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Differences Between Consequentialism and Kantianism

Introduction

According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy the term ethics is used as synonymous with morality. Paul and Elder claim that many people consider ethics as behaviour in accordance with social conventions, religious dictates, and legal statutes. But ethics is a stand-alone concept, and can be discussed free from any string attached to it. Ethics is concerned with moral philosophy and revolves around such issues as right or wrong, good or bad, virtue or vice, and justice or injustice. The study of ethics spreads around three areas; Meta-ethics, Normative-ethics, and Applied-ethics. Consequentialism and Kantianism are two opposing concepts that fall under normative-ethics that deals with such questions as rightness or wrongness of an action.

Consequentialism

This approach to ethics is based upon the aphorism, ‘ends justify the means’. The theory states that whether an act is right or wrong depends upon consequences of the action. If the consequence is good then the act is good, and vice versa, and more good the consequence is better is the act. Thus the right action of an agent, in a particular circumstance is that action among alternative actions that produces over all best result. Thus Consequentialism postulates that a person faced with moral dilemma, should chose an action that produces best consequences, and in general people should thrive to optimise the consequences. Consequences can be of different natures, so there can be different ideas of consequences that should be optimised. These are;

i. Utilitarianism: According to this concept people should endeavour to maximise welfare or utility in terms of Economics. Thus the action must satisfy wants.

ii. Hedonism: According to this approach people should try to maximise satisfaction as consequences of an action.

Plus points of consequence based ethics or Consequentialism

i. It is logical that people should do what increases happiness/welfare or decreases unhappiness/misery.

ii. It is sensible as people take decisions on action seeing through the prism of consequences.

iii. The decision making process is easy, less stressful, and common sense oriented.

Minus points of Consequentialism

i. Every alternative decision has to be thoroughly evaluated.

ii. Such evaluation is time consuming, and may defeat the purpose of such evaluation.

iii. It is argued that if everybody is guided by Consequentialism, say pleasure or welfare this would hurt the interest of the society, as it would be very difficult to predict how people would act in a particular situation.

iii. Actions of individuals or groups with prejudice or loyalty to sects, group, or family members may open the floodgate of mistrust in the society.

Kantianism

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an opponent of Consequentialism, and propagated a deontological moral theory of ethics, which is popularly known as Kantianism theory of Ethics. Basic proposition of Kantianism is that action of people should not depend upon consequences, rather should be dictated by categorical imperatives that fulfil duty of human being. Kant says that rightness or wrongness of an action depends upon answers to two questions, firstly if the agent rationally will that everyone should do the same act as she proposes, then the act is ethical or moral. Secondly, if the agent believes the act respects the goal of human being and does not merely use a human being to maximise utility or pleasure, then the act is moral or ethical.

Categorical imperative is unconditional command. Such command as ‘if you are hungry you must eat’, is not categorical imperative rather conditional as if one does not feel hungry she may ignore the command. But such command as ‘you must not cheat’, is categorical imperative as no one can skip the command under any disguise even if cheating would increase welfare of an insolvent person. As such certain acts like killing, stealing, lying, etc. is strictly prohibited universally. Morality is based upon such imperatives and commanded by such imperatives, and no one can escape and claim exception. Categorical imperatives are based on maxim or principle, which one rationally wills to guide everyone in the similar situation. Thus if one says that ‘I am the last person to leave the sinking boat’ it sounds like a good maxim. But it cannot be a categorical imperative, because one cannot rationally expect that everyone should act the same way in similar situations. Even if everyone does the same in a sinking boat an unmanageable situation may arise leading to sinking of everyone in the boat. Hence according to Kant this cannot be termed as moral or ethical.

At the same time the element of moral duty is highlighted. Thus if a person donates the whole prize-money of a lottery to a charitable institution in order to get pure-pleasure, according to Kant this cannot be termed as moral or ethical, because the aim of the donor in this case is pleasure which is based on consequence. On the other hand if the same person does the same thing under dictate of her beloved mother, it must be considered ethical or moral, as the action is not guided by consequence, but by the maxim that one should follow what her mother says.

Plus points of Kantianism

i. It is an improvement from flaw of utilitarianism. Killing one person to save lives of another ten is allowed by Consequentialism. Thus a bad act leads to good consequence.

ii. Kant’s theory is based on universal moral laws, regardless of culture, legal statute, or individual situations.

iii. It is simple, if I expect one should not kill me then I should also not kill anyone.

iv. The theory is rational and devoid of any emotion.

v. The theory upholds international law. In a famous case in UK the judge convicted one Jack for killing Thomas, even though Jack could establish that Thomas wanted to be killed by Jack.

vi. The theory respects the basic human right, ‘Right to live’. This is the basic logic of anti-euthanasia lobby.

Minus points

i. It can lead good act to bad consequence. Not killing one person to save lives of anther ten is a good act but would lead to death of ten persons.

ii. The theory is rigid, not allowing any flexibility would lead to death of ten persons as said above.

iii. One may be tempted to skip purchasing ticket in a crowded train where checking is lackadaisical.

iv. Kantianist Ross argues that duties are absolute. But practically there cannot be such thing as absolute duty. A person may be dictated by his mother to donate a sum to charity. At the same time the person may feel her duty to help an ailing friend whom she promised.

v. According to Kant, animals (non-humans) have no intrinsic value hence killing of them is not un-ethical. This doctrine is challenged by environmentalists, and of course with solid reasons.

vi. Capital punishment is based on Kantian retributive justice. This was challenged by Bentham long back, and today most modern democratic states have done away with this, and where it is still in practice, an additional clause ‘rarest of rare crime’ is followed.

vii. Universal rules make varied situations with same moral question. This makes morality relative, not absolute.

viii. Kantianism is simple to follow. Consequentialism involves complex decision making process in certain cases.

ix. Kantianism respects human rights and law of equality. Consequentialism may violate such laws.

x. Kantianism has more universally accepted appeal than Consequentialism.

Summary

i. Concept of Consequentialism as ethical theory is based upon nature of consequences be it utility, welfare, or pleasure. Kantianism is based upon moral imperatives which are absolute.

ii. Consequentialism may lead bad action to good consequences. Kantianism may lead good action to bad consequences.

iii. Consequentialism encourages retributive justice. Kantianism does not encourage retributive justice.

iv. Kntianism may give rise to conflicting situation. Consequentialism does not give rise to conflict.


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