The Two Shopkeepers- Kantian Ethics and Consequentialism

Liza G Prof. Williams Ethics 21 November 2011 The Two Shopkeepers One of the several topics covered in Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is the issued of two shopkeepers. One shopkeeper is honest with his customers in order to maintain a positive reputation and improve profits. The second one is honest because he thinks it is right and exercises his respect for the moral law. The first shopkeeper is motivated to be honest by the rewards of a positive reputation and profit. The second is motivated by respect for morally right action.

Taking these motivations into consideration from the standpoint of Kantian ethics, it is clear which shopkeeper is acting right. Kant believes that actions that are consistent with moral law, yet motivated for desires for happiness or pleasure are absent of moral worth. One reason he concludes this can be seen in Groundwork where he introduces the idea of the categorical imperative. This idea contains two formulas, the first one states that one ought to “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law” (Singer 274).

In other words, if ones principle, or maxim, behind what they are doing is something they would be willing to make a universal law, it is a good action. The first shopkeeper’s motivation to be honest is inconsistent with this formula, as their maxim of being honest is purely selfish, and it would not be effective if willed to a universal law. This is because it fails the concept of reversibility, for in an ideal society one would want others to treat him according to what the other person is doing.

In this case, society would not function in the sense of moral rightness because if everyone acted honest to each other for solely their benefit, no one could trust anyone else or assume they are acting out of respect for the moral law. Since the first shopkeeper’s action fails the notion of reversibility, it also fails the universalizability test in which actions can be willed into a universal law. Secondly, the first shopkeeper is not acting in compliance with Kant’s second formula of the end in itself.

This notion of respect for persons has to do with treating people as having intrinsic value in and of themselves. The first shopkeeper is only acting to reward himself through the means of his customers. The fact that he is not rewarding customers with honesty, but complying with the moral law in order to reward himself with a good reputation and profit makes it so that he is not acting rightly. The second shopkeeper, however, is acting in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative. This shopkeeper acts in accordance with the first formulation of universalizability.

Unlike the first, the second shopkeeper is honest because he knows it is morally right. And this passes the universalizability test since an ideal society would inhabit people who act based on the sense of right and wrong, according to Kant. The keeper’s honesty is also reversible, because if others in a society acted out of respect for the moral law like he is, everyone would be acting right towards one another. He complies with the second formulation by his honesty with customers out of respect for the moral law.

He is not only using the treatment of his customers as a means for honesty, but also as an end respect for the moral law. In other words, being honest with his customers is not only enabling him to act morally right, but allowing him to be evaluated as respecting the moral law (Singer 274-275). Now, a consequentialist thinker would not judge the shopkeepers moral intentions, but would judge the acts they do by the consequences they produce. Consequentialism is a normative ethical theory where actions are right or wrong based on the consequences that result from action.

This contradicts Kant’s notion of evaluating the moral intentions of the action, regardless of the consequence it produces. This theory often adopts ideas seen within utilitarianism, where an action is good or right considering how many people it benefits. For example, a consequentalist may say murder of one person to save one hundred people is right simply because of its consequence. But a non-consequentialist, or deontologist, such as Kant would conclude that killing someone is always morally wrong regardless of the consequence.

Applying the consequentialist theory to the shopkeepers’ actions, one can conclude that neither of the shopkeepers is acting in accordance with the ideas of consequentialism. Evaluation of their actions through the mind of a consequentialist will explain this conclusion. Considering the utilitarianist approach within the theory of consequetialism, neither of the shopkeepers is acting rightly. This is because a utilitarianist judges a situation based on how many people it will produce the best consequences for.

Since the first shopkeeper is simply benefitting himself, he is not acting in accordance with this process of judgment, but rather benefiting his own ego. And the second shopkeeper is also not acting in accordance with this process because, if anything, he is only benefitting himself with the feeling of acting morally right since he acts in respect for moral law. His honesty may allow him to feel confident that he is doing the right thing, but it fails to benefit anyone else in a sufficient way.

Personally, I see the situation from the consequentalist point of view to be closer related to my own perception of the shopkeepers’ actions. I say this because I tend to cast consideration for other people aside. That is to say, the respect for persons and passage of the universalizability test are not as important in determining my actions. I see consideration for the greater society as well as for myself of more importance than acting in accordance with moral law.

For instance, I perceive killing one person for the greater good of one hundred as a more realistic and commonsensical than refraining from benefiting all of those people because killing is morally wrong. The fact that I label myself as a realist also greatly affects which viewpoint I see fit. The realistic view to have for the sake of the betterment of society is definitely that of a consequentialist, as acting solely for respect of moral law can sometimes harm humanity. This especially applies to cases where morally right thinking contradicts logical thinking, like in the example of sacrificing one for the sake of many.

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