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Analysis of Stealing in Terms of Kant’s Deontological Ethics

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Kant’s Deontological Ethics focuses morality on objective duties rather than the consequences of actions. One cannot ground morality on emotions since each person has a different reason for feeling certain emotions. For example, if what is moral is determined by happiness, then the thief seeks joy by stealing. Instead, Kant’s ethics revolve around maxims and moral rules. Moral rules are universal commands that everyone must follow, such as “do not steal”. Maxims, on the other hand, are subjective rules that people have, such as “I will not steal”. Maxims may or may not coincide with moral rules. For example, a liar has the maxim “I will lie”. Kant further expands his theory by listing two categorical imperatives, which are the universal law formation and humanity as an end formulation. The universal law formulation dictates that one should act as if their maxims should become moral rules. Humanity as an end formulation says that we must always treat other humans as an end and never as a mere means. Saying false promises is an example of treating another as a mere means. Note, however, this does not mean that one cannot use another as a means to an ends, much like a student uses a teacher to obtain their education. The difference between the first and the second example is the presence of consent and the respect of the other’s autonomy.

When applying Kant’s Deontology to common moral scenarios, more often than not, one can get a clear picture of what is right and wrong. For example, it is a fundamental ethical principle that stealing is wrong and helping others is right. Stealing is wrong because it violates Kant’s categorical imperative of never treating other humans as a mere means. Furthermore, stealing would not accord with the universal law of nature either because if theft became a moral rule, then there would be no sense in personal belongings or property. That being said, things that make an action right gives one a reason to do that action, and things that make an action wrong prevents one from performing that action. The categorical imperatives motivates one to keep maxims that accord with universal rules because one should act the way they want others to act towards other people. By respecting others, it keeps a sense of order as it encourages others to respect their peers. In this case, it is different from the golden rule because one is not acting for the interest of their well-being, but in the interest of the universe.

On the other hand, a critique of Kant’s Deontology is its perspective on animals. For Kant, animals are not included in his theory because they are not rational beings. Thus, one does not have duties to animals. This, however, can be problematic since, even putting animals aside, many humans have mental illnesses that put them in a position that is not fully rational. For example, depression or anxiety may warp one’s senses to thinking irrational things. If Kant’s theory applies, Deontology would suggest that one does not have duties for these fellow humans either, but it does not seem morally correct to disregard them or treat them less than someone who has full rationality. One way that Deontology could save themselves from this predicament would be to say that one has a duty to themselves to treat non-rational beings properly, humans and animals alike. Kant’s Deontology gives us two categories of duties perfect duties and imperfect duties. Perfect duties are completed at every moment of our lives, such as not stealing. Imperfect duties cannot be completed at every moment of our lives, such as helping the unfortunate. According to Kant, perfect duties trump imperfect duties. A problem may arise, however, when there are conflicting duties. For example, a person is hiding a victim of a murderer at their house when the murderer shows up asking if the victim is hiding there. In this scenario, the person has an imperfect duty to protect the victim, but also has a perfect duty to not lie. Kant’s Deontology would say to prioritize the perfect duty, which would ultimately cause the victim’s death. That choice, however, does not seem like the moral thing to do.

Works Cited

  1. Kant, Immanuel. “The Good Will and the Categorical Imperative.” The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems. Edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. 4th Ed, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010. pp 107-18.

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