Is Kantian Ethics Too Demanding?

Posted on Posted in Ethics, Kantian Ethics, Utilitarianism

There is a common belief that Kantian ethics is too demanding, too austere, and too harsh, but this is simply not true.

Others have certainly noted this but I think it is worth repeating, especially considering that the primary alternative to Kantian ethics is utilitarianism which actually is too demanding.

The basic moral command of Kantian ethics is to not use other persons as a means to one’s ends (Kant’s Formula of Humanity), which extrapolates out into the idea that we must pursue our ends in such a way that is consistent with other persons pursuing their ends (Kant’s Realm of End Formula). It is worth noting that both formula are merely a restriction on the kinds of things we can do, they are not an injunction to act in any particular way. Unlike utilitarianism which says that any action that does’t maximize happiness is the wrong action. Utilitarianism is the theory that commands us to forgo all personal pursuits and all pleasures in an attempt to maximize overall utility, at least on one reading.

There is nothing equivalent in Kantian ethics. There is a duty of beneficence, to do good things for other people, but this is an imperfect duty which means that it is not something that ones needs to always do, unlike perfect duties which must always be performed. Although we must pursue our ends in consideration of others ends we are still able to pursue our ends, whereas it doesn’t really look like the utilitarian is ever free to pursue their ends for their primary moral obligation is to strive maximize happiness in all situations.

So, despite its reputation Kantian ethics is much less demanding than utilitarianism. It is not even in the same ball park. They are not even on the same spectrum. Built into Kantian ethics is the idea that all persons are free to pursue their own ends as long as they do so in a way that respects other persons. This basic idea is missing from utilitarianism, which is just another reason to think that utilitarianism is fundamentally the wrong way to think about thinks.



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