It’s All About Duty

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Why, oh why is Dr. Bossypants yammering on about morality…?? Three posts already, and more to come. Ugh. It can be SO boring. Yes. True. Boring. And vital. Do you want to survive as a species or not? Well. Then…

Onward in our journey through the land of morality. Someday, maybe soon, you’ll use this blog to scold or defend yourself. It will all be worth it. Today, we’re looking at morality through a lens called Deontological Ethics, a lens provided by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Kant was the original “just do it” moral philosopher.  Regardless of how one feels about it, and regardless of outcome, there are moral duties that are applicable at all times and in all places. Some actions are morally wrong, no matter where or when they are enacted, and some are right. No weasel clauses allowed.

Kant also understood that we are mere mortals, incapable of always doing the right thing. He insisted that we at least be aware of when we are failing. For example, Kant argues that lying always causes some damage, even if that damage is no more than the liar knowing that he is choosing to do something wrong. But Kant also knew that people lie. He did not expect humans to completely stop lying, but he did urge people to consciously admit that they weren’t making a moral choice.  For Kant, lying was never, under any circumstances, morally correct.

Of course, the big question is this:  How do we know which actions qualify as always morally correct?  Kant came up with a guide for judging moral actions. He called it the Categorical Imperative–the ultimate yardstick for checking the morality of the action.  One of his formulations of the categorical imperative is this:

So act that you could will your action to be a universal law for all humankind. This is very similar to Jesus’s instruction: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or remember when your parents said, “Now how would you like it if everybody acted like you’re acting?”

Another take on this imperative is this: So act as to treat humanity, whether yourself or another person, as an end-in-itself, never as a means only

Kant argued that even though there will be compelling practical or emotional factors in a given situation, it is our duty to consider the action through the lens of “always, everywhere, for everyone.”  Regardless of the circumstances, and regardless of the outcome, there are moral actions that are always right or always wrong.

Kant also believed that ethical principles apply to anyone capable of deliberation and reason. He believed there were three ways rational beings could interact with their duty, but only one would yield moral behavior.

  • They could act in ways that are clearly bad: actions such as lying, cheating, stealing, or torturing people.
  • They could act dutifully, but only for the show of it. Not because it is simply the right thing to do.
  • They could act from, or because of their duty–doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Only the third is a genuinely moral action. If you do the right thing for the right motives, then you have acted morally.  In fact, the less benefit you derive from doing your duty, and the less you actually want to do it, the more you can be sure your action is truly moral.

So, to sum up this stern Kantian input: You cannot use other people as a means to your own end. You must always evaluate your actions and act in ways that you would want everyone to act, in all times and in all places. An you simply cannot make yourself an exception to the rule.

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