Kant's Ethics: Final Essay Assignment


Due Date: Friday, April 13 (Papers received no later than Wednesday, April 18 (the official date for the final exam) will be accepted without any late penalty. Please note that this deadline leaves very little time for me to grade the papers before the course grades are due in the Faculty. Hence the 18th should be seen as a firm deadline that I may not be able to extend at my own discretion.

Recommended Length:

  • PHIL 329: 8 to 10 pages double-spaced typed or equivalent.
  • PHIL 429: 11 to 13 pages double-spaced typed or equivalent.
  • PHIL 880x 13 to 15 pages double-spaced typed or equivalent.

Suggested Topics

  1. How serious is the problem of relevant act descriptions for Kant's moral theory? (The problem of relevant act descriptions is the claim that any action can be described in many different ways, and it is not possible to determine which one is the the correct description. The idea behind the problem is that if we cannot get a single description of our actions, we cannot hope to act only on those maxims [act descriptions] that we can will to be a universal law--i.e., we cannot abide by the CI.)

  2. Critically discuss and interpret what Kant means by the second version of the Categorical Imperative. What, for example, does it mean precisely to never treat someone merely as a means? Is it possible to live by this principle? Is it an incomplete principle, requiring other moral concepts (e.g., consequentialist ones) to be properly applied?

  3. Assess the differences and convergences between the Groundwork and the Metaphysics of Morals (the "Doctrine of Virtue" section). Are there any serious ways in which these two works do not really compliment each other? Are any of the claims in the two works inconsistent? Does the Metaphysics of Morals in any way impair the overall project in moral theory construction that Kant began in the Groundwork?

  4. Kant's particular ethical theory seems to leave little or no room for a serious consideration of (moral) emotions, nor for any other standard aspects of moral psychology. Reason is the only basis, he claims, for the moral worth of any intentions or actions. How plausible is this basic claim? Is a consistent form of Kantian ethics even possible without making such an exclusive place for reason? Critically discuss your answer.

  5. In various texts, Kant claims that human sexuality has an inherently immoral or nonmoral element to it that can only be properly addressed by marriage---a mutual covenant between two persons to commit themselves to each other in a complete and holistic way. Critically assess his two (or more) arguments for these two claims---i.e., that sexual desire is immoral and marriage is the solution.

  6. At 6:442 (p. 563) Kant argues: "from all our experience we know of no being other than a human being that would be capable of obligation (active of passive). A human being can therefore have no duty to any beings other than human beings; and if he thinks he has such duties, it is because of an amphiboly in his concepts of reflection, and his supposed duty to other beings is only a duty to himself." This seems to mean that Kant thinks that it is a mistake of reasoning (and ethics) to think that we have (direct) duties to other things in nature (e.g., trees, lakes, etc), other important artifacts (e.g., revered cultural treasures), or other non-human animals in nature. After reconstructing Kant's argument for his own position, critically assess whether you agree or disagree with him about this important claim. Critically defend your position.

  7. Hegel claims that the Categorical Imperative represents an "empty formalism" (Philosophy of Right, section 135). Carefully explain the details of Hegel's objection, and assess whether this objection constitutes a serious objection for Kant (or Kantians).

  8. Schopenhauer writes that the concept of (absolute) duty that is central to Kant's ethics when "separated from the theological hypotheses from which they came, these concepts really lose all meaning, and when anyone like Kant imagines he can substitute those hypotheses by speaking of absolute ought and unconditioned duty, he is feeding the reader on fair words; in fact, he is really giving the reader a contradictio in adjecto to digest. Every ought derives all sense and meaning simply and solely in reference to threatened punishment or promised reward." (On The Basis of Morality, section 4.) Is Schopenhauer right about this? Do absolute moral duties have to be founded in theological issues? To what extend does Kant avoid---or get into---a reliance on theology in defending his ethical theory?

  9. Suppose that a terrorist has trapped many (innocent) hostages in a public center and is (credibly) threatening to harm, and even kill, the hostages if his demands are not met. His demands are ones that you do not want to conceed (e.g., that a number of his "colleagues", now serving lengthy prison sentences for various murder and other serious, violent crimes. We have every reason to believe that if the terrorist succeeds with his demands, society will be further seriously threatened by the activities of this group. What would a consistent Kantian advise the hostage negotiator to do from a (Kantian) moral point of view? Critically defend your answer with reference to the arguments and discussion of Thomas E. Hill Jr.'s article "Making Exceptions Without Abandoning the Principle: Or How a Kantian Might Think about Terrorism."

  10. Any other topic of your choice relevant to the content of this course. Please clear any such topic with me before doing any significance work or research.