Immanuel Kant was an 18th century philosopher concerned about equality and human rights.Â He wanted to find a moral basis for democracy that would respect religious beliefs but not require a religious belief as the basis of a just and moral social system.
Kant believed that moral duty is grounded in our respect for the human person and for our consistency in pinciples that uphold that respect for persons.Â It begins with respecting our own persons (ourselves) and then being consistent with treating other persons as we would want to be treated as a person.Â Kant provides us with a clear philosophical foundation for what is known as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.Â The Golden Rule states a principle of action; Kant shows us its rational foundation.
As you read Kant’s influential moral philosophy this week, focus on understanding two things in particular: (1) What Kant means by the categorical imperative; and (2) what it means in terms of duties and actions to be a human person, according to Kant.
The Kantian “good will.”
Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Practical Imperative
In ethics should consequences matter?
Immanuel Kant and Deontological Ethics
Ethics (Gk: ethos) is about morality (L. mores), that is, what are right and wrong
human actions or behaviors and what are good and bad human character traits. In
Western society, the study of and written works on ethics began in ancient Greece
with Plato and Aristotle. As you know from reading Aristotle’s ethics, he placed
an emphasis on human character or virtues in relationship to human happiness as
an end or goal. The study of ethics is also known as moral philosophy.
In addition, religious traditions embrace ethical or moral commands for its
adherents to abide by and the Ten Commandments are one example. Moral
principles are action guides for both individual and group behavior.
Why do we need morality? Why do we need rules or laws? What compels people
to be moral?
Louis Poyman, sums up five purposes of morality:1
To promote the survival of society
To resolve conflicts of interests justly
To promote human flourishing
To assign responsibility, praise and blame to actions
In sum, morality has to do with how we ought to live for our own good and the
good of society.
Types of ethics:
Deontological ethics (Gk: deon: meaning duty) places it emphasis on what we
ought to do or what we are obligated to do regardless of the consequences.
Teleological ethics (telos: goals or ends) includes utilitarian or consequentialist
ethics in which the consequences of one’s actions are considered as leading to
more happiness or good for those concerned.
Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher was both an absolutist and
deontological rationalist when it comes to ethics. In other words, he held that we,
1 Poyman, Louis, P. Philosophy: The Pursuit of Wisdom. 3rd Edition. Australia: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning,
2001, p. 252.2
by the use of human reason, could work out an absolute, that is, non-reversible,
consistent set of moral principles.
Poyman tells us about the cultural and religious influences upon Kant’s work.
To understand Kant’s moral philosophy, it is helpful to understand a little about his
life. Knat was born in Konigsberg, Germany in 1724 and spent all of his life there.
His parents were Pietists in the Lutheran church. The Pietists were a sect in the
church much like present day Quakers who emphasized sincerity, deep feeling, and
the moral life rather than theological doctrine or orthodox belief. Pietism is a
religion of the heart, not the head, of the spirit rather than ritual. However, Kant,
as an intellectual, emphasized the head as much as the heart, but it was a head that
was concerned about the moral life, especially goodwill.2
In addition to Pietism and his sense of inner goodness, Kant was also influenced by
the idea that “God judges us not on how lucky or successful we are in
accomplishing our tasks but on how earnestly we have lived according to our
principles.”3 Another influence was Jean Jacques Rousseau’s work, The Social
Contract, which highlighted the notions of “human dignity, human freedom,
autonomy, and that human beings have an intrinsic worth apart from an functions
that they might perform” in society.4 In addition, Kant was well aware of the
philosophical debates regarding rationalism and empiricism. With regard to moral
knowledge, the rationalists claimed that our knowledge of moral principles was a
type of metaphysical knowledge, implanted in us by God, which for us is
discoverable by reason. In other words, we can reason that there are general
principles regarding human nature, and from those we can deduce or infer some
On the other hand, the empiricists held that morality is founded entirely on the
contingencies of human nature and based on desire. Morality has to do with
making people happy, fulfilling their reflected desires, and reason is just a practical
means of helping us obtain our goals.
Human nature ——-feelings and desires—————–moral principles
2 Poyman, p, 295.
3 Poyman, p, 295.
4 Poyman, p. 295.3
Kant vigorously disagreed with the empiricists for he rejected the notion that
morality should be dependent only upon human desires and experience.
For Kant, only human rational will and the use of our ability to reason are
sufficient for establishing a moral law and it is something transcendent (this is the
metaphysical aspect) and universally binding on all rational creatures.
What is Kant’s goodwill?
