Kant’s deontological theory
Few individuals would have significant doubts that John Rawls, a Harvard Philosopher, would have contributed to the contemporary social, legal and ethical theory. From detailed analyses, Rawls is currently being regarded as one of the influential figures to have revived the debate on the controversies surrounding deontological ethics, a principal or profound area that has been discussed for many decades (O’neill 347). Rawls, in his exploration, contributed to a newer interpretation or perspective of Immanuel’s Kant theory. By introducing the theory of Justice, Rawls improves or provides an alternative explanation to Kantian deontological approach but expressively in a precise manner, especially on the obscure elements in the initial Kant interpretation, as he provides some critical aspects to Kant’s theory, mostly providing a procedural interpretation. In this analysis, the emphasis is on describing and defining how Rawls interprets Kant’s deontological theory through his theory of justice by focusing on the different elements like the definition of autonomy, rationality, the category of imperatives, kingdom of ends and overall, what he holds as morality and fairness from the Kantianism ethics.
For Rawls, by treating justice as fairness, he assumes the Kantian interpretation. Some of the vital features of the Justice Theory are targeted explicitly at interpreting Kantian’s deontological ethics. His theory borrows from the principle of justice which should govern, especially an ideal society, is the one formed from the original position (OP) whereby societal members converge and reach a common consensus on the accepted set rules for governing and regulating the society (Eng 288). From the original position argument, Rawls maintains or argues that the conditions under which decisions and principles are made lead to fairness and justice. Hence, Rawls tries to connect justice, fairness, and morality, mainly focusing on the concept of morality in an individual and intertwining the relationship with the justice principles by linking it with the context of a well-ordered society. In this case, his interpretation of Kantian ethics is based on the model explaining how the citizens, who are found within an efficient (organized) society and regarded or considered as moral people, would choose initial or original set ideologies of justice to lead or govern them in the society. Accordingly, the constraints which have been imposed on society members in OP as well as how the parties have been defined should be representative of equality and freedom morally upright individuals as agreed within such a society. Rawls’s interpretation of justice and fairness tends to summarize or confine Kant’s concept of universality, which to him, ethics and rules should be defined within a societal context and not generalized as with the case of Kantianism theory.
One of the significant interpretations that Rawls has on Kantian ethics or deontology is the conception of autonomy. Accordingly, the implicit assertion by Rawls is that autonomy does not denote universality or generality (Reath et al. 216). For instance, Kant argues that when a person acts in autonomy, he or she chooses or is guided by principles which are objects of rational choice (Reath et al. 214). However, Rawls has a different interpretation, since, for those whose actions are driven by the original position (OP) from which rules and laws were developed, they model their behaviors towards ethical obligations under circumstances that are defining them as equal and free sensible beings. Autonomy in the Kantian world is based on choosing principles of actions that a person regards to be the probable manifestation of his nature as a free or a sensible being (rational). On the other hand, Rawls develops a newer perspective of this explanation or interpretation by suggesting that the principle conception of autonomy is based on what the society originally regards as a free and rational individual capable of making choices (Reath et al. 216). Kantian’s recommendations are based on principles which are developed without basing them upon natural or social contingencies, or even, to a greater extent, a specific society within which one lives. However, Rawls interprets the above assertion by suggesting that the conception of morality and fairness is subject to what a particular society holds or regards as fair and rational, which in this case, shows Rawls deducting or confining Kantian deontology to a specific society, or having a focus for defining moral behavior, justice and fairness.
Rawls is defending the Kantian interpretation of ethics when he says that the decisions made within original position are autonomous. Incidentally, an attempt to use original position in explaining justice and fairness aligns with Kant’s notion of “mine,” which is the motivational assumption that Rawls develops or integrates into his model (Reath et al. 301). Original position, in essence, is a procedural concept of what Kant conceptualizes as categorical imperatives and autonomy. Therefore, Rawls theory of justice is an extension of the Kantian model where moral or ethical rules are defined from an individual perspective (original position for Rawls and autonomy or “mine” in Kantian ethics).
Another vital and inherent interpretation from the Rawls Justice theory, which is a newer explanation of the Kantian ethics, is rationality. In his argument or commentary on the rationality behind taking some actions or decisions, Kant suggests that there are two roles of reason in practical affairs. First, reason can be instrumentally applied or used in realizing contentment, scheduling the life activities, and directing individuals to maximize their gratification and even reach a particular degree of satisfaction (Paton 92). Conversely, Kant proposes that the above is never the proper role of reason because nature would be the guiding principle or factor in reason; when reason is used primarily for attaining happiness, then people will fall short of achieving contentment. In essence, Kant indicates that nature provides reason to serve a much higher function of influencing people’s will. In this case, the proper function of reason should be providing a will which is good or desirable in itself and not as a mere way of attaining means. However, Rawls has a different interpretation of Kant’s rationality. For instance, the general unit from which ethics, justice, and fairness are assessed in his Justice Theory is the original position (OP). Therefore, when individuals act from the principles of their choice, an embody the expression of free will and acting as rational beings whose actions are defined by the natural conditions defining human life. In this regard, the people’s choices are dependent on the desire for specific primary goods (Eng 295). In this case, wanting things, given the human nature, is part of one being rational. Conversely, although each individual has a specific concept of what is good, there is no knowledge about the ends. Hence, wanting primary goods, as such, derives from the inherent assumptions on the rationality concept as well as the conditions defining human life.
