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Kant and Singer on Morals Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 3rd, 2022

Kant’s Standpoint

In Kant’s analysis of ethics, he makes a clear distinction between two types of commands; hypothetical imperative and categorical imperative. In the first category, an agent’s response to the statement in question depends on the implicit desires within him. For instance, a statement like, ‘you ought to do physical exercises every morning’ is a hypothetical imperative. The response to this statement depends on the agent. If he is not interested in becoming healthy, he can do without physical exercise. On the other hand, a categorical imperative does not operate in line with the desires of the agent. It is a moral obligation that applies equally to every element in society irrespective of their desires or liking. A good example of a categorical imperative is ‘you should not walk naked to a formal meeting.’ However much one enjoys walking naked, the statement shall not be retracted and allow the individual to come to a formal meeting naked. He will be forced to comply regardless of his inclination. Immanuel Kant, in his analysis of human ethics, comes up with two formulations of categorical imperatives. This paper highlights Kant’s conception of morality and identifies the weaknesses of the first formulation.

In the first formulation of the categorical imperative, Kant argues that a true proposition of morality must be independent of any situation or condition. He writes, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction” (Kant 30). In this supposition, Kant implies that whatever the circumstances surrounding a proposition, a moral maxim must stand independent and its application has to be universal. The physical details should not give a reason for deviation from the maxim.

This conception by Kant is flawed. The conception that every action should be based on the moral maxim without considering the circumstances could lead to justification of certain ills. Furthermore, the outcomes of the proposition should not be considered when responding to a proposition. Motive or reward should not be the basis of action. The duty to do right should be the ultimate goal and basis for any action.

This conception, therefore, justifies some actions that would subject other people to suffering. For instance, an ardent follower of the Kantian school would, without doubt, argue that Justice which is reflected through equality is a universal moral maxim that must be followed as a duty. What happens to a person who is found guilty of torture in a Kantian school of thought? He has to be punished equally. For justice, which is a moral maxim, to be done, the same person must be subjected to torture. In the same line, a person who commits murder has to be murdered because this is the only way the principle of justice can be achieved. No other considerations should be put on the table when dealing with such an individual. The rule of categorical imperative dictates that one must act according to duty as specified by the moral maxim. The moral maxim here calls for justice and equality. Consequently, the first formulation of the categorical imperative as stipulated by Kant can give room to such actions as murder and torture.

It is from such weaknesses that Kant develops the second formulation of the categorical imperative. In this approach, what is given emphasis is not just the principle that calls upon an individual to act according to the moral maxim, but also the end of the action in question. This second formulation allows for the consideration for the end of an action, therefore, giving room for consideration of the circumstance or conditions in question. This is contrary to the first formulation that did not allow for a circumstantial approach. Unlike the first formulation that typically denied free will the freedom through strict adherence to principle, the second formulation gives freedom to free will provided that the results are objective. By formulating the second categorical imperative as, “Act in a way that you treat humanity, whether in your person or the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end,” it will seal all loopholes that would allow for such activities as torture and murder. A person would not treat another just as a means to a given subjective end, like torturing a thief in public so that others do not steal, but consider him as an end in himself. Therefore, people should seek a perfect end for themselves and others. By assuming this approach, murder, torture, and slavery cannot be justified.

Singer’s Standpoint

In his book, Practical Ethics, Peter Singer, a well-known moral utilitarian elucidates on the principle of equal consideration of interests. This principle stands for the position that action will only be considered right if, under the calculation of its rightness, the actor or agent puts into consideration all the interests that are affected. Not just the consideration part of it but also the equal representation of the rights should be considered. In his analysis of the rightfulness of an action, Singer argued that the rights of an individual should not play the central role while subjecting the individual’s interests to oblivion. Instead, the rights should not be considered but the interests. In precision, before taking an action against someone, his rights should play a secondary role while his interests assume the position of primacy (Singer 21).

The basic foundation upon which this moral perspective is built argues that it is not proper to judge an action by assuming a basis of the rights of the individual and failing to include the interests as conventional theories argued. Furthermore, the theory posits that giving some interests more strength while trivializing others is inappropriate. The utilitarian proponents of this principle argue that all interests, not just humans, but other objects’ should be put into consideration and in an equal manner. By doing this, several societal ills would be avoided. Racism, sexism, and nationalism are among the few ills that Singer points out that would be stemmed out if morals were weighed from this scale (Singer 22).

Singer argues that while applying the rule of rights in society, it is not logical to argue that all rights should be applied to all humans or all animals equally. He argues that some of the rights would not even apply to some segments of society. For instance, he talks of the right to vote. While it is the right of all humans to vote, it cannot be said that it is the right of all animals to vote because animals cannot vote. While considerations regarding rights could lead to segregation in the application of these rights, it does not mean that the interests of the groups that do not need certain rights should be undermined. As a result, he concludes that equal consideration should be given to animals’ interests as it is to human interests.

From this position, why should Singer justify euthanasia and abortion while campaigning against eating animals and using them for experiments? The position of the argument is clear. Singer believes in equality of consideration of interests. Not just human interests but even those of nonhumans. This means that before engaging in an action against a human or a nonhuman, it is proper to consider the interests and include them in the calculus of rightness. By eating animals, one will be subjecting them to pain while at the same time terminating their lives against their wish. This is wrong if applied to humans. Subjecting someone to pain or terminating their lives against their wish is a crime punishable in the court of law. Considering that Singer advocates for equal consideration of interests both for humans and nonhumans, he will advocate against treating animals indifferently. The law criminalizing human torture and murder should criminalize animal torture and murder.

Still arguing about interests, before undergoing an abortion, a woman or doctor would have identified that the child would suffer more if he came to earth. Or the mother would be subjected to serious dangers if the pregnancy is not terminated. This means that it is within the interests of the mother or child that abortion is carried out. In addition, mercy killing is done with the consideration of the interests of the subject being killed. This means that Singer would advocate for euthanasia and abortion because these two are carried out under the consideration of interests and not rights. On the other hand, he opposes the eating of animals because it is a clear indication of biased consideration of interests between humans and nonhumans.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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