Ethics – Kantian Ethics

Hey again!!! Having a good day? I hope so. Here is another lot of ethics, this time it’s Immanuel Kant, whom I quite like, so I hope you enjoy! 🙂

Kantian Ethics

Kant’s theory of Duty and Good Will

  • Kant said that morality should be based on duty, not feelings or consequence.
  • Duty is based on the motive of “good will”. Kant said: “the only good thing is the good will” and “good will shines fourth like a precious jewel.”
  • Good will + duty = a moral act.
  • For example, if a child was drowning and a man saw and jumped in to save her but was unable to and she drowned, the man will still have done a morally good act because he tried to save a life.
  • Kant said our innate moral duty is revealed through our reason – this is the “moral law within”.
  • Kant said it is not our duty to do something that is impossible for us to do. “I ought to do X” (a moral command) means that “I can do X” – ought implies can.
  • Note that Kant is against thinkers such as Hume who stressed feelings and the feeling of sympathy in particular as the grounds for morality; and Utilitarian’s who argue that we should look at the consequences.

The Summum Bonum

  • Kant’s moral system also has a teleological and religious basis – it is directed towards a final end and this end is God.
  • By acting in accordance with the moral law eventually all conflicts will be resolved and unity will be achieved.
  • This is the ‘Summum Bonam’ – the highest good.
  • The Summum Bonum is when virtue (i.e. acting morally) is rewarded with happiness.
  • However, this is not reached until after death and is enabled by God.
  • Therefore although Kant says that we must act out of “duty for duty’s sake” there is an ultimate reward for acting morally.

Kant’s Ideas on Moral Law and Universalities of Maxims

  • Kant believed that the moral law is an innate law, just like physical law, such as the law of gravity.
  • Kant believed that the moral law was created by God.
  • The moral law reveals what our duty is.
  • Kant believed that he had discovered the method by which rational humans could discover the moral law.
  • The method for discovering this is based on a priori reasoning (reasoning before experience, purely in the mind, like mathematical reasoning).
  • The discovery starts with a series of maxims.
  • Maxims are subjective moral principles which can be deduced by humans using practical reason.
  • Being subjective, means that the maxims need to be “tested” to see if they are morally right.
  • The test is the use of the Categorical Imperative, which uses a priori, pure reasoning.
  • This tests the maxim to see if it can be applied universally without contradiction – universalisation.
  • If the maxim passes the test of universalisation then it can be accepted as a universal law.
  • Therefore another way of describing the moral law is to say that it is the “universalisation of maxims”.

Categorical Imperative and its Three Formulations

The Categorical Imperative has three tests that show whether a maxim is to be accepted as a universal law. These are not completely different tests, but are three different approaches to the same essential point of universalizability.

The Categorical Imperative
Universal law
Treat people as ends not means
Live in a kingdom of ends
  1. Universal law – universalise your actions. A maxim can only be a moral law if it can be applied to everyone in all circumstances without contradiction in nature or contradiction in will.
    For example, ‘suicide is wrong’ should be universalised because it cannot be a good idea for all people to commit suicide as humanity would be wiped out.
    A contradiction in will would be something that you would never what, such as a world where everyone is unkind.
  2. Treat people as ends not means – universalise your common humanity. All people should be treated with respect and should not be used as a means to get something else. This promotes equality.
    For example, someone should not be made to donate an organ to help someone else, because this values one person over another (like “My Sister’s Keeper”).
  3. Live in a kingdom of ends – universalise your idea of society. Kant said that the Kingdom of Ends is a kingdom in which people do not treat others as means but only as ends. Kant says that we should act as if we are free legislators (law-makers) in the kingdom of ends. He asks us to deduce, as a free legislator, what law would you pass? This promotes democratic values.
    For example, I would not like to be tortured and would like a society where torture doesn’t happen, so I should never torture and make it my law.

Differences between Categorical and Hypothetical Imperative

For Kant, the moral laws are Categorical Imperatives. These are commands which contain no uncertainty or dependence on other factors. Everyone must follow these commands (universal) and they do not ever change (absolute). These commands are based on doing our duty which is discovered by applying the three tests of universalisation. If an action passes the “tests” and so is shown to be good in itself then the imperative (command) is categorical (must be obeyed without exception).

Categorical Imperatives are different to Hypothetical Imperatives. Hypothetical Imperatives are conditional: “If I want X then I ought to do Y” – “If I want to go on holiday, then I should save up my money”. Hypothetical Imperatives do not apply to everybody and so are not universal. They only apply if you want that certain goal or end.

Remember, for Kant moral actions are about acting out of duty and not because of any consequence/goal/end. Therefore Hypothetical Imperatives are not moral commands.

(Note: non-moral does not mean they are bad things to do, but rather that they are nothing to do with morality.)


Categorical Imperative – commands are universal, absolute, moral.

Hypothetical Imperatives – commands that are not universal, consequentialist, non-moral.




Strength Weakness
Absolutism People do generally have the same ideas about morality. Clear. Not always flexible. Could be wrong to always obey a moral law.
Reason Clear criteria for what is moral. Puts pressure on the individual to act in a moral and logically coherent manner. Not everyone is capable of rational moral decision making.
Are moral laws essentially products of environmental and culture rather than based on a priori reasoning?

It depends on a notion of God to justify a rationally ordered world.

Universalizability/Categorical Imperative Emphasises that moral actions cannot be just in one society and unjust in another.
Gives us rules that apply to everyone.
Not always easy to apply in real life situations.
E.g. crazy knife-man – law not to lie to him seems absurd.
Tells us what types of actions are right but does not tell you what the right thing to do is in a particular situation.
Contradiction? It says we must be free individuals but also that we must obey the C.I.
Duty (deontological) Distinguishes between duty and inclination.

Most people recognise the idea of duty as part of what is meant to be human.
Eradicates bias towards family, friends or nation that sometimes influence decision making.
Consequences not predictable so more logical to base on duty.

Putting duty above everything seems cold and inhuman.
Not everyone agrees this is the best motive e.g. Hume – feelings of sympathy.

Every action we take involves love and compassion because we are human creatures.

It severs mortality from everyday life and everyday feelings and emotions.
Could lead to people getting hurt and you feeling guilty.
It is human nature to consider consequences before acting. What happens when duties conflict?

Humans as ends not means Shows respect for human life and treats everyone fairly. Emphasises worth of each human. Equality. Harmony.
Dignity and worth of all human life.
Means that we could never justify killing Hitler in order to save millions.
Do all humans deserve such respect?
Summum Bonum There is a reward after all. Teleological nature possibly undermines the while basis of the theory.
Depends on a notion of God – an unproven belief.

Yay! Finished again. Hope you enjoyed it as usual, and have a great rest of the day. Thank you for your support, please comment anything you can think of below!

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