The exception proves the rule: The problem of moral exceptions in Kantian ethics
Harrigan, Scott Ernest
MetadataShow full item record
If moral idealism, especially of the Kantian variety, is seen as making over-simplistic universal rules of conduct that apply under all conditions, then it becomes all too clear that there are numerous exceptions to the moral precepts laid down by idealist ethics. This parade of exceptions then proves the rigidity and unresponsiveness of moral idealism, and thus its failure as a moral system. Kantians are not helped by the fact that Kant himself contends that lying is in all cases wrongful, even to save the life of a friend from a murderer at the door. However, to see Kantian idealist ethics as making rigid, one-size-fits-all rules is to look at the Categorical Imperative backwards. Maxims, or principles of actions, are dynamic and flexible. They are able to faithfully represent salient aspects of a moral situation that make that situation different from other similar situations, and this new maxim can then be subjected to the strictures of the Imperative. Simply because one maxim of lying fails to pass the requirements of the Imperative is no reason to think all lying maxims must necessarily so fail. This is the illusion that the Imperative deals in act-types , not maxims. However, paying close attention to maxims, real motivating maxims which avoid the artificialness of over- and under-generalization, we will see that maxims are very sensitive and responsive to the differences in the situations we find ourselves in. We will then see that lying to those who are intent on murder does not present so difficult a conundrum to Kantian ethics. However, merely because someone is acting immorally does not give us license to do anything we wish to him. Ultimately, it is because our action respects the humanity of the murderer, such that it could be autonomously chosen by him, that we may act against him, even kill him in self-defense. We can act because the exception we claim to act on is one that supports rather than undermines the general rule, that is to say, it proves the rule by founding the exception on the same rationale as the rule itself.