"All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason." Immanuel Kant
Deontological and Kantian Ethics
Abstract - Ethics 2033 - Assignment
Deontology is the second major ethical theory we have studied. In particular, we have read and discussed Immanuel Kant’s ethics. We have also considered the ethical implications of extreme income and poverty, child labor in the global economy, and immigration rights. For this assignment, you are asked to discuss how Kant’s moral principle – the categorical imperative – could guide us as we think through what our moral obligations are to others who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Deontology is an approach to ethics that focuses on rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions or to the character and habits of the actor. Thus to a Deontologist, whether a situation is good or bad depends on whether the action that brought it about was right or wrong.
Deontological ethical theories are best understood when they are compared to consequentialist ethical theories. According to David McNaughton and Piers Rawling, in their article, “Deontology”, traditionally consequentialism and deontology are distinguished by their differing accounts of the relation between the right (in the sense of what is morally required) and the good . Therefore, a brief look at consequentialism and a summary of the problems associated with it, which motivates its deontological opponents, provides a helpful prelude to taking up deontological theories themselves. Consequentialists hold that choices – acts and/or intentions – are to be morally assessed solely by the states of affairs they bring about. Consequentialists assert that whatever choices increase the Good, that is, bring about more of it, are the choices that are morally right to make and execute. In contrast to consequentialist theories, deontological theories judge the morality of choices by criteria different from the states of affairs those choices bring about. Deontology holds that some choices cannot be justified by their effects – that no matter how morally good their consequences are. That is, some choices are morally forbidden.
If any philosopher is regarded as central to deontological moral theories, it is surely Immanuel Kant. Indeed, each of the branches of deontological ethics—the agent-centered, the patient-centered, and the contractualist—can lay claim to being Kantian. He formulated his moral philosophy in three different ways which he called the categorical imperative.
Act only in such a way that you would want your actions to become a universal law, applicable to everyone in a similar situation.
Act in such a way that you always treat humanity (whether oneself or other) as both the means of an action, but also an end.
Act as though you were a law-making member (and also the king) of a hypothetical “kingdom of ends”, and therefore only in such a way that would harmonize with such a kingdom if those laws were binding on all others.
Kant defined an imperative as any preposition that declares a certain action or inaction to be necessary. A hypothetical imperative would compel action in a given circumstance. For an example, “if I wish to satisfy my hunger, then I must eat something.” A categorical imperative would denote an absolute unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end itself. Kant argued that the “highest good” must be both intrinsically good, and good without qualification when the addition of that thing never makes a situation ethically worse. He concluded that there is only one thing that is truly good: a good will chosen out of a feeling of moral duty. From this concept of duty, Kant derived the Categorical Imperative, a principle that is intrinsically valid, and that must be obeyed in all situations and desires, and regardless of any consequences which might arise from the action. According to the Categorical Imperative, if an action is not done with the motive of duty, then it is without moral value and therefore meaningless.
If we lived according to Kant’s categorical imperative, we have moral obligations toward others who we live with, in the society. I think it is practical to address the issues we encounter in the world today such as, income inequality, poverty, child labor, and immigration, using Kant’s philosophy and the categorical imperative. Deontological morality, in contrast to consequentialism, leaves space for agents to give special concern to their families, friends, and projects. At least that is so if the deontological morality contains no strong duty of general beneficence, or, if it does, it places a cap on that duty's demands. It therefore, avoids the overly demanding and alienating aspects of consequentialism and accords more with conventional notions of our moral duties.
Let us focus on the issue of child labor, and try to address it in a Kantian perspective. According to Roland Pierik in his article, “Fighting Child Labor Abroad: Conceptual Problems and Practical Solutions”, the problem is that the directness of our intuitions does not automatically translate into straightforward certainty about ways to fight the problem. One complication is that the Western opposition against child labor is usually based on an implicit conception of childhood that is not always embraced in countries in which most child labor occurs . Western policies toward child labor abroad must take account of the many differences between Western and developing countries, and not concoct simple analogies with the effects such policies would have in Western societies. Such policies should be based on good knowledge of the socioeconomic, infrastructural, and political characteristics of the society involved .
