I was asked to write a post on how a given philosopher’s views might be different to Immanuel Kant’s, specifically Kant’s ethical philosophy. As I’ve just finished a classical philosophy course, I figured it would make sense to use Plato.
First of all, this post will make a whole lot more sense if you’ve read my post on Kant’s categorical imperative first, or if you’ve studied the CI before. But the basic features of Kant’s moral philosophy are these; it’s deontological (i.e. rule based) and normative (concerned with establishing the difference between right and wrong and creating moral rules, as opposed to, for instance, practical ethics which looks at individual moral dilemmas and tries to figure out what the ethically correct response might be), values autonomy (so everyone should arrive at his conclusions by exercising their own reason, rather than simply taking his word for it), holds that people can never be used as means to an end (i.e. you can’t kill or manipulate people “for the greater good”), and holds that rationality is the key to making the right decisions in ethical situations. It is often praised for the fact that it provides people with a relatively simple decision-making procedure that they can use when an ethical decision needs to be made, and criticized for its rigidity and lack of emotion.
By contrast, Plato’s ethics are virtue-based and eudaimonistic, like that of most Ancient Greek philosophers. I’ll explain the eudaimonistic part of that briefly. Ancient Greek ethics wasn’t concerned so much with how we should act as it was with how we should live. And it was more prudential (concerned with well-being) than it was moral. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were more concerned with how people should live their lives in order to be happy than they were with figuring out what the difference between right and wrong was. They wanted to work out how to achieve eudaimonia, the optimal state of being for any human, and help their fellows achieve it as well. Fortunately, they all shared a belief that being a good person was essential for accomplishing this. They believed that eudamonia could be achieved through the cultivation of various virtues and the elimination of vices. “Virtue” in this case is slightly different in meaning to what we think when we hear the word today. It’s a somewhat inadequate translation of the Ancient Greek word arete, which really just refers to excellence (it doesn’t have the moral tinge inherent in “virtue”).
So virtue ethics was about developing a strong character, which often involved developing typically moral characteristics like bravery and compassion (though it could also involve developing, say, excellence at cobbling or wine-making). When it started to be considered as an ethical theory in the modern sense (rather than as a way of life that was meant to help you flourish as a human being), it was argued that developing good character will allow you to act well without having to think about it – a moral person does the right thing instinctively. Therefore, it’s better to focus on becoming a good person, rather than trying to think rationally about the right thing to do in any given situation.
This is one of the primary differences between Platonic and Kantian ethics. While Kant thought that the way to make the best decisions in life was to take the time to think them through rationally, Plato may well have argued that we often don’t have time to stop and think every time we have to make an important decision. A lot of the time we have to rely on our instincts, so they should be our focus – train yourself to be a good person, and you will act the right way without having to think about it first. That said, Plato (as well as most other Ancient Greek philosophers) was very fond of rationality. It’s important to remember that Kantian ethics and virtue ethics are not mutually exclusive. The Kantian practice of rationally examining moral situations can be a valuable tool in developing virtue. The real difference lies in the focus of each theory; one looks at a person’s actions, whilst the other looks at the person. A person could adopt a fairly Platonic virtue ethic and decide that it is virtuous to know the difference between right and wrong, and then use Kant’s categorical imperative to help her with this. However, Plato wasn’t quite such a fan of autonomy; his ideal state, expounded in the Republic, was one in which the ruling class decided what people should do, be it baking bread or waging war, and giving them little choice in the matter.