The goal of morality is to “guide our actions, define our values, and give us reasons for being the persons we are” (p. 3). One theory of morality is nonconsequentialism. “Nonconsequentalist moral theories say that the rightness of an action does not depend entirely on its consequences. It depends primarily, or completely, on the nature of the action itself” (p. 69). With nonconsequentialism, an action could be considered morally permissible even if it produces more bad than good. This leads us to one specific nonconsequentialist theory; Immanuel Kant’s principle of the categorical imperative. Kant states his principle of categorical imperative as “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (p. 70). Immanuel Kant says the principle and maxims stemming from it are universal and apply to all persons. We will use Immanuel Kant’s principle of categorical imperative to explain what our moral obligations to others living in extreme poverty would be if we lived according to Kant’s theory.
According to Thomas Pogge’s “Eradicating Systematic Poverty,” it states that one-third of all human deaths, about 50,000 deaths daily, are due to poverty-related causes. Poverty is found in every country in the world and the number of impoverished continues to grow. Our textbook “Doing Ethics” by Lewis Vaughn presents the question in chapter nineteen that has been hovering over our heads for quite some time. Vaughn asks the global question: “what are our moral obligations to the impoverished, hungry, dying strangers who are half a world away and whom we will never meet?” (p. 637). There are approximately seven billion people in the world and “according to the latest estimates, 1.2 billion people are living in extreme poverty, and about one in five persons in the developing world lives on less than $1.25 a day” (p. 637). The economic gap between the rich and the poor is a vastly growing one. “Economic inequality across the globe has always been with us, but now its scale is larger than most people realize. The eighty-five richest people on the planet now own as much as the entire poorest half of the world’s population” (p. 637-638). People may show sympathy for this large economic gap and the one billion living in extreme poverty, but they do not know what to do. Most of us assume that we have a duty to help the people around us, but the question of what do we do with the people who are halfway around the world that need our help? Lewis Vaughn wrote, “But many believe we have no duty at all to help distant peoples, strangers with whom we have no social or emotional connection.” Some argue it is our right to not share our wealth and what we have worked for while others argue that we have a duty of beneficence which is “a moral obligation to benefit others” (p.638). There continues to be many debates surrounding the idea of helping those in need.
When we consider economic inequality in light of Kant’s ethics, the moral thing to do would be to help the less fortunate. For Kant’s categorical imperatives, there are three formulations to his theory; (1) universality, (2) impartiality, and (3) respect for persons. Universality is the notion that moral law is binding and applies to all persons (p. 109). An example of this could be you can not steal an item and it be okay for you but not for someone else. The moral law is not specific to one person and you can not make exceptions for yourself. For impartiality, “it requires that the moral law applies to everyone in the same way, that no one can claim a privileged moral status” (p.109). In Kantian ethics, double standards are bad. In John Arthur’s “Famine Relief and the Ideal Moral Code,” he included how American philosopher, Richard Watson emphasizes his “principle of equity” and that “all human life is of equal value.” Respect for persons stems from the means-end principle. In the textbook, the means-end principle is “the rule that we must always treat people (including ourselves) as ends in themselves, never merely as means” (p.111). We can use child labor as an example of the means-end principle. Immanuel Kant would be against child labor because it would be using the children as a means rather than an end. You have to respect the children’s status as an actual person. Child labor is morally wrong and it takes away the children’s rights.
Kant’s moral principle, the categorical imperative, has many different versions that all work together to determine what is the right thing to do and what is the wrong thing to do. Kant’s main belief was using reason and consideration in order to determine what is right. Immanuel Kant believed it is not the consequences of the actions that mattered, it is doing that action for the right reason. Also, it was doing an action even if it does not align with your specific wants and needs. As a distinguished enlightenment thinker, Kant said that genuinely good actions are the ones you do purely out of respect for the moral laws. Most importantly, he believed in the rights of the people. Kant once said, “treat people as ends-in-themselves, rather than as mere means” (p. 105). Another important factor in Kant’s categorical imperative is that he did not believe religion had to be a factor when being a moral person. Immanuel Kant’s parents were quite religious and it seemed that all of the moral laws revolved around some sort of religious rules so he wanted to create ones that did not require religion to be apart of them. Kant believed that religion and morality were a terrible pairing.
As previously stated, there is a noticeable economic gap in the world. The richest eighty-five people on the planet now own as much as the entire poorest half of the world’s population” (p. 637-638) If we lived according to Kant’s categorical imperative, the answer to the question, “what are our moral obligations are to others who are less fortunate than ourselves?” would be that we have a duty to help those in need. Kant says that as long as you are helping with no anticipation of receiving some sort of reward then your actions are right and pass the test of the categorical imperative. Let’s use a hypothetical example of someone winning the lottery and planning to donate part of their winnings to a charity in Africa. Let’s say the lottery winner’s name is Frank Gomez. Frank Gomez was reading the paper one day and saw that Kanye West donated one million dollars to multiple charities on behalf of his wife, Kim Kardashian. Frank Gomez thought that it was awesome Kanye West’s name was in the newspaper for donating money and so Mr. Gomez decided that he wanted his name in the paper too. Frank Gomez then decided to donate a large portion of his winnings to an African charity. After the donation was made, weeks later Mr. Gomez saw his name in the paper and was overcome with joy. Would this be morally permissible according to Kant’s theory? The answer is no. It was a great thing that Frank decided to donate money to people living in poverty, however, he did it with the intent of getting his name in the newspaper so others could see his charitable donation. Kant’s categorical imperative is not based on the consequences of actions like other moral theories. Kant’s theory is strictly based on doing the action for the right reasons, unlike Mr. Gomez.
If we lived according to Kant’s categorical imperative, then our moral obligations to help others would be morally permissible. Kant’s main belief was using reason and consideration in order to determine what is right. Although Kant’s ethics seemed like it cared for the rights of the people and seemed everyone as equal, there are some problems when trying to apply his theory to the real world. A major no in the eyes of Kant is lying. Kant has no exceptions for lying and sees it as very wrong and immoral. The problem with this sometimes people lie with the intent of benefitting someone in danger for example. Say an ax murderer came into your home searching for your roommate. If you lied to the ax-wielding murderer with the intent to save your roommate’s life, then according to Kant, you are being immoral by lying and it would have been better in the long run to tell the truth, even if it resulted in the death of the roommate. Besides Kant’s opinion on lying, I believe his theory is adequate enough for applying it to real-life ethical issues. When writing this paper, I did not come across any issues when trying to apply Kant’s categorical imperative. In conclusion, I believe Kant's ethics provides an adequate means for thinking through tough ethical situations.