Kant and Utilitarianism Ethics

  1. For the purpose of this paper you are going to consider what Kant would argue regarding the ends justifying the means.  For example, yes the cells were used without permission and there was no financial compensation but hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved by the vaccines created for polio and treatments created for cancer.
  2. Keep your opinion out of this and make sure you are referring back to what you know of Kant. The objective of this assignment is to see what you know about Kant and to help you to summarize and maintain charitability to other people’s arguments.
  3. Make sure you are using the two formulations of the categorical imperative to help you decide what Kant would argue.
  4. You do not need any additional outside sources and I do not recommend using them.
  5. This should be no longer than 2 pages double spaced.



If lying to your gran brings about the best consequences — i.e. she is happy, you are happy, and she continues to knit which makes her happy etc., then it is morally acceptable to lie. Notice, however, that the consequentialist would say that we ought to lie; not just that it is acceptable to lie but that we have a moral obligation to lie.

Of course, the utilitarian should try and think harder about the possible consequences and outcomes in order to try and prevent some new problems arising. Consider the sheriff example; it could be that the real criminal confesses resulting in worse consequences than if the truth had been told at the outset. Now, not only will there be riots but there will also be no trust in the law enforcement. So, in fact, lying would bring about worse consequences, which means it would be wrong to lie.

Or consider the gran example. If your brother tells his gran that you lied, then we can imagine that this might mean she would not be able ever to trust her grandchildren again, may give up knitting, and thus make her unhappier than if she had originally been told the truth about the jumper.

However, because no action is right or wrong qua action in Utilitarianism, it follows that the action of lying is neither wrong nor right. So to the question “does the utilitarian think that lying is wrong?” the answer is “it just depends”.

So rather than first defining good and then defining the right and wrong actions they first define right and wrong. How they might do this will depend on what type of deontologist they are. The Kantians ground the rightness and wrongness on reason. In particular, we introduced one version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. We can show, using this, that Kant — and in fact all deontologists — think that the action of lying is wrong in all cases. Even if the consequence is saving a billion people, your own mother or an orphanage of children.

It is worth noting that in the other Kantian formula that we introduced, lying also comes out as wrong. Kant said that we should always treat others as an end in themselves, and never solely as a means to an end. We can see that this makes lying wrong. For if we lie to someone then we are not treating them as an end in themselves but are controlling what they can do by taking certain decisions out of their hands; we are basically saying we should be allowed to deceive them for our own ends. We are not treating them as rational agents and for the Kantian this is always morally wrong.

This might seem counterintuitive, and it is. However, it is perhaps less so if we revisit our definition of lying. Go back to the soldier case. Imagine she is being tortured for military codes. It seems that one way to stop the consequence that hundreds of thousands of people die would be simply to say nothing. And, given our definition, saying nothing would not be lying. So the Kantian may not be committed to the implausible conclusion that she has to reveal the secrets. Keeping silent is not the same as lying.

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that there are different ways of telling the truth! Saying to your gran: “I really appreciate all the work you’ve put in to my jumper, and my friend thinks it is an amazing jumper, but it really is not my style, I’m really sorry”, seem less objectionable than “No, I do not like it”.

So there are — maybe — ways of making Kant’s theory less objectionable when considering lying by thinking harder about what it actually means to lie. Even so, it seems undeniable that there are some cases where we think it is morally acceptable to lie but for the Kantian there are no such cases.

Notice that it is not just the Kantian that would say this. Other deontological theories would as well. For example, the Divine Command Theory, the theory that says that actions are right or wrong depending on whether God commands or prohibits them. If God says lying is wrong — and at least in the main monotheistic religions He does — then it is, full stop. Or consider the Catholic theologian Aquinas.


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