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Volume 14

Case Analysis of Harriet's Choice

Alina Misiunas
Newberry College

Key Words: Kant, Harriet, formulation, deontology, praiseworthiness


This paper examined the choice of Harriet and looks at three different formulations of Kant's theory of deontology to show that Harriet deserves moral praise for his actions. A business scenario is then compared to the basis on which praiseworthiness was established from Harriet's case.

Using Kant's theory of deontology, this paper examines praiseworthiness in the case known as Harriet's choice. The case involves two people simultaneously drowning 50 meters apart from one another and Harriet chose to save the life of the person she thought inherently most valuable. The question is, based on her choice, would Harriet be entitled to moral praise under Kant's theory? Stansbury and Sonenshein (2011) define praiseworthiness as, "…a subset of all honorable behaviors, specifically those actions that contribute to the good life of individuals and the communities within which they live and work" (p. 7). Three questions will be asked: is it possible to make her choice into a universal law; does her choice reflect her desire to not use a human to further her own means; and was her choice hypocritical. These questions will be reviewed in the conclusion to summarize Harriet's praiseworthiness (Kant, 1785).

Several key assumptions provide the framework with which Harriet's choice may be comparable to that of real situations in the business world. One such example is whistleblowing. An individual that discovers illegal activities within a company can come to the conclusion of two actions. One, the person can expose the activities, which could lead to the ruin of the company, that in turn would have negative repercussions for the employees. Two, the person could remain silent, and the dishonesty would continue, ensuing more harm than good. This scenario will be analyzed more thoroughly later after first examining Harriet's choice to establish a basis for giving moral praiseworthiness.

Examining Harriet's decision, it is worth noting that Harriet chose the person to save specifically because she perceived that person was inherently more valuable. Not because she was biased towards that person. Harriet acted because it was her duty to save another individual's life. She had an obligation that derived from duty. Kant's view of deontology, according to Seals (2014), is described as an act that may have good consequences but the act is still always wrong. These acts can yield pleasurable outcomes, but some acts are just flat out wrong no matter what.

Harriet's choice needs to pass three formulations of the moral law in order to be validated under the deontology theory. The first formulation is acting on a maxim. According to Sullivan (1989), a maxim is a "Subjective principle of action that contains a practical rule determined by reason in accordance with the conditions of a subject" (p. 28).  Harriet acted on a maxim that in turn can be made into a universal law. She rose to action to save another human; whereas if she did nothing, both individuals would have drowned. Therefore, when Harriet intervened and tried to save the most valuable person, she is acting in a way that would be acceptable if everyone did it. An argument could be made that Harriet must follow the duty to not kill someone; but in the process of choosing someone to save, Harriet is intentionally letting the other person drown. In contrast to this Harriet was not directly involved in the act of letting these people drown; but rather by stepping in and aiding in the rescue, she is helping to save a human life without concern for herself. According to Kant (1785), "For in this case, it is easy to distinguish whether the action in conformity with duty is done from duty or from a self-seeking aim" (p. 13).

The second formulation in Kant's theory of deontology refers to not using another human as a means (Kant, 1785). Harriet was not using another human as a way to benefit her; but rather she was trying to save a life without regard for herself. This is shown in the fact that Harriet herself could die by drowning while attempting to save another. Harriet took into account the value of the individual instead of basing her decision on emotion or on how she would benefit from the situation.

The third and last formulation is making sure that persons perform as if they are making it for the kingdom as a whole, in which everyone would treat everyone as an end and never as a means. Harriet did not act because everyone else would have done the same thing but because it was her moral duty to save the people who were drowning (Sullivan, 1998).

Now that Harriet's choice has been tested by Kant's three categorical imperatives, the example of whistleblowing can be looked at in more detail. First, an individual who discovered a whistleblower would need to expose the illegal activity in order for it to become a universal law; otherwise, the truth would have gone unannounced and the misdoings would keep occurring. Secondly, if the individual does expose the activity, then the person is not allowing another human to be used as a means to an end since any person employed by the company would be used as a means to achieve the illegal activity. Third, whistleblowing allows the employees to not be unknowingly deceived and involved in activity that is unlawful without their knowledge. The individual who does whistleblow about illegal activity is therefore entitled to praiseworthiness because the actions are justified by Kant's categorical imperatives.

Therefore, Harriet should be entitled to moral praise under Kant's theory of deontology. She passed all of the criteria that make the action she took morally permissible. Harriet did not just follow rules so that she could be morally correct according to deontology, but rather she followed the duties that guide a person to make better choices (White, 2009). Thus, Harriet's choice to save the person she thought inherently more valuable passed all three formulations of the deontology theory, and therefore she is entitled to moral praise. Kant's categorical imperatives can be used in the business world as with the example of whistleblowing, and through the use of formulations it can establish a basis for determining moral praiseworthiness. Further research should be conducted in order to evaluate Harriet's choice under different ethical theories because Kant's deontology may not be the most suitable or pragmatic approach.


Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Binghamton, New York: Vail-Ballou Press.

Seals, G. (2014). Lecture: Levels of business. (2014, September 9th). Newberry, SC: Newberry College.

Stansbury, J. and Sonenshein, S. (2011). "Positive Business Ethics," in K. S. Cameron and G. M. Spreitzer (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sullivan, R. (1989). Immanuel Kant's Moral Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, M. (2009). In Defense of Deontology and Kant: A Reply to van Staveren. Review of Political Economy, 21(2), 299–307.