Kantian ethics is based upon the teachings of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). According to Kant, the concept of “motive” is the most important factor in determining what is ethical. More specifically, Kant argued that a moral action is one that is performed out of a “sense of duty.”
For Kant, a moral action is not based upon feelings or pity. Nor is it is not based on the possibility of reward. Instead, a moral action is one based on a sense of “This is what I ought to do.”
To use an example, with Kantian ethics helping an old lady across the street because you feel pity for her is NOT a moral act. Likewise, helping an old lady because your coworker will think highly of you is NOT a moral act. However, helping an old lady because you have a sense of duty to help the elderly IS a moral act.
Because motive is the most important factor in Kantian ethics, it is possible for an action to have negative consequences while still being a moral act. For example, if acting out of a sense of duty you attempt to save a drowning child, but in the process you accidentally drown the child, your action is still considered a moral one.
Kantian ethics has been criticized on several points. First, some say Kant’s approach gives little aid for complex situations. For example, what if there are conflicts of duty? Suppose you decide that two duties are (1) telling the truth; and (2) protecting your friends. But what if a madman with an axe asked you where your best friend was so he could murder him or her? Do you tell the truth and thus lead the murderer to your friend? Or do you lie and save your friend’s life? Interestingly, Kant believed telling a lie was always wrong even if a vicious murderer asked you where your friend was so he could murder him.
Second, some say Kant dismisses emotions such as pity and compassion as irrelevant to morality. But many think these are “moral” emotions that cannot be separated from morality. Why should helping an old lady across the street out of compassion not be considered moral? What is wrong with compassion and pity?
Third, some say Kant’s approach does not take the consequences of actions seriously enough. What if a well-intentioned person with a good motive causes a number of deaths? He would be morally blameless according to Kant’s view. Or, what if a well-intentioned babysitter dries your cat in a microwave oven? Would you say, “That’s okay, her motive was good.”