Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher whose theory is considered the basis of deontological ethics for a number of reasons. The term deontology originates from the Greek word deon (duty, obligation)and suffix logia. It is the normative ethical position that usually judges the morality of personal deeds and decisions based on the adherence of an action to certain rules. Miller Kamm, in turn, defines the deontological ethics as a “rule” based on the rules that bind someone to his/ her duty. Consequently, Kamm contrasts deontology and consequentialism (1).
Kant believed that people contribute to “reality” of the world surrounding them through their mental activities; hence, morality comes from human reasoning and freedom and not a command received from outside: a person or cultural conditioning (Kant 23). Additionally, Immanuel Kant’s main goal in formulating deontology was the establishment of the ethical system that did not depend on a person’s subjective experience but the evil or good nature of an action that could be determined with the undisputable logic. This way, he asserted that ethically acceptable behavior cannot be denied under any circumstances.
Being Morally Praiseworthy
It is obvious that people deserve moral praise for doing something that is good. On the other hand, when someone receives praise for a deed that does not deserve a reward, the sense of admiration usually diminishes. According to Immanuel Kant, some acts that seem to be morally praiseworthy might turn out to have self-interest motives; hence, any acts done out of ill or improper motivation do not deserve praise (Kant 2).
Immanuel Kant’s moral deontology revolves around the notion of good will and acting out of a morally proper motive; only in this case, a deed can be considered a morally proper act. In addition, Kant outlines moral requirements and begins with developing speculations on what is to be considered a deserving moral praise for a particular action (Kamm 2). In this case, he argues that moral praise depends on a person’s intentions or the motive behind a particular action. For instance, if a person is acting for personal gain, out of embarrassment or has an ulterior motive, this person does not deserve any moral praise despite the action appearing to be morally good. In case a person acts for personal gain, he or she deserves no moral praise, as the action is self-centered; hence, it is not a moral action (Kamm 3). Kant supports this idea by arguing that actions, which are done for personal gain, do not deserve any moral praise as they are not morally good actions though they might appear to be good or morally permitted ones (3). Therefore, only actions that are done from a morally appropriate or proper motive deserve moral praise. Consequently, Kant evaluates all actions in order to decide whether they have any moral motivations. For example, he argues that if an individual does a particular action out of care, the moral motivation behind it is to be considered (Kant 4). He argues that caring especially for a family member is not a moral motivation. Therefore, any external motivation like desire for general happiness cannot be considered a moral motivation (Kant 5).
Moral Laws: The Categorical Imperative
According to Kant, a good will does not come from external influence, and it is not about self-fulfillment, happiness, pride, and care; hence, there is a need to examine the nature of any moral law (Kant 6). Consequently, a proper law is the one that is universally binding. This means that it applies to everything and everyone; therefore, any morally good action is done for the respect of the moral law and not for any other reason. Thus, all actions that are to be done are considered by a particular moral law and those forbidden by that moral law ought not to be done.
Kant emphasizes that moral laws must be universally binding so that the action is permitted to be done by everyone. Thus, determining a moral law entails universalization of an action by rejecting all the specifics concerning a particular situation (Kamm 4). Therefore, according to Kant, the test of morality is performed through the categorical imperative (Kant 7), which is its main principle.
Kant’s Respect for Persons
According to Kant, human beings usually act out of self-interest. This idea is supported by many scholars, who argue that a man is psychologically conditioned to follow certain moral laws. This approach is often referred to as determinism (Kamm 5). Therefore, man is a unique being as he can reason; he is not alike to animals as he can freely follow the moral law and stand against strong desires. According to Immanuel Kant, “moral laws follow the universal maxims and the ability of a man to universalize” (8). Universalization creates respect for the moral law, which indicates that a person has overcome all the conditioning powers that originate from environmental influence. This implies that man acts freely as a moral autonomous agent guided by reasoning.
Evaluating the Universalization of Lie
Moral universalization entails generalization. Suppose an example of a person that faces a challenging situation when the professor demands an explanation that considers personal information. A student does not want to unveil it; consequently, he is forced to lie. Lying is morally wrong; however, it is obvious that there should be exceptions under particular circumstances. We might be willing to turn lying into a universal law but, according to Kantian theory, there are no exceptions for breaking the moral laws. This controversy makes moral law a form of blind worship of the rules (Kamm 6). Other example: the teacher finds a student cheating in an exam, and the student avows that she did cheat in order to impress the professor with good knowledge. In turn, the professor decides to give the student “F” as he believes that cheating is wrong. In this situation, the student is not likely to receive moral praise; the professor, on the other hand, deserves admiration for his decision. Nevertheless, if this student cheats as she did not believe that cheating is morally wrong and hence it is not a moral obligation, she will receive moral praise for good performance. In case a student acted in accordance with certain utilitarian reasons, she could have avoided cheating as it is a bad habit that causes a sense of guilt. Even under such circumstances, Kant would still assert that cheating is influenced by “an external non-moral motivation” (9). According to his theory, cheating is always wrong and cannot be justified by any motivation and reasons. Only this moral motivation is proper. Consequently, any other form of motivation cannot be considered a moral one. Therefore, only if a person avoids cheating as he or she believes that it is morally wrong, that person acts in respect for the universal moral law. Kant stipulates that if an action is done out of respect for certain moral law, the will is good (10).
In conclusion, Kant’s theory argues that all actions can be characterized as moral obligations or permitted deeds. In addition, Immanuel Kant restricts the moral domain or scope of actions. His theory stipulates that people cannot worry about any negative or positive consequences that may result from certain action, decision, engaging in a particular activity or event. Thus, as there is a difference between what people think is good or right, the focus should be put on the motivation, and not the outcome of the deed.
If lying was universalized or everyone adopted lying, immoral behavior would become a common practice and nobody would believe what he or she is told. Hence, Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative which entails, “any action whose maxim has logically defeated itself when universalized can never become a moral action” (11) is true.