Kantian ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

3. Criticisms of Kantian ethics

Both Kant’s ethics and contemporary Kantian ethics have been criticized from many quarters. The critics evidently include those who advocate one or another form of teleological or consequentialist theory, who believe that it is possible to establish an account of the good, from which a convincing account of the right, and specifically of justice, can be derived. However, they also include a variety of writers who reject consequentialist thinking, including communitarians, virtue ethicists, Wittgensteinians and feminist thinkers (see Community and communitarianism;Virtue ethics;Wittgensteinian ethics;Feminist ethics).

The most common and general criticisms are that, because it concentrates on principles or rules, Kantian ethics is doomed to be either empty and formalistic, or alternatively rigidly uniform in its prescriptions (these complaints cannot both hold). The charge of empty formalism is based on the correct observation that principles underdetermine action; it is usually countered with the equally correct observation that quite indeterminate principles (such as ‘Stay within the budget’ or ‘All religions are to be tolerated’) may set significant constraints on action, so are not empty. The charge of rigidly uniform prescriptivity is based on the thought that rules prescribe, so must regiment. It is usually countered by the reminder that since rules can be indeterminate, they need not regiment: universal principles need not be uniformly prescriptive. An ethical theory that applies to principles can be more than empty and less than rigid.

Other critics object that since Kantian ethics focuses on obligations and rights, and in good measure on justice, it either must or does neglect other ethical categories, and in particular the virtues, good character or good lives; that ‘natural and human rights... are fictions’ (MacIntyre 1981: 67); and that obligations inevitably conflict in ways that render all deontological ethics incoherent. Some critics have laid particular stress on the point that in requiring impartial respect for all, Kantian ethics wholly ignores the place of happiness, of the emotions, of personal integrity and above all of personal relationships in the good life (see Morality and emotions §§2, 4). They have claimed that we must choose between an ethics of justice and one of care, an ethic of rules and one of relationships, an ethic of duty and one of virtue, and that the latter term of each pair is to be preferred. Kant himself would probably deny each of these claims.

Citing this article:
O'Neill, Onora and Jens Timmermann. Criticisms of Kantian ethics. Kantian ethics, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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