Josh Jones over at Open Culture:
The history of moral philosophy in the West hinges principally on a handful of questions: Is there a God of some sort? An afterlife? Free will? And, perhaps most pressingly for humanists, what exactly is the nature of our obligations to others? The latter question has long occupied philosophers like Immanuel Kant, whose extreme formulation—the “categorical imperative”—flatly rules out making ethical decisions dependent upon particular situations. Kant’s famous example, one that generally gets repeated with a nod to Godwin, involves an axe murderer showing up at your door and asking for the whereabouts of a visiting friend. In Kant’s estimation, telling a lie in this case justifies telling a lie at any time, for any reason. Therefore, it is unethical.
In the video at the top of the post, Harry Shearer narrates a script about Kant’s maxim written by philosopher Nigel Warburton, with whimsical illustrations provided by Cognitive. Part of the BBC and Open University’s “A History of Ideas” series, the video—one of four dealing with moral philosophy—also explains how Kant’s approach to ethics differs from those of utilitarianism. In the video above, Shearer describes that most utilitarian of thought experiments, the “Trolley Problem.” As described by philosopher Philippa Foot, this scenario imagines having to sacrifice the life of one for those of many. But there is a twist—the second version, which involves the added crime of physically murdering one person, up close and personal, to save several. An analogous but converse theory is that of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (below) who proposes that our obligations to people in peril right in front of us equal our obligations to those on the other side of the world.