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Philosophy and the pandemic, part III: Deontology according to Immanuel Kant

📝An article written by Irene-Daphne Stefanou, junior student at the Law School of Athens and Head of the Department of Theory and History of Law at Just in Case


Immanuel Kant is considered the most influential moral philosopher of the 18th century. He developed a moral and legal theory called “Deontology[1]”, which is completely incompatible with utilitarianism[2]. Since the utilitarian point of view has already been analyzed, Kant’s deontology is to be correlated with bioethics and the way governments have faced the COVID-19 pandemic.


First, Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy will be presented; but beforehand, Kant’s definition of Law will be posed: Law[3] is a set of rules and regulations that combine the will of citizens. One must note the importance of freedom and civil rights in Kant’s work, which is compatible with his moral theory, called “moral autonomy”[4].


According to the principle of moral autonomy, each and every person is free to decide independently, as long as they can justify (a) and embrace (b) their decisions and recognize the same right to all others individually (c). The Kantian moral philosophy might seem individualistic at first, however Kant is strictly opposed to pratiques that are indifferent towards the consequences of our actions on the society and others; the Kantian point of view is focused on internal freedom[5] and this is where the theory of categorical imperatives comes in handy.


According to the aforementioned theory, a human action (or omission) is to be considered moral, only if the motive behind it is the Duty (“out of duty”), not an internal tendency, urge or emotion. The more distanced from the tangible world our logic is, the closer it is to Reason/ the Right, and therefore to Morality. Man is the only living creature endowed with rationality and logic, therefore only humans can act within Reason and can be considered moral or immoral. Humans must be considered as an end themselves, not as means to achieve our ends; We are also required to act according to the universalization principle[6].


Despite the charming nature of the Kantian moral philosophy, it lacks practicality and applicability, when it comes to worldly problems, such as the pandemic, for: a) we can never know if one acts out of duty, which is the quintessence of the Kantian moral thought, or just according to the duty – which is a shallow application of the Right, hence its immorality – and b) the content of the term “Right/Reason” is abstract, and therefore subject to many different interpretations. It is also idealistic, vague and unclear, which is a thing that cannot be approved in practical philosophy.


Now, we are about to explore the clear legal theory of Immanuel Kant[7], where he highlights the importance of the external freedom of man. The negative definition of the term “external freedom” will lead us to the following conclusion: it is the opportunity of man to act freely, without interventions from their environment (from other individuals, from the state etc.). The purpose of a legal system according to Kant is to maximize the external freedom of citizens, which will lead us to Justice, which not to be confused with Reason/ the Right[8].


There is an intense bond between the Kantian Justice and the categorical imperative, according to which all humans are ends, not merely means to achieve another end. The lawmakers should provide for the prosperity of the State, not for the sole happiness of its citizens, for “we cannot legislate morality”. The mere State-forced compulsion for or against some actions/omissions strips them from their morality, as our moral choices should be based on our own free will. It is noteworthy that the Kantian legal philosophy gravitates towards the outwardly (typical) obedience to the law, not towards the sense of Duty that his moral philosophy is based on.


The legal theory of Immanuel Kant presents many difficulties in the extreme case of a world-wide pandemic such as COVID-19 because its conclusions might create many moral inhibitions. However, Kant seems indifferent towards these moral boundaries, as he believes in the complete separation of morality and law[9].


On one hand, as far as the duty of rescue is concerned, Kant states that our liability for our own happiness – hence our responsibility for our own lives[10] – is a categorical imperative. One the other hand, that would deprive us of our own claim of provision of help in times of peril. Man is to be protected as an absolute value, nevertheless. This is the reason why according to Kant, and to the current Greek Criminal Code (GCC), article 307[11], all men have a legal duty of help in times of crisis.


The legal theory of Kant is deemed as inadequate for the philosophical resolution of the pandemic, as it leads us to a dead-end conclusion: on one hand, Kant supports the idea that we have a legal duty of help in times of need and danger, thus, in such trying times such as during a pandemic, we should contain ourselves at home as long as possible, in order to protect the lives of all people, especially those of high-peril groups (the elderly, the immunosuppressed etc.). On the other hand, Kant states that mostly our external freedom is of legal value, which is dramatically and consistently suppressed and limited during lockdowns. So, it is quite reasonable that lockdowns are strictly opposed to the Kantian idea of Justice.


A solution, possibly quite remote from the beliefs of Immanuel Kant, but not completely incompatible nevertheless, could be the imposing of health measures (ex. masks), but in no way could the absolute social isolation of the human population be tolerated; the enforcement of health measures promotes the maximization of external freedom (Justice) and it is suitable with our legal duty of help (which is a categorical imperative in Kantian philosophy).


