Philosophy Through the Centuries



Immanuel Kant 1724-1804

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804 Today…


Kant’s view of the reality
Kant’s ethics

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804 Kant wanted to discover the possible limits of our knowledge. He wanted to settle debate between Empiricists and Rationalists. Rationalists: There is a world distinct from the sensible world that we know about. We can find out about the world through reason alone.

Empiricists: There is no such world. We can only know about the sensible world (i.e. the world we see). We find out about the world through observation.

Kant’s journey led him to discover a number of paradoxes… He called these “Antinomies” The Space/Time Paradox: Suppose that time extends infinitely back. Then you would never be able to explain how we got to the present. This is because an infinite amount of time would have passed before we got to this year. And an infinite amount of time would take forever, so we could never get here. But… That means time must have a beginning. And this is a problem because if time had a beginning, there must be some event before that beginning (the event that caused time to start). But for an event to occur before another event means that it must have occurred in time… (the definition of “before”). So it seems that time does extend infinitely back.

Zeno’s Paradox: If you want to move from one side of the room to the other you first need to get half way there. Before that you need to get quarter way there…etc. Will never get to the other side.

Freewill/Determinism paradox How can we live in a causal universe (governed by strict laws of nature) and still be truly free? We will talk more about this in the next session

Kant’s solution to these types of problem was a revolution Our common sense view is that there is a world out there that is independent from us. It impresses itself on our minds and it structures our minds. Kant said “no!” He said we are born with minds and the world must conform to our minds. Our minds structure the world. Our minds bring the world into order so that we can understand it. Space/time is dependent on subjective experience--dependent on mind. The universe and objects are things in themselves. We have access to appearances only.

Kant’s view of the Universe

NOUMENAL: Universe is what the universe is in itself.

We can’t know the noumenal objects directly. The noumenal world is a timeless, formless, collection of existence that we can not understand directly. PHENOMENAL: Objects are the way things appear to us after we stamp our Space/Time constructs on Noumenal objects.
We can experience phenomenal objects. They are our interpretation of the noumenal objects.

Kant’s ethics are based on his approach to knowledge Kant is a rationalist, so his ethical theories need to be founded in logic.

A traditional view of ethics: We gain our ethical knowledge from the Bible

Delicious Biblecake

We look to the bible to find out what is right and wrong… e.g. murder is wrong

Problem with this: Much of the bible is a terrible moral guide.

People say that only parts of the bible are a good moral guide. But if we can choose which parts, then we already have an idea of what is right and wrong. The bible is not needed as a moral guide.

A common theory of Ethics Utilitarianism (greatest good theory) An action is right if it increases happiness in the world. Problem with this: What about stealing food. It could be that it increases total happiness because the thief gains more happiness than is lost by the people who were robbed. In this case the Utilitarian would say that stealing food was right

Another problem for Utilitarianism: A world with 6 billion people each with a happiness factor of 10 is a better place than a world of 1 million people each with a happiness factor of 100.


6000000000 100



What about a pleasure machine? Would it be right for all humans to be hooked up to a pleasure machine?

How about forcing people to be hooked up to pleasure machine against their will?

According to Utilitarianism it is right to do this because happiness in the world would be higher.

Kant has a different type of ethical theory. Kant’s 2 rules of ethics: Rule # 1: Only act if it makes sense that the action could be a universal rule, i.e. That everyone can act that way ALL THE TIME. Why? It all comes down to logic. Can it ever be right to lie? By Kant’s rule 1, it is never right to lie because lying can never become a universal rule. Imagine if everyone told nothing but lies. That would mean that “telling the truth” is telling something that is never true. That’s a logical contradiction.

Or try this example: Is it ever right to break a promise? Imagine that it is a universal law that all promises are always broken. This would mean that the concept of a promise is contradictory. This is because a promise would by definition “be an unbreakable commitment that is always broken”. This is a logical contradiction and so therefore cannot be right.

What about if a madman with a gun burst into this room and asked us “Where is Braden?” Is it okay to lie?

Kant says no. It is never okay to lie because lying cannot be universalized.
Tell the man the truth, and the moral burden of the resulting action sits on his shoulders. We are safe in the knowledge that we did the morally right thing by not lying.

Rule #2: Always treat rational beings as an end in themselves, never a means to an end. Whenever your actions involve another person, your action cannot treat that person as a means to satisfy your own good. You ought never to use someone else for your own gain. You can see that this rule is nicely compatible with rule #1.

Powerpoint by BRENT SILBY

Produced at UPT Christchurch, New Zealand

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