Kant on intentions and consequences

Tiffany asked:

Kant’s theory is categorized as one that focuses on and evaluates ‘intent’ rather than consequences because consequences of our actions cannot always be controlled by us. Consequently, if someone dies as a result of one of our actions and it wasn’t our intent to kill is it still morally wrong because circumstances and contingencies do not provide excuses when following Kant’s categorical imperative.

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Tiffany.

I find your question muddled. If we did not intend to kill then the deed was not murder. It may have been carelessness, but intent would be everything. If we intend to help someone but end up hurting them then this would be a morally sound act, just a rather unskilled one.

If we intend the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of people then our actions will always be morally sound for Kant. But a problem arises when we think that we know the consequences of our actions. This is hubris and arrogance. We can know our intentions, but in their overall context we can have no idea of the consequences. They will reverberate through history long after we are gone.

There is therefore a slight complication with the categorical imperative. We may intend to live according to it, but we can still cause a great deal of misery due to our limited knowledge of the situation. No doubt some people would say that invading Iraq was intended to create the greatest good. But taking a guess at what action would create the greatest good while knowing for certain that such an act will cause widespread misery is a strange approach to morality and a crime against Kant.

It seems to me that circumstances and contingencies are all we have to work with. They are what decides what action we should take. Take away the circumstances and contingencies and what is left?


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