Kant and Applied Ethics: The Uses and Limits of Kant's Practical Philosophy

By Matthew C. Altman | Go to book overview

Part II
Kantian Arguments against
Kant’s Conclusions

The first four chapters have shown that Kant’s practical philosophy has important contributions to make to bioethics and environmental ethics. With its emphasis on the value of moral agency, Kantian ethics justifies a deep concern for public health, emphasizes the importance of patient autonomy in medical decisions, and enjoins us to develop a moral regard for animals and for nature. Kant stakes out positions that are consistent with our moral intuitions and, when they challenge those intuitions, he provides compelling reasons to revise our views – namely, by appealing to the dignity and worth of persons.

Surprisingly, in some cases Kant’s insights regarding the value of humanity and our duties to others challenge even his own avowed positions. Our critical appraisal of Kant’s philosophy begins in chapter 5, with an examination of his justification for capital punishment. Kant’s support for the death penalty was not atypical at the time, and retributivist arguments like Kant’s are still used to defend it. Nevertheless, I argue that we cannot be obligated by the law of retribution in capital cases because of the possibility of wrongful convictions. If we faithfully apply Kant’s categorical imperative, we cannot commit ourselves to a system in which we may be put to death despite our actual innocence.

In chapter 6, I turn to the same-sex marriage debate. Kant strongly condemned homosexuality, claiming that it was unnatural, degrading, and dehumanizing (LE 391). However, Kant’s condemnation of homosexuality does not stand up to scrutiny, nor is it consistent with Kant’s own moral views. In fact, once we fully understand Kant’s conception of the law and the function of marriage as a legal institution, it becomes clear that we ought to support same-sex marriage based entirely on Kantian principles. As we will see, Kant’s moral philosophy is much more progressive than Kant himself seems to have been.

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