Morality as Overcoming Self-Interest: Immanuel Kant
Kant’s ethical theory is deontological. This means that the ‘ends’ of an action never justify the ‘means’. If an action is morally wrong, it can never be justified. So, lying to save someone’s life is morally wrong, because the end product of the action (saving someone’s life) does not justify the action (lying).
Kant believed that a moral action is one we are duty-bound to perform. An action is only moral if it is performed out of a sense of duty. Kant called this sense of duty ‘the good will’. The ‘good will’ is the only moral motivation there is.
So, to be moral, we have to overcome our desires and emotions (in other words, we have to overcome self-interest.) Kant thought that we are aware of our duties because of reason. Emotions are subjective – they are independent of reason. There is a crucial difference between something being right or wrong, and liking or disliking an action – while doing something because you feel like it leaves you with no motivation to consistently behave a certain way, doing something because it is your duty will motivate you to behave consistently. Morality must be objective, which is why it can only be dictated by reason.
For example, if somebody returned a wallet they found lying in the street, because they thought that the person they returned it to would be grateful (and perhaps even reward them), they would not be behaving morally. To be morally praiseworthy, they would have to return the wallet purely because they felt it was their duty to do so.
Performing an action as a result of emotions is also not moral. For example, a person who is not compassionate towards other people, but donates to charity because it is their duty, is morally praiseworthy; a compassionate person who donates because they enjoy helping others, is not. The compassionate person is slavishly following their emotions, rather than making a free choice to behave morally.
Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives
Kant believed that morality is experienced as a kind of ‘inner tug’ on our will. This ‘tug’ is a command, or imperative. There are two types of imperative: hypothetical, and categorical.
This type of imperative depends on having a certain goal or desire – eg. Wanting to stay out of prison. So: ‘If I want to stay out of prison, I shouldn’t steal.’ Or: ‘To get X, I have to…