Kantian ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

2. Contemporary Kantian ethics

Much contemporary work on ethics is labelled Kantian, in the main because it does not derive an account of right action from one of good results, but rather sees the right as prior to the good (Right and good). In contemporary Kantian work obligations and rights are the fundamental ethical notions. Such work is often called deontological ethics (the term derives from the Greek word for ought) (see Deontological ethics). Deontological ethical theories are contrasted with teleological or consequentialist theories, which treat the good as prior to the right. Deontological theories are concerned with ethically required action, hence with principles, rules or norms, with obligations, prohibitions and permissions, and with justice and injustice, but not with virtues, good lives, moral ideals and personal relationships (see Fried 1978; Gewirth 1978).

Deontological ethics has many distinct forms. Many versions endorse one or another interpretation of the Kantian demand to respect persons, and think that moral principles should be universal; few mention Kant’s minimalist strategy for justifying certain universally binding principles as those we must live by if we reject non-universalizable principles. Indeed, many deontological ethical theories rely on conceptions of freedom, reason and action which are unlike Kant’s, and resemble those typically used by consequentialists.

One prominent range of deontological positions seeks to justify principles of justice by showing that they would be agreed to by all concerned under certain hypothetical conditions. They draw on the thought that agreements and contracts are good reasons for action, and suggest that all ethical claims are to be justified by showing that they are based if not on actual then on hypothetical agreements or contracts. These sorts of deontological theories are often called contractarian or contractualist; they are contemporary versions of social contract theories (see Contractarianism).

Some contractualists take a Hobbesian rather than a Kantian approach. They argue that principles of justice are those on which instrumentally rational persons, guided by their individual preferences, would agree (see Hobbes, T. §§6–7). Other contractualists take a more Kantian approach. They argue that principles of justice are those which would be accepted or agreed to by persons who are not merely instrumentally rational but can use certain reasonable procedures.

The best known exponent of Kantian contractualism is John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice (1971) identifies principles of justice as those that would be agreed by rational and self interested beings in circumstances which ensure that their choosing will be reasonable as well as rational (see Rawls 1980, 1993). He argues that principles of justice would emerge if they were chosen by all concerned in a hypothetical situation devised to ensure impartiality and hence agreement. Rawls calls this hypothetical situation ‘the original position’, and represents it as one in which persons are ignorant of their own social position and personal attributes, hence of their own advantage, hence cannot but be impartial.

Rawls claims that rational persons in this hypothetical situation would choose principles of justice that prescribe equal rights for all and the highest attainable level of wellbeing for the worst off. Since everything that differentiates individuals, and could thus provide a basis for disagreement, for bargaining, or for a need to seek agreement, is carefully excluded from the original position, it is not obvious why principles chosen in it should be thought of as matters of agreement, or why the parties to the original position should be thought of as contracting with one another. Nor is it clear why the fact that certain principles would be agreed to under these conditions justifies those principles to those in other situations. Why are principles which would be agreed to under conditions that do not obtain binding under conditions that actually obtain?

In A Theory of Justice Rawls argues that principles that would be so agreed are binding in other situations because they cohere, or form a ‘reflective equilibrium’ with ‘our considered judgments’ (see Moral justification §2). Principles are justified not merely because the instrumental reasoning of the hypothetically ignorant would select them, but because we would reasonably judge them congruent with our most carefully considered moral views. In his later Political Liberalism (1993) Rawls depicts these principles as the outcome not of hypothetical agreement in an original position, but as the hypothetical agreement of persons who are not only rational but reasonable, in the sense that they are willing to abide by principles given assurance that others will do so too (1993: 49). Principles and institutions are just if they are the focus of reasonable agreement by all concerned.

Jürgen Habermas has also advocated versions of Kantian ethics which stress agreement between agents. In earlier work he argued that the test of justification or legitimation is that a proposal would be agreed in a hypothetical ‘ideal speech situation’, in which communication was undistorted. In more recent work (1993), he has argued that legitimation of norms is achieved through processes of public discourse, to which each can contribute and in which all can agree.

Citing this article:
O'Neill, Onora. Contemporary Kantian ethics. Kantian ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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