Kantianism, Utilitarianism and Consistency (with a Postscript)

In this paper, I shall argue that Kantianism is consistent throughout Trolley Driver, Bystander at the Switch and Transplant. First, I will explain the three main premises of Kantianism. Secondly, I will apply Kantianism to Trolley Driver, Bystander at the Switch and Transplant and show how Kantianism is consistent throughout each case. In conclusion, I will turn to an objection from Naïve Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism and explain why the former does not refute, nor the latter accommodate, the Kantian’s moral intuitions.

Kantianism is a normative ethical theory which provides criteria for moral evaluation, that is, criteria for what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Kantianism has three main premises. First, in virtue of human beings being ends-in-themselves, they have a value such that it is morally impermissible to use them as ‘things’, that is, ‘means to ends.’ Secondly, morality requires that actions be done from ‘duty’; namely, the source of moral obligation and what makes a person have a good will. Lastly, the Kantian suggests that one should act from the categorical imperative, that is, the maxim that one should act only in such a way that actions be done if and only if or just in case that person would at the same time will that action to be a universal moral law. These three premises are what constitute Kantianism.

Kantianism argues that in Trolley Problem, Bystander at the Switch and Transplant acting in accord with the categorical imperative requires one to act from duty, that is, act in such a way that one treats humans as ends-in-themselves. In Trolley Problem, Bystander at the Switch and Transplant Kantianism suggests that in all cases there is a lack of treating humans as ends-in-themselves and therefore a lack of what morality requires. This is because by turning the trolley to kill the one in the Trolley Problem, choosing to turn the trolley either way in Bystander at the Switch and killing the patient to save the five in the Transplant, the one’s death is being used as a means to an end in saving the five. Kantianism’s solution to this moral dilemma, in all cases, is to refrain from acting altogether. It could be argued, however, that in virtue of the person finding himself with an option to act or refrain from acting in all three moral cases, the person is responsible and morally obligated to act and not remain passive. Kantianism rejects this because refraining to act is consistent with treating a person as an end-in-himself whereas acting requires that one person’s death is used as a means to saving the five. Therefore, by refraining to act, though allowing five to die, one is acting from what morality requires. Further, in the case of Transplant, Kantianism argues that the principle of autonomy, the ability for a human to be in control of her/his actions as a free agent, is compromised as the patient is killed against her/his will. Thus, the Kantian argues that because humans are ends-in-themselves, in Trolley Problem, Bystander at the Switch and Transplant what morality requires is consistent throughout, namely, refraining from acting in any situation.

It could be objected that Naïve Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism can raise doubts to Kantianism as a normative ethical theory. Naïve utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory stating that what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are based on the maximum utility of the consequences of actions, that is, what is most useful in bringing about the greatest good. To begin, Naïve Utilitarianism rejects Kantianism by arguing that the realization of maximum utility in Trolley Problem, Bystander at the Switch and Transplant is through killing the one to save the five since it is more useful for the greatest good, namely, five people continuing to exist rather than one. Rule Utilitarianism, a view according to which ‘rules’ can be made insofar as they are conducive to the greatest good, also objects to Kantianism by arguing that the moral intuition that killing the one in each case is bad can be accommodated by making it a rule that killing the one in each case is bad if and only if or just in case it is conducive to the greatest good. In response to Naïve Utilitarianism, Kantianism would argue that Naïve Utilitarianism is analytically false under the assumption that humans are ends-in-themselves. By ‘analytically false’, I mean that Kantianism could argue that it is true by definition that the rule utilitarian is inconsistent with what morality requires as humans cannot be used as means to ends, regardless of the useful consequences. Regarding Rule Utilitarianism, Kantianism points out that refraining from acting, as duty requires, sometimes does not produce maximum utility. Suppose that Trolley Problem is modified so as to include one person on one side of the track and a million people on the other; the Rule Utilitarian must, on pain of irrationality, deny that it is conducive to maximum utility to choose to turn the track on to the one. Therefore, Naïve Utilitarianism does not falsify Kantianism and Rule Utilitarianism does not accommodate the consistent moral intuitions of Kantianism.

In this paper I hope I have shown that Kantianism is a consistent normative ethical theory throughout the Trolley Problem, Bystander at the Switch and Transplant.

After handing this paper in (which is my second philosophy paper ever written in university graded at 88%), I received a comment on the paper along the following lines: The philosophical anthropology which Kant takes as axiomatic makes my interpretation of Kant’s perspective on the trolley problem (and so forth) analytically true. To this, I had realized the importance of axioms in ethical discourse. My intuitions suggest that it is not the views one holds that are most contestable, but the axioms we hold first. To make this clear, consider a person who says ‘rape is not morally wrong.’ To a human being under normal conditions, this sentence is absurd; indeed it is morally reprehensible that (i) the person in question holds that view and that (ii) that it is a view in the first place. But, notice how there exists an implicit philosophical anthropology serving as a necessary and sufficient condition for the truth of the view. For the person who holds that view, they might affirm a logically prior proposition which allows their view to go through i.e., moral nihilism. They might affirm that persons are no more than mereological sums which, taken in total, amount to no more than conglomerations of matter operating deterministically via. pure neurophysiological states. As is clear, the presupposed view i.e., moral nihilism, is the problem here—not the view in question. For once the presupposition is given up (say, because there has been presented some defeater), so does the proposition ‘rape is not morally wrong.’ Thus, by attacking the foundations of the view, the view itself dissolves as well. Now, what has been noted to me (by another friend of mine) is the following: One can hold a view consistently without adopting the same axioms. For instance, a Daoist and Christian can both affirm the value of human life even though the source of their justification is different. This would show that axioms are not that important. To this, I suggest that in the realm of ethics, the axiom which one adopts must be consistent with a particular proposition they wish to provide a foundation for and true. (Here, I am explicitly rejecting the epistemology of pragmatism: even if beliefs/propositions are useful (because i.e., they are consistent) that is not enough for (i) knowledge and (ii) truth). For instance, if one asserts ‘murder is wrong’, the foundational premise cannot be ‘human beings are worthless by-products of biological evolution operating on blind natural forces deterministically and to no teleological end.’ But, if one asserts that the proposition to found ‘murder is wrong’ is that ‘God created human persons with an incommensurable value’, then the proposition in question is grounded. So, in ethics, I think that there cannot be many true axioms which serve to found particular moral truths. These thoughts were borne out of (i) writing this paper and (ii) the comment which was provided on it.


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