Kant’s critics often claim that his theory does not help to settle tensions between conflicting duties. In the example provided, of a college student whose mother has cancer, let us take each of Kant’s formulations and see where it leads us.
First is the principle that one must act on the maxim that can serve as a universal rule. In this example, should every college student who has a cancer-stricken mother quit school? Or should every college student with a cancer-stricken mother complete school instead? But we should simplify further.
Can the duty to finish one’s schooling be universalized? There are plenty of conceivably good reasons for one to not finish one’s schooling, including lack of money or one’s own health. It is even possible that finishing one’s schooling could be a hindrance to one’s actual education. For example, if the career path for which one’s schooling was a preparation, became obsolete before that schooling was finished, would it still be rational to consider a duty to finish the schooling? So it would seem that this duty cannot be made universal.
On the other hand, can the duty to take care of one’s mother be universalized? This would seem an easy duty to consider a universal rule. Perhaps an extreme, exceptional case could be imagined, in which a mother’s requests would harm her if fulfilled, but the duty in question is not obeying her wishes, but caring for her. (Considering the duty, in this example, to honor her expressed wish that one finish school rather than take care of her would complicate the ethical dilemma, but was not considered in the question.) The issue here is whether universalizing the duty to care for one’s mother could become self-contradictory in some situations, and absent any clear case to that point, we must conclude, by Kant’s principles, that the duty to care for one’s mother is a universal duty. So it seems that this duty would, according to Kant, determine the student’s actions in our example.
However, we must now consider Kant’s second formulation, which is that other people always be treated as ends in themselves, never merely as means. In the example, this principle would speak more to the student’s motives than to his actual choice. For example, the student could decide to leave school and take care of his mother because he is stressed about school and is looking for an excuse to quit. In this case, he would be using taking care of his mother as a means, and this would bring into question whether his choice is truly moral, even if it is in accordance with duty.
Finally, Kant’s third formulation, the will of every rational creature as a universally legislating will, is less a separate principle and more a harmonization of the first two, which clarifies the concept of freedom or autonomy as it relates to the first two principles. In this author’s opinion, the third formulation brings nothing new to our current discussion.
In the end, what is our conclusion from Kant’s principles? In this author’s opinion, the critics of Kant’s theory are right. Even if we have made progress in determining that one duty may be considered absolute and the other may not, we are still left questioning the student’s motives. It happens to be fortunate for our example that one duty was universal and the other was not, but what if, in our exploration, we had reached the conclusion that both duties were universal? In the end, Kant raises important considerations, but his theory does not answer all dilemmas.
Do doctors have a duty to tell their patients the truth, no matter the situation? It appears Kant would argue that they do. However, it also appears he may leave room for partial truths.
For example, suppose a patient is waiting on results from a test, which will determine whether he is diagnosed with an illness. Might it be moral for the doctor to simply omit to tell the patient the results, until after the patient returns from a planned vacation? It is not as if the doctor is telling the patient that the test came back negative and the patient has a clean bill of health. The doctor is not lying, but simply not revealing the whole truth.
One consideration is that it is improbable the doctor could merely omit such information. The patient would likely be anxious about the test and ask about it, necessitating an outright lie to keep the news concealed. Probably others may be involved in the testing process, raising the possibility that the news could reach the patient from someone else.
The key, from Kant’s perspective, is determining what is consistent with reason and duty. The doctor’s duty is to care for his patient. The intention of such a misleading omission, as in our example, would be to care for the patient. The patient may need rest from the stress of dealing with their health issues, and therefore may actually feel and function better physically if they are temporarily spared negative news.
However, what would happen if this practice were universal? What if the patient knew, because it was common practice, that the doctor may know the patient’s diagnosis but choose to delay reporting it? Most likely this would result in the patient having more stress, and less confidence in the doctor’s information. This would in turn mean that the omission is now meaningless, as its intended purpose is thwarted and the patient feels the possibility of bad news coming no matter what the doctor actually says.
By Kant’s theory, doctors have the duty to always tell their patients the truth. While his theory may allow for deliberate partial truths, this would most likely be of no actual use in this area.
According to Kant, a shopkeeper that behaves morally from moral intentions is more virtuous than a shopkeeper that behaves morally from self-serving intentions. It would seem natural to extend this idea to companies, and to say that a company that does the right thing because it is the right thing is more moral than a company that does the right thing because it pays off.
However, this idea deals with the motives or intentions of a company. Since a company is a group of individuals, it does not have motives in the same way that an individual does. In fact when we speak of a company’s motives, we are really talking about the motives of the individuals who are part of the company.
For example, suppose that a company’s policy is honesty in their business dealings, but that the motive of the company, as we say, is that honesty pays off in the end. How might we know that this is the company’s motive? Perhaps a boss at the company said this in a meeting or memo. But this means that the honesty of that individual is morally tainted, not necessarily that the entire company’s honesty is. What if there is an employee who adheres to the company policy of honesty, but does so, not sharing his boss’s selfish motives, but from genuinely moral motives? This employee’s action would certainly be moral, even though it is done on behalf of the company, whose motive we would regard as self-serving.
Therefore, we cannot judge the motives of companies in the same way as the motives of individuals. Companies are groups of individuals, and within any group, and behind any joint decision, intentions and motives will vary according to the individual.