PHI208: Heroes or Villains?

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This week we will be looking at Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory—deontological ethics. The word “deontology” derives from the Greek roots deon, for “duty,” and logos, “science.” Kant is probably one of the most important philosophers of the last 2,000 years, but he was a remarkably boring guy. He was born, lived, and died in the same suburban university town, never traveled, never married, and adhered to such a strict schedule that the townspeople could set their clocks by the regularity of his daily walks, haha~

He was, however, living at a very exciting time near the end of the Enlightenment—a European cultural movement which spanned the 18th century, and is one of the major sources of our contemporary worldview. Thus, to make some headway into understanding Kant is to further understand ourselves.

Make no mistake, though: Kant can be a difficult philosopher to understand. This is mostly due to two reasons. One, he is a systematic philosopher, which means that everything he ever wrote all works—but it has to work together. Therefore, it is difficult (but by no means impossible!) to understand his ethical theory without also understanding his metaphysics, his philosophy of identity, and so forth.

Two, Kant was doing philosophy in a very different way than, say, the Ancient Greeks, for example. Whereas the Greeks and the medieval Christian philosophers asked questions such as, “What is there? Is there a God? Is everything made of a single substance?” Kant asked, “How can I know what I know?” He turned the human being and their faculties of knowing into the subject of philosophical inquiry by asking, “What is it about humans that allows us to know anything at all? And, if I can find a way to be sure about what I know, how should I therefore act?” In order to answer this question, he defined the limits of knowledge, and looked deeply at how we make sense of the world in an effort to determine how we should therefore act.

As I mentioned last week, ethical theorists such as Socrates, Mill, Kant, and even ourselves in the present day, can be divided into two basic camps: those who consider an action moral or immoral based on the motives of those performing the action (our intentions), and those who consider an action moral or immoral based on the consequences of that action. Kant is firmly in the MOTIVE camp, which makes him a deontologist rather than a consequentialist when it comes to ethics. For Kant, all people have a duty to themselves and others to always act with the highest of intentions, and therefore consequences take a backseat.

Kant argues that we are subject to moral judgment from others because we are able to give reasons for what we do and say. Therefore, to Kant, the proper scope of ethics is to be able to say why we felt it was our duty to act in a certain way. Kant is concerned with consequences to an extent, but because we are limited human beings (not omniscient) we cannot know or predict the full consequences of what we do, so our rational human minds are not fully responsible for the outcome of our actions—only for the intentions behind them. Hopefully you can see how this ethical system is one “answer” to the Utilitarianism we saw last week.

On the Kantian account, to act morally is to act according to the categorical imperative. The CI comes in two “flavors.” The first “flavor” is that “we must act in such a way that we could will the maxim according to which we act to be a universal law.” This is a fancy way of stating something similar (but not the same!!) to the Golden Rule: when I act, I am acting as though what I am doing should be a law—a moral obligation for everyone else on earth to do as well. This is one of the reasons why, for Kant, lying is always wrong. When I lie, I am stating through my actions that everyone should lie. Additionally, lying reflects what Kant calls the hypothetical imperative, which says we should only act in order to achieve certain desires.

Kant, however, argues that there are no “ifs” in moral action. Morality works according to the categorical imperative because we must act in a given way simply because the motive is admirable and in line with the highest, rational human intentions—not because we are trying to achieve a certain result. In this way, Kant is urging us to realize the other “flavor” of the C.I., namely, that ethical behavior always means “treating people as ends in themselves, and never as a means” to simply attain what I want. This week we will work through the assignments in order to investigate to what extent this is true for ourselves.

This week our main discussion will focus on explaining and evaluating the deontological ethical theory as discussed in Chapter 4 of the textbook. Your instructor will be choosing the discussion question and posting it as the first post in the main discussion forum. The requirements for the discussion this week include the following:

  • You must begin posting by Day 3 (Thursday).
  • You must post a minimum of four separate posts on at least three separate days (e.g., Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, or Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, or Thursday, Saturday, and Monday, etc.).
  • The total combined word count for all of your posts, counted together, should be at least 600 words, not including references.
  • You must answer all the questions in the prompt and show evidence of having read the resources that are required to complete the discussion properly (such as by using quotes, referring to specific points made in the text, etc.).
  • In order to satisfy the posting requirements for the week, posts must be made by Day 7 (Monday); posts made after Day 7 are welcome but will not count toward the requirements.
  • Be sure to reply to your classmates and instructor. You are encouraged to read posts your instructor makes (even if they are not in response to your own post) and reply to those as a way of examining the ideas in greater depth.
  • All postings (including replies to peers) are expected to be thought out, proofread for mechanical, grammatical, and spelling accuracy, and to advance the discussion in an intelligent and meaningful way (i.e., saying something like “I really enjoyed what you had to say” will not count). You are also encouraged to do outside research and quote from that as well.

Week 3 Discussion 1: Heroes or Villains?

To ensure that your initial post starts its own unique thread, do not reply to this post. Instead, please click the “Reply” link above this post.

Please read the general discussion requirements above, as well as the weekly announcement. If anything is still unclear, let me know!

(This discussion will require you to have carefully read Chapter 4 of the textbook, as well as the assigned portions of Immanuel Kant’s (2008) Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.)

Think of someone fictional whom we might regard as a “hero” for helping others, stopping something bad from happening, etc. Try to think of someone whose actions violated what would normally be considered a moral rule (focus on morality; don’t simply think of someone who broke the law).

For example, they may have lied, broken a promise, stolen, harmed someone innocent, or even murdered, but done so with good intentions. (Be sure to clearly explain both sides of this example – what seems good and what seems morally questionable about the action.)

Try to think of any example that we would either all be familiar with, or something we can easily look up (in other words, don’t just make something up or describe something generic). Think of characters in movies, TV shows, books, etc. Please try not to use an example that someone else has already used!

Engage with the text:

Once you have thought of your example, evaluate what they did according to Kant’s Categorical Imperative. First, explain the “formula” of the Categorical Imperative that you are using. Is what the person did moral, or immoral, according to Kant? (You may focus on either formulation of the C.I.)

Reflect on yourself:

Do you agree with the hero’s action?

If you think Kant would regard it as immoral and you agree, how would you explain to someone in your own words why what they did was wrong despite the good intentions and effects? If you don’t agree, and think that what they did was morally right, how would you respond to the question, “what if everyone did that?”


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