Abstract: Kant's notion of the
good will and the categorical imperative are briefly sketched and
discussed together with his concepts of actions in accordance with duty,
actions performed from duty, maxims, hypothetical imperative, and
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 be practicable, then Kant thinks our ethics must be both unconditional
(i.e.,subject to no exceptions) and universal (i.e.,
applicable to all human beings). So moral requirements are unconditionally
necessary and are decided on an a priori basis.
- The good will is the only good without qualification,
i.e. the only intrinsic good.
- Kant describes the good will as a will that acts from
duty as a “good-in-itself.”
- These important considerations about duty are emphasized:
- The class of actions in accordance with duty
must be distinguished from the class of actions performed
- 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, for example, Mary is unjustly criticized by Sue, and Mary
answers with equanimity by habit, she is acting in accordance
with duty. However, if Mary is habituated to respond to unjust
criticism with reproach, but refrains in this instance and
remains polite, then she intentionally acts ethically from duty.
The latter situation exhibits more moral worth, according to Kant.
- For Kant, all moral actions are actions in accordance
with practical (intentional and formal) reason. So, actions
having moral worth cannot be fortuitous or inadvertent.
- If one performs an action by inclination alone, then
Kant on occasion implies the action has no positive moral
worth. This is not to say, however, the action has no worth.
- Yet, consider Aristotle's
assessment of the formation of character through habit:
“Thus, in one word, states of character arise
out of like activities. This is why the activities we
exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the
states of character correspond to the differences between
these. It makes no small difference, then whether we
form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth;
it makes a very great difference, or rather all
the difference.“ [emphasis original] EN
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? He writes:
“[T]he morally best men are those in whom duty and
Stace observes that the ideas of duty and obligation
arise when inclination conflicts obligation, but this conflict
need not be always so.
- Duty is the necessity of acting out of reverence
for universal law. Moral value is essentially established by
the intention of the person acting.
- Maxim: a particular directive, a subjective
principle of volition (i.e.,the principle or rule upon
which one intentionally 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
- 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. For
example, lying is always wrong. The reason for this
universal statement is that lying cannot be universalized.
I.e., the statement must apply to all persons in
all situations without a contradiction otherwise it cannot
be a just action.
But why can't we universalize something like “It's
always O.K. to lie harmlessly or trivially in order to
spare someone's feelings”? Is it that we would not want
someone else to spare our feelings in such a situation?
Why not? What's wrong with this? As Hegel would argue,
our reason presupposes that white lies are wrong and then
concludes such trivial lies cannot be universalized. He writes,
“There can be no contradiction except
of something that exists or of a content, which is assumed
to be a fixed principle. Only such a content can an act
agree with or contradict.”
How else could there be a contradiction from the universalization
of an action unless inconsistent elements are present? For Kant,
the moral law arises non-empirically from practical reason.
- 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 our control.
- 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
- 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?
- Practical Imperative: “Act to treat humanity,
whether yourself or another, as an end-in-itself and never as a
- 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 supersede, for example, the
tyranny of the majority in utilitarianism.
- 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 never to treat others merely as a means
to an end, but we are to treat others as an end in themselves.
Notes: Kantian Ethics
Guide: Duty-Based Ethics: a good summary of Kantian ethics
together with an assessment of duty-based ethics is presented on
this BBC Website.
Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals
trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbot (1785). Also known as Foundations
of the Metaphysics of Morals and Groundwork of the
Metaphysics of Morals is Kant's first work on ethics
outlining much of his later Metaphysics of Morals (from
Kant's Theory of Ethics or Practical Philosophy trans. Thomas Kingsmill
Abbott (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, & Dyer, 1873). Included are
Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals,
Dialectic and Methodology of Practical Reason, and
On the Radical Evil in Human Nature (from HathiTrust).
Moral Theory” Good will, duty, categorical imperative,
and practical reason are the main topic covered. Tim Kjankowiak.
“Immanuel Kant” in Internet Encyclopedia of
Philosophy, eds. James Fieser and Bradley
Ethics: Reason and freedom,the duality of the human situation,
duty, and the good will are topics covered by Matt McCormick,
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. James Fieser
and Bradley Dowden.
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. Robert Johnson and Adam Cureton “Kant's Moral Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
ed.Edward N. Zalta (Spring, 2019 Edition).