Lesson 8: Kant: Absolute Law (Sandel, Chapter 5)

Absolute LawIf the first question in ethics is whether there is justice or right written into all things out there, the second is how do we know what that is. So far Sandel has tried to show utilitarianism, libertarianism, and the free market are helpful as guidelines, but their advocates ultimately rely on other principles and assumptions.

He begins asking what these could be with Emmanuel Kant, who believed we can determine what is right using human reason alone. He thinks an examination of practical reason, that used for making moral decisions, comes up with two categorical imperatives:1) Any ethical act must be able to be applied universally and 2) must always treat persons as ends not means.

These fundamental principles lead to what seem to be absolute, universal natural laws that must be applied in all situations. They seem to be that on which all reasonable persons should be able to agree. We obey them, because they are right, not because they are helpful or useful. We judge an action to be moral by considering its motive and intention, not its consequence or the situation involved. That might mean you never lie, never kill, never steal, never torture, never abort, never use contraceptives. As we see in present public political debates, proponents of such absolute laws often feel any exceptions lead to a slippery slope.

Equality based on always treating persons as ends, not means, is based simply on each person having intrinsic value as an autonomous, rational being capable of freely acting and choosing. That means we should never take advantage of any other person.

Most modern people argue such absolute laws that admit no exceptions hardly address the real life situations in our pluralistic, technological global society. Our world and lives are far too ambiguous. Conflict between the needs of autonomous persons is constant. Who determines what is reasonable in this situation?

These critics point to the political gridlock in our government as an illustration that rigidly adhering to absolute positions leads to stalemate, not the good life. For instance, how do we determine the morality of abortion without taking into consideration the situation, the technology available, and the advantage to either the fetus or the mother. Situation makes a difference. Moral decisions can not avoid slippery slopes. Indeed, making moral decisions is all about managing the slippery slopes on which we continually find ourselves.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge the value of these categorical imperatives as guidelines. Being careful about making exceptions to moral principles and respecting the dignity of all persons certainly would go a long way in overcoming a host of our problems, such sexual relationships, marriage, immigration, race, and gender.

Christians have to ask if there is anything we regard as an absolute law allowing no exceptions. You might argue for the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; observing this goes beyond Kant, because it takes into consideration external factors. Or you might suggest the Great Commandment, “love others as you love yourself”, acknowledging this, too, goes beyond Kant’s respect and duty by bringing in love, compassion and trust. Can you come up with anything else you might regard as an absolute law?

Christians, also, have to question Kant’s refusal to include the relevance of the situation in moral decisions. Jesus certainly takes the situation into consideration when he explains the Great Commandment’s “love” with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Do you believe we can judge anything without taking into consideration the real life situation?

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5 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Anne Crawford says:

    I guess the closest I can come to any absolute law is indeed the Great Commandment (love others as you love yourself) and if that is indeed an absolute law, then you have to consider both the person and the situation in moral decisions. I’ve heard some argue that if you allow situational ethics then you can ultimately justify anything (any behavior, any decision) as being o.k. and then you’re right back at that slippery slope of making exceptions to moral principles. What I think the ‘slippery slope’ argument fails to address is that 1) a decision in one situation doesn’t necessarily mean or lead to the same decision in other situations and 2) if the Great Commandment really is what all other laws or ethics or moral decisions should flow out of, you can’t have an absolute one-size-fits-all moral position. Maybe the only universal natural law out there is: we all sin (mess up).

    And just one final note – I don’t get what it means to treat persons as ends not means in ethical decisions. I can’t seem to noodle that one out. I know you said that it means never taking advantage of any other person, but I’m not quite sure how that fits in the context of moral decisions or absolute laws (unless the point is that if you’re deciding a moral decision or law simply based on its effect on you personally (and not taking into account its effect on anyone else), then “I think you’d better think it out again!” (slight paraphrase of Fagin from Oliver!)

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      No matter what Anne says, she certainly seems to have grasped what Kant means. He would say ethial actions must respect the dignity of every person as a free, autonomous rational being. Christians are trying to say somewhat the same thing when they call for treating every person as a child of God.

      Examples of treating people as means would be a man using a woman as a sex object,, a politician treating a constiuent as simply a vote in his election, or what Marx means when he warns that capitalism regards labor as capital or resource in the manufacturing process that brings him profit. For that matter, it couild be a business person seeing those in their stores simply as customers, an officer veiwing the soldiers under them as cannon fodder, or a teacher acting as if teaching her students was simply a job.

  2. Karen Schmid says:

    I’m thinking about this one, hard. The only thing that comes to my mind immediately that might be an absolutism is that I am not to judge others reasoning for their actions or decisions. Firstly, I can never know completely what place or point of view/experience that person is coming from. Additionally, I don’t believe it is my business to make value judgements or decisions around other people’s ethics or values. However, that being said, I think their are reasons to react to other people’s actions and behaviors that harm me or others.

    Additionally, how can any of us decide today about how someone will need to make a decision or take an action in the future. Life is a very fluid and variable thing. We all are heavily influenced by the effects of what we are constantly experiencing in our lives, on a day to day basis. Environmentally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and culturally, we are ever changing in our experiential contexts that build our decision making processes.

    I am a bio/psycho/social/spiritual being. I am ever changing and growing, or I must be dead. All too often my responses to discussions like this are based on experiential and anecdotal evidence if you will. I think I believe this as good of a basis to use as any, in terms of developing my ethical and values system/standards. I guess another absolutism for me that I am always processing and reviewing what I take in from my life and living. I guess I think you always have to approach everything with as open mind as you possible can, or else you cloud the issues with the noise from your own head. I am guessing that is the stuff that prejudice and basis are made of.

    I’ll get back to this after I have some more time to mull it all over.

  3. Lupe Andrade says:

    I would suggest the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or, the Hippocratic version of the same: DO NO HARM. It appears and exists in many variations, from Greek thinking to Hinduism to Buddhism. I recall a French writer (I can’t remember who!) who said we should be ethical “Not for the love of God, but for the love of humanity”. Aristotle could write of ethics -and become fundamentally important for any later study of the subject- before Christianity.
    Humans who live in communities must necessarily confront the need for principles and evolve (key word) rules of respect for each other. Ethics cannot be an afterthought or an ornament: they are basic to life, and more so as that life changes. THinking people have always sought guidelines; even the ancient principle of retribution, the eye-for-eye that rules still in so many places rests on the fact that certain things are hurtful and therefore wrong. It is true that in a fast-changing world many questions arise without simple answers: families with two mothers and no fathers, or two mothers and three fathers; what about sperm-donor siblings, or what about brain transplants when they become possible – and who will the resulting person be? The ruling principle must be an umbrella: whatever does the least harm (if one can see that far). What a world we’re living in! How much food for thought, and how carefully we must tread…

  4. Bob Nordvall says:

    It is a long time since I studied Kant. My memory is that he felt that reason, properly used, would lead to the same conclusions among all the persons so doing. If we could wipe out all prejudices, cultural factors, results of personal experience, etc from the reasoning process of individuals, then REASON, now acting in its pure, correct form might reach the same conclusions for all of us. Of course, this is simply a theoretical idea that can never be implemented in fact.

    Now we might come up today with close to a complete consensus that certain basic moral precepts are universal. Once we do so, however, we have not advanced as far as it appears. Many people having accepted a moral rule as universal will not come up with the same conclusion about what is the application of this law in a particular situation. So we are back where we started — folks claiming to be on the moral high ground who reach vastly different conclusions.

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