This paper is a utilitarian critique of Kant’s categorical imperatives. I maintain that constants exist in consequences (such as happiness and pain), but not in moral actions. Therefore, Kant’s emphasis on intent and universalizability disregards consequences and the complexity of situations in favor of rigid and impossible moral laws.
Although Kant’s categorical imperatives encourage ethical intent, they ultimately compose a moral philosophy that disregards consequences and the complexity of situations in favor of rigid and impossible moral laws. This paper wields a utilitarian perspective to critique Kant’s categorical imperatives from two angles: its emphasis on intent and universalizability. I maintain that constants exist in consequences (such as happiness and pain), but not in moral actions. A priority to minimize suffering at all costs should guide our moral compasses, though there are no universal actions that ensures the most well-being in every situation. Therefore, it is impossible to establish universal principles that are always ethical. An emphasis on intent is even more difficult to gauge than measuring utility. Although intent is vital to determining the ethics of an action, it should not be prioritized over the consequences of such action in a particular situation. My exploration of universality, morality, and freedom ultimately confirms the utilitarian ethical perspective that I have developed throughout my studies.
The Universalizability Principle is a core foundation of the categorical imperatives. It maintains the existence of universal moral laws that are always unethical to break. Furthermore, it claims that we universalize each of our actions and grant ethical permission for everyone else to do the same. Although this principle encourages good intent, it ultimately overlooks the consequences of our actions. According to the Principle of Utility, we must always act to ensure the well-being of others. Sometimes, providing the greatest amount of well-being requires us to commit actions that Kant would consider intrinsically unethical. For example, a Kantian would likely proclaim war as immoral. Following this logic, American involvement in World War II was unethical, regardless of the outcome. However, a utilitarian could make an exception for World War II by comparing the population’s well-being under liberal governing as opposed to fascism. Although war causes great suffering, it is minuscule compared to the terror of a fascist-ruled Europe. The example of World War II exposes the complications of Kant’s Universalizability Principle by displaying an adherence to moral laws resulting in suffering that could have been avoided by American involvement in the war. A question of responsibility thus arises. Are Kantian philosophers who argued against the participation in World War II responsible for the decades of Nazi rule over Europe? Is this burden less unethical than the utilitarian responsible for killing Nazis, and breaking universal moral laws in the act?
This difference derives from another (perhaps even more profound) disagreement between Kant and myself: an emphasis on consequences versus intent. Although I believe that intent is relevant when determining the morality of a particular action in a specific situation, we should ultimately focus on the empirical consequences of said action – particularly the subsequent amount of suffering and well-being. Utility is, indeed, challenging to measure. However, quantifying positive outcomes still presents an easier task than gauging intent. Not only is the dependence on intention challenging to measure, but it is also dangerous as it excuses destructive action with ignorance. Following the Kantian emphasis on intent, the American soldier is ethically comparable to an Auschwitz watchman if they were both ignorantly following social expectations. In this regard, ethical emphasis on purpose can rapidly lead to moral subjectivism, which also explicitly disregards the consequences of our actions.
A Kantian objection to my thesis would emphasize the importance of everybody following the Universalizability principle. They may claim that World War II is a faulty example since not everybody was following the belief that war is immoral. If Hitler followed this Kantian doctrine, then World War II would have never occurred. This is a weak argument because such a perfect society will never exist. Because of the inherently unjust structure of hierarchical civilization, moral agents are always challenged with acting morally within an immoral society. Understanding the complexity of situations, any fundamental universal laws must be vague and based on the consequences of our actions in a particular instance. A Kantian may rebut saying that people cannot foresee all the consequences of their actions; therefore, we can only judge actions on intent. Since humanity is inherent ignorant, they would claim that it is only fair to base morality on intent. Although I agree that intention is significant, it is even more difficult to gauge than utility. Ultimately, I believe it is dangerous to judge morality on intent alone because it too easily excuses ignorance and diminishes personal responsibility.
Kantian moral philosophy disregards consequences and the complexity of situations in favor of rigid and impossible moral laws. Both its emphasis on intent and universalizability is problematic, as displayed in this essay by the instance of World War II. All situations are unique and complex. A priority to minimize suffering should guide our moral compasses, though there are no universal actions that ensures the most well-being in every situation. Therefore, it is impossible to establish universal principles that are always ethical. Although intent is vital to determining the morality of an action, it should not be prioritized over the consequences of such action in a particular situation. My exploration of universality, morality, and freedom ultimately confirms the utilitarian ethical perspective that I have developed throughout my previous studies.