Class essay: Kant v. Singer

    In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant attempts to generally derive morals from reason per se, and to specifically derive actual obligations from the concept of an obligation. In this essay, I will summarize Kant’s attempted derivation, then compare his argument in favor of beneficence with Peter Singer’s.

    Kant defines a categorical imperative (hereafter “CI”) as an imperative which “represent[s] an action as objectively necessary of itself, without reference to another end” (Kant 293). In other words, the CI expresses actions which are basically necessary (i.e. demanded by morality in themselves) rather than instrumentally necessary. Part of Kant’s concern in Groundwork is to escape the problem of a circular definition of morality: if I’m going to judge one moral theory as better than another, I need some criteria for what counts as “better.” Thus, it would appear that the only way to find out what is valuable is to already know what is valuable: I must smuggle value in at the beginning of my reasoning.

Because of this problem, Kant rejects experience-based moral theories. (Ibid 289-295) His strategy is to look for objective value in a priori reason. Specifically, Kant analyzes the concept of an obligation to derive an obligation’s form: “But when I think of a categorical imperative I know at once what it contains…nothing is left with which the maxim of action is to conform but the universality of a law as such.” (Ibid 296) Kant thinks that we can learn something important about the CI from the fact that the CI relates to all rational beings in the same way, regardless of their particular situations, desires, etc. In other words, the CI applies universally (as opposed to particularly). Kant thinks that we can use the CI’s universalizability as a complete definition of the CI. Thus he concludes that “There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” (ibid) In short, Kant deduces from the fact that 1-moral laws, by definition, must be universalizable that 2-only universalizable maxims are moral.

Kant then creates a two-part test for whether some action conforms with the CI: first, I must be able to coherently imagine a world in which all rational beings act as I do; second, my motive for an action must still hold in such a world. The first part of the test concerns perfect duties, which are “strict or narrower (unremitting),” and the second concerns imperfect duties, which are “wide (meritorious).” (ibid)

    In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Singer adopts happiness/suffering as his basis of moral value. He argues that, because this is the only universal moral rule (in the same way that the CI is Kant’s only universal moral rule), there is no basis for distinguishing between obligatory moral action (e.g. not stealing) and supererogatory moral action (e.g. charity). For Singer, I am morally obliged to maximize happiness/minimize suffering without qualification. (Singer 822, 824)

    Singer and Kant agree that persons have non-optional duties to assist other persons in need, though they differ in their rationales for why this is so. They also agree that morality is universal; that is, they agree that someone who is acting morally regards all persons (including herself) interchangeably. (Kant 296; Singer 822) They disagree, however, on the basis of beneficence. Kant argues that what is moral is what is universalizable, and that apathy toward the needs of other persons is not universalizable and therefore not moral. (Kant 297) Singer, on the other hand, simply assumes that “suffering and death from [poverty] are bad” and argues that since I should try to stop what is bad, I have an unqualified responsibility to try to stop poverty. (Singer 822)

    From Kant’s point of view, Singer is unjustified in defining morality in terms of happiness, because any empirical definition of morality is circular (Kant 290) and because happiness is an incoherent concept (whereas morality must be coherent). (ibid 294-295) I suggest that Kant’s own position is vulnerable to the same criticism. His strategy in Groundwork is to derive a person’s actual obligations from the concept of obligation. (See Velleman 16) However, it could be that the concept of obligation with which Kant is working is non-identical to the concept of true obligation (whatever that might be). For instance, Kant’s understanding of what is meant by “obligation” could be historically and culturally contingent. It’s not clear that Kant’s concept of obligation is actually a priori and not hypothetical. What is needed to defend Kant’s position from this objection is an argument for how one may find non-contingent concepts.

    I conclude, therefore, that Singer’s argument is superior to Kant’s, because Singer neither claims nor demands a non-contingent basis for morality–he wears, as it were, his assumptions on his sleeve. Kant, on the other hand, purports to succeed, but actually fails, at finding an objective basis for morality.

    I have shown how Kant purports to derive actual obligations from the concept of obligation. I have also compared Kant’s duty of beneficence to Singer’s, showing how they agree on the form of morality but not its basis. Finally, I have argued that without a supporting argument for the non-contingency of concepts, Kant’s derivation is vulnerable to the same objections he levels against Singer’s position.

Works Cited

    Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.”  Trans. Gregor, Mary. From Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues (4th Ed.). Ed. Cahn, Steven M., and Markie, Peter. New York, Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

    Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” From Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues (4th Ed.). Ed. Cahn, Steven M., and Markie, Peter. New York, Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Velleman, J. David. “A Brief Introduction to Kantian Ethics.” Self to Self. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.


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