Module Teaching Notes
The last module (Module 3) looked at utility. But many thinkers, Kant perhaps foremost among
them, argue that the ends can't justify the means. An alternative approach is to say that decision
are ethical only if they are made for the right reasons in the first place.
Kant believed in categorical imperatives, or universal truths. I usually start this class by asking the
group whether categorical imperatives can be determined at all. Students will usually volunteer
some examples, and other students will agree with them or reject them.
One of Kant's fundamental beliefs was that human beings are fundamentally different from other
creatures, and that they have a unique dignity that must not be violated. I offer this as a specific
example of a (possible) universal truth and get the students' opening position.
International sweatshop labor makes for a good discussion topic here, and specifically, it is a good way to
separate the utilitarian and Kantian thinkers. Workers in many nations earn less than 25 cents an hour for
unskilled manufacturing positions. I will usually point out that, for many workers, pay is enough to purchase
food, very basic shelter, and almost nothing else. In fact, some workers are so desperate that they are not
even “subsistence workers” – that is, their pay does not allow for them to purchase enough food to maintain
their body weight. This would seem to be an unsustainable game, but sometimes it is sustainable because
of the crushing weight of desperate workers willing to replace anyone who leaves.
Strict utilitarians will often conclude that low wages in the third world are acceptable. “Consumers get
cheaper products, companies earn larger profits, and low paid workers at least have employment and the
ability to earn some income.
Kantian thinkers will usually call for higher wages. When prompted, they will agree that subsistence wages
amount to a violation of the principle of unique human dignity. Even if all players are better off, “it just isn't
right”, they will tend to say.