The ethical theory of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant

Good will and the Categorical Imperative

”What is always good without qualification? Intelligence and courage can be used for bad. The only thing in the world that can be called good without qualification is a good will

According to Kant, what we want to do is of no importance. Our focus should be on what we ought to do (dutifulness).

For Kant, an imperative is a way in which reason commands the will. There are two major kinds of imperatives

  1. Hypothetical: a conditional rule of the form “if you want X then do Y”
  2. Categorical: unconditional rule, always applies

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

He believes that the only categorical imperative is the moral imperative: you should act only on moral rules that you can imagine everyone else following without deriving a logical contradiction.

Or, the second formulation: act so that you always treat both yourself and other people as ends in themselves, and never only as a means to an end.

Against Kantianism

Kant holds that every action is motivated from a rule. The appropriate rule depends upon how we characterize the action. Once we know the rule, we can test its value using the Categorical Imperative. What happens when no single rule fully explains the situation? Suppose I’m considering stealing food from a grocery store to feed my starving children. How should I characterize this action? Am I stealing? Am I caring for my children? Am I trying to save the lives of innocent people? Until I characterize my action, I cannot determine the rule and test it against the Categorical Imperative.

If we allow multiple rules to be relevant to a particular action then what do we do what relevant rules conflict? Kant distinguished between perfect duties and imperfect duties

  1. Perfect Duties are duties we are obliged to fulfil in every instance (e.g. telling the truth)
  2. Imperfect Duties are duties we are obliged to fulfill in general but not in every instance

Perfect duties prevail over imperfect duties. However, if there is a conflict between perfect duties, Kantianism does not provide us a way to choose between them.

Applied to privacy

  • Government believes it is morally right to monitor suspects
  • Then what if everyone could monitor who they suspect
  • Then anyone could monitor anyone, including government officials
  • Governments require a basic level of privacy to conduct their business (security clearance is a thing)
  • This is not possible if anyone could monitor government officials without consent/permission, leading to a contradiction
  • Thus, being able to surveil suspects without consent is immoral