Apply Kant to Any Issue

Here is an excellent summary of the principle points of Kantian Ethics.

Applying Kant

A priori reason generates categorical imperatives – unconditional commands that are a universal, objective and absolute morality. Kant establishes the idea of intrinsic goodness – purity of motive or “duty for duty’s sake.”

Abortion

Kantian ethics generates three ideas of universalisability as the reasonable a priori basis for discovering the categorical imperative (unconditional command) or objective moral law.

  1. Universalise your actions and ask – would I like it if someone did this same thing to me?
  2. Universalise your common humanity and ask am I treating this person with the dignity, rights and respect with which I would like them to treat me?
  3. Universalise your idea of law and ask – if I was an autonomous rational law-maker what laws would I want to pass in my country?

With abortion there is one question which overshadows any moral discussion – the idea of personhood.

When or at what stage of development does a foetus become a human person and so gain the rights indicated by the second formulation above? The Catholic Church, acknowledging the difficulty of finding any point, would opt for the moment of conception as the only moment of moral relevance, whereas Kant, with his emphasis on autonomy, would stress some moment when the baby is independent at least of the mother’s womb (even if not yet fully “rational”).

Universalisability can also operate in different ways. For example, if we agree with the Catholic Church and give personhood to the embryo at conception, then we need to universalise from the embryo’s perspective – clearly they would not want to abort themselves. But if it is from the autonomous mother’s perspective, and the foetus gets the status of an appendix, there is a powerful case for allowing women in certain situations (unwanted pregnancy, rape etc) to have an abortion because that is what you or I would reasonably want in those circumstances.

The Kantian answer thus depends on the perspective taken – and the prior question of personhood. The metaphysical question of personhood thus predates the Kantian judgement of right and wrong.

Euthanasia 

Kantian ethics generates three ideas of universalisability as the reasonable a priori basis for discovering the moral law and hence the categorical imperative (unconditional duty).

  1. Universalise your actions and ask – would I like it if someone did this same thing to me?
  2. Universalise your common humanity and ask am I treating this person with the dignity, rights and respect with which I would like them to treat me?
  3. Universalise your idea of law and ask – if I was an autonomous rational law-maker what laws would I want to pass in my country?

With euthanasia sanctity of life arguments come into conflict with quality of life arguments.

Would I like someone to assist me in suicide if my quality of life deteriorated sufficiently. The answer may well be “yes” even though Kant saw this as a contradiction in nature because the idea of willing a universal law of suicide was for him self-contradictory, so wrong.

Does euthanasia violate the principle of ends (the second formulation of the categorical imperative above)? Only if the autonomy (rational freedom) of the individual to choose is compromised by undue pressure from relatives or a state of depression. The Oregon rules in the US were designed to stop this happening and presumably the same safeguards could apply here.

Would we want to live in a society where euthanasia is accepted as normal? There is nothing self-contradictory here, but some might argue it is undesirable because of a general loss of respect for human life which may result. Despite Kant’s own objections to suicide a Kantian can surely conceive of situations where euthanasia does not violate the objective moral law of universalisability.

 IVF treatment 



There are several different forms of IVF treatment but all seem to be a means to the end of having a healthy baby.

The question is, could a Kantian permit embryos being used as a means to an end, with many discarded as imperfect or unsuitable for fertility treatment? As with abortion, it’s only an issue if we accord the collection of cells known these days as a “pre-embryo” (up to 14 days old) the status of a person. This is something most non-religious people would not do, after all, the collection of cells doesn’t even have a gender. It is also a strange idea to think of a non-existent being as a means to its own happiness (rational life which would otherwise not exist). Surely a Kantian would see one more autonomous rational being as a moral good. So as long as the foetus was healthy a Kantian might generally support IVF treatment as promoting rational life, and on the basis that we would all want to universalise the opportunity to create rational life should we find ourselves infertile.

 Genetic Engineering 



There is a moral difference generally between creating an ideal baby by genetic screening and creating a life to save another child’s life (the first seems rather selfish, the second rather altruistic). However, to a Kantian both actions might be wrong as they involve treating the child as a means to an end – either the end of the parents’ happiness having a perfect child, or as a means to save another child’s life. This is arguably to devalue the rights, dignity and respect due to any child according to Kant’s second formulation “always treat a person not just as a means to an end in themselves but always and everywhere as an end in themselves”.

However, some Kantians might argue that it is possible, as implied by the second formulation, to treat the created child as both a means to an end and an end in themselves – as parents of saviour siblings have often said, the created child has special value of their own. We cannot after all avoid treating a shopkeeper (for example) as a means to get my Wispa bar, what defines the moral goodness or badness of my treatment of the shopkeeper depends on whether I treat them with dignity and respect (say please and thank you). It’s only the violation of the idea of treating someone as an end in themselves that defines the morality of the action – whether they are a means to something else is not significant morally.

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