Kantian Philosophy sets out difficult and uncompromising rules for how to understand how an decision should be carried out and what the correct action would be to take in any given ethical situation. This paper will explore the difficulties and complications of Kantian ethics by paying attention the example scenario of a life boat in which people of various characters and possessing various possible advantages must be chosen to be taken onboard while others must be left to die.
The most important aspect of Kantian ethics is Kant’s focus on duty and on duty’s relationship to reason. According to Kant the only possible way of determining whether not an action is ethically sound is whether or not it accords with fixed ideas of duty. Kant writes in the beginning of the ‘Ground Work to the Metaphysics of Morals’ that the only conceivable thing which is entirely good the idea of the good will: ‘It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will’ (1996 p 49). This will is inherently connected to the idea of a reason. For Kant human beings are incapable of achieving ethical perfection, however they must still strive to do so. The only way to do this is by ensuring that humans follow precepts of duty which are derived from reason. These precepts are orientated towards physical action, although they must derived from reason alone.
This apparent paradox is qualified with the statement that ; ‘A practical rule is always a product of reason because it prescribes action as a means to an effect, which is its purpose’ (1996 p 154). As a result of this connection to reason combined with the essential practical inadequacy of human action, any feelings which could possibly influence an ethical decision, such as gratitude, a desire for personal gain or even the feeling of well-being which may result from ‘doing the right thing’ should be excluded from the nature of an ethical decision. The adherence to duty is the only way of determining whether or not a behaviour can be deemed to be ethical. The rules of duty can be determined via a reasoned deduction of rules for behaviour. These rules are termed ‘categorical imperatives’ and there reasoned nature is determined by two necessary elements.
The first of these is the fact that the rule must be universalizable according to will, meaning that it must lead to a state of affairs which are reasonable and well-thinking people would wish to live in (1998 p 85). The second requirement is that all categorical imperatives must be universalizable according to reason, i.e. they must contain no logical contradiction. For example, the rule do not murder can become a categorical imperative as all right-thinking people would wish to live in a world in which nobody murdered anyone and there is no logical contradiction in this demand. However, a rule to always allow a person to walk through a door before oneself could never become such an imperative as it would lead to a contradiction in which no one walked through a door. It is this combination of a focus on duty at the expense of all other motivations and the rigid criteria of the categorical imperative that inform how Kantian ethics can be used to make an ethical decision.
With regard to the situation described, I would save the neo-nazi, the Somalian Pirate, the prostitute from Haiti and the Canadian Doctor. The reasons why I would do this can be referred to a strict Kantian reasoning, however it is important to foreground the fact that such a decision involves a necessary contradiction. It is possible to conceive that there would be a categorical imperative which would state that one must never leave anyone to die when on had to the power not to. Were this to be applied strictly, it would lead to a situation in which each person on the boat and in the water would die as there is no possible way of ensuring everyone’s survival. However, once this contradiction has been necessarily broken, then it is possible to apply a Kantian ethical stance to the situation. The most important part of this stance would be that one may never make an ethical decision based on anything other than a sense of duty. While it is clear that both the pirate and the neo-nazi are not desirable people and that one I likely to feel a crushing sense of guilt by saving them instead of others, this sense of guilt cannot be allowed to inform the decision itself.
What must be included in this the decision is the sense of duty which one posses. The only legible sense of duty in this situation is that which one has towards all of the people in the lifeboat and to all of the people who are in the water. The situation described is extremely severe and it is unlikely that people will find help soon, as it is unlikely that the boat will able to reach any meaningful land. As such, it is necessary to take whatever measures are available in order to keep the people on board alive for as long as possible. The correct ethical action in this situation would therefore be purely pragmatic and would involve allowing the people onto the life boat who have the best chance of ensuring the survival of all on board, regardless of their character or how one will feel in their company.
For this reason, then it is possible to make the choice on who should be allowed into the boat calculating who would offer those within it, and themselves, the best chance of survival. This means leaving several people who would clearly ‘deserve’ to be saved out. For example, the young boy with disabilities is kind and happy and in a just world he would be able to live, however he is likely to demand a large amount of attention from the people on board the boat and would arguably offer nothing material which would increase their chance of survival. It would be useless for him to be taken on board only to die of starvation later. Likewise, although the death of the housewife from Ghana would certainly be sad, and one could argue that one has a duty to protect her and her children, this duty is purely speculative and cannot be allowed to override the immanent duty to protect people the people on the boat. Finally, neither the pharmaceutical student nor the kindergarten teacher, although they may both be exemplary people, can be said to offer anything which would help the situation. Were one to choose based on personal preference then it is likely that one would take the most obviously virtuous individuals, however this choice would necessarily be incorrect both according to the interests of the people on the boat and according to the ethical system which precludes a consideration of personal feelings when determining an ethical decision.
For the above reasons I would first save the neo nazi who has food which can be used to keep both himself and people in the life boat alive until they are able to be rescued. One has every reason to believe that he will go through with his threat to throw it overboard and therefore one should rescue him for the sake of others. I would also save the Somalian pirate who is able to navigate the boat and will therefore be able to greatly heighten the chances of survival for all those who are on board by heading towards land and increasing the chances of finding help. I would also save the doctor who, although they have a drug addiction and are very nervous, is likely to be able to provide medical care. Finally I would save the Hatian prostitute who is likely to be able to provide any nursing which people need if they are injured or fall ill. If one is to understand duty as the only ethically viable motivation for an action then I believe that this is only combination of people who may be chosen to be on board.
In conclusion, this paper has discussed a scenario which requires the rigid application of Kantian ethics. By doing this it has shown a curious contradiction in such ethics. While, ostensibly it demands complete adherence to reason and duty, when applied in a certain situation the results are made to be completely pragmatic and apparently consequentionalist. It is this contradiction between reason and practical need which makes Kantian ethics at once both a vitally important and a very difficult system through which to make an ethical decision.