Ethical Theory: Kantianism

Kantianism is a key version of the broader ethical perspective known as deontology. According to deontology, there are certain absolute (or nearly absolute) ethical rules that must be followed (for example, the rule that we must respect people’s privacy, and the rule that says we must respect other people’s right to make decisions about their own lives). This implies that certain actions (perhaps including lying, and killing people) are absolutely prohibited.

In the modern day, deontology manifests itself in a focus on human rights—roughly, the idea that there are certain things that must never be done to human beings, as such. Such rights are typically thought of as being universal, applying to all persons everywhere, regardless of the political or legal system under which they live.

The details of Kantianism, the particular version of deontology put forward by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), are complicated. But the core idea is that human beings are not mere objects—they are persons who are worthy of respect, and who must be treated as such. In particular, other persons must not be treated as mere tools in the pursuit of one’s own goals. Kantianism is the most commonly-cited version of deontology, and many people use the term “Kantianism” to refer to deontology generally.

In business contexts, Kantianism implies an obligation for businesses (and businesspeople) to treat all persons with respect. In particular, respectful treatment is considered obligatory regardless of what ones goals and mission are. A desire to achieve a particular outcome, such as to make a profit, cannot override the obligation to treat people fairly and with respect. Kantianism even insists that the desire to achieve outcomes that you think are ethically good cannot justify actions that, incidentally, fail to treat people with respect. For instance, a Kantian would likely say that it is wrong to lie to a customer to get them to buy a product, even if you sincerely believe that the product is one that will bring them great joy.

The Kantian perspective is perhaps best understood when examined in contrast to utilitarianism, which says roughly that all that matters ethically is the good and bad consequences produced by a particular action. A hard-core Kantian would perhaps say that consequences almost never matter, and should never be counted in deciding what to do. Others think that Kantian rules, grounded in respect for persons, are important, but are incomplete. Such a view might suggest that while the pursuit of good outcomes is generally ethically good, this needs to be balanced against the need to respect persons, and that certain behaviours—such as lying to people or manipulating them—are seldom going to be justifiable simply in pursuit of what the individual sees as a good outcome.

See also in CEBE:

Further Reading:

By Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux
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