Kantian Ethics

Kant's Ethical Theory

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Kantian Ethics

  • influenced by Newton's science who had a mechanistic view of the uni i.e. things operated according to fixed rules. Wished to establish a similarly predictable basis for ethical decision making because a)reason is innate in everyone and b)when properly applied it reaches same conclusions. therefore morality is only possible for rational creatures. DEONTOLOGICAL AND ABSOLUTIST.

Good Will

  • only thing in the world that is good without qualification is good will. Good intentions are good unconditionally: "it is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it which can be taken as good without qualification, except good will."
  • to act with a good will means doing one's duty; acting in a manner that has no regard for one's own self interest; acting in a manner that has no regard for one's own self interest. acting with no regard to consequences, but solely in accordance with one's duty.
  • The Grocer acts in good will if: he charges his customers a fair price because it's the right thing to do not because he knows that they will go somewhere else if he overcharges.

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  • "Good will shines forth like a precious jewel"
  • in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of , if moral law is unconditionally and universally binding, it must contain something unconditionally and universally good, the highest good.
  • the goodness of a good will does not derive from its results as this underlines the deontological character of Kant's thought.
  • if the moral value of the good will were to depend on it's effects, it could no longer be considered of unconditional value.


  • consequences are irrelevant therefore. We should act out of DUTY not emotion e.g if axe-wielding murderer asked after our friend, although a utilitarian would argue we must not tell them where they were, Kant says we must tell the truth because that's our duty. Also, if we give a starving child food out of compassion, this may be a good act, but we are not virtuous for doing it. However, if I give the child food because my duty demands it, then I am virtuous for doing so. This makes Kant seem that he's not interested in human emotions but he argued that duty and reason can help to guide our emotions so that we aren't ruled by them.
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  • everybody can use reason to determine their duty but it's something of a matter of luck whether you have a compassionate nature.
  • the only appropriate motive for a moral action is a sense of duty.
  • morality is objective, not subject to culture or taste but applied equally to everybody.
  • to act morally is to do one's duty-to do one's duty is to obey the moral law.
  • we don't do a duty because of consequences for doing it, we do it for the duty itself. Duty is good in itself.

The Categorical Imperitive

  • distinguished between HYPOTHETICAL and CATEGORICAL.
  • hypothetical-> e.g. "if you want to become a better pianist you ought to practice"-tells us what we ought to do if we want to achieve something. It's about acting in a way to bring about our hypothetical desires.
  • categorical-> e.g. "you ought not to steal"- moral obligations don't depend on particular wishes or desires. Moral requirements are categorical (unconditional...)
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  • VARDY: "there is no answer to the question: Why should I do my duty? except because it is your duty" as if there was any other reason then it would make it the imperative hypothetical and not categorical.
  • The categorical imperative is upon which all moral commands are based. He wanted an objective criterion for morality- a logical way of deciding what's right and wrong
  • moral statements are categorical in that they prescribe actions irrespective of the result. (difference between cat. and hyp.)

Formulation 1- (The Universal Law)

"Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law".

  • all maxims should be universalisable. It eliminates self interest and is an absolutist approach e.g. breaking promises you don't intent to keep. although it might suit you to break promises on occasion, you cannot rationally give the following maxim or rule: "break your promises when you need to"
  • if you can't universalise a maxim it isn't a moral one.
  • he liked CONSISTENCY. Inconsistency is the essence of immorality.

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  • don't act on any principle that can't be universalised.
  • "all people should act in the same way"- to allow exceptions would harm someone and have an eroding effect on society.

Formulation 2- (The Formula of the end in itself)

".....never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end".

  • rationality gives humans their intrinsic dignity so we should respect humans for what they are. highest point in creation so demand unique treatment.
  • never use people as a means to and end/ for another purpose e.g. to exploit or enslave them.
  • our duty to develop our protection and seek happiness of others as that's within the law and allows freedom of others.

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Formulation 3- (The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends)

"Act as if through your maxims you were a law-making member of a kingdom of ends"

  • an imaginary state meaning that everybody's moral laws will coincide because they are all rational- any disagreements should be resolved through rational arguments. "a systematic union of different rational beings under common laws"
  • a person belongs to the kingdom of ends as a member of both MAKING and being SUBJECTED to the universal laws.

Kant's examples

man is considering taking his life as he feels it's not worth living anymore. Asks if the maxim of taking his life can become a universal law of nature: his maxim is that from self-love he makes it his principle to shorten his life as its continuance brings more pain than pleasure. But can this be universalised? however, this would contradict itself as the system of nature is to stimulate the furthering of life. This would directly contradict the principle of duty. If everyone was self-loving there would be no moral law. Self-love can't be universalised. You can't make a personal advantage universal. Killing contradicts idea of self-love.

