Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
• Born, spent his whole life & died in Konigsberg in East Prussia.His most important works were: Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Critique of Judgement (1790), Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), The Metaphysics of Morals (1797). • Kant stands as part of the European Enlightenment, the attempt to get beyond authority & superstition & deal with the world on the basis of human reason. • It had been assumed that sense experience conformed to external reality, but Kant argued that we experience the world as we do simply because that is the way our senses function. • We do not know things as they are in themselves, but only as they appear to us. • The religious implications of his views were controversial. Following the publication of Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, he was forbidden by the university to write any more on matters of religion.


• a posteriori - used of an argument based on sense experience • a priori - used of an argument that arises prior to sense experience • Categorical imperative - a moral ‘ought’ that does not depend on results • Hypothetical imperative - something you need to do if you are to achieve a desired result

Key Issue I
For Kant, the key issue is how to discover a rational basis for one’s sense of duty, & from that devise a principle by which one could distinguish between right & wrong


Key Issue II
How do we solve moral problems?
For Kant, the answer to this question is that we use reason. Human beings, according to Kant, are rational & can work out what is right & what is wrong.


Kant’s thinking:• Kant saw clearly that, where empirical evidence was concerned, there could be no certainty. • He also realised that one could never argue logically from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, for facts show what is, not what ought to be. • He therefore wanted to find a new starting point for morality, one that was not dependent on anything as ambiguous as evidence. • He found it in the idea of a ‘good will’.

“There is no possibility of thinking of anything at all in the world…which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgement, & whatever talents of the mind one might want to name are doubtless in many respects good & desirable, as are such qualities as temperance, courage, resolution, perseverance. But they can become extremely bad & harmful if the will…is not good….a good will seems to constitute the indispensable condition of being even worthy of happiness”. (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals 1785)

Kant’s agenda;
• To place the ‘good will’ at the very centre of ethics. • In many ways, Kant represents a turning point in ethics. • After his work it became impossible to ignore the active role of the person who behaves morally. • Morality is not to be found in evidence we can analyse, nor in results we may try to predict, but only in the exercise of freedom & good will in an action.

Connection I
• Kant follows Aristotle in seeing virtue as a human excellence. • In choosing to act morally, one is exercising an inner freedom in following a sense of one’s purpose & destiny, & expressing one’s will & virtues in an exercise of pure practical reason. • Kant saw the development of virtues as its own reward, and ethics - action springing from the pure practical reason - as the sole means of bringing this about. • The intention of Kant’s morality is to set aside all egocentricity, & move towards an unconditional & universal sympathy.

Connection II
• In looking at the moral argument for the existence of God we know that, for Kant, God was one of the postulates of the practical reason. • In other words, it is one of the things that makes sense of the experience of acknowledging a moral obligation & responding to it. • However, Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ can stand on its own as an ethical theory, & does not depend on God as a postulate. • It is important to keep these 2 aspects of Kant’s philosophy separate; but also to recognise that the experience of morality lies at the heart of both the argument for the existence of God & Kant’s moral theory.

• It had earlier been assumed that ‘good’ could be defined with reference to the world, & therefore it was something to be discovered & explored, & in line with which one should direct one’s action. • This is certainly the case, for example, with Aquinas’ view of Natural Law. It is good for everything to follow its natural purpose & end doing so constitutes its ‘good’. • But for Kant, ‘good’ is related to the will, not in a set of values to be found in the world.

The summum bonum
• Kant sees the summum bonum (the ‘highest good’) as the joining of virtue & happiness. • But it is virtue, in doing one’s duty, that comes first; happiness is always a bonus that may be added, & it cannot be guaranteed.


The highest form of morality is to do one’s duty against one’s inclinations.

For Kant:

He sets out 3 propositions that fix the boundaries of morality:
1 Your action is moral only if you act from a sense of duty. 2 Your action is moral only if you act on the basis of a principle, or maxim. 3 It is your duty to act out of reverence for the moral law.