Kant argues that goodwill is the only thing that intrinsically good, good in itself,
and without qualification. According to Kant, success and happiness are not good
in themselves. Honor can lead to pride, and happiness without goodwill and moral
worth is simply not worthwhile. In sum, while the intellectual and moral virtues
are valuable, they serve further happiness but they are not good in themselves, for
they too can serve a bad will and contribute to evil.
Kant and moral duty or obligation:
Kant sees duties as imperatives or commands and he named two kinds, which are
hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.
The hypothetical: If you want to A, then do B.
If you want a good job, then get a good education.
The hypothetical imperative is a “means—end” imperative and does not
characterize moral actions per se.
The categorical implies: Do B! Tell the truth. Honor your parents. Attend
According to Kant, moral duty must be done solely for its own sake. Some people
conform to the moral law because they know it is in their own good interest to do
so, but that not what Kant has in mind. In the Kantian sense, to act morally is to
act for the sake of the moral law without any regard for the consequences.
Kant’s categorical imperative:
“Act only on that maxim (general rule) whereby you can at the same time will that
it would become a universal law.” And then use this imperative to judge all other
Let us take the maxim “keep your promises”: With regard to borrowing money, we
can at the same time universalize it so that when one borrows money, one should
promise to pay the amount back to the lender.
Kant also thought that the categorical imperative lead to moral absolutes. In other
words, rules that the CI leads to are universal, they apply to everyone, and they are
without exception. Of course, when applied to truth telling, it appears universal,
but many find it absoluteness too narrow and therefore, counterintuitive in some
circumstances. One example is when one lies in order to save innocent life.
Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative—the principle of ends
“So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in
ever case as an end and never as merely a means to some end.”
Kant argues that every rational being has dignity and profound worth and that her
or she must never be exploited, manipulated, or merely used as a means to our idea
of what is for the general good or to any other end.
According to Kant, humans tend to value things or consider things as worthy of
some type of conditional value such as personal privacy, property, money etc. So
to, we as people are not mere objects so we ought to value the self and others as
having an unconditional worth.
For Kant, the fact that we have reason, and can reason morally, elevates us among
all other animals. Kant’s second CI leads to problems with regard to our treatment
of animals. Most of us would agree that even though animals are without reason,
they are sentient beings since they can feel pain; therefore, we ought to treat
animals with respect as sentient creatures.
What about the treatment of criminals? What about killing others in combat?
Kant on autonomy:
According to Poyman and the principle of autonony: every rational being is able to
regard himself as a maker of universal law: that is, one does not need an external
authority, be it God, the state, one’s culture, or anyone else to determine the nature
of the moral law. One can discover this for oneself, and the Kantian faith
proclaims everyone who is ideally rational will legislate exactly the same universal5
moral principles.5 Whereas the heteronomous person is one whose action are
motivated by the authority of others, whether it be religion, the state, one’s parents
or peer group.
For Kant, a mature, rational person could know the moral law and universalize that
law, therefore, those persons belong to the kingdom of ends.
Kant’s Morality and Metaphysics in Cronk’ text p. 221:
According to Kant, theoretical reasoning is transcendentally focused on freedom of
the will, the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. Yet the real value
and importance of moral knowledge are related to freedom of the will and our
practical interests and not our theoretical interests.
A higher question concerning our practical interests concerns What ought we to do,
if the will is free, if there is a God and a future life.
P. 222: A free will that id determined independently of physical impulses and
instincts is based upon reason and everything related to this will whether as cause
or consequence is called practical for it has to do with actions.
Why the will is free: We have the power to resist and overcome the impressions
that arouse our sensuous desires by calling up thoughts of what, in the long run, is
useful or hurtful to us. In other words, we can direct our thoughts and actions to
According to Kant, objective laws of freedom tell us what ought to happen (though
sometimes it does not happen) which differs from the laws of nature which only
relate to what does happen. Laws of freedom are practical laws.
A rule of conduct tells us what ought or ought not to be done: Rules such as do not
lie, do not cheat or steal, do not commit adultery. Honor or respect your parents.
Care for the needs of your children.
The existence of the moral law: what ought I to do?
5 Poyman, 304.6
The pragmatic law (through experience) shows what we have to do in order to
become happy; the moral law (known a priori) reveals how we must live in order
to deserve happiness.
Some a priori moral laws or general principles: Do not murder, do not lie, steal or
The idea of a moral world:
Through the freedom of rational beings, the world can operate in accordance with
moral laws. To the extent that it can operate morally, it ought to do so and to that
extent it is a moral world. Indeed, for practical reasons such as human interactions
and the well being of society we can have a good influence upon the sensible
What should I do? Answer: do that through which you will become worthy of