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  • humans are free to make rational, moral choices which distinguishes us from animals. We have to be free to do our duty, which is to follow the categorical imperative. However, if our choices aren't free, we can't truly be moral agents as "ought implies can". Human reason means we are able to choose what we do;we can freely make moral decisions.
  • something that's not possible can't be a moral option.

MORAL STATEMENTS ARE A PRIORI SYNTHETIC as since moral statements are different and since we can't prove what people should do by looking, they must be a priori. But since moral statements can be right or wrong, they must also be synthetic.

we must not be side-tracked by feeling/inclination; should not act out of love or compassion; it isn't our duty to do things which we are unable to do. we seek SUMMUM BONUM-> supreme good. A state at which human virtue and happiness are united. But because it's impossible to achieve this in one lifetime, he deduced we must have immortal souls to succeed.

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rejects theological arguments for God, but his theory assumes immortality and God's existence- an afterlife and God must exist to provide an opportunity to reaching this supreme good.

more concerned with actions than consequences.

If a maxim is not universalisable, it is because of CONTRADICTIONS TO THE LAW OF NATURE-> rules which can't be universalised because they are self-contradictory e.g. "always give but never receive" for it's logically impossible for everyone to do so. or "break a promise when you need to" as this would completely undermine the entire notion of a promise, on which the maxim rests.

or it's a CONTRADICTIONS IN THE WILL-> rules which can't be universalised because to do so would lead to a situation which we could not possibly wish for, though the universal maxim may not in itself be self-contradictory e.g. we wouldn't want to wish to universalise the maxim "never help others" because the situation might arise when they need help.

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  • takes account for justice- corrects utilitarian presumption that punishment of the innocent can be justified in terms of majority benefit- Kant doesn't allow this. morality of an action doesn't define from the benefit produced or from number of those who obtain benefit but from the intrinsic rightness of action performed. justice towards an individual is thus safeguarded by universal which imposes duty on us all. An action taken against the individual, if against duty is wrong, no matter how many others think otherwise.
  • presents people as rational creatures- says humans can't be a means to an end. Shows and highlights importance of good manners. Feeling for humanity dominates Kant's entire philosophy.
  • people of good will obey a law which is the same to all, regardless of emotion and inclination. means people are less self-centred and more appreciative of the rights of others. Shows strength of universability and everyone's rights are the same
  • absolutist approach.
  • Pojman argued that virtually every moral system has trouble with dilemmas and Kantianism may solve some of them
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  • many disagree with the idea that moral people are those who abide by obedience and the rules generated by the categorical imperative. Then, doing one's duty in this case must also include obeying rules towards which we feel no moral obligation whatsoever or obeying rules which eliminate the distinction between duty and inclination.
  • can't be correct to say that the moral person is one who acts in accordance with the categorical imperative because although there are many actions possible, by the same procedure that to arrive at the majority of us would consider either preferential or without moral significance. The ability of a rule to be universalised doesn't guarantee that the rule will be morally good. In Contradictions of the Will Kant explains a way out of this difficulty saying we can reject those rules which if universalised would produce a state of affairs utterly objectable to all rational people. They must therefore reject what is contrary to the objectives that all rational people must have.
  • overlooks that although people may be rational, we don't find the same situations intolerable e.g. robbers may want to universalise stealing even though their own property may be at risk.
  • can lying not sometimes be beneficial even though this wouldn't abide by the maxim of telling the truth.
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  • doesn't allow exceptions to the rule. Palmer points out that sometimes you could find that if exceptions are always disallowed, it's quite easy to imagine situations in which either no decision is possible or in which the decision if morally reprehensible.
  • doesn't address conflicts between rules e.g. in war there can be conflict between telling the truth and saving lives.
  • good will is only intrinsic good yet is it really acceptable to allow a good will to determine the morality of an action regardless of the outcome?
  • no space in his theory for compassion or sympathy?
  • what about humans who can't reason?
  • although we share the ability to reason, do we find all the same situations intolerable?
  • Frankena 1973: "There is more to the moral point of view than being willing to universalise one's rules" Kant fails to see this
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  • tries to correct Kantian problem of conflicting duties.
  • a prima facie duty is a non-absolute or conditional duty which can always be over-ridden by a more compelling duty e.g. "never take a human life:. It is not something I should always do but something I must do only when it is not outweighed by another and more compelling obligation/rule e.g. "never take another human life except in self defence"
  • starts with:
  • duties of fidelity: I act in accordance with a former promise of mine
  • duties of gratitude: I act to repay a debt
  • duties of justice: I act to obtain an equal distribution of pleasure and happiness.
  • duties of beneficence: I act to better the lot of others
  • duties of self-improvement: I act to improve myself in respect of virtue or of intelligence
  • duties of refraining from doing others harm.

he doesnt rank him duties in order of importance- so therefore which do well follow if they conflict?

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Bushra Hasan

thank you very much, this is very helpful

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