It is evident that almost all developed countries have abolished child labor. But many corporations in western countries import goods from developed countries which are produced using child labor. There are no restrictions on that in terms of policy. Kantian ethics prohibits this activity, and he would be against it. We, as human beings, have no right to abuse fellow sentient beings in reaching prosperity. Categorical imperative rejects the notion that we can exploit other people for our materialistic good. The sole reason that child labor exists today is that it makes the companies who take advantage of it profit from it exponentially. However companies cannot eliminate the problems by themselves, as in the case of companies engaged in the chocolate industry. Governments should enforce strict laws that eliminate the background for the small business owners and farmers to utilize children for forceful labor without pay. From a Kantian ethical standpoint, this solution promotes the well-being of children. It is inhuman to oppose this notion by saying it might drive the profits of corporations lower.
Now it brings us to the issues of income inequality and poverty. I believe there is a strong link between these two issues. Addressing the issue of poverty is simply not donating money to the poor, or improving the welfare. This would not solve the problem. Addressing the issue of income inequality will subsequently yield a systematic sustainable solution to addressing poverty in the long run. According to Thomas W. Pogge in his article, “Eradicating Systematic Poverty: Brief for the Global Resources Dividend”, among six billion human beings, 790 million lack adequate nutrition, one billion lack access to safe water, 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation. 250 million children between the ages of 5-14 do wage work outside their families . Although consequentialism appears very demanding, given the amount of poverty in the world, maximizing the good would require the better off to make enormous sacrifices to help the very poor. I think Kantian ethics provides a moral code that can help solve this issue. Most often groups of people profit from the unjust impoverishment of others. From Kantian perspective, it is a moral challenge for us. That is, we may be failing to fulfill our positive duty to help others in acute distress.
If we analyze the income gap between the rich and poor, it is evident that the inequality is severe. One of the root causes for this, is the exploitation of the labor. We see companies outsource jobs overseas to gain advantage of cheap, low-pay labor to maximize the profits. The slogan to justify outsourcing is to say it would make products inexpensive to consumers. But this it rarely evident in statistics. The only thing that has benefited from outsourcing is the profits of the companies, which in turn get distributed among a privileged and number of individuals. As the categorical imperative states, “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity (whether oneself or other) as both the means of an action, but also an end.” Kantian ethics prohibit exploitation of human beings for personal gains. The most practical way to solve the income inequality and the poverty is minimize human greed. If the large corporations stop using cheap labor and pay the workers same salaries similar to America, we can avoid terrible living conditions that exist in countries such as China, Mexico, India, and Ivory Coast, etc.
Kantian ethics can be also applied towards the issue of immigration. I strongly think Kant would not justify illegal immigration, because it is morally wrong. We can address the issues of illegal immigration by solving the problems that leads to immigration. For an example if an agreement such as NAFTA was avoided, Mexican rural agricultural industry would have survived. In fact NAFTA has a strong contribution to the downfall of Mexican rural economy. If the exploitation of labor stopped, it would answer the immigration problem we encounter today in America. According to Michael Huemer, in his article, “is there a right to immigrate?”, the most common argument for limiting or eliminating immigration is economic. It is said that immigrants take jobs away from American workers, and that they cause a lowering of wage rates due to their willingness to work for lower wages than American workers. At the same time, economists are nearly unanimous in agreeing that the overall economic effects of immigration on existing Americans are positive . Thinking from a Kantian perspective I do not agree with this. These effects of immigration only help small number of individuals financially. In turn lower wages not only make the living condition of immigrants worse, it would destabilize the existing minimum wage system for workers that we fought hard to implement. Therefore, allowing immigration does not eliminate, but create more ethical problems.
In conclusion, I think income inequality, issues of immigration, systematic poverty, and child-labor, are linked, at least to a significant extent. Deontological theories, such as Kant’s categorical imperative, unlike consequentialist ones, have the potential for explaining why certain people have moral standing to complain about and hold to account those who breach moral duties. For the moral duties typically thought to be deontological in character—unlike, say, duties regarding the environment—are duties to particular people, not duties to bring about states of affairs that no particular person has an individual right to have realized.