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Deontological & Kantian Ethics

This strain of moral reflection that argues that moral treatment is appropriate to humans because of their rationality has a long history. Its most popular recent incarnation is associated with the moral thinking of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. His view is of a type called “deontological” because it aims to show how there can be moral requirements that do not depend on whether the actions required produce good consequences.

Kant took it be our special competence as rational beings to formulate general or universal laws, which is what gave us moral knowledge. For any act that we might contemplate doing, we can always ask whether we would be willing to endorse a universal law that permitted or required that type of action. Interestingly, such questioning is strikingly like applying the Golden Rule to a prospective action. If I contemplate cheating my neighbor, Kant would have me ask myself whether I would be willing to live in a world in which people were all permitted to cheat one another--which, of course, would mean that I too would be subject to permissible cheating. With perhaps an excess of optimism, Kant concluded that, not only would no one want to live in such a world, no one could honestly will to live in one. If then, I proceed to cheat my neighbor, I live out a kind of contradiction: I perform an action that I would not allow generally, an action that I cannot endorse as a general rule. Thus, I know at least in my heart of hearts that I am making a special exception for myself that I would not grant others, and that I cannot really justify for myself.

Note that Kant is not saying that I shouldn’t cheat my neighbor because doing so might lead to my getting cheated myself.  Kant is proposing a test that one performs wholly in one’s mind.  I ask myself if I could will my intended action as a universal law.  If I cannot, then that action is wrong even if I was perfectly sure that I could do it and suffer no bad consequences at all.

Image at left from BBC, When are pictures of POWs propaganda? (discussing status of detainees in camp X Ray compared to the American reaction to POWs captured in Iraq being photographed) More info below

Kant thought that this competence of ours was more than merely a means to figure out what is moral.  Since he took it to derive from our reason alone and not from our desires, he thought it represented our unique freedom from natural forces.  Human beings could guide their actions, could decide which of their desires to act on, by reference to a standard found in their reason and not thus itself the product of desire. Thus, in our reason, Kant found freedom, freedom from the forces of nature, freedom from the pushes and pulls of desires and aversions.  Thus his moral theory exalts human beings’ free rational wills, and teaches us to treat all free rational beings as “ends-in-themselves,” that is, as beings that cannot rightly be subjected to forces that their own reason does not endorse.  This in turn adds a new dimension to the test described above.  When I ask of a prospective action, would I willing to live subject to a universal law permitting or requiring such things, I am asking do I truly believe that all rational beings could freely endorse the action I have in mind.

When I contemplate cheating my neighbor, what I must ask is, “Could my action be freely and rationally endorsed by my neighbor?”  It is obvious that it could not, since the very possibility of cheating my neighbor requires bypassing her rational judgment about what I am doing.  I must depend on her ignorance of what I am doing in order to succeed in cheating her.  Likewise, robbing my neighbor requires bypassing or overriding her freedom.  I can only rob her by acting against her will--if it were her will that I end up with the thing I rob, then she would give it to me and it would not be robbery.  Consequently, morality of this Kantian variety is sometimes identified with respect, respect for the freedom and rationality of one’s fellows.  Evil actions are actions with bypass or override or ignore the freedom and rationality of others, and thus are disrespectful of those others’ most distinctive capacities.  And such a moral view is deontological in that it arrives at its judgments without considering all the consequences of the acts under consideration.  So, even if cheating or robbing my neighbor might in some way help my nation or even all of humanity, such acts are forbidden because they fail to respect my neighbor.

In sum, for Kant and those inspired by him, true morality is a matter of treating human beings in ways that are appropriate to their nature of free and rational beings.  And this means in ways that treat them as free and rational, in ways that they can freely and rationally accept.  When people complain, for example, of being treated like objects or like tools, they are essentially saying that they have been treated in ways that fail to respect their freedom and rationality.  They have been manipulated or pushed around, rather than appealed to for free and rational acceptance.  Since freedom and rationality are taken to be the marks of personhood, a Kantian-type morality is sometimes called a morality of respect for persons.  

Contrary to consequentialism, this kind of moral approach clearly rules out using people as means to the happiness of others. For this reason, many of those who have felt that utilitarianism is not a strong enough defender of individual human rights, have turned to Kantian or Kantian-inspired moral views.  Nonetheless, though there is undoubtedly something about Kantian-style morality that resonates with many people’s strong feelings about the treatment proper to human beings, this kind of approach has its problems as well.  Unlike utilitarianism with its emphasis on happiness or the satisfaction of desires, Kantian moral theory doesn’t provide an easily-grasped notion of the good.  The idea that certain treatment is appropriate to free rational beings is a more abstract kind of good than pleasure or satisfaction, nor is it easy to prove that it is more important to respect human beings than to bring about their happiness.  And many philosophers have doubted whether we really have a capacity to make rational evaluations independent of our desires.

Ethics Updates: Kant and Deontology: includes Powerpoint presentation and Real Media resources in  addition to a variety of reading about Kant and Deontological Systems.

Notes on Deontology is a helpful introduction; it discusses the history of deontology, and the methods of applying the philosophy to decisions, particularly the universalizability of moral principles. 

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on Duties and Deontological Ethics.

It is often mistakenly said of Kant, that the full content of morality could be derived from our pure reason without reference to the facts of the world.  Far from it.  Reason supplies a test of morality, but it is our desires that supply the subjects of the test. My reason cannot itself tell me not to cheat my neighbor. Rather, observing in myself the desire to cheat him, I can apply reason to this desire and ask if I would be willing to live in a world where everyone was permitted to act on such desires. It is the test that is universal and derived from reason, but the test must be applied to the observed facts of human life.

Another helpful site discusses the meaning of deontology and compares it to other  theories such as consequentialism. 

There's an additional discussion about the role of consequences of actions in the area of deontological ethics and a brief essay outlining the deontological objections to consequentialism

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Discussion Questions & Exercises

Now that Americans fighting in Iraq have been captured and some of them photographed, concerns have been raised about the humane treatments of captives. As soon as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld suggested that the photographs taken of American POWs violated the Geneva convention, many commentators questioned whether there was a double standard, because photographs have been taken of captives held by the U.S. at camp X Ray (Guantanamo, Cuba) and they are denied standing under the Geneva Convention. 

Discuss how the U.S. has treated others and how you expect U.S. soldiers to be treated (in terms of actual treatment or photographs). Among the ways to approach this assignment are to read the following article on the interrogation of Al Quaeda suspects - review significant parts and discuss if you think it would be fair for other governments to treat Americans that way. Is it acceptable to show pictures of captives like this (either by Americans or our enemies)? The photograph above from the Daily Mirror ran as part of a BBC story on truth and propaganda

You can also approach this paper by reviewing part of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. It is meant to apply to all parties, regardless of the legitimacy of the conflict or the identity of the aggressor. Your paper can be an overview of IHL or focus on a specific topic (in addition to the link above, check out the Fact Sheets on IHL).

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