Kantian Ethics

Not all of this is just from my brain and my textbook just to let you all know but they are all still is to do with the OCR board 

Good Luck **


What is Kantian Ethics?

Kantian ethics, as the name suggests, is linked to the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). 

  • Immanuel Kant believed that there's a universal object and moral law that we can access through our reason 
  • Kant believed in acting morally in accordance with good regardless of any consequences
  • His ethical theory is absolutist and, unlike other rule-based systems, does not rely directly upon belief in God. 
  • Kant’s approach is deontological as opposed to teleological; he is interested in right actions rather than right outcomes. 
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Kant, Good Will and Duty


  • For Kant, the only truly good thing is a good will – having good intentions. 
  • Kant argues that it doesn’t matter if we are prevented from carrying out our intentions; what matters is that we aim to do the right thing.
  •  The good will for Kant is the desire to ‘do duty for duty’s sake’


  • Morality shouldn't be driven by emotion so we must try and do the right thing because it's the right thing (not because you feel sorry for someone or loyal to them)
  • Doing the right thing out of self-interest or because of possible consequences is not duty
  • Doing the right thing out of inclination (because we feel like it) is not duty

Examples of Duty

  • Not destroying ourselves
  • Being truthful always
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Kant's Understanding of Moral Knowledge

Kant thought that knowledge is divided into 2 kinds 

From sense experience 'A posteriori knowledge' or from first hand 'A priori knowledge'

Kant thought moral knowledge is a priori:

  • We don't need experience to know what's right and wrong
  • Moral knowledge comes from within

He also thought moral knowledge is synthetic:

We can't tell whether something is right or wrong by looking at it

We bring additional info from our knowledge of right and wrong

Because we bring additional knowledge when we are making judgement, Kant thought moral knowledge must be synthetic

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The Hypothetical Imperative

A key factor to note in Kantian ethics is the principle of autonomy.  He believes that human beings have rationality and, unlike other ethical theories, we are able to work out what these rules are. They are not imposed by God or a similar authority. Kant argues that whenever we carry out an action, we are acting upon a maxim ; in other words there is a rule that we have in mind that we are following. 

A hypothetical imperative is a command that we would follow in order to achieve an end result. 

  • So if I want to acheive X, then I must do Y
  • If I don't want to achieve X then it doesn't matter whether I do Y or not

Kant argues that if the command only applies in certain cases or is dependent on the outcome, then this is not a moral duty.

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The Categorical Imperative

Categorical imperative refers to rules that must be followed with no ifs. Moral rules are categorical imperatives

  • They must be followed regardless of what we hope to achieve in the end results and regardless of our emotions or personal preferences
  • Hence when you decide to act upon the rule ‘Do not kill’, it is not because you have an outcome in mind. There is something unconditional about the command. 

Kant offers three tests or formulations as to how we can decide whether a maxim is hypothetical or categorical: they are universal law, persons as ends and Kingdom of ends.

  • Kant argues that the action we propose should be able to be made a universal law. We have to consider whether this is something that all people could logically do; if not, we shouldn’t put ourselves above the law by being an exception.
  • Kant believes that human beings are rational and autonomous.  This means that we have a duty to treat each other as persons (as ‘ends’ in themselves) and not as we would treat an object (‘as a means to an end’). We can use objects but we ought not to use people
  • Kingdom of ends asks you to act based on how society ought to be rather than how it is.
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The 3 Postulates

There are three assumptions which underpin his ethics; Freedom, Immorality and God

  • If we are not genuinely free to do either the good thing or the evil thing then there can be no moral responsibility.
  • Kant argues that morality requires the summum bonum(the highest good) to be achieved. This is where perfect virtue (good deeds) is rewarded by perfect happiness. This does not happen in this life but to say it ought to be achieved must mean that it can; so the summum bonum must occur in the next life.
  • In order that the summum bonum actually occurs and goodness is rewarded by happiness, there must be a God who ensures the justice of the universe.
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Strengths of Kantian Ethics

  • The principle of universal law seems to provide a useful principle in making moral decisions.
  • As with other absolutist theories, it offers clear and fixed guidelines. We are clear on how Kant’s ethics apply.
  • The appeal to concepts such as reason and duty make Kantian ethics impartial and less prone to personal bias.
  • Duty is a useful concept as our inclinations and desires about what we want are subject to change. The concept of duty demands that we put our feelings aside in order to do the right thing.
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Weaknesses of Kantian Ethics

  • Kantian ethics is too abstract and theoretical: it offers perfect solutions based on a hypothetical Kingdom of ends, yet it cannot cope with a real world where people may act in an immoral way and we have to respond.
  • Kantian ethics is better at showing things we ought not to do rather than showing what we should do.
  • The concept of duty can also be abused. One way is when it becomes conflated with the idea of obedience to authority.
  • There is inflexibility in Kant’s thinking. While we may accept that stealing is generally wrong, an extreme situation 
  • Kantian ethics does not give us a clear way of deciding which duty we should follow when duties conflict.
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