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Ethics:Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) J.L. Raab Engraving, 1791
Kantian Ethics

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 practical imperative.

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.


  1. The good will is the only good without qualification, i.e. the only intrinsic good.

    1. Kant describes the good will as a will that acts from duty as a “good-in-itself.”[1]

    2. These important considerations about duty are emphasized:

      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.

        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 acts for the sake of duty. The latter situation exhibits more moral worth, according to Kant.

        1. 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.

        2. 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.

        3. 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 1103b,21-26.
          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?

        4. 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 inclination coincide.”[2]
          Stace observes that the ideas of duty and obligation arise when inclination conflicts obligation, but this conflict need not be always so.

  2. 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 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 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. 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.”[3]
        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.

      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?

  3. 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 supersede, 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 never to treat others merely as a means to an end, but we are to treat others as an end in themselves.


  4. Footnotes

    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 worthy action—the purpose is to help the stranger is distress. Thanks to Prof. Jens Saugstad (University of Oslo) for this clarification of Kant's good will as discussed in current Kantian scholarship.

    2. W.T. Stace, The Concept of Morals (London: Macmillan, 1937), 163.

    3. G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. S.W. Dyde (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896), 129.


    Recommended Sources

    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.

    Immanuel Kant, 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 Project Gutenberg).

    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).

    “[Kant's] 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 Dowden.

    Kant's 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.

    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. Robert Johnson and Adam Cureton “Kant's Moral Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed.Edward N. Zalta (Spring, 2019 Edition).

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