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The Practicality of Ethical Principles: Duty Before Fear
In this paper I will demonstrate how Immanuel Kant’s ethical principles presented in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (henceforth GMM) provide a more appropriate choice to resolve ethical dilemmas than the ethical principles presented by Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan (henceforth Lev.). I believe that fear is not the only, nor the most effective way to advocate the use of morality and that there is sufficient supporting information to prove this belief. First, I will explain Hobbes’ and Kant’s ethical principles presented in their respected works, detailing their views on human nature and how it affects the actions and moralities of individuals. Second, I will present my argument for Kant’s theories being the more applicable choice to resolve ethical dilemmas, including exploring the theoretical applications of both Kant’s and Hobbes’ ethical principles to thought experiments. Next, I will provide objections to my beliefs, as well as Kant’s theories, generated from the ideas put forth in the Lev. as well as the GMM. Finally, I will respond with counterarguments to the specified objections in order to conclude that Kant’s theory of ethical principles is more applicable to ethical dilemmas than Hobbes’ theory of ethical principles.
In the Lev., Hobbes describes humans as beings who possess a “perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (Hobbes, 1.11). Humans, according to Hobbes, are constantly motivated by the acquisition of power, to the extent that some would even risk their lives to procure such power. These strived for powers can range from innate abilities such as strength, speed, and endurance to learned abilities such as resources and allies. Hobbes explains that due to this motivation, the natural state of humans is to be in a continuous state of war, for if two beings wished to possess the same resource they would attempt to overcome each other for that resource (Hobbes 1.13). This state of nature would exist continuously without the creation and enforcement of laws, for justice and injustice are not innately conceived within the body or the mind (Hobbes 1.13).
In order that humans may avoid the state of nature, Hobbes’ proposes three laws of nature: strive for peace and continue in peaceful directions, be willing to lay down your right to all things, and keep the covenants you agree to (Hobbes 1.14-1.15). These laws are designed to allow humans to avoid actions that could lead to their own destruction, through the consensus of all men to abide by these devised natural laws. Hobbes believed that each person has the right to all things, but in order to enjoy these things one needs to survive, and this survival could not be guaranteed unless the state of nature was avoided through the accordance of these three laws as well as a law enforcing coercive power, which he describes as the Commonwealth (Hobbes 1.13-1.15).
In the GMM, Kant describes humans as rational beings that possess a will, i.e. that humans possess the ability to act in accordance with principles and laws (Kant). The will, according to Kant, is “nothing but practical reason” (Kant), meaning that one’s will can possess the ability to use reason, in a manner in which it is free from inclination, in order to arrive at a choice which is objectively necessary and therefore good (Kant). Kant explains that although the will can allow humans to recognize what we ought to do, i.e. what is objectively necessary or good, the will of humans is also influenced by subjective surroundings, and therefore acting according to the “good will” is not necessarily required (Kant).
Kant’s main ethical principle, the Categorical Imperative (henceforth CI), addresses the reality that human will does not necessarily require one to act according to the objectively necessary good. The CI states, “act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will it should become a universal law” (Kant). The CI is an obligation of all humans to act only in a way in which one would wish all others to act in the same way. Kant describes the CI as an apriori, synthetical, practical proposition, meaning that it is a judgment made before an experience, which aims to produce action (Kant). The CI is not just a law; it is an imperative, calling people to act.
I believe that Kant’s CI is a more applicable ethical principle to resolve ethical dilemma’s than the natural laws proposed by Hobbes. Kant’s CI rests on the concept of obligation, the idea that humans have a duty to abide by the CI and act accordingly, and can accomplish compliance to this obligation through the acquisition of a good will (Kant). Hobbes’ laws of nature, contrarily, explain a human nature that dictates a need of an overarching coercive power in order to enforce morality and law accordance. Kant’s CI is universal and dictates that all humans be treated as ends rather than means and therefore is superior to Hobbes’ natural laws which require coercion to be followed and allow for authority to be the sole creator for the definition of justice.
Kant’s CI is more applicable to resolve ethical dilemmas because it is a singular, universal moral principle that calls for humans to be treated as ends rather than means. Any person can exact his or her will to abide by the CI, that is to say that anyone can use the CI to determine if one’s actions are morally sound. The CI can also be applied to any ethical dilemma one is facing, whether it is something as simple as whether or not one should lie to a friend, or big ethical debates such as abortion. Kant’s principle also calls for human beings to be treated as ends and not as means. Kant explains, “humanity and generally every rational nature is an end in itself” (Kant). That is to say that humans must not be used as a method to achieve a goal, but rather they must be the goal themselves.