Kant argued that, in obeying a moral command, we are accepting 3 things:1 Freedom: because I experience myself as having a free choice. 2 God: because if I feel obliged to do something, I must have a sense that the world is designed in such a way that doing the right thing will eventually lead to happiness. In a godless world, nothing would matter. 3 Immortality: because I may not be able to achieve the good I seek in following this moral obligation in the course of this lifetime. On the other hand, if I still go ahead & do it, it shows that I am in some way looking beyond this life.

To Kant:
• One should act as if there were a God, even if God cannot be proved. One acts to fulfil one’s own moral imperative as though God had commanded it, without attachment to the results of the action. • The key feature to notice here is that acting morally has become an end in itself. • If a person believes in God, behaving morally could be seen as a way to achieve happiness by gaining His approval. • However, Kant wants moral development to be free from all considerations of consequences.

Let go of the ego..
..and thereby drop the distinction between the self & the world. ________________________________ What if I act in a way that is based on pure practical reason, not looking at the possible results of my action? I would be spontaneous, acting solely on the basis of my will, & I would therefore be free.

The categorical & hypothetical imperatives.
Categorical Imperative

Tells you that you should do something, without any reference to the likely result (e.g. ‘you should always tell the truth).

Hypothetical Imperative Tells you what you should do in order to achieve a given result. All hypothetical imperatives come in the form of an ‘if…then’ statement.


The categorical imperative comes in 3 forms:1 ‘So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law’.
This form of the CI therefore provides a simple, logical test. If you are content that everyone else should be bound by the same principle upon which you are acting, then what you are doing is logically consistent & therefore right. If, on the other hand, what you want to do would involve a contradiction, or be self-defeating, if everyone followed that same maxim, then it is wrong.

2 This formulation concerns the treatment of other people. ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person, or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end’.
Note that Kant’s morality is a priori (see slide 3). It is established quite apart from a consideration of possible results. Kant firmly believed that a person experienced his or her own worth primarily when acting in this way, based on a priori reason, & not simply responding to sense experience. His moral vision here is that a person should set aside all considerations of personal gain & have a genuinely universal sympathy. By doing so, one achieves what is highest in human nature.

3 The 3rd form of the CI highlights Kant’s view that it is human reason that determines morality: ‘Act as if [you are] a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends’. By the ‘kingdom of ends’, Kant means the society of rational beings, each of whom are to be treated as ‘ends’ rather than as ‘means’. We are to be members in such a kingdom & also its legislators. As free, autonomous, rational, moral agents, we do not discover morality - we make it.


Kant & the real world
• A challenge to Kantian ethics came from a journal article in 1986 by Christine Korsgaard. In which she points out that obeying the moral law puts a person at a disadvantage when dealing with people who are wicked. • If I treat people as free moral agents, rather than trying to restrain them when they are doing something wrong, then I am effectively colluding with them in their behaviour. • The same thing happens with the 3rd formulation – legislating for a kingdom of ends. This represents an ideal situation, & not a practical one. • In the real world people do not always choose to follow what pure practical reason requires.

However:• The 1st formulation – that one should act in such a way that the maxim of one’s actions could become a universal law – it is possible to justify, for example restraining someone from doing harm to another. • This is because it is perfectly reasonable to work universally with the maxim ‘Whenever I see someone about to harm another, I will restrain him or her’ without contradiction.

• Working with an ideal situation, rather than with the messy contradictions of human beings creates some problems for Kantian theorists. • Because in practice, people do know their situation, and may be inclined toward self-interest, rather than the overall benefit of society. • The problem of the ‘kingdom of ends’ is always that there will be some people who see everyone else as a means to their own personal end – with chaotic results if they are not in some way restrained.

Summary of Kantian deontology
1) It is very straightforward & based on reason. Therefore it conforms to what most people think of as morality. 2) It gives criteria by which to assess universal principles of morality. 3) It makes clear that morality is a matter of doing one’s duty, not following one’s inclinations. 4) It is rational & certain, & does not depend on results or happiness.

