Kantian Deontology

Simply: if we knew that everyone would lie when convenient (the result of universalizing the maxim of our action), then we would never know when someone was telling us the truth. But a world in which we, by default, cannot trust one another to make promises in good faith – that is, to tell the truth when we promise one another, for example, to repay a loan – would be a world in which promises thus lose their meaning. Specifically, in this case, attempting to lie in order to acquire a loan I have no intention of repaying becomes self-contradictory: if everyone does it – that is, allows himself or herself to perform the same act (the result of universalizing the maxim at work here), then no one would accept my promise at the outset. But if I cannot universalize lying in this way – that is, make it a universal law acceptable for everyone – then for Kant it is wrong, even when it seems convenient or important. Again, it is always wrong, no matter what the consequences.

In our case, a Kantian analysis would ask the question: what sort of social/moral order would result if everyone were to break a promise whenever doing so would result in at least more immediate, short- term pleasure? Again, the result would be that we would never be able to trust anyone’s promise – which would make promise-making self- contradictory and meaningless. Hence, breaking a promise is always wrong – no matter what the consequences.

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Finally, Kantian deontology undergirds the widely shared belief that there are ethical absolutes such as human rights. The discussion and literature on rights is largely modern: so Thomas Jefferson, inspired by John Locke, insisted in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. The belief in human rights inspired the American and French revolutions – and, subsequently, many of the political transformations that define modern Western states. Most basically, if human beings are free (in Kant’s language, autonomies), we must be recognized as equal and deserving of respect – that is, not slaves, not “just meat.” Early Western and then more global struggles for establishing and expanding emancipation and equality, including nineteenth-century abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements, turned centrally on these conceptions and arguments.

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