Police officers in North Carolina bought food for a poor, single mother who stole from a supermarket. Can stealing be morally sound if the ends justify the means? Let's look to Kantian ethics for an answer.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is one of the most influential philosophers of all time. He rigorously developed a powerful theory of ethics, centering morality on rational obligation to duty.
Kant saw human beings as the sources of nature’s laws: we structure our experiences. Through the power of our critical reasoning we can transcendentally produce moral laws that free ourselves from worldly biases. The trick? Live in tune with the ‘categorical imperative’: do X because it is one’s duty to do X; follow moral principles that you expect yourself and everyone else to follow. Your moral virtue, as a person, is born in your actions’ intentions, not their consequences (cf. utilitarianism).
Rules, therefore, constitute part of Kant’s deontological ethics, with which moral facts are characterised by moral choices people make. Contrast this with theories which with moral actions are determined by kinds of people (e.g. virtue ethics) or the outcomes of certain actions (e.g. consequentialism).
Consequentialism often sits in dialectic opposition to deontology: in a nutshell, the former provides a means to judge outcomes whereas the latter provides a means to judge intentions.
The categorical imperative of Kant’s deontological ethics is an absolutist philosophy, finding itself in many real-world conflicts. For example, if you believe that no one should steal, you would have to forbid every impoverished single mother from stealing from profit-hungry supermarkets. There is no reason, including her children starving and her stealing being a rare event, that can command otherwise: it’s a simple rule—a duty—that should be followed. This seems absurd.
Lying is also prohibited in Kant’s theory. Why? Succinctly, Kant thought that lying generates distrust in one’s own principles. If I can’t follow them, how can I expect anyone else to? Therefore, Kant would not have endorsed my lying to Nazi soldiers about Jews I was hiding in my house during World War II, for lying morally undermines my adhesion to my own principles and thus my moral virtue. Similarly, if an impoverished single mother lied to a friend because she was embarrassed by her current life’s conditions, she would be immoral in this respect, too.
Kant’s theory, then, is often in disharmony with basic intuition. But does this matter?