Author Archives: Caroline Wilkerson

O’Neill’s “A Simplified Account of Kantian Ethics”

To better understand Kantian ethics (a philosophy also known as deontology,) we are offered this week articles that summarize and critique Kant’s ideals that seemed completely upright at first glance. In the article “A Simplified Account of Kant’s Ethics,” Onora O’Neill tries to clarify Kant’s complex moral theory which has been dubbed before as “forbiddingly difficult” (411) to understand. To recapitulate briefly the main points of the article: O’Neill only tackles one part of Kant’s theory in her article, the Formula of the End-of-Itself. This principle mandates that one ought to act in such a way that one always treats other human beings never simply as means but always as an end of an action. This means that one should not involve another human being in an action to which they could not consent. For example, it is forbidden to lie to another person to persuade him or her into helping you, as then you are obscuring your intentions from the other person, and that is completely prohibited in deontology. To put it succinctly, if an action does not respect the goals of another human being, then it is forbidden to act in that way. Kant also believed that any action that a person performs is a reflection of one or more of his or her maxims. A maxim is a principle on a person acts. The words “maxim” and “intention” are used interchangeably when talking about deontology. Though there are many actions that a person can take, they only have a few duties in life. Some duties are more important than others, and duties of justice are the duties most valued by Kant. These include not lying, breaking promises, or murdering, and are also known as perfect duties, as they are never to be broken.
Overall, deontology seems like a more precise and better philosophy than utilitarianism. Like I mentioned earlier, deontologists never deceive, lie, or make false promises to others, which can happen in utilitarianism. Furthermore, the maltreatment or enslavement of other human beings could never occur in a deontological world, whereas it could in a utilitarian world, so long as it was the optimific solution to a problem. Though O’Neill neatly lays out some of Kant’s ideals in her article, I still have a few questions that have been left unanswered from her text. For example, what happens if a living patient needs an organ, say a liver, from a dead person? Perhaps the dead never gave consent, but using his or her kidney would mean saving the other’s life. Surely a doctor would be using the dead person as a means of accomplishing a task, but shouldn’t he if it means saving the life of another? And wouldn’t that be breaking a duty of justice, if the doctor let a patient die but had the means of saving him or her? Or would a pure deontologist refuse to save the life, as the doctor would be involving another in an action to which they could not consent? It seems to me that Kantian ethics have a more restricted scope than utilitarianism does, and as I read more about deontology, I can detect some weaknesses in the philosophy.

Alexander, Larry and Moore, Michael, “Deontological Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

“Deontological ethics.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 17 Oct. 2014. .

“Kantian Ethics.” Sacramento State University. Sacramento State University, n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014. .

God and Morality

As we commence our final week in meta-ethics, we are confronted with a problem that philosophers have struggled with since at least the time of Socrates- the muddled relationship between religion and ethics. Are they inextricable from each other, or can they be two independent concepts? And if ethics is independent of religion, then is our moral code a manmade concept, and as William Lane Craig declared, only “an aid to survival and reproduction,” but otherwise illusory? (Bennett 113) Should we adhere to any moral code if an omnipotent Being does not impose it upon us? These are only a few of the question, which I have pondered while reading Bennett’s What is This Thing Called Ethics, Plato’s Euthyphro, and Rachels’ God and Moral Autonomy.

Plato’s dialog Euthyphro describes an encounter between Socrates, the great Athenian philosopher, and a man named Euthyphro, a self-declared expert on all things religion. During their conversation, Euthyphro attempts to define piety three different times, and each definition proves to be fallacious.

Euthyphro’s three attempts at providing a universal definition of piety fail to please Socrates, after discovering flaws in each of them. Euthyphro’s first definition of piety is as follows: “The piety is doing as I do,” (Plato 1) as in charging his father in manslaughter, which he is about to go to trial for. However, this definition does not suit Socrates, because it is not a definition- it is merely an example of piety. Euthyphro’s second attempt at defining piety is actually a definition, though an erroneous one. Euthyphro defines piety as what is pleasing to the gods. This is not a sound definition, as Socreates points out that the quarrelsome Greek gods would be likely to argue over what each one thought of as piety. And the third definition is that the pious is what all gods love, which Socrates proves to be a cyclical argument.

Socrates offers no explanation of what he himself believes to be the universal definition of piety, and Plato’s dialog ends with Euthyphro leaving in a huff, frustrated by Socrates outwitting him. So what happens next? We as readers are left unfulfilled without a universal definition of piety. So then I wonder: could Euthyphro have reversed his words, and would an altered form of his third definition of piety prove to be suitable for Socrates? Euthyphro attempted to say that piety is what all gods love, which Socrates deemed a futile definition. But could one declare that acts are pious because gods love them? This definition still leaves us with a conundrum- what acts are pious? Perhaps acts are pious because gods love them, and perhaps we cannot venture further than that. Does God not work in mysterious ways? Could a God/Gods not choose to favor certain acts without explaining His/ Their ways? After investigating Bennett, Plato, and Rachels’ arguments, it seems that all of them seem to point to one conclusion: that a God/Gods’ deeds are arbitrary and not based a moral code. If there is a God, or Gods, who has or have created the moral standard which we today adhere to, it seems His/Their moral standards are capricious. This may be a hard morality to view, but is it not plausible?

If there is an all-powerful and all-knowing Being, it seems that the moral code he has given us is erratic. How else could we explain why God says he wants us to love, but disapproves of love between homosexuals? If there is a Creator, then I think it is best to accept his moral code unquestioningly. And if there is not a God, then we should question every moral that we have followed thus far.



Bennett, Christopher. What is This Thing Called Ethics?. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

“Euthyphro by Plato.” Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <>.

“Plato’s Euthyphro.” PHIL 111: introduction to Philosophy. Southern Illinois University, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <>.

Rachels, James. God and Moral Autonomy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986. Print.

“Socratic Irony.”, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <>.

“piety.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <>.