Immanuel Kant’s take on ethics stands out in stark contrast to the utiliarianist views of Jeremy Bentham. His categorical imperative is a deontological ethical theory, which means it is based on the idea that there are certain objective ethical rules in the world. “Deontology” comes from the Greek word “deon” meaning duty – in other words, deontologically minded philosophers believe we have a duty to act in certain ways, in accordance with moral laws. Kant’s version is possibly the most well known, and relies heavily on his idea that all people are fundamentally capable of reasoning in the same manner and on the same level. Kantianism focuses more on intent and action in itself, as opposed to the consequentialist focus of utilitarianism. One of the primary points of Kantian ethics is, basically, that you must never treat another human being as a means to an end – this idea lies at the core of Kant’s ethical thinking.
First of all, let’s look at some of the foundational theories that Kant based his approach on. Now, Kant was pretty big on something known as autonomy (self-governance). He believed that, unless a person freely and willingly makes a choice, their action has no meaning (and certainly no moral value) – this would be an example of what Kant called heteronomy. So how did he move from this to the concept of a universal, objective moral law that no man had the right to break? Well, an idea that’s central to Kant’s moral laws or duties is that they’re based on reason. Kant thought that every man, if using reason when looking at moral dilemmas, would agree with what he called the Categorical Imperative (the CI). So, while the law is objective, Kant thought that all people could come to understand and agree with it after autonomous reflection.
So how, exactly, does the CI tell us how to act? How does it work? The decision-making procedure of the theory is actually quite straight forward, and one that many people should be able to grasp intuitively (which is exactly what Kant wanted to achieve). Kant thought that when a moral action is being considered, one should ask the following questions; what would happen if I made the maxim of this action a universal law (killing someone who’s insulted you = you must kill anyone who insults you)? Is this universalization possible? Consider the example of killing someone because they’ve insulted you. If everyone did this, we’d swiftly and surely run out of people to kill, and it would no longer be possible to follow the law. Because of this logical contradiction, Kant felt that we have a perfect duty to not kill people. However, are also imperfect duties. An example of this would be giving to charity – it is not a moral necessity that you do this, but you should be praised if you do.
A core aspect of this theory is the concept of intent. To Kant, the actual outcome (the consequences) of a particular action didn’t matter at all. It was the intent that mattered to him. Let’s look at an example. Imagine you’re a murderer walking down the street, and you see a defenseless young man in front of you. It’s dark, and there’s no one else around. You have a knife in your pocket. It would be easy for you to kill him. So, you consider. Maybe, in the end, you choose to let the man live – not because you were worried about acting immorally, but because you didn’t want to take the risk of him screaming and drawing the attention of the police (or something to that effect). In the end, you do not kill. According to Kant, you haven’t acted ethically. You’re action does not make you a better person. This is because when you acted (or, rather, chose not to act), you weren’t considering the action in terms of its morality. You didn’t make a moral choice – you merely acted out of self-preservation. However, if you were to choose not to kill the man because you suddenly realized that it was wrong to kill and didn’t want to act unethically, then you would have acted morally, and would be a better person for it.
One of the advantages of this approach to morality is that it looks more closely at the individual and his choices, rather than the actual consequences of what he does (which, after all, he has no control over). Take this example; a scientist decides that he is going to find a cure for a particular sort of cancer, and spends years trying to accomplish this. Look at his intent – it’s highly moral. But imagine that he accidentally invents some sort of super weapon instead, which eventually leads to the total destruction of entire civilizations. This is not a positive result, but it was not what he wanted to achieve. The utilitarian would say that he is a bad person nevertheless, as he has caused massive amounts of suffering. But it’s not what he wanted to do. Kant’s approach here seems preferable, and much fairer.
The main problem with the categorical imperative is its rigidity. The famous example that illustrates this is that of a crazed axe-murderer coming to your front door and asking you where your children are. You could lie – many would say you should lie – but imagine if everyone in the entire world lied all the time. If everyone lied, there would be no “telling the truth” and, thus, no real lying. As the law is logically contradictory, you have a perfect duty not to lie. You have to tell the axe-murderer the truth, so he can go and kill your children. Kant was asked about this personally, and he said that this was indeed the case. It would be immoral to lie to the man. He did, however, say that you could also choose to lock your door and call the police. Here’s another example – you’re in a room with a man who’s holding a gun to your mother’s head. You know he’ll shoot her any second. Right next to you, there’s a button. If you press the button, the man will fall through a trap door and land in a spike pit, dying instantly. Your mother will be saved. According to the categorical imperative, this would be the wrong thing to do. You can’t press the button. But if you don’t, your mother will die. It’s in situations like this that strict ethical systems with specific decision procedures tend to fall apart. Morality is simply too complex, too full of exceptions for these theories to ever fully work.
If you have any questions or would like something clarified, please post a comment and I’ll do my best :)