Honors Ethics

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Thursday, 09-14-17: Deontology I

Readings:

Synopsis:

Today we considered the Utilitarian response to the Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons arguments. These are particularly challenging arguments for the Utilitarian in part because they call in to question the very idea that the consequences of an action determine its moral normative status. There are other moral issues at stake: Justice, for example, and individual rights, for another.

We found that the utilitarian responds to these arguments not by rejecting consequentialism--which they cannot do--but by changing from an act-evaluative theory to a rule-evaluative theory. Thus, instead of calculating the utility of alternative actions, we calculate the utility of all actions done according to a specified rule. That is, instead of considering the consequences of a particular action, the rule-utilitarian looks instead at the consequences which accrue from consistently acting according to a particular rule or policy.

Applying a Utilitarian Ethical Theory like Ideal Act Utilitarianism or Ideal Rule Utilitarianism (for example) to determine the morality of an action is non-trivial. To see what I mean, read the following two applications I wrote as examples.

What one discovers in considering these and other applications of utilitarian theories is that

  • It is generally much harder to apply a theory than one might imagine; theories are not 'moral calculators' or 'black boxes' that spit out a judgment about an action given sufficient input.
  • Rule-utilitarian theories diverge significantly from act-utilitarian theories in terms of how they are applied. In applying act-utilitarian theories, we compare the utility of an action with the utility of each of its alternatives. In applying rule-utilitarian theories, we compare the total utility of a world as much like this world as possible, except that the rule in question is operative in the world, with the total utility of this, the actual world.
  • Different measures of utility--e.g., happiness, pleasure, best interests, or preferences--often result in very different implications for action.

Having concluded our all too brief study of Utilitarian Ethical Theory (UET), we turned today to Deontology and its most comprehensively developed version, Kantian Ethical Theory (KET). Kant's bedrock conception of morality is that morality is a matter of absolute duty. That is, if you have a moral duty, you are absolutely bound by that duty. You cannot avoid your duty regardless of outcome or circumstance.

Further, Kant distinguished between Hypothetical Oughts and Categorical Oughts. A Hypothetical Ought has the form of a conditional, and every implication of UET is a Hypothetical Ought of the form:

If you would maximize utility, then perform action X.

Hypothetical Oughts can never count as moral oughts for Kant in virtue of their logical form. In particular, Hypothetical Oughts are binding only to the extent that we have the appropriate desires. To see what this means, consider that the conditional

If P then Q

is true even if the antecedent, P, is false. (In general, a conditional is only false when its antecedent is true but its consequent is false.)

Hence if I have no desire to maximize utility, I have no reason to perform action X. The conditional

If you would maximize utility, then perform action X.

is still true, provided that I fail to have the desire to maximize utility.

But moral duties, for Kant, are absolute. That is to say, moral duties must bind unconditionally. So no Hypothetical Ought could be a moral duty. The puzzle is to understand how we can infer Categorical Oughts.

Just how does KET generate (imply) Categorical Oughts? To answer that question, we considered two formulations of the Categorical Imperative. The first formulation, in particular, is used as the basis of a so-called Kantian Deduction to show, for example, that everyone should tell the truth--i.e., lying is morally wrong. A Kantian Deduction can be schematized as follows. First, a proposed course of action is summarized in a brief description. This is the maxim referred to in the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative. Examples include 'I should lie', 'I should steal', and 'I should kill'. The Categorical Imperative, at least in its first formulation, is a criterion of universality. The biblical 'golden rule' is likewise a criterion of universality; there are many other examples. Roughly put, the Categorical Imperative requires that our actions be consistent. What Kant noticed was that acts like lying, stealing, and killing succeed only in contexts where the agent performing the actions is the only one performing the actions. If everyone lies, then the liar's action cannot succeed in its goal--similarly for stealing and killing. Another way to put the point is this: actions like lying, stealing, and killing are self-defeating.

With the maxim in hand, then, we universalize it to get 'everyone should lie', 'everyone should steal', 'everyone should kill'. Our job at this stage is to see if the maxim is consistent with its universal; is it possible to generate a logical contradiction? For maxims like 'I should lie' it is, since the success of my lying hinges completely on others not lying. Hence, by Reductio ad Absurdum, the maxim must be rejected. It is false. But if, for example, it is false that I should lie, then it follows that I should not lie.

What contradiction we get depends on the case at hand. But it is important to appreciate that we get a logical contradiction--something of the form, 'Q and not-Q'. Often students get confused and think that what Kant is saying is that if everyone lies, the world will be a very bad place and people wont get along very well. That is not Kant's point. That is how a Utilitarian might argue, and Kant was no friend of Utilitarianism. Kant denies that consequences have anything to do with morality. Rather, morality is a matter of absolute duty as dictated by logic.

KET is a fascinating theory insofar as Kant has come as close as anyone to wedding logic and ethics: The immoral action is illogical in the sense that it is self-contradicting--irrational, that is to say, in the most fundamental way conceivable.

Next time we will take our first examination before moving on to the Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative. To be sure, in application the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative is usually much more helpful than the first formulation. Indeed, it can be argued that the Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative is not merely an alternative formulation of the same underlying principle, but an extensionally inequivalent deontological principle. That is, although the first and second formulations do not apparently contradict, one sometimes has implications for action the other does not obviously have. In general, as I've said, the more useful of the two is the second formulation in analyzing cases.

The examination mentioned will consist of True/False and Multiple Choice questions about Utilitarianism, the arguments we considered in debating it, and the utilitarian responses to these arguments. I think we should also have questions about Kant's criticism of Utilitarianism and the First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative, but it all depends on how many questions I can reasonably ask for such a short exam. Really, it's more a quiz than an exam. Do expect at least one short (1-2 page) essay question, because those are always fun. Expect the exam to last 40 minutes or so, and please be on time for class. I want to finish the exam and move on with Kant as quickly as possible.