MODULE 5: Kant's Duty Ethics
Core Module Issues:
• When a person or a company does a “good deed”, does the motive for
doing the good deed matter?
• If it does matter, what motives make for the best actions?
• If it does not matter, why does it not matter?
Module Teaching Notes
This module looks at a second of Kant's specific ideas: duty ethics.
Kant and other deontological thinkers argue that, to be ethical, decisions must be made for good
reasons. They counter the utilitarian position that good decisions are those which produce the
most favorable outcome for the largest number of people.
Kant awards the most points on his scorecard – it is the “highest calling”, if you will – to actions
taken strictly out of a sense of duty or obligation. Any person, whether moral or not, will do things
when he wants to. Similarly, any person, whether moral or not, will act out a fear of negative
consequences. But only a moral person will act out of a sense of obligation.
I present these ideas as Kant's, and not my own. I find it important to take a position myself as
infrequently as possible. If students think that I agree with a particular point, then a majority of
them (not all, but a majority) will tend to support the idea as well. I see my role as referee; neutral
arbitrator. I present ideas, but I seldom pass judgment on them.
After presenting the central duty ethics idea, I usually take comments and have a general
discussion for a few minutes after asking, “does that seem true or reasonable?”
Then, as a follow up question, I'll present the hypothetical raised in the “background” of the
textbook's module on the student who passes the homeless man. If the student gives the man 50
cents out of kindness, or fear, or a sense of obligation, does it really make a difference? Are all
three gifts equivalent, or is one better than the others?
I often also add a final “warm up” question, and present this question: “Support three people
donate a $10 teddy bear to the police department's “Brown Santa” program which benefits children.
One makes the gift because it will make him feel good, a second does so because the people she