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Problems with Kantian Deontology

Problems with Kantian Deontology

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify common problems surrounding Kantian deontology

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Hello. I'm Glen. And this is the ethics tutorial on problems with Kantian deontology. As we go through this tutorial, please keep in mind the definition for Kantian deontology.

In this tutorial, we'll be looking at some issues that arise with Kantian deontology including the following-- how Kantian deontology does not account for moral luck, how it does seem to praise a certain kind of ignorance, how neglecting the importance of emotions arises, and how Kantian deontology denies the possibility of conflicting duties or obligations.

First, let's look at the topic of moral luck. This is not luck in the sense of just getting lucky or having luck in gambling or something like that. Moral luck is the idea that circumstances that are outside of the agent's control are relevant to the ethics or to the moral understanding of the situation. These circumstantial factors that are out of control are not just important or in play, but according to the view of the relevance of moral luck, they are part of interpreting and understanding the moral value of an action.

Now Kant denies this can exist. He does not deny that there are factors in the situation. However, remember for Kant, intent is everything. Absolute moral value exists only in the agent's intent. So the possibility of moral luck is not relevant to Kantian deontology. However, let's consider this example regarding murder, two versions of the same scenario.

Let's say someone intends to run over their professor with a car, but they failed to do so because the car has a flat tire two blocks away from the crosswalk. They intended to, and circumstances arose where it couldn't happen. And in the second circumstance, someone intends to run over their professor with a car, and they succeed.

Now many of us, many people would consider this second version far, far worse than the first because in the second version, the murderer is actually committed. However, for Kant they are morally identical because the valuation is based upon the intent, the intent was the same in both circumstances, and therefore, in both cases it is morally wrong.

Now to a lot of folks, this just seems strange, and certainly our judicial system does not operate this way, which validates the strangeness, right? People cannot get the death penalty for attempted murder. So the intent alone is not sufficient for a lot of commonsense understanding of how morality works. Now let's try two more examples to see how moral luck could be in play to change the evaluation of the circumstance.

Let's say you steal money from your mother to buy heroin-- one possibility. Or you steal money from your mother to buy much needed medicine which will help your friend or save their life. These seem to be different. However, for Kant they are the same because the intent is the same.

How about second scenario? You provide a bountiful delicious dinner to someone who is grateful, and you know that they will be grateful. Or you provide the same dinner to someone you know will be ungrateful and, out of spite, will throw it up on the floor. These seem to be two different circumstances, especially knowing how the person will probably react. However for Kant, the intent is the same.

Another area where Kantian deontology provides a possible issue or problem is with the possibility that it appeals to a certain kind of ignorance, in that, the less you know about a situation, and certainly the less you know about possible outcomes of the situation, it might be better for you because it's easier to act upon a good intent if you don't know the possible consequences. In other words, the less you know, the more chance you have of being morally good.

Here's a couple of examples. Let's say you're serving food to people, without asking, without knowing anything about their food allergies, and likes and dislikes. And inadvertently, someone might go into anaphylaxis if this happens. Second one, if you don't know that stealing is wrong-- let's say you're a child, you're four years old, you don't have a concept of mine, not mine, yours, shouldn't take other people's things, or even what stealing is, let alone the idea that it might be involving a law-- then you can't operate under and an intent to steal.

And therefore, if you take something from someone, it's not morally wrong because there's no intent involved there. So that's a couple examples where Kantian deontology kind of presents a few issues.

Another issue that arises for a lot of potential criticism of Kant is the elimination or neglect of including emotions in moral valuation. Many contemporary philosophers do argue that emotional being is essential to ethical actions and ethical valuation. Kant completely disagreed, and there are a couple of reasons. One is that emotions are inherently irrational and inconsistent. So there's no way to help them contribute to our idea of universality.

And while they may be involved in part of the formulation of humanity, you might be able to make that case. However, it's impossible to measure. It's impossible to gauge another person's real emotional being. So the result is that, at best, one half of our being, right, if we are divided into rational and emotional, one half of us is not qualified to be involved in moral reasoning.

And a final issue to consider that arises from Kantian deontology is that, according to Kant, duties or obligations of what we should do never conflict. This does not seem to jibe too well with normal, everyday experience. We do often find ourselves in predicaments where we have two obligations or two courses of action that we could take, and we're not sure which one to do because they seem to be equally binding on us. That's what sometimes happens.

It's also sometimes the case that there is a clear duty for us to follow, but the results conflict so drastically that we're in conflict there as well. So here are two examples where violating the categorical imperative seems to be the morally good thing to do. And this would present a conflict of duties because it's always our duty to follow the categorical imperative, yet we seem to have a duty to not do it. So two examples-- one would be lying to the gestapo that you're hiding Jews in your home.

According to Kant, lying is always wrong, however in this circumstance, it seems to be the right thing to do. Second, breaking your promise to a friend to return their gun because they now want it back so they can go shoot their professor because they got a bad grade. Kant says you should always keep your promises. However in this circumstance, we seem to have an equal or greater duty to not keep the promise. A couple more issues to consider. Kantian deontology presents a great many advantages. However, like all other ethical theories, it is not without its potential problems.

In this tutorial, we have seen some issues and potential problems that arise from Kantian deontology, including how it handles moral luck, how it praises a kind of ignorance, how it neglects the importance of emotions, and how it denies that there can ever be a conflict of duties or obligations.