PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday April 8, 2014


 [7.] Deontology and Kant.


[7.1.] Are Moral Rules Absolute?


Are the rules of morality absolute? In other words, are there any moral guidelines or principles that must never be violated and must always be followed, no matter what?


Another way of putting the question: is there anything that you should never do, no matter what good effects you could bring about by doing it?


A utilitarian will answer: NO. Because they are consequentialists, utilitarians believe that whether an action is moral always depends on its consequences and on nothing else. On their view, there is no such thing as an action that is immoral independent of its effects. So they do not recognize actions that should never be performed, regardless of the consequences.


Today we will begin considering a very different view. It is a view that rejects consequentialism (and therefore rejects utilitarianism).


The British philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe (1919-2001)[1] believed that there are some actions that are always immoral, no matter what the consequences.


One example given in EMP 9.1: boiling a live baby.  Anscombe maintained that even if you could save one million lives by doing this, it would still be immoral to do so.


In taking this view, Anscombe was rejecting consequentialism, and therefore rejecting utilitarianism.


Anscombe believed that the United States’ use of atomic bombs to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII was immoral.[2] She was not basing this assessment on the claim that the bombings resulted in more harm than benefit—she may well have believed that the bombings actually did result in lives being saved (because they resulted in the war ending earlier than it otherwise would have).[3]


Her point was that those good consequences are irrelevant for morality. Killing innocent people is always wrong, no matter what consequences might result.


[Anscombe herself may have been an advocate of a form of normative ethics called virtue ethics. This is discussed in EMP ch.12.[4]]



[7.2.] Kant and the Categorical Imperative.


In addition to consequentialism, there is a second approach to normative ethics:


deontology (df.): a normative theory that focuses on duty, holding that there are some actions that you have a duty to perform and some you have a duty not to perform, regardless of the consequences (from Greek “deon”, meaning duty or obligation) [Anscombe may have also rejected deontology.]


The most influential deontological theory of normative ethics is that of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).[5]


Kant believed that some moral rules are absolute, i.e., they have no exceptions.



[7.2.1.] Two Types of “Should” Statement.


As a first approach to explaining this principle, Kant first pointed out that there are two different types of statement about what we should do (about what we ought to do) :


(i) Some “should”s depend on our desires: if you want x, then you should do a (where “a” stands for some action).  For example:

·         if you want to go to law school, you should study for the LSAT.

·         if you want to run a marathon, you should train for it.

·         if you want to improve your  racquetball game, then you should play racquetball regularly.


Here you have an obligation to do something as a result of a relevant desire; it is only because you want x that you ought to do a. In order to escape the obligation to do a, you need only stop desiring x.


Such “should”s are:


hypothetical imperatives (df.): principles or rules that you are obligated to follow because you have some relevant desire; e.g., if you want to improve your racquetball game, then you should to play the game regularly. [By itself, the word “imperative” refers to a command, order, or rule.]


(ii)  Other “should”s do not have this hypothetical character. They don’t depend on what a person desires. This second sort of ought expresses things that you just plain ought to do, period. For example,

·         you should not kill innocent people.


You cannot get out from under the obligation not to kill innocent people simply by changing your desires—in fact, you cannot escape this sort of obligation at all. You ought not to kill innocent people, period.


Such “should”s are:


categorical imperatives (df.): principles or rules that everyone is obligated to follow, no matter what; e.g., you ought not kill innocent people. [By itself, the word “categorical” means absolute, without exception or qualification.]


Kant believes that “should” or “ought” statements that express moral obligation are all categorical imperatives—none are hypothetical imperatives. In other words, he believes that all moral rules are categorical: they tell you that you ought to do something, and it is irrelevant whether you want to attain some goal by doing so.



[7.2.2.] The Categorical Imperative.


Hypothetical “should”s are relatively easy to understand: they are possible because we have desires.


But how are categorical imperatives possible? I.e., how can we be obligated to do something, period?


Kant’s answer: categorical “should”s—including moral “should”s—are possible because we have reason.


This is because all categorical imperatives (and therefore all moral rules) are implied by a principle that all rational beings must accept. On Kant’s view, if you are rational, then you will accept this one central principle of behavior. All categorical imperatives follow from this central principle; so once you accept the central principle, you will come to see what other rules you should obey. 


The one rule or principle that all rational beings must accept is:


The Categorical Imperative:  “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, RTD 60; quoted at EMP 129)



Stopping point for Tuesday April 8. For next time, no new reading; just study today’s lecture notes. There may be a pop quiz on the notes at the beginning of the next class.



[1] For more information about Anscombe and her ideas, see Julia Driver, “Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[2] The text of “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” the pamphlet in which Anscombe argues against the granting of an honorary degree by Oxford University to Harry S. Truman, based on his decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan, is here: , accessed June 23, 2010.


[3] According to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, between 90,000 and 166,000 people died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and another 60,000 to 80,000 died due to the bombing of Nagasaki. ( ). According to the United States Department of Energy Office of Heritage and History Resources, Hiroshima was a militarily relevant target; in addition to its 300,000 civilians, 43,000 Japanese soldiers were there. Little Boy, the uranium bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, “detonated 1,900 feet above the city, directly over a parade field where soldiers of the Japanese Second Army were doing calisthenics.” ( ) Fat Man, the plutonium bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, detonated 1,650 feet in the air about midway between two of the principal targets in that city:

the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Torpedo Works  ( ).


[4] I say “may have been,” since there is some controversy among interpreters as to whether Anscombe really did mean to advocate a virtue-based approach to ethics. See Driver, “Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe.”


[5] The ideas we will be considering here come from Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (sometimes translated as Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals), published in 1785. Chapter 7 of RTD is an excerpt from this work. Other important ethical writings of Kant include Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Metaphysics of Morals (1797).

Intro to Ethics Homepage | Dr. Lane's Homepage | Phil. Program Homepage

This page last updated 4/8/2014.

Copyright © 2014 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.

UWG Disclaimer