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Kantian Deontology

Kantian Deontology

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify the characteristics and descriptors of Kantian deontology

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Hello. I'm Glen. And this is the ethics tutorial on Kantian deontology. First, let's look at a couple key terms, and then the content for the tutorial. Key terms that we will be covering is deontology-- a family of ethical theories that maintains that the value of the action is determined by something intrinsic to the act itself. Kantian deontology-- a form of deontology that places absolute moral value on the agent's intent. And categorical imperative-- a concept in Kantian deontology that fulfills the role of a moral law that is binding on all people in all circumstances.

In this tutorial, we'll be covering some of the basics of Kantian deontology, including some definitions, the elements of Kantian deontology, and explanation and example of the categorical imperative, and a brief statement about why Kant is so important.

As we move forward through the tutorial, please keep the key terms in mind, and I'd also like you to focus on the word intrinsic because that is an essential part of deontology, and it's going to be essential for understanding Kantian ethics. If something is intrinsic, that means it's within what is being considered. Right? So for deontology, there's something intrinsic to the act that makes it moral, so it's within the act.

And this, then, leads us into the beginnings of Kantian deontology because for Kant, the focus of morality, the moral judgment, the moral worth is on the intent of the action. Consequences are irrelevant. This would be the direct opposite of utilitarianism. So Kant believed that consequences are irrelevant to the morality of the action, everything lies on the intent, and therefore the moral worth is intrinsic.

This can lead to some interesting circumstances. And the reason that we run into some interesting circumstances is, since the value is intrinsic to the act, it is determined purely by reason. Actual situations, the specifics of them, the context, and certainly the consequences are all irrelevant to the morality of the act. Understanding what is moral, what is morally good is based, purely, on reason itself.

The rational capacities of humans is what's valued and what is used. And Kant wanted, therefore, everything to be the same. Ethics should be consistent, morality should be consistent. And because we are all rational beings, we should all be able to figure this out on our own because the moral worth lies within our rational capacities in our heads, not on the circumstances out there that we try and predict, right?

So a difficulty does arise, initially, if we look at this. And that is that the consequences don't always match the intent. That's why Kant doesn't like to focus on them. I can predict my intent, I can't predict the consequences. So let's go back to the hugging example. If I, out of an intention to comfort someone I perceive as being in distress, go up and hug them because I think that will help the situation-- but I don't know that they don't like to be touched, and I don't know that they're going to run away in horror, so I do it.

Then running away and hiding from me is irrelevant to the morality of the act. According to Kant, I still did something that was good, and I certainly did something that was morally right, despite the consequences.

Kant does provide for us some tools to help us in guiding our moral thinking. And one of them is called the categorical imperative, and it's one of our key terms. Now what we have to keep in mind is that we must meet the conditions of the categorical imperative in order for an action to be morally good, and basically, if you want to boil it all down to-- we ask ourselves, is the motive for my action-- Kant calls it the maxim, but the maxim is a motive.

So is the motive of my action universalizable? That means, can the motive for what I do be something that I think everyone, everywhere, at all times should always act upon as a motive. This is derived from reason alone. It's independent of consequences, it's independent of desires. I have to ask myself, can everyone, everywhere, all the time, all rational beings act upon this motive? If I can, then it's good, it's morally permissible, may even be obligatory. If I can't, then it's definitely impermissible.

Therefore, a moral law that we follow is based upon a good or a sense of good that is not dependent upon circumstances. Kant says that what is able to do this is what he calls a good will. A good will is an intent to do what is right by upholding the moral law, out of a respect for it. And only a good will can do this. We obey the law for the sake of obeying the law because it is a law. It's another way of saying, it is to say, we do what's right because it's right to do it.

Emotional fulfillment is irrelevant, it's also distracting. Only reason can lead to this conclusion. An example of a good will leading to a right action, despite consequences, could be the following. Let's say I provide a delicious strawberry pie for a customer in my restaurant. He eats it, and he's delighted.

And in the second circumstances, he eats it and ends up in the hospital because of an allergy. Well, in both cases, I have done something morally right because I have provided out of a good intent, a universalizable intent, the strawberry pie. Whether or not the customer ends up in hospital because of an allergy to strawberries is not my concern.

And I'd like to say one little word on the question of why Kant, specifically, is mentioned here. In other tutorials on other areas of ethics we cover the general thing of utilitarianism. We cover the general issue of egoism. But in this particular section on deontological ethics, we specify Kant, and there is a reason for this. Kant appears at the end of a period of time called the Enlightenment.

And one defining characteristic of the Enlightenment is that humans can progress, both individually and societally, by reason alone. And Kant appears at the end of the Enlightenment. And you could call him the golden child of this era. And so his writing is emblematic of that line of thinking. And it happened at a time when it was able to become part of the foundation, part of the canon of Western thinking. And what he wrote is still with us very much today.

The whole idea of doing duty for duty's sake-- that's Kant. That everyone should abide by the same moral laws and we'll all get along better-- that's Kant. That human beings are defined by reason alone, and that's what we have to prize above everything else, and that's what's going to bind us together-- that's Kant. So he had an incredible influence on the way we think, and the way we continue to think.

In this tutorial, we have looked at some definitions and the basic elements of Kantian deontology. We have also explored the categorical imperative with an example and understood Kant's placement in the history of Western philosophy and why he is so important.

Terms to Know
Categorical Imperative

A concept in Kantian Deontology that fulfills the role of a moral law that is binding on all people in all circumstances.


A family of ethical theories that maintains that the value of the action is determined by something intrinsic to the act itself

Kantian Deontology

A form of Deontology that places absolute moral value in the agent's intent