Connection I
5. Kant wanted reason to prevail over the ambiguities of inclination & experience. He therefore sought a moral principle that would be universally applicable, based on the pure practical reason exercised through our rational will. 6. He saw morality as involved only with those situations where a person acts out of a sense of duty. To do something good simply because you enjoy doing it is not in itself moral. Morality is always a matter of conscious choice.

Connection II
7. He was concerned with duty for its own sake, irrespective of the results of carrying it out. 8. To Kant, morality is outside the realm of nature. The good will is concerned with duty for duty’s sake - & that cannot be supported by facts about the world, only by our own experience of a moral challenge. 9. To Kant, autonomy is crucial. The principles of my action come from my practical reason alone; they are not imposed on me from outside.

However:1. Its abstract & general principles may seem far removed from the immediacy of moral situations. 2. General principles do not always help where there are choices to be made between options, each of which could be justified. 3. Motives are seldom pure, people seldom act from the pure practical reason.

4. Most people do want to take the result of their actions into account, & may feel guilty if harm comes as a result of their good intentions. 5. There is a certain arrogance about the view that one should stick to one’s universal moral principles no matter what the circumstances. There may be occasions when it would be right to tell a lie – one might achieve a greater good than by conforming to a principle of truthtelling. So perhaps the categorical imperative is too general.

A key point:
• Kant begins with the experience of moral obligation. • But what if people do not feel challenged in this way? • What if they claim that they never feel they ought to do anything that they do not actually want to do? • It is difficult to see how Kant’s approach could ever persuade someone to act morally. • If they already want to do the right thing, Kant’s categorical imperative can be used as a guide, but if they do not, Kant would appear to have nothing to offer.

A contrast with Utilitarianism
• For Utilitarianism, you start with ‘the good’ (e.g. happiness or benefit), & something is judged ‘right’ if it brings about & maximises that good (e.g. ‘the greatest good for the greatest number). • For Kant, you decide – on grounds of pure practical reason – what is right & your duty; & you should follow this irrespective of your inclinations or the results that your action may have. • For Utilitarians, the starting point is the welfare & happiness of all; for Kant, it is the recognition of everyone as a free, autonomous moral agent, to be treated as an end & never simply as a means.

Kant & democracy
Kant’s moral theory depends, as we have seen, on a kingdom of free, autonomous human beings, each an ‘end’, each responsible for legislating universally. This was a democratic ideal, from a period that saw both the French and American revolutions.

And finally,
• It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of Kant for the whole development of ethics from his day through to the 21st century. • With Kant, the human reason and will stand supreme. Man takes his rational stand & no longer looks outside himself for external guarantors of moral rectitude. • It is a short step from this point to start to see the whole of moral value as something that is to be created by the human will & imposed on the natural world, or even a philosophy in which human meaning & purpose plays the central role. • From Nietzsche and later, existentialism, we are examining philosophical ideas that draw on Kant’s contribution. • Since Kant, all values are seen as generated by man, not encountered by him.


Exercises for you:1) Explain the difference between a hypothetical & categorical imperative. Do you think that the categorical imperative, as presented by Kant, provides a sufficient guide to what is right & wrong? 2) What, for Kant, was an obligation? 3) Why did Kant believe that humans are autonomous?

Response to Q1
1) Here it is important to include the 1st 2 formulations of the CE: that one must be able to will that the maxim of one’s action shall become a universal law, & also that people should be treated as ends & never as means. Together, they do provide a very general, rational framework fro assessing moral issues – but is such a rational framework enough to help solve the issues in practical ethics? That is a crucial issue here, & practical examples will help to bring it out.

Response to Q2
• An obligation is a task that ought to be accomplished for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do; Kant called these categorical imperatives – actions which are performed out of duty & for their own sake.


Response to Q3
• Kant believed that Humans are autonomous because they can make moral decisions prior to experience, using reason (a priori) & without having such decisions imposed on them by others.


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