Deontology and Kant’s Moral Law

A natural progression exists in ethics regarding the focus of ethical judgments. Virtue theorists hold that morality resides within qualities (virtues) held by agents. Deontologists claim ethical judgment should be reserved for an agent’s actions; consequentialists, for the consequences of actions. The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant remains the most influential proponent of deontology even today. Unlike Aristotle and other virtue theorists, Kant believed actions alone, and not virtues, may be judged as good or evil. A person may possess many virtues without being good. The most dastardly villain may be as intelligent or brave or strong as the greatest hero, but his actions will pervert these virtues into tools of evil. [1] For Kant, the good person is one who acts in a certain way, namely in steadfast obedience to Kant’s moral law.

Deontology and Kant's Moral Law
… Unless you can will it should become universal law. ( [6])

Kant offers two main formulations of the moral law. The first relies on the distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives “represent the practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else that is willed.” [2] They follow the general formula “If you want x, you should do y.” For example, if you want to pass your midterm, you should study. Obviously, removing the desire for the end x removes the desire to do y. If I don’t care about my midterm grade I will have no interest in studying.

In contrast, categorical imperatives “[represent] an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end.” [3] These follow the general formula “Do y, regardless of all other considerations.” “Thou shalt not kill” is an example of a categorical imperative, whereas “If you don’t want to go to jail, don’t commit murder” is a corresponding hypothetical imperative. Unlike the latter statement, the former imperative suggests something about murder restricts it from ever serving as a legitimate course of action, regardless of a particular agent’s interests.

Kant argues that for a moral law to have any weight, it must be a categorical imperative. A hypothetical imperative contingent on the desires of each individual agent (“Don’t commit rape, unless it suits your desires”) would be morally worthless. So in weighing a possible action against a hypothetical moral law, an agent must decide if that action could successfully function as a categorical imperative, i.e. as a rule that applies regardless of all other considerations. Hence, the first formulation of Kant’s moral law: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst will that it should become a universal law.” [4] For an action to be moral, one must be able to construe it as a possible universal law. As an example, imagine I borrow money from a friend and promise to repay him, though I have no intention of doing so. My action is immoral, not because it harms my friend, but because it could not become a universal law. If everyone were to make such false promises, the act of promising would become useless because no one would continue to believe such oaths. Making false promises violates the moral law because this action cannot be willed to be a universal law.

While this formulation obviously prohibits physical wrongdoing against others, it also prohibits self-harm and suicide. The person who commits suicide treats himself as a means to an end. He tolerates his existence only as long as it is not painful. He views his existence not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end of non-boredom or non-suffering. And just as no human can treat another as mere means and dispose of her life when the other’s existence becomes intolerable, so too is suicide prohibited by the same reasoning.

What about other forms of self-harm? Self-mutilation is obviously wrong under the second formulation of the moral law. One can no more inflict physical pain on oneself for some desired psychological effect than one can inflict pain on another. To a lesser extent, the implications are the same for fitness. Kant’s moral law would prohibit consumption of unhealthy food and drink and lazy indolence. I can no more tie myself to a couch and shove Twinkies down my throat than I can do the same to another person. No matter how much I might enjoy this lifestyle, in acting this way I treat myself as a means to the end of physical comfort and pleasure and not as an end in myself.In contrast, Kant’s moral law also demands each person develop his own talents as far as possible. A person might feel tempted to rest on his laurels and let his talents and capabilities wane, not having the energy or immediate need to develop them further.

The second formulation of the moral law makes further use of the distinction between means and ends. Humans are rational beings, and as such, are capable of distinguishing between causes and effects and means and ends. As part of this capability, a rational being recognizes itself as an end in itself and not a means to some other end. As a human, I am not a tool to be used by others to further their own gains. When I encounter other rational beings and recognize their rational nature, I must also recognize that they are ends in themselves for the same reason I am. Thus, the second form of Kant’s moral law states “Act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” [5]

In contrast, Kant’s moral law also demands each person develop his own talents as far as possible. A person might feel tempted to rest on his laurels and let his talents and capabilities wane, not having the energy or immediate need to develop them further. But one could not will that such a choice become universal law. If every person shared the same attitude, nothing would be accomplished. No person would strive to design and build dwellings, cultivate food, produce art or make scientific discoveries. If we all sought to maximize our own comfort by neglecting our talents, we would end up less comfortable than before. From a physical standpoint, who would move heavy obstacles, plow fields, avoid oncoming traffic or build skyscrapers if no one sought to develop their strength, endurance, speed and balance? Kant’s moral law impels us to recognize that we are ends in ourselves and to develop all the capabilities we possess as rational, active, empathic beings.

If Kant’s moral law seems strict, it is. The person who adheres to such a law lives solely for the aim of furthering her existence and the existences of those around her. But is that the life any of us really want to lead? Can’t we still be good people and enjoy dinner at an expensive restaurant, a night on the couch in front of the television or mutually consenting casual sex even if doing so means we give less to charity, our muscles atrophy the tiniest bit and we indulge in physical pleasure with no thought of procreation? Certainly, there must be a balance between total Kantian asceticism and wanton immorality. Up to now, I have avoided making prescriptions about what exactly constitutes an ethical state of physical well-being in consideration of the philosophical arguments encountered thus far. I will endeavor to begin a discourse on these subjects in the coming months. For now, as we consider virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism, it is worth asking how much social, intellectual and physical good is necessary to lead an ethical life. What do we expect of our fellow humans? What do we expect of ourselves? While some level of physical aptitude seems ethically necessary, precisely how much remains to be determined.

1. Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott., 2009, p. 13.
2. Ibid, p. 32.
3. Ibid, p. 32.
4. Ibid, p. 38.
5. Ibid, p. 45
6. “deontology.” Image. Tumblr. pauliorra. Online. 31 Mar. 2013.

2 thoughts on “Deontology and Kant’s Moral Law”

  1. Hi Greg, really interesting questions at the end! Also, I think your explanation of Kant is really clear and spot on.

    I have some thoughts about Kant re: healthy eating. I think what Kant would say about healthy eating depends largely on what constitutes an action. Clearly for Kant, actions are things that agents choose (roughly). So is the action re: healthy eating, each day of food (if you planned it out in the morning)? Is it each meal? Each bite? Each chew? It would come down to what an agent is choosing to do. Does anyone choose to take each bite? Sort of yes, sort of no. Do you choose to have the healthy or unhealthy meal? Day of meals? It seems to me that you definitely do.

    I think an argument could be made for both ends of that spectrum – that each bite is an action (choice) and needs to be healthy (if the agent would will there to be a categorical imperative for health), OR that each day of meals is an action and it just needs to be healthy overall (especially if the agent in question plans out her whole day in advance to be a certain protein/fat/carb ratio).

    I personally think that the better argument supports a categorical imperative for the later – that each day needs to be healthy overall (or at the most, each meal). I do not think that the view that each bite is an action could support a categorical imperative for healthy eating for even the healthiest meal could have a fatty bite. Would it then be immoral to eat that bite? And if each meal needed to be healthy, how could we define a "meal"?

    The prevailing view on healthy eating today is that each day should have a certain amount of calories, fat, protein, carbs, veggies, fruit etc. It is hard to judge the "healthiness" of each meal without comparing it to what else the agent ate that day (or even that week). Because even if you had a healthy meal like green beans, salad and chicken, that would not be very healthy (or moral) if that was all you ate for every meal! Furthermore, each day would need to be considered its own action because of exercise and the calories/fat/protein etc. the agent needs that day. It is too complicated for any one meal to be willed a categorical imperative.

    Therefore, if each day of healthy eating and exercising (or each week even in the case of exercise) is viewed as the agent's moral choice/action (rather than each meal or bite), that action could definitely function as a categorical imperative for health.

    What do you think?

  2. Kate-

    I think your initial concern applies to any action. To use a popular example, imagine I am hiding a Jewish family in my crawlspace when the SS officers come knocking at my door. If my options are to lie to the Nazis and save the family or tell the truth and give the family up to the concentration camp, it seems Kant would fall on the side of honesty. I could not will that lying to the officers should become a universal law, since if everyone did so the officers would never believe anyone’s lie. But at what point does my statement become a lie? With the intention to deceive the officers, is each word I utter impermissible? Or if I say “they are not here” is only the “not here” forbidden? Or does the lie constitute the statement as a whole? What if I utter a true but misleading statement such as “I have not seen anyone for over an hour,” which might be the case if the family has been hiding for that entire time?

    As you noted, the answer seems to fall somewhere in the middle. Single words alone cannot be impermissible, else no one could communicate at all. Something like an entire sentence entered with the intention to deceive would seem to be the appropriate answer. Likewise, it cannot be the case that a single bite of food has moral significance. To claim one bite of an apple is impermissible because I could not will that everyone everywhere eat only apples (a choice which would eventually be deleterious to health) is ludicrous. At the same time, I don’t think Kant would agree to the idea that one should live so that the net balance of each day could be willed as a universal law. For Kant, lying in the morning does not suddenly become morally permissible if one helps an old woman cross the street and serves dinner at a soup kitchen later on.

    For any question of moral choice, the extent of the action seems to be the point at which the choice no longer exists. When have I lied or told the truth? When I have finished answering a question and the questioner has either been deceived or led down the true path. When have I aided or ignored the old woman? When we are safely across the street or I have left her by the side of the road where she started.

    Returning to the question of how much eating constitutes the basis for a moral choice, we begin with the initial choice, to eat or not eat. Presumably we eat mainly to satisfy hunger and fuel our bodies. It appears I could not even will that eating when not hungry should become universal law since eating whenever faced with the choice “eat or not eat” no matter how hungry I am would soon drive me to poor health. So perhaps we should define a meal as the amount of food necessary to alleviate hunger by fueling the body.

    As you point out, the prevailing nutritional views advocate certain ratios of macronutrients and sources of food. Different diets propose different values for those ratios, but their common aim is to provide the most efficient fuel for the body. Thus, if the aim of eating is to fuel the body, then “moral eating” would be eating the ratio of macronutrients and types of food that best fuels one’s body, eating only when one’s body is hungry and requires fuel and stopping when one’s hunger is sated. Essentially, we should eat nutritionally balanced meals in a size corresponding to our hunger or need for fuel.

    Now there is no question this is a strict answer to the question of eating. Many will object that eating should be a physically and emotionally pleasurable activity and not a purely utilitarian function. And few of us would impugn the person whose life of good deeds is marred by a handful of harmless white lies. But if the question is what is the absolutely moral way to eat, which for Kant means a practice that can be willed as a universal law and treats the self as an end and not mere means, I submit the definition in the previous paragraph might be his answer.


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