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Kant’s Object to Utilitarian Justifications of Punishment

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Why does Kant object to Utilitarian justifications of punishment? Do you agree with Kant’s objection? Explain your answer. In this essay, the utilitarian justification of punishment will briefly go through first. Then Kant’s objection to the utilitarian justification of punishment will be explained in the second part. In this part, Kant’s fundamental principle in ethics will be used to explain his view in punishment and how utilitarianism violates his principle in ethics.

In the final session, I will criticize some points in Kant’s objection in order to show that there are flaws in his objection to Utilitarian justifications of punishment.

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From a utilitarian’s view, all moral judgments are based on the Principle of Utility. Any action is morally right if it produces the best consequences for all. The best consequences were thought to be those that produce the most happiness for all. Punishments are evil in first glance, as they treating people badly deprive people’s freedom, property, life or others, and there is no increase in happiness as compensation for infliction of suffering for all.

Therefore, punishments can solely be justified when the punishments bring greater happiness that can overcome the unhappiness induced. Bringing comfort to the victims of crime, making the community safe from future crime by imprisonment, deterring people from committing crime and rehabilitating the criminals by removing the criminal tendencies are some arguments always used for justifying punishment in an Utilitarian perspective. However, Kant has raised some objections to the utilitarian justification of punishment due to two main reasons.

The first one is the principle of utility ignores or disrespects human dignity. The second one is utilitarianism fail to punish criminals proportionately according to their crime. As these objections are made according to some fundamental principles in ethics from Kant, explanation on Kant’s basic moral theory is therefore required. “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”, this is the main idea of Categorical Imperative advocated by Kant.

This means we must act only on rules that are univerzalisable is that if you think that there is a moral reason for you to act in a certain way in a given type of situation then you must accept that that reason applies to other people in the same type of situation. Another important aspect in Kant’s moral philosophy is that human beings have an intrinsic worth or dignity which is distinct from the rest of nature. “People have desires and goals, other things have value for them, in relation to their projects.

Mere “things”(and this includes nonhuman animals, whom Kant considered unable to have self-conscious desires and goals) have value only as means to ends, and it is human ends and give them value. “(Rachels, 1999, p. 133), the above citation has explained the difference between human being and other “things” by the value they have. Animals do not have self-conscious desires and goals and thus they only have extrinsic value to human beings’ end. However, humans have an intrinsic worth as we are free agents that able to make our own decisions, setting goals and guiding our conduct by reason.

Only human beings can act out of a sense of duty, that is, can act merely out of their recognition of requirements of the moral law as indicated by the Categorical Imperative. When we apply this basic moral philosophy into the case of punishment, the utilitarian justification fails to respect human dignity. In a utilitarian perspective, criminals are punished because they are morally responsible beings. They are rational beings and thus have to obey the universal law (moral law) according to Categorical Imperative. When people commit a crime, they are punished since they should morally responsible for them.

The proper response to their actions is to hold them accountable for their actions. This is different from changing the criminal by force or manipulation as the criminals is not treated as a means-to-another’s end. However, utilitarianism suggests that once the consequence is good in all, people can be treated as a means-to-another’s end such as deterring criminals in future and keep the community safe. Kant thinks that similar ideas that treat criminals as a-means-to- another’s’ end do not respect humans’ noble dignity.

The second objection to utilitarian justification of punishment is Utilitarianism fails to punish people proportionately according to the severity of the crime. There is nothing in the basic idea of Utilitarianism that limits punishment to the guilty, or that limits the amount of punishment to the amount deserved (Rachels, 1999, p. 139). Innocent people can be punished if this can promote the general welfare. Criminals may be punished heavily in order to incur a greater deterrent effect. Justice will be ignored from a utilitarian approach.

Kant’s philosophy disagree these arguments as people should be punished simply because they have committed crimes, and for no other reason (Rachels, 1999, p. 138). Therefore, the proper response to their actions (punishments) should also be specific to the crime they committed as well. Punishing criminal disregards the severity of crime is totally violate Kant’s moral philosophy. Only punishing the criminal proportionately to the seriousness of his crime is the proper response to the criminal’s behaviour. Therefore, the principle of equality and justice should be applied in punishment from Kant’s point of view.

Although Kant’s objections to utilitarian justification of punishments seems sound when challenging that utilitarianism disrespects human dignity and fail to punish criminals proportionately according to their crimes, I still have reservation towards Kant’s objection. The reason why the utilitarian justification is objected because it violates Kant’s moral rules, which is “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end never as a means only. “( Rachels, 1999, p. 133).

In Kant’s philosophy, he upholds human dignity above all value. Therefore, people should not treat humans as a means to others’ end no matter in what situation. Kant’s objection to utilitarian justification seems sound because people think that human dignity should be respected and utilitarianism cannot provide any argument defensing human dignity but only caring about the consequences in all. The argument from Kant tries to explain the utilitarian justification of punishment does not show any respect to human dignity, which is radically incompatible to our moral common sense.

Similarly, Kant suggests that Utilitarianism did not proportionately penalize criminals and thus lead to unjust punishment and argued that utilitarianism would abandon justice. However, utilitarianism is not incompatible with common sense. In fact, Utilitarianism does not totally disrespect human dignity and justice. As our common moral sense such as justice and respecting human dignity are deeply rooted in our mind from education and the influence of culture, they are very important moral rules all over the world.

In addition, the reason for most the common moral rules can be explained by the principle of utility. For example, the reason of protecting justice is because justice can maintain a stable and healthy development of a society which greatly promotes everyone’s interest. Suppose there is an absence of justice, such as some countries in Africa, or even China. People feel unsafe and a lot of social problems appear due to the lack of justice. Therefore, it is hard for Utilitarianism to give up these oral values easily unless something can bring us more happiness. After all, despite Kant has given the retributivism a new depth and has a great persuasive power, the objection of utilitarianism cannot perfectly defeat utilitarianism as the arguments used in the objection simply hold utilitarianism and common moral sense at the two ends of the spectrum. Utilitarianism therefore remains great influence to nowadays punishment system. Reference: 1. Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 1986. Reprint. : McGraw-Hill College, 1999. Print.

Cite this Kant’s Object to Utilitarian Justifications of Punishment

Kant’s Object to Utilitarian Justifications of Punishment. (2016, Oct 24). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/kants-object-to-utilitarian-justifications-of-punishment/

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