Philosophy 302: Ethics
Abstract: Kant's notion of the good
will and the categorical imperative are briefly sketched.
Introduction: An attraction to the Kantian doctrines of
obligation is begun along the following lines:
(1) If the purpose of life were just to achieve happiness, then we
would all seek pleasure and gratification and hope that these efforts would lead to
happiness. However, happiness is not totally within our
power to achieve; to a large extent, happiness is a matter of luck.
(2) If we are to avoid nihilism and skepticism and if our ethics is to
work, then Kant thinks our ethics must be both unconditional (i.e.,no exceptions) and
universal (i.e., applicable to all human beings).
I. The good will is the only good without qualification.
II. Duty is the necessity of acting out of reverence for universal law. Moral value
is essentially established by the intention of the person acting.
- The good will is a will that acts from duty as a
- Kant emphasizes these important considerations about duty:
- The class of actions in accordance with duty must be distinguished from
the class of actions performed from duty.
- Kant believes only actions performed from duty have moral worth. He
almost seems to suggest that the greater one's disinclination to act from
duty, the greater the result of the moral worth of the action.
- If one performs an action by inclination alone, then Kant implies the
action has no moral worth.
- Yet, consider Aristotle's assessment
of the formation of character through habit as explained in his
Ethics. Isn't doing the right action by inclination a more reliable
sign of the presence of an ethical character than by having to struggle
in every decision to do the right action?
E.g., suppose an acquaintance struggles with herself not to start
rumors about you but eventually decides not to do so. Should her actions be
valued more than the actions of another acquaintance who is, by habit, fair to you?
- Or as W.T. Stace points out, isn't it better to
do one's duty cheerfully than grudgingly?
- Maxim: a particular directive, a subjective principle of volition (i.e.,the principle
or rule upon which one intentionaly acts). The nature of the maxim upon which an
action is based is the manner in which intentions are expressed. E.g., “When I am bored, I
will do something different.”
- Hypothetical Imperative: a conditional maxim based on relative means/ends
in the everyday world or in every-day circumstances. The goal is not based on pure reason
alone but is usually based upon desire. E.g., “If you want to be confident,
then study hard.”
- Categorical Imperative: a rule stating what ought to be done based upon pure reason
alone and not contingent upon sensible desires. “I am never to act otherwise than to will
that my maxim should become universal law.”
- Moral rules, then for Kant, have no exceptions. Killing is always wrong. Lying is always
- This notion of ethics, then, is not based on consequences, as is the doctrine for example in
utilitarianism. Kant recognizes the consequences of our decisions are not entirely within
- Yet, for Kant, is there a problem with event-description in following pure practical
reason? No two situations in our experience are exactly alike. How much of a difference would
make a difference in the various applications of the Categorical Imperative?
- For example, should the imperative “I am never to take the life of another human
being with malice aforethought” apply in the same manner in the circumstances of an
unlawful situation, a lawful situation, self-defense, or wartime?
III. Practical Imperative: "Act to treat humanity, whether yourself or another, as an
end-in-itself and never as a means."
- People are not to be used unjustifiably in order to obtain your goals or seek an
edge or unfair advantage.
- People have rights which would supercede, for example, the tyranny of the majority in
- How far should respect for persons proceed? What if you are constantly used by other
persons? Should you treat such persons as an end-in-themselves when you are being mistreated?
Does the practical imperative imply that we should seek others' help to achieve our own goals?
- Kant states we are not to treat others merely as a means.
Immanuel Kant, Fundamental
Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbot. Also
known as Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals is Kant's first
work on ethics outlining much of his later Metaphysics of Morals.
The Science of Right: trans. W. Hastie, the first part of the
later published major work Metaphysics of Morals.
and Kantian Ethics: Extensive resources including multimedia, links to
online works, papers, and bibliography compiled by Lawrence M. Hinman at
the University of San Diego.
Kant's Ethics: Reason and
freedom,the duality of the human situation, duty, and the good will by Matt
McCormick in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Philosophy: A thorough overview based on The Groundwork of the
Metaphysics of Morals and later works including the topics of good
will, duty, categorical and hypothetical imperatives, autonomy and kingdom
of ends by Robert Johnson in the Stanford Encyclopedia.