Lockdowns are divergent from the Kantian way of thinking, since the broad, healthy mass of people is handled as a means, as a way to protect those in danger. We could invoke the same argument in the exact opposite case: in the case of complete anarchy (boundless freedom) during a pandemic, the very life of those in high-peril groups is sacrificed for the freedom of the majority. However, Kant could support that the lives of those in danger is not taken advantage of, because Justice, which promotes the maximization of external freedom, concerns all people. It is matter of fact that everyone can live, at least for a while.


According to Kant’s philosophy, law shouldn’t only be in favor of survival: freedom is of utmost importance. This thesis, however, is ableist and too cruel for today’s standards and it would be deemed as fully opposed to humanism.



Bibliography – Citations:


Αντωνίου, Θεοδώρα, “Ιστορία Πολιτικών Ιδεών: Από τον 17ο αιώνα έως τις απαρχές του 21ου αιώνα”, Αθήνα, ΝΟΜΙΚΗ ΒΙΒΛΙΟΘΗΚΗ, 2016, σελ. 99-106 (Antoniou, Theodora, “the History of Political Ideas: Since the 17th century till the beginning of the 21st century”, Athens, Greece, NOMIKI VIVLIOTHIKI Publishing House, 2016, p. 99 – 106)


Greek Criminal Code (in force since November 2021)


Σούρλας, Κ., Παύλος, “Justi atque injusti scientia: Μιά εισαγωγή στην επιστήμη του δικαίου”, Αθήνα, Εκδόσεις Αντ. Ν. Σάκκουλα Ε.Ε., 2015 (ανατύπωση), σελ. 86 – 95 (Sourlas, K., Pavlos, “Justi atque injusti scientia: An introduction to the Science of Law”, Athens, Greece, Ant. N. Sakkoulas, 2015)


Fletcher, P., George, “Law and Morality: A Kantian Perspective”, Νέα Υόρκη, Columbia Law Review, 1987, σελ. 533 - 558, https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2046&context=faculty_scholarship


Image's source: https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/a-post-pandemic-era-human-rights-challenges-for-a-new-normal.html


[1] The term is considered inaccurate: “Deontology” is of Greek etymology («δέον» + «λέγω»). The contemporary definition of “deontology” is a set of moral and practical rules that one must obey in his professional field. The term that is used in Greek, in order to refer to Kant’s philosophy, is «δεοντοκρατία» («δέον» + «κρατώ»), which thus far has not been accepted by the English philosophical terminology.

[2] An analysis of utilitarianism according to Jeremy Bentham and. John Stuart Mill is available on www.justincaseath.com , written by the same author.

[3] Αντωνίου, Θεοδώρα, “Ιστορία Πολιτικών Ιδεών: Από τον 17ο αιώνα έως τις απαρχές του 21ου αιώνα”, Αθήνα, ΝΟΜΙΚΗ ΒΙΒΛΙΟΘΗΚΗ, 2016, σελ. 99-106

[4] Βλ. και Σούρλας, Κ., Παύλος, “Justi atque injusti scientia: Μιά εισαγωγή στην επιστήμη του δικαίου”, Αθήνα, Εκδόσεις Αντ. Ν. Σάκκουλα Ε.Ε., 2015 (ανατύπωση), σελ. 86 - 95 [5] Fletcher, P., George, “Law and Morality: A Kantian Perspective”, Νέα Υόρκη, Columbia Law Review, 1987, σελ. 533 - 558, https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2046&context=faculty_scholarship [6] A categorical imperative, which can be defined as the duty to act as if our actions (and omissions) could be applied to each and every similar case, as a law

[7] Fletcher, P., George, “Law and Morality: A Kantian Perspective”

[8] Justice – Legal philosophy, Recht/the Right/Reason – Moral philosophy

[9] Fletcher, P., George: “You cannot legislate morality”

[10] This a minore ad maius argument is not valid, as a paternalistic point of view would oppose. Our responsibility for our lives does not imply that we are also responsible for our happiness, which can be state-controlled.

[11] “Όποιος με πρόθεση παραλείπει να σώσει άλλον από κίνδυνο ζωής αν και μπορεί να το πράξει χωρίς κίνδυνο της δικής του ζωής ή υγείας, τιμωρείται με φυλάκιση μέχρι ενός έτους.” (“If one omits to save another person from a life peril with intent, on condition that they can do so without posing their own life or health to danger, they are to be punished with imprisonment of 1 year max.”)


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