possible for factual considerations, but
not for practical, moral deliberations
 Factual considerations have a ‘unity of interest’ – they are not
essentially personal, but it is an attempt to reach an impersonal
position. In contrast, Williams maintains that practical deliberation
is essentially personal and it does make a difference whether it is
me, or someone else asking the question
 Williams argues that Kant is wrong and that we cannot adopt an
impersonal perspective because by doing do we lose our place in
the world, our interests and any sense of self
 Answer the following question:
 For Kant what makes an act moral?

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