The ethics of Immanuel Kant are based on the belief that ethics stem from rules and reason much like the law of gravity, they are universal and applied always regardless of circumstances. He believed that the capacity to reason was unique to man and when exercised this was what it meant to be a moral human being. His deontological approach rejects Utilitarianism due to it s consequentialist nature not being universal and ergo not based on reason. Kant presents a more rigid way of making moral judgements. Kant believed that an action has moral worth if it can be universalised.
He proposed the test of universalisability which would show by the use of reason whether an act was right. This is his Categorical Imperative, that “I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. Take for example a desire to steal for personal gain, if everybody took everything they wanted then nobody would own anything without the risk of it soon being taken. This maxim contradicts itself so cannot be universalised, therefore it should not be carried out.
The advantages of this technique of determining right from wrong is that its non-consequentialist and therefore it is relatively quick and easy to calculate as there are no exceptions. However a large flaw is that completely ignoring the outcomes of our actions seems slightly irresponsible as outcomes are of at least some importance when arriving at a moral decision however infinitely hard they are to calculate. For example you are a soldier in your war torn homeland. In battle it is your duty to kill the opponent however you knew this particular soldier before the outbreak of fighting and realise that he has a wife and children to support.
The consequences of pulling the trigger are at least worth considering. The method above is called the universalisability criterion and it was this that allowed Kant to differentiate between moral actions and immoral actions, it tackles one of the arguments which Utilitarianism could not fulfil, namely that it judges whether a person is making a good action by the motive not by the outcome. In Utilitarianism an act could be deemed good even if the intentions were bad e. g. out of spite I push someone over but as a result a passing steamroller misses them.
This action is good because it saved a life even though intentions were bad. This is one of the attractions as Justice is safeguarded. Kant s theory distinguishes acts done from inclination and obligation. Inclination being a shallow personal action and obligation being a far more deep duty. For example I have promised my parents that I will baby-sit for them but get invited to a party that takes place one the same evening where I would much rather spend my Saturday night. Acting as a moral person I would stay in and look after my sister doing my duty.
I am ignoring my empirical will choosing instead my rational will. Kant argued that a person is only acting morally when they suppress their feelings or inclinations and sticks to their obligations. This then raises the question why on some occasions have I gone to the party and arranged another babysitter, does this make me completely immoral and therefore an irrational person Utilitarian ethics would allow me to go providing I found another babysitter as then everyone would be happy.
It has been suggested that Kant approach is perhaps to rigorist and insensitive to the needs of others. At the time Kant s approach was a highly original and contemporary way of thinking. He laid out the first principles of morality which were independent of self interest and showed his belief that a good man was one that followed duty and ignored personal feelings. There were many positive aspects that appealed to people when making moral choices. The element of freedom which Kant believed was fundamental to moral choosing which was absent in Christian ethics, where obedience to God negates freedom.
Kant theory states an essential pre-requisite must be that the action is not coerced, that there is an absence of duress. And unlike Utilitarianism, man here has intrinsic worth, the interests of one are not sacrificed for the happiness of the many. However there were also big flaws the major weakness with Kant s argument arising over the issue of conflicting duties. The classic example is that I promise friend A that I will keep his secret. When friend B asks me directly about it I cannot be truthful to B and still keep my promise to A. It is impossible to universalise both behaviours so it is possible that using Kant theories in a moral dilemma could end up with nothing more than moral stalemate failing to resolve the situation.
Kant s approach is valuable in that it succeeds in areas where other ethical programmes have failed. Justice is safeguarded, man has intrinsic worth and duty is distinguished from inclination and freedom is essential all in an easy to use package. However the major flaws arise from it s deonlontological nature as consequences are regarded as worthless and also from the conflict of duties, a situation which Ross attempted to clarify in later years.