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Philosophy 302: EthicsImmanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Kantian 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.

  1. The good will is a will that acts from duty as a “good-in-itself.”1

  2. Kant emphasizes these  important considerations about duty:

    1. The class of actions in accordance with duty must be distinguished from the class of actions performed from duty.

    2. 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.

      1. If one performs an action by inclination alone, then Kant implies the action has no moral worth.

      2. Yet, consider Aristotle's assessment of the formation of character through habit as explained in his Nichomachean 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?

      3. Or as W.T. Stace points out, isn't it better to do one's duty cheerfully than grudgingly?

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.
  1. 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.”

  2. 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.”

  3. 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.”

    1. Moral rules, then for Kant, have no exceptions. Killing is always wrong. Lying is always wrong.

    2. 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.

    3. 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?

    4. 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."

  1. People are not to be used unjustifiably in order to obtain your goals or seek an edge or unfair advantage.

  2. People have rights which would supercede, for example, the tyranny of the majority in utilitarianism.

  3. 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?

  4. Kant states we are not to treat others merely as a means.


  1. Elsewhere this point is sometimes stated as the good will is a will that “acts for the sake of duty,” but this is misleading. The purpose of the action is not the duty itself, per se, but instead the intention or motivation of acting ethically. For example, saving a stranger in distress is the aim of an action done from the intention of doing one's duty. Performing one's duty, then, is not the purpose or goal of the morally worthly action—the purpose is to help the stranger is distress. Thanks to Prof. Jens Saugstad (Univ. of Oslo) for this clarification of Kant's good will as discussed in current Kantian scholarship. Return to Return to text 1 above

Recommended Sources

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.
Immanuel Kant, The Science of Right: trans. W. Hastie, the first part of the later published major work Metaphysics of Morals.
Kant 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.
Kant's Moral 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.

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