46 Kantian Ethics (Criticisms)

G. W. F Hegel

German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel presented two main criticisms of Kantian ethics. He first argued that Kantian ethics provides no specific information about what people should do because Kant’s moral law is solely a principle of non-contradiction.[2] He argued that Kant’s ethics lack any content and so cannot constitute a supreme principle of morality. To illustrate this point, Hegel and his followers have presented a number of cases in which the Formula of Universal Law either provides no meaningful answer or gives an obviously wrong answer. Hegel used Kant’s example of being trusted with another man’s money to argue that Kant’s Formula of Universal Law cannot determine whether a social system of property is a morally good thing, because either answer can entail contradictions. He also used the example of helping the poor: if everyone helped the poor, there would be no poor left to help, so beneficence would be impossible if universalised, making it immoral according to Kant’s model.[52] Hegel’s second criticism was that Kant’s ethics forces humans into an internal conflict between reason and desire. For Hegel, it is unnatural for humans to suppress their desire and subordinate it to reason. This means that, by not addressing the tension between self-interest and morality, Kant’s ethics cannot give humans any reason to be moral.[53]

Arthur Schopenhauer

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer criticised Kant’s belief that ethics should concern what ought to be done, insisting that the scope of ethics should be to attempt to explain and interpret what actually happens. Whereas Kant presented an idealised version of what ought to be done in a perfect world, Schopenhaur argued that ethics should instead be practical and arrive at conclusions that could work in the real world, capable of being presented as a solution to the world’s problems.[54] Schopenhauer drew a parallel with aesthetics, arguing that in both cases prescriptive rules are not the most important part of the discipline. Because he believed that virtue cannot be taught—a person is either virtuous or is not—he cast the proper place of morality as restraining and guiding people’s behaviour, rather than presenting unattainable universal laws.[55]

Friedrich Nietzsche

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche criticised all contemporary moral systems, with a special focus on Christian and Kantian ethics. He argued that all modern ethical systems share two problematic characteristics: first, they make a metaphysical claim about the nature of humanity, which must be accepted for the system to have any normative force; and second, the system benefits the interests of certain people, often over those of others. Although Nietzsche’s primary objection is not that metaphysical claims about humanity are untenable (he also objected to ethical theories that do not make such claims), his two main targets—Kantianism and Christianity—do make metaphysical claims, which therefore feature prominently in Nietzsche’s criticism.[56]

Nietzsche rejected fundamental components of Kant’s ethics, particularly his argument that morality, God and immorality can be shown through reason. Nietzsche cast suspicion on the use of moral intuition, which Kant used as the foundation of his morality, arguing that it has no normative force in ethics. He further attempted to undermine key concepts in Kant’s moral psychology, such as the will and pure reason. Like Kant, Nietzsche developed a concept of autonomy; however, he rejected Kant’s idea that valuing our own autonomy requires us to respect the autonomy of others.[57] A naturalist reading of Nietzsche’s moral psychology stands contrary to Kant’s conception of reason and desire. Under the Kantian model, reason is a fundamentally different motive to desire because it has the capacity to stand back from a situation and make an independent decision. Nietzsche conceives of the self as a social structure of all our different drives and motivations; thus, when it seems that our intellect has made a decision against our drives, it is actually just an alternative drive taking dominance over another. This is in direct contrast with Kant’s view of the intellect as opposed to instinct; instead, it is just another instinct. There is thus no self capable of standing back and making a decision; the decision the self makes is simply determined by the strongest drive.[58] Kantian commentators have argued that Nietzsche’s practical philosophy requires the existence of a self capable of standing back in the Kantian sense. For an individual to create values of their own, which is a key idea in Nietzsche’s philosophy, they must be able to conceive of themselves as a unified agent. Even if the agent is influenced by their drives, he must regard them as his own, which undermines Nietzsche’s conception of autonomy.[59]

John Stuart Mill

Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill criticised Kant for not realising that moral laws are justified by a moral intuition based on utilitarian principles (that the greatest good for the greatest number ought to be sought). Mill argued that Kant’s ethics could not explain why certain actions are wrong without appealing to utilitarianism.[60] As basis for morality, Mill believed that his principle of utility has a stronger intuitive grounding than Kant’s reliance on reason, and can better explain why certain actions are right or wrong.[61]

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics is a form of ethical theory which emphasises the character of an agent, rather than specific acts; many of its proponents have criticised Kant’s deontological approach to ethics. Elizabeth Anscombe criticised modern ethical theories, including Kantian ethics, for their obsession with law and obligation. As well as arguing that theories which rely on a universal moral law are too rigid, Anscombe suggested that, because a moral law implies a moral lawgiver, they are irrelevant in modern secular society.[62] In his work After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre criticises Kant’s formulation of universalisability, arguing that various trivial and immoral maxims can pass the test, such as “Keep all your promises throughout your entire life except one”. He further challenges Kant’s formulation of humanity as an ends in itself by arguing that Kant provided no reason to treat others as means: the maxim “Let everyone except me be treated as a means”, though seemingly immoral, can be universalised.[63]Bernard Williams argues that, by abstracting persons from character, Kant misreprents persons and morality and Philippa Foot identified Kant as one of a select group of philosophers responsible for the neglect of virtue by analytic philosophy.[64]

Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has criticised Kantian ethics for its apparent contradiction, arguing that humans being co-legislators of morality contradicts the claim that morality is a priori. If something is universally a priori (i.e., existing unchangingly prior to experience), then it cannot also be in part dependent upon humans, who have not always existed

The theory of the categorical imperative is, moreover, inconsistent. According to it the human will is the highest lawgiving authority, and yet subject to precepts enjoined on it.

— Kevin Knight, Catholic Encyclopedia[65]

Roman Catholic priest Servais Pinckaers criticised the modern desire for ethics to be autonomous and free from the authorities such as the Church, a development he partially attributed to thinkers such as Kant. Pinckaers saw this as potentially threatening to the legitimacy of the Magisterium, but maintained that the link between the gospel and the moral law, and the shortcomings of human reason, leave a place for the moral authority of the Church.[66] Pinckaers regarded Christian ethics as closer to the virtue ethics of Aristotle than Kant’s ethics. He presented virtue ethics as freedom for excellence, which regards freedom as acting in accordance with nature to develop one’s virtues. Initially, this requires following rules—but the intention is that the agent develop virtuously, and regard acting morally as a joy. This is in contrast with freedom of indifference, which Pinckaers attributes to William Ockham and likens to Kant. On this view, freedom is set against nature: free actions are those not determined by passions or emotions. There is no development or progress in an agent’s virtue, merely the forming of habit. This is closer to Kant’s view of ethics, because Kant’s conception of autonomy requires that an agent is not merely guided by their emotions, and is set in contrast with Pinckaer’s conception of Christian ethics.[67]


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