Another element of the Kantian ethics (deontology) is the Kingdom of end which treats people as kingdoms with different ends, whereby one should act to treat people with humanity, both in person and others, and as such, not viewing or regarding other people as a means to an end (Paton 187). It implies that every man or individual exists expressively as an end within “self” and not a means which can be used by another will. As such, Kant posits that people, as human beings and as moral persons have an intrinsic dignity which should be respected at all costs, and as such, should not be regarded or viewed from an instrumental perspective or level. Conversely, Rawls has a different interpretation of the Kingdom Of Ends by suggesting that all the adopted principles have to be acceptable to every individual within the society (Reath et al. 187). He ties his explanation to treating humanity with dignity and not a means to an end by suggesting that if the original position is viewed, then the Kant’s concept of categorical imperative and autonomy applies. In reality, Rawls suggests that when the principles regulating the kingdom ends are viewed, especially for those chosen within the position, the principles of justice should be treating humanity as ends and as such, possessing dignity. On the other hand, he aligns or supports the Kantian’s Kingdom of ends by arguing that within the OP, men are equally represented ethical persons(moral individuals), only accepting principles they believe were rationally provided or establish to safeguarding the acceptable “self” (“claims of person”).
Moreover, Rawls perceive or interpret the principles of justice as the categorical imperatives from the Kantian ethical sense. He suggests that for Kant, categorical imperative entails how a principle conduct applies to a specific individual within confines of equality and free sensible being (Reath et al. 194). For Rawls, the legitimacy of his commonly cited justice principle is devoid of the desire or even having aims for things. He further interprets that for the hypothetical imperative, it directs individuals towards taking particular steps as means to achieving particular ends, but does not make the assumption that parties have inherently precise ends, only that they have the desire of certain goods (Eng 294). Hence, Rawls ties his justice principle to Kantianism’s categorical imperative by arguing that acting within the principles of justice is the same as acting from the categorical imperative.
Few inferences can be made from the manner in which Rawls interprets the Kantian ethics or deontology. For one, he believes that there are similarities with the justice theory when he adds most of his conceptions to different elements of Kant ethics. On the other hand, there are specific recommendations for structural changes, which to him, morality and ethics are subject to the conception or understanding by a particular society. Another vital element of his interpretation is that Rawls seems to argue or limit the definition of rationality, whereby he posits that rationality entails how one is taking effective means in achieving his or her ends (Paton 92). Conversely, he has a different interpretation of rationality by suggesting that the construct should entail being understood within a specific or confined narrow sense, for instance, as standard within economic theory, used in taking the most appropriate means to the given ends. In this case, he assumes that rationality is not universal but instead applies within or to individuals or humans who are found within the circumstances or confines of justice.
In conclusion, the above exploration has outlined how John Rawls contributed to the ethical debate by proposing a new theory, which seemed to be a support and improvements of the earlier Kantian approach of ethics or deontology. As noted from the above analysis, what Kant meant or recommended as a free, rational and just society has been redefined in Rawls approach of justice and fairness. For instance, Kant suggested that a course of action should be universally accepted as fair and just. However, Rawls brings in a new perspective by confining the explaining or interpretation of justice to a specific society; hence he introduces the concept of original position. According to him, a just and fair action is based on the originally set rules and obligations to govern behavior. Hence, when one is said to act rational, his action should be assessed or evaluated from the definition that the specific society regards as just, fair and moral. Rawls has interpreted Kant’s theory from the original position or a societal context. To this end, his explanations entail expounding on some elements of Kantianism, with a few modifications but best to say, justice theory is a Kantian model which is not universally applied but confined to a specific or particular societal context.
- Eng, Svein. “Why reflective equilibrium? II: Following up on Rawls’s comparison of his own approach with a Kantian approach.” Ratio Juris, 27. 2(2014): 288-310.
- O’neill, Onora. “9 Constructivism in Rawls and Kant1.” The Cambridge Companion to Rawls (2003): 347.
- Paton, Herbert James. The categorical imperative: A study in Kant’s moral philosophy. Vol. 1023. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971. Print.
- Reath, Andrews, et al., eds. Reclaiming the history of ethics: essays for John Rawls. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.