Most Ethics students find Utilitarianism the most accessible theory, and the easiest to apply. You weigh up consequences - how many people affected, for how long etc. Kant, as a deontologist, is obviously not concerned with outcomes at all. So with Kant you use reason to find rules, and this scares some students off. Really, though, it's very simple.
- Start with a maxim - a principle or rule that we want to follow. For example, Jenny should have an abortion.
- Make it universal - All women should have abortions.
- Is it self-contradictory? - Yes. It's illogical, because if you say everyone should abort, there is no one around who could abort.
So, you try again (you get better with time).
- Start with a maxim - Jenny, whose life is threatened by her pregnancy and wants an abortion, should abort.
- Make it universal - All women whose life is threatened by their pregnancy and want an abortion should abort.
- Is it self-contradictory? - No, it's not self-contradictory
- Is it a contradiction of the will? Could a rational person want to live in a world with this rule?
Now you probably find that a hard question, which is a valid criticism of Kant. We all disagree about the sort of world and laws that we would choose. However, there's more to the theory:
- Could you will that it became a universal law of nature?
- Is it using a person merely as a means to an end?
Kant and Euthanasia
We can use euthanasia to show the difference between thinking of universal laws and thinking of universal laws of nature. You cannot start with the maxim "Dianne Pretty should be killed", as the universal law would then follow "All people should be killed", which is self contradictory. So in your ethics class, you may well have changed your initial maxim to something like this:
"Someone who is terminally ill, with no hope of recovery, who are suffering greatly and wish to die should be helped to die".
You could universalise this into a decent universal law that doesn't contradict the will:
"All people who are terminally ill, with no hope of recovery, who are suffering greatly and wish to die should be helped to die".
- hey presto, Kant supports Euthanasia. However, could this be a law of nature? I'm sure you could imagine a world where people die when they are suffering greatly through terminally illness with no hope of recovery. Could we imagine a world where wanting to die led to death? Even if combined with the other factors, would we want to live in such a world? Surely some people feel they can't cope when first diagnosed but change their minds later?
In other words, we get one answer when we think about making laws in society - we'd need two doctors to verify that someone had no hope of recovery. We'd do tests to make sure someone was in their right mind and had time to think through the alternatives etc. We get a different answer when we imagine that this all happens according to nature. The universal law of nature makes us think twice before we start making universal laws. Kant isn't utilitarian, and never wanted to take account of the effects of the laws we make. He just wanted to work out the moral laws that could be made into universal laws of nature.
Kant and PGD
A contemporary example shows how we use the 'means to an end' formulation. The Hashmis and the Whitakers both had a very sick child. In each case, they could have another child who might be able to act as a donor and save their existing child's life. Doing this naturally left them little chance of getting a match. However, using IVF they could select an embryo (through Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis) that would be able to act as a donor.
The Hashmis were allowed to do this. Their child had an inherited disorder, so screening was a benefit to the NEW baby too. After IVF, you would screen all embryos and discard the ones with the inherited disease. As you have already done the screening, there is no risk in selecting an embryo that is a donor match.
The Whitakers were not allowed to do this. Their existing child did not have an inherited disease. There would be no benefit to the NEW child if they screened, just the small risk that screening carries. If they screened the embryos, they would be using them merely as a means to an end, which Kant (and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) said was unacceptable.