Kantian Philosophy of Morality

Kantian philosophy outlines the Universal Law Formation of the
Categorical Imperative as a method for determining morality of
actions. This formula is a two part test. First, one creates a maxim
and considers whether the maxim could be a universal law for all
rational beings. Second, one determines whether rational beings would
will it to be a universal law. Once it is clear that the maxim passes
both prongs of the test, there are no exceptions. As a paramedic faced
with a distraught widow who asks whether her late husband suffered in
his accidental death, you must decide which maxim to create and based
on the test which action to perform. The maxim “when answering a
widow’s inquiry as to the nature and duration of her late husbands
death, one should always tell the truth regarding the nature of her
late husband’s death” (M1) passes both parts of the Universal Law
Formation of the Categorical Imperative. Consequently, according to
Kant, M1 is a moral action. The initial stage of the Universal Law
Formation of the Categorical Imperative requires that a maxim be
universally applicable to all rational beings. M1 succeeds in passing
the first stage. We can easily imagine a world in which paramedics
always answer widows truthfully when queried. Therefore, this maxim is
logical and everyone can abide by it without causing a logical
impossibility. The next logical step is to apply the second stage of
the test. The second requirement is that a rational being would
will this maxim to become a universal law. In testing this part, you
must decide whether in every case, a rational being would believe that
the morally correct action is to tell the truth. First, it is clear
that the widow expects to know the truth. A lie would only serve to
spare her feelings if she believed it to be the truth. Therefore, even
people who would consider lying to her, must concede that the correct
and expected action is to tell the truth. By asking she has already
decided, good or bad, that she must know the truth.What if
telling the truth brings the widow to the point where she commits
suicide, however? Is telling her the truth then a moral action
although its consequence is this terrible response? If telling the
widow the truth drives her to commit suicide, it seems like no
rational being would will the maxim to become a universal law. The
suicide is, however, a consequence of your initial action. The suicide
has no bearing, at least for the Categorical Imperative, on whether
telling the truth is moral or not. Likewise it is impossible to judge
whether upon hearing the news, the widow would commit suicide. Granted
it is a possibility, but there are a multitude of alternative choices
that she could make and it is impossible to predict each one. To
decide whether rational being would will a maxim to become a law, the
maxim itself must be examined rationally and not its consequences.
Accordingly, the maxim passes the second test. Conversely, some
people might argue that in telling the widow a lie, you spare her
years of torment and suffering. These supporters of “white lies” feel
the maxim should read, “When facing a distraught widow, you should lie
in regards to the death of her late husband in order to spare her
feelings.” Applying the first part of the Universal Law Formation of
the Categorical Imperative, it appears that this maxim is a moral act.
Certainly, a universal law that prevents the feelings of people who
are already in pain from being hurt further seems like an excellent
universal law. Unfortunately for this line of objection, the only
reason a lie works is because the person being lied to believes it to
be the truth. In a situation where every widow is lied to in order to
spare her feelings, then they never get the truth. This leads to a
logical contradiction because no one will believe a lie if they know
it a lie and the maxim fails. Perhaps the die-hard liar can
regroup and test a narrower maxim. If it is narrow enough so that it
encompasses only a few people, then it passes the first test. For
example, the maxim could read, “When facing a distraught widow whose
late husband has driven off a bridge at night, and he struggled to get
out of the car but ended up drowning, and he was wearing a brown suit
and brown loafers, then you should tell the widow that he died
instantly in order to spare her feelings.” We can easily imagine a
world in which all paramedics lied to widows in this specific
situation. That does not necessarily mean that it will pass the
second test however. Even if it does pass the first test, narrowing
down maxim can create other problems. For instance circumstances may
change and the people who were originally included in the universal
law, may not be included anymore. Consequently you many not want to
will your maxim to be a universal law. Likewise, if one person can
make these maxims that include only a select group of people, so can
everyone else. If you create a maxim about lying to widows that is
specific enough to pass the first test, so can everyone else. One must
ask if rational beings would really will such a world in which there
would be many, many specific, but universal, laws. In order to answer
this question, one must use the rational “I” for the statement “I, as
a rational being would will such a world,” not the specific, embodied
“I” which represents you in your present condition. You must consider
that you could be the widow in the situation rather than the
paramedic, then decide whether you would will such a universal law.
I agree with the morality based on Kantian principles because
it is strict in its application of moral conduct. Consequently there
is no vacillating in individual cases to determine whether an action
is moral or not. An action is moral in itself not because of its
consequences but because any rational being wills it to be a universal
law and it does not contradict itself. Regardless of what the widow
does with the information, the act of telling her the truth, is a
moral one. No one would argue that telling the truth, if she asks for
it, is an immoral thing to do. Sometimes moral actions are difficult,
and perhaps in this situation it would be easier to lie to the widow,
but it would still be an immoral action that I would not want everyone
to do. This picture of morality resonates with my common sense view of
morality. If the widow subsequently commits suicide or commits any
other immoral act as a consequence, that has no bearing on the
morality of the original action in itself. Utilitarianism would
differ on this point. Utilitarianism outlines that an action is moral
if it increases the total happiness of society. Morality is based on
consequences. Telling a lie to the widow would increase her happiness
and consequently would, at least possibly, be a moral action.
Utilitarianism would also take into account the precedent set by
lying; however, the analysis still rests on predicted consequence
rather than on the action’s intrinsic moral value. The morality of
telling the lie is on a case by case basis. In some situations, it
might be better to tell the truth, and according to utilitarianism
that would then be the moral action. Unlike Kantian philosophy, one is
not bound by an immutable universal law. Instead one must judge in
each case which action will produce the most overall happiness. The
problem with this approach is that morality loses any value as a
universal or intrinsic quality. Every decision is made on an
individual basis in an individual and specific situation. In fact,
utilitarianism considers happiness to be the only intrinsically
valuable end. Defenders of utilitarianism claim that it maintains
universality by considering the greatest happiness of all beings,
rather than just individual happiness. Still, the morality is based on
constantly changing and often unpredictable consequences. The
requirement that one consider all of the consequences of an action and
determine the best possible action through such calculations makes me
reject utilitarianism as a method of determining morality.
Although utilitarianism often offers the easier solution to
perform because it produces immediate gratification and allows many
exceptions to common sense moral codes, the answers it gives are
unfilling and unrealistic. Furthermore, it is difficult, if not
impossible, to make all of the required calculations beforehand.
Kant’s solution, although as interpreted by Kant is sometimes overly
extreme, is much better than utilitarianism. It resonates with my
moral sensibilities to consider that actions are moral or immoral
regardless of their immediate consequences. I am willing to accept
that sometimes the moral action is harder to perform, but I am
unwilling to accept that morality rests within the specifics of a
situation and the possible consequences. Therefore, I consider Kant’s
Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative to be a better
test of morality than Mill’s Utilitarianism.


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