How to Teach Kantian Ethics

Posted on Posted in Kantian Ethics, Normative Ethics, teaching philosophy

The standard triumvirate of virtue ethics, utilitarianism (consequentialism), and Kantian ethics (deontology) is utterly confusing to students, and of the three Kantian ethics is the most confusing.

I teach three theories in the normative ethics portions of my ethics courses: utilitarianism, (hobbes), contractualism (Kant and Rawls). Kant as a contractualist is far from some sort of radical idea. Rawls himself talked about Kant this way back in the day. Allen Wood understands Kant this way (there are probably many more Kant scholars that do as well I’m just that aware of them).

Every time I look through ethics textbooks and see the classic way Kantian ethics is explained I just cringe because I know students can’t make heads or tails of it.

So, how do you teach Kant as a contractualist? It actually couldn’t be simpler. Just teach the second (and third if you like) formulas and ignore the first formula, ignore all of Kant’s argumentation regarding how ethical principles must hold categorically and how he thinks he can deduce such categorical principles, ignore Kant on lying, and all the silly objections to Kantian ethics that most textbooks focus on. So to recap take the best parts of his theory, which also happen to be the easiest and just present those. Onora O’neil has a nice introductory piece on Kantian ethics that takes this approach. You can see here: A Simplified Account of Kant by Onora O’neil. I find it also helps to teach Rawls with KE to give another more modern voice to the tradition and I think any opportunity to introduce students to Rawls should definitely be taken. Rawls’ veil of ignorance really helps to illustrate concretely what Kant has in mind by a realm of ends.

There are actually two elements to helping students make sense of normative ethics. The first is teaching Kantian ethics as a contractualist theory and the second has to do with how you teach utilitarianism. That will be for another post.

Keep on the lookout for my short introductory textbook on normative ethics that will hopefully be published in the relatively near future. Here is a draft of the normative ethics portion of the textbook I’m working on.

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