Undoubtedly Kants ethics have several strong points which logically make sense and make his theory very successful which is why many people have used it when faced with moral decisions on a practical day to day basis. However we need to ask, are these strengths enough for us to use it to make a fair and rational decision in the modern world despite its inevitable weaknesses? To answer this we need to analyse the criticisms as well as the amendments of Kant’s ethics more closely and then come to a logical conclusion that takes all of the factors into account.
One of the most fundamental factors of deontological ethics is the importance placed on justice. It is in direct opposition to the utilitarian opinion where an innocent person can be punished if it benefits more people on a larger scale. Naturally our human instinct tells us this is wrong and unfair. The morality of an action comes from its intrinsic value and knowledge that it is the right thing to do and therefore our duty to do it not for the maximum happiness received to the largest number of people. The fact that the law of duty is universal and therefore impartial means that an unjust act against someone would not be allowed to happen if it went against someone’s duty, no matter how many other people would benefit from the act if it was carried through.
The respect for human life that Kant placed extreme emphasis on was also a commendable strength of his theory. The fact that he said all humans were of intrinsic value and therefore equal means that we are all treated the same despite our race, religion or nationality. This idea of intrinsic worth came from the idea that all humans are rational beings born with intrinsic knowledge. This unites us because rational thinking is something we are all capable of. The most important thing to Kant was ‘each man’s dignity as a rational creature’ (Palmer – Moral Problems) and the fact that we should treat each other as an ‘end in themselves not a means to an end’ – Kant. This idea promotes peace and love for all humans because we are all equal should therefore be treated the same.
Another commendable asset of Kants ethics is the ‘distinction he makes between duty and inclination’ (Palmer – Moral Problems). Some of us at one time or another will be in a situation where we presume that what is good for us and benefits us, is also good for everyone else. We all fall into the trap of wanting the best for our friends and family and the worst for our enemies, and Kants ethics tries to prevent this selfish and unjust attitude. It makes us become a little less self absorbed and more caring for the needs and rights of others.
We may for various reasons be inclined to take one course of action, but the application of duty in all circumstances prevents us from doing something wrong. It makes us realise that duties that I want other people to follow, should be no different than the ones I follow myself. We are no better than anyone else regardless of what we think and in the same way, no one is better than us despite what they say. Behind this idea is the principle of the ‘Golden rule of Christian ethics’ which is ‘do unto others as you would have them done to you’.
Once we analyse the deontological theory, we feel a strong sense of objectiveness where no exceptions are made to the rules, we all have to apply them no matter what the situation may be. This is also a strength because it does not allow any room for the situation to be taken advantage of because if a rule was universable then they must want the same rule to be applied to themselves (or it would be a contradiction in the will) and therefore they would not do anything wrong to others. However the idea of universalisability can be condemned because just because a maxim is universable, does not mean that it is necessarily morally right or even a moral at all. For example the maxim ‘whenever you are driving a red and yellow sports car you should smile’. This has no morality at all; yet it is universalisable so does this mean I should do it?
So how exactly do we know what exactly is the right thing? Kant provides a guide to this with his formula for universalisability however there lies one major flaw within it. He states that all people know what duty requires of us because we are all rational beings, but what he fails to notice is that we ‘don’t all have the same temperaments or desires and therefore don’t find all the same situations intolerable’. For example Hitler saw it as completely acceptable to punish, torture and kill thousands of people and you or I may say this was barbaric and wrong.
We also may find ourselves in a situation where the act is right but we would not want it to be done to us (e.g. a punishment we deserve because we have done something wrong). Just because we would not want it to be done to us does not mean it is necessarily wrong. An example is the ‘capitalist doctrine of self help’ where we accept that life is ruthless and we strive to do the best we can for ourselves. This is not an irrational form of behaviour, what would be worse would be to not care at all about ourselves. This is because then in turn we would be able to treat others in a bad way because that is how we are treating ourselves, which proves a big problem in Kants ethics.
Another problem with the absoluteness of deontological ethics is that Kant says that for example something like killing is always wrong. However, the fact that there is no room for exceptions means that even in extreme situations we could never kill, even in self-defence. What if we were to take the example of Hitler, if we had the chance to kill him and stop all the fighting and persecution, we would not be allowed to do it according to Kant. We can see that obviously it would be better to kill Hitler than let him torture thousands more people but deontological ethics would prevent us from doing so.
The biggest problem with deontological ethics however, is the factor of conflicting duties. If it was always wrong to lie but it is always right to preserve human life, what would we do if we had to tell a lie to save someone’s life? Or what would a homeless person do if the only way they would stay alive would be to steal a loaf of bread from a powerful and successful shop that wouldn’t really notice the loss of one small loaf of bread? What should we do when we are in a situation where we can only apply one of two duties, how do we know which one we should follow?
Kant does not provide us with an answer as to how we are to decide which is more important. We are also faced with the problem where using Palmer’s example in Moral Problems, we must always tell the truth. He uses the situation where we may have to tell the truth if a murderer asked us where our friend was hiding because he wanted to kill them. According to Kant’s ethics we would have a duty to tell the truth but this would result in the death of the friend which quite obviously is wrong.
The fact that this theory is so objective also means that it does not take human emotions and feelings into account. The theory shows extreme lack of human compassion and flexibility. It also does not allow for exceptional circumstances where going against our duty would actually be the moral thing to do. We also have to question the strength Kant places on societies ability to think rationally.
What about people who are mentally unstable or babies, are they as equally rational as everyone else is? And if these people are not regarded to have the same rational abilities as everyone else then does this make them not valued as human beings? If they were considered lesser than the rest of us because they can not think as rationally as we can, then would Kant allow abortions because they are not technically humans yet? The final flaw Kants ethics has is the fact that life has more to it than morality. Humans naturally look at the consequences of any act without even knowing they are doing it. It is human instinct to look at the results of an act before we decide to do it.
In conclusion we can see that Kants deontological ethics has many criticisms as well as good qualities. Practically many would argue that it is a very helpful and useful moral theory because we use it every day in our lives, sometimes without even knowing it. However others argue that it lacks compassion and isn’t very realistic for everyday use because we can not help calculating consequences and what are we to do when we have two conflicting duties? However, the practical use of this form of ethics must be a personal choice. We have to weigh up the pros and cons of Kants theory and decide if it would be practical for our personal use in our lives today and if it is, then we should do our best to apply it!