By Bill Frayer

What’s Right?  What’s Wrong?


Here is a famous ethical dilemma: A shipwrecked crew is stranded on a deserted island with limited food and drinkable water. They must strictly ration them to assure that they survive long enough to be rescued. As a group, they decide that if anyone is caught taking more than their share, he will be hanged. One night, two men are caught stealing food. The next morning, everyone agrees that they should be hanged. The first man is hung, and as they are preparing the next man for hanging, a ship appears on the horizon to rescue them. Should they hang the second man?

You can make a case either way, but how you decide might reveal your own ethical framework. Emanual Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, developed an important framework for deciding ethical issues. His moral philosophy was centered on a concept he called the categorical imperative.

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

He believed that we should develop moral “rules” which are so obvious and powerful that most everyone could agree that they are good moral practices, and that as moral beings we have a duty to follow them.

Contrary to what many believed at the time, he viewed moral rules to be absolute; they should never be violated. He specifically formulated ethical rules prohibiting lying, theft, suicide, and laziness. He believed these were absolutes. Individuals, once they developed these rules, should never violate them.

So, back to our dilemma. Kant would likely suggest that because the rule prohibiting theft of food or water was deemed punishable by death, that the other survivors were morally obligated to hang the second man. The fact that the ship was about to rescue them was irrelevant. The rule accepted by all the survivors had to be upheld.

Some people would disagree, arguing that the circumstances had changed; therefore, there was no longer any need to hang the man. But in Kant’s view, the moral reasoning which led the others to develop the rule, using the universal logic developed in his categorical imperative, still held true. It’s an absolutist way of looking at ethics, but it is, to this day, an important concept.

How Kantian ethics is applied today? The most obvious example is religion. Many religions have applied absolute prohibitions as part of their creed. The Ten Commandments may be the most well-known set of absolute moral rules. They were absolute because they were from God. The commandment does not say, “Thou shalt not steal, except when the circumstances justify it.” The commandments were absolute. “Thou shalt not steal.” Period.   Today, many people who adhere to strict fundamentalist religions view moral rules as absolute. No abortion. No homosexuality. No graven images of God. These are non-negotiable for people who believe in the absolute truth of their religious doctrine.

But we have other examples. For example, crime must be punished. So even in those cases in which the crime might seem justifiable, such as mercy killing or stealing to feed one’s family, our society uses Kantian logic which has established sentencing rules which require that the guilty party be punished. We have absolute rules today about patient autonomy; it’s wrong to treat an adult, competent patient without her consent.

Of course, there are problems with looking at ethics through such a black and white filter. There are circumstances which can mitigate crimes. We believe that its wrong to lie, but we can conceive of circumstances in which it might be permissible. This is what I’ll examine next month as we consider Utilitarian ethics.

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