In the Lev., Hobbes dictates a need for a coercive power to enforce the laws of nature through the provision of a punishment that is far worse than the benefit one could believe would come from violation of the laws (Hobbes 1.15). In other words, people need to fear the punishment of breaking the laws more than they want the benefit of breaking the laws. Hobbes believes that through the use of fear, all would comply with the laws. Fear, however, cannot be counted as a reliable motivator for all humans. Take for instance a missionary abroad, whose life is threatened unless he renounces his religion. He refuses, and is murdered. The fear of death is not enough to sway him from what he truly believes in. There are countless real life stories such as this, of people who willingly lay down their lives for their faith. If the ultimate punishment of death is not enough to motivate such people into action, how is a coercive power to develop a punishment that all people would fear absolutely?
Hobbes’ idea of justice is “the constant will of giving to every man his own” (Hobbes 1.15). Since Hobbes also believes that all humans have a right to all things, one must refer to his second law of nature which requires men to give up their right to all things and to be contented with the freedoms they possess. This would mean that justice would come form the coercive power, which allows for recognized ownership, and that there would be no injustice without such a power (Hobbes 1.15).
Justice and injustice are not concepts that exist solely because of a coercive power. Imagine for a moment, a southern plantation owner from Pre-Civil War Era America. According to the “coercive power” of that time period, he was entitled to do what he wished with his slaves, for he owned them. However, President Obama, America’s current “coercive power”, would say that the plantation owner had no right to own another human being. Two coercive powers of the same place but within different time periods have two entirely different ideas of justice. Furthermore, regardless of what any coercive power says today, most people would agree that slavery is inherently wrong. It is unjust, with or without the existence of a coercive power. Justice cannot be an ambiguous term that is defined only by the coercive power, for then with the change of coercive powers, so too would justice change, and there are certain things that are inherently just or unjust irrespective to the beliefs of the coercive power.
However, some may argue that if the state of nature were to come about, Hobbes’ description of human nature would be observed. That is to say that if we were to assume for a moment that an event, perhaps a zombie apocalypse, sent the world into a state of nature, how would people act? Many would argue that the human nature that Hobbes’ describes in the Lev. would be the most commonly observed, with people risking all to acquire resources such as food, weapons, and allies. Who in this desperate time would feel the need to reflect upon his or her actions in order to decide if he or she wanted said action to become a universal law? Some may argue that in such a situation humans would regress to their most primal instincts and the acquisition of power for survival would outweigh all other ethical obligations.
Furthermore, some may argue that there are some duties that conflict with the universality that is a key part to Kant’s CI. One such conflicting obligation is the duty to self-love that justifies suicide. If one is so depressed and miserable, one could argue that one has the duty out of self-love to take one’s own life due to the notion that living longer will bring about more suffering rather than contentment (Kant). However, one must ask how one can make suicide a universal law. A second opposing obligation is that of lying for one’s own advantage justified by the duty of self-love. One may argue that if one should need something, one has the responsibility out of self-love to borrow the needed resource from another with assured promises of a definitive time of reciprocation, even when one knows such reciprocation is not possible (Kant). One must again ask if such a condition would be good as a universal law.
In response to Hobbes’ proposed state of nature, Kant’s CI would be extremely beneficial in such a state and would likely keep such a state from occurring. Imagine that there were to be a zombie apocalypse, in which the last remaining group of humans was locked in a camp surrounded on all sides by zombies. Hobbes would argue that in such a state it would be every man for himself in a competition to the death for resources. However, if all individuals within the camp were to abide by Kant’s CI and ethical principles, the scene would play out quite differently. First, each individual would need to respect all other’s dignity as rational beings and therefore as ends and not means. Then for each action one performed, one would have to ask oneself if he or she wished for that action to become a universal law. A state of war could easily be avoided, for none would wish war to become a universal law. Furthermore, a state of pooled resources and synergy could be attained, for one could reasonably assume all would wish for others to help them and therefore for such actions to be a universal law.
As for the exceptions to Kant’s CI, Kant put’s forth the following replies. Kant explains that a man considering suicide to be an act justified through self-love is a contradiction of logic, for the nature of human life is to improve life, and therefore to end one’s life would contradict the nature of human life (Kant). To say that suicide is a form of self-love is simply an error in logic, and therefore could not be considered as a universal law. As for borrowing something one cannot repay and lying about it, Kant explains that such an act made into a universal law would end in a world with no trust, and therefore was an undesirable universal application (Kant). One would not wish to live in a world where men did not live up to their promises, therefore one should live up to one’s own promises for that is what one would wish to be a universal law.
The ethical principles presented by Kant in the GMM are more applicable to ethical dilemmas than the ethical principles presented in the Lev. by Thomas Hobbes. I have provided examples of how fear is not the only, nor the most effective way to advocate the use of morality and have given adequate responses to the counterarguments for my proposed reasons. Therefore, I conclude that in regards to applicability, Kant’s CI is far more useful then the laws of nature put forth by Hobbes.
Hobbes, Thomas. “The Leviathan.” Oregon State University. Oregon State University, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Kant, Immanuel. “Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785).” Justice With Michael Sandel. Harvard University, 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
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