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The Importance of Kantian ethics for journalists.

Immanuel Kant - portrait. Painting by Döbler, 1791. German Prussian philosopher, 22 April 1724 - 12 February 1804. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

At the apex of modern philosophy stands the “sage of Konigsberg”, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).His Categorical Imperative philosophical doctrine of Deontology was conceptualised when he deduced accepting things on faith alone “as a scandal on Philosophy”.

Kant’s three questions “What can I know? “, “What should I do? “, “What can I hope? “, as extolled in his Critique of Pure Reason posited that all philosophic doctrines attempts to answer these three questions.

Beginning with the need or desire to do the right thing, he established in his seminal work “Grounding for the metaphysics of morals” a framework for morally ethical behaviours. His Deontological moral theories are such that the rightfulness or otherwise of an action is not dependable on their consequences but rather with the imperative to fulfil a duty. (Scruton)

 Kant states that our duty is to be rational, consistent, and impartial. He decrees that we recognise the intrinsic worth of fellow human beings. That we act with Autonomy as if we are in “the Kingdom of ends. Kant embodies his Categorical Imperative by stating that humans should”Act only on the maxim through you can at the same time will that it becomes a universal law”. This imperative according to Kant was the supreme morality which underpinned all other moralities.

What should I do? “ Kant states that humans being naturally rational unlike animals should act in accordance with the universal morality as set out in the Categorical Imperative. Hume objected to this position and stated that “reason is wholly inactive and can never be a source of so active a principle as conscience or a sense of morals”. Hume also argued that morality is intuitive and that reason is not a motivator of moral actions. Aristotle spoke of a common sense (sensus communis) that humans intrinsically possess and therefore they should naturally know right from wrong.

In the doctrine Critique of Pure Reason, Kant considers time and space as mentalities of how a mind perceives the world. If that mind is that of journalist then there is a moral obligation to make proper sense of the how accurately that mind perceives events prior to reporting of same to media consumers who have put their trust in a noble profession to tell truths.(Frankfurt)

Kant stated that humans must never lie and that this is a perfect duty which must always hold true. If a journalist alters a story in any way, be it by embellishment, positive or negative subjective bias, withholding of essential facts etc, and in doing so alters the true reporting of the story and thereby rendering it a fiction.

According to Kant’s “means to an end” preposition this was an immoral choice where truthfulness is one of the cornerstones of Categorical Imperative”. (Warburton) Otherwise, all parties to the story engage in a conspiracy of “fake news” which is a Hypothetical Imperative desire driven action and not from the reasoning of the Categorical Imperative.

The most obvious current example of this is how U.S President Donald Trump has manipulated mass media and social media platforms with sometimes blatant untruths while at the same time debasing the basic tenets of journalism. Trumps approach is potentially very damaging for journalism as his propaganda may be perceived as actual news. It may very well be that Trump feels that he is acting in a Kantian manner based on duty with scant regard for the consequences of his actions.(Frankfurt) (Gardner)

The Kantian view holds that merely by being rational humans certain rights naturally accrue, like dignity, privacy rights and a sense of worth. This implies an empathic disposition towards other humans. The Categorical Imperative states “that you must not exploit people to suit yourself”. Considering the maxim “that you shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” and its implications for media ethics. As humans are ends in themselves, the Kantian ethics dictate that the journalist must not exploit them as useful subjects. (Scruton)

Deontological considerations are made at different levels. The first level being the individual journalists’ commitment to adhere to set guidelines in line with Kant’s requirement for free will. The second deontological level is a collective, for example the NUJ’s code of ethics.

The establishment of common ethical guides formulating three ethical commitments namely (1) accuracy, (2) fairness and (3) the protection of confidential informants which underpin the journalistic code of ethics not dissimilar to the physicians Hippocratic Oath which is to ultimately cause no harm.Codes of practices and the setting up of regulatory bodies are embodiments of Kantian influence. (Gardner)

What should I do? “Kant, in line with universal morality and drawing from the Enlightenment movement held that reason should dictate how people should act. Kant also held that only an unqualified good virtue is the only good will as other virtues can be misused in an immoral fashion.

Kohlberg (1927-1987) held that there were three basic levels of moral concern (fear of punishment, (2) loyalty and most importantly for journalists (3) Kohlberg posited that moral development meant going beyond rules and laws with Kant’s universal principal being freely adopted. The obvious implication is that there is now a way of dealing with the schism between the law and what action Kant felt duty required. There is a duty on journalist to preserve sources anonymity.

What can I hope? “, his ethical theory holds free will as a pre-requisition and a belief in what we can’t have knowledge of, such as supersensible objects and concepts like God and the soul.

Kant refused to consider the consequences or teleological ethics of moral decisions. This is perceived as a serious weakness for many of his critics including Mill. A common criticism of Kant’s moral theory is that it is empty (Warburton). Can we predict 100% the consequences of our actions?

The consequences of our actions based on our intentions can reverberate far beyond the reality setting of the initial occurrence. Consider how the Media behaved on the night of the death of Princess Diana, which put the ethical behaviours of journalist into sharp focus. By not adhering to ethical codes, foreseeability and casual contributions to consequences are evident in the Diana tragedy.

In summation, the fourth estate can take warning from modern day Kantian Onora O’Neill’s sagely advice that in the world today we should look out for three things: “Honesty, reliability and competence.” And “that transparency is not what we fantasise it to be”.(Humphreys) In her 1989 work, O’Neill states that Kant’s ethical writings are as much admired as ever and she also holds that obligations come before rights.

”On Bullshit”, Frankfurt (2005) states that “we have no theory” on what exactly bullshit is. He states that at least liars know they are liars but bullshitters do so with scant regard of their utterances being true or false.His follow up book.

“On Truth”(2006) states that truth is a virtue and he defends truth by saying ;” How could society which cared too little for truth make sufficiently well informed decisions”. For Frankfurt, like Kant he considers a duty to be the most important factor, a duty like truthfulness.

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