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Are there exceptions to Kant's perfect duties - duties always or never to do X? By this I mean, does the doctrine of perfect duties generate counter-examples - situations in which if we followed the requirement always or never to do X then what we would do or not do would be repugnant to ordinary moral thinking - a standard to which Kant adheres ? Does one really have a duty never to make a lying promise whatever the circumstances?

I personally like the idea that what we have perfect duties to acquire and exercise character traits such as generosity and benovolence, because it seems reasonably intuitive to say that we should never have a deceitful character nor a competitive attitude, but that honest people can still lie. Alongside the imperfect duty to e.g. give to charity, like Kantians suggest.

Does or could Kant accept the idea of a perfect duty to acquire and exercise character traits and not, or in addition to, a duty always or never to do a certain type of action ?

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    Your double negative in the first sentence is a little confusing, are you asking what arguments support the notion that perfect duties should be followed through despite the repugnant conclusion? Or arguments which crowbar Kant's ethics into something that fits what people already know about how to behave and have done for thousands of years? – Isaacson Feb 9 '17 at 7:58
  • either is fine, tho i don't think that the phrase is a double negative? @Isaacson also your's is very clearly a false dilemma and unhelpfully worded – user6917 Feb 9 '17 at 11:25
  • False dilemma how? I'm referring specifically to your final question "What sort of solution is that?", solution to what problem? – Isaacson Feb 9 '17 at 11:53
  • eh then it's really badly worded, if you're asking a question about my "solution", then you seem to asking whether i think that it entails going through with repugnant conclusions? @Isaacson why would you say that "or"? to cause offense? that's strange – user6917 Feb 9 '17 at 11:59
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    You seem to have accepted that there exist counterexamples to Kant's perfect duties. You have then asked if there are any arguments which counter these counterexamples, suggested one possibility and asked what sort of solution that would be? That Kant might be wrong (on account of the counterexamples you admit exist), that is not a problem that requires a solution. We do not need to "make Kant right" in some sense. – Isaacson Feb 9 '17 at 12:54
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I personally like the idea that what we have perfect duties to acquire and exercise character traits such as generosity and benovolence, because it seems reasonably intuitive to say that we should never have a deceitful character nor a competitive attitude, but that honest people can still lie. Alongside the imperfect duty to e.g. give to charity, like Kantians suggest.

What you are describing is usually called virtue ethics and is distinguished from both deontology (incl. Kantian ethics) and consequentialism (incl. utilitarianism). This distinction is somewhat artificial because virtue ethics has some elements common to both consequentialism and deontology. The history of these movements is actually quite complicated, and Kant himself wrote a great deal about virtue in his Doctrine of Virtue.

Kant likes virtues mainly because they make it easier for you to follow the categorical imperative (as a sort of "moral strength"), and not because they have any independent value. Virtue ethics takes the opposite approach, holding virtues to be fundamental and deriving moral duties from them.

Does or could Kant accept the idea of a perfect duty to acquire and exercise character traits and not, or in addition to, a duty always or never to do a certain type of action ?

No, because Kantian ethics isn't primarily about character traits. It's about duty and actions. Kant does espouse the idea that acquiring virtuous character traits is an imperfect duty, because it makes us better at fulfilling other duties. But virtue does not take supremacy over other duties, because the whole point of virtue is to better fulfill those duties. To the extent that a virtue contradicts the categorical imperative, Kant would likely hold that it is not the true virtue.

Does one really have a duty never to make a lying promise whatever the circumstances?

According to Kant, yes. To do otherwise would violate the categorical imperative.

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From the Groundwork section 2, emphasis mine:

[C]ondescension to popular concepts is certainly very commendable if the elevation to the principles of pure reason has already happened and been achieved to complete satisfaction; and that would mean first founding the doctrine of morals on metaphysics and, when it has been established, afterwards obtaining access for it by means of popularity. But it is without rhyme or reason to want to comply with it in the first investigation, on which all correctness of principles depends... It is clear from what has been said that all moral concepts have their seat and origin completely a priori in reason...

The best response to a "counterexample" to Kant is, "So what?"

Providing counterexamples completely misses the point. Kant's task is to start essentially at the beginning, by analyzing the pure concepts of morality, duty, freedom, etc, and to see what he can make with them. While we would of course like to have the results of this investigation match up with our every moral intuition, we cannot possibly require this. Then we would be stipulating the correctness of our intuition, something which we have no justification for.


A small note: All of that is seperate from the morality of any given action, but I find most of the really repugnant conclusions stem from a misunderstanding, or an artificially constrained set of options.

  • While you can't lie to a murderer, you can very easily refuse to answer. And if you are being tortured, and so forced to answer, would anyone really blame you for breaking?

  • Of course you can try to win a game of chess. You shouldn't play someone at chess simply to win, but rather because you want to have an enjoyable experience with them. And you're not contradicting their rational will by struggling with them for victory, because they do not in fact have a will but rather a wish to win. Winning a game of chess is not completely in our control, but rather relies at least in part on the actions of another, so while we can desire it, we cannot will it in the same way we would, say, will that we stand up.

  • You're missing the point of the counterexamples. It's not that the maxim "never lie" is wrong, it's that making two or more maxims categorical can lead to situations in which it is impossible to follow both. In your first example above, what would you do if your categorical maxim was "never lie, or refuse to answer questions". – Isaacson Feb 10 '17 at 14:34
  • In order to avoid the problem that would cause you'd have to say that you would not want it universalized because of the difficult situations it could get you in, but then you just have consequentialist ethics instead. How is that an improvement on saying that you should not lie but instead refuse to answer question, in that particular scenario because of the consequences you can predict would result from not doing so. – Isaacson Feb 10 '17 at 14:41
  • We don't have a perfect duty to answer questions. Therefore we can choose to not answer questions, for a great number of personal reasons. We do, however, have a perfect duty to tell the truth. – Canyon Feb 13 '17 at 5:42
  • The question is not can we get around the problem of never lying as a perfect duty, it is do we need to. It is a problem which plagues interpretations of Kant, this effort to show how one can use Kantian ethics to arrive at the conclusions that we wanted to arrive at in the first place (not helping the murderer in this case). We're not trying to 'make Kant right', we're trying to establish which system for analysing moral choices assists us best in making the right choice. – Isaacson Feb 13 '17 at 8:12
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    Why would we judge an ethical system on its results as compared to our tenuous moral opinions, when we could (and, it seems to me, should) judge it on its metaphysical rigor? – Canyon Feb 13 '17 at 10:05

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