Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)


Kant’s Ethics in Brief:


Immanuel Kant – Key concepts: The Categorical Imperative


This is Kant's term for the "Moral Law."  By this phrase he implies that moral duty is an obligation binding of all moral agents without exception.


Formulations of the CI:


1. Always act in such a way that you could will that the maxim of your act become a Universal Law.


This is the requirement of Universalizablity (everyone could act the same way).


2. Always act in such a way that you treat Humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another as an end in itself and never merely as a means.


Requirement of Human Dignity (don't just use people).


3. Always act in such a way that your are both legislator and legislated in the kingdom of "Ends."


Requirement of Reciprocity (would be considered fair from all perspectives).


Kant’s Moral Philosophy


Note : Kant is a systematic thinker, by which I mean that his moral philosophy is an integral part of a coherent system of thought and is interlaced with his metaphysics, his epistemology, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, political philosophy, etc..


As such it is difficult to do justice to the rational support he offers for the moral claims he makes without making reference to the entire system of Kantian thought.  (If you are interested you might look as my notes on Kant’s Metaphysics and Epistemology.)  But as this is more detail then necessary for the present purposes, I will not include them here.  I begin from a certain “starting points” although Kant supplies reasoned defenses of each.


Starting Positions:


1. From a moral perspective, (considered as a moral agent) we are all equal.  No one is privileged.

2. The consequences of our actions are morally irrelevant. 

The only things for which a person can be held morally accountable are those things which are under one’s own control.  The consequences of our actions are NOT under our own control.  Thus we cannot be held morally responsible for the consequences of our actions.

3.  However, our WILL is completely under our own direct control (usually, at least in healthy adults) thus our will is the only basis for moral evaluation of our actions.


Thus Kant claims that the only thing that can be good without qualification is a good will.  This is not to say that there are not other good things.  It is only to say that they are “qualified” goods (only instrumentally good).


People can have courage, resoluteness, etc., but not be good.  In order for a person to be morally good, he must have a good will.  A person can have various natural and social advantages (wealth, health, intellect) or virtues (courage, discipline, friendliness) without being a good person- (think of the healthy, wealthy, intelligent, courageous, disciplined and friendly murderer).


Like Aristotle, Kant distinguishes between:


1. intellectual uses of reason (Pure or Theoretical Reason)

2. moral uses of reason (Practical Reason)


Unlike Aristotle, Kant claimed that moral behavior does not guarantee one will attain happiness.  Rather Kant claimed only that good will is indispensable for deserving happiness.[1]


The Good Will


So, if nothing can be said to be good without qualification except a “Good Will” then a lot seems to turn on this concept for Kant.  Bit what is the good will for Kant?


“The good will is the will which acts from freedom and respect for the moral law.”


To understand this, we must address three sub-questions:


  • What is “Free Action?”
  • What is “the Moral Law?”
  • What is “Respect for the Moral Law?”


  1. What is “Free Action?”


What is it to act freely?


1. To do anything one wants?

No.  What you “want” is compelled on you by forces outside yourself (Nature, an Addiction, a Tyrant, Hypnosis, etc.)  One is assigned wants by nature; one does not choose them freely.  If I could “choose” my wants, then I would choose to want to exercise and eat healthy food.  As it happens, I want to lay around the house and eat pasta in a cream sauce.

2. To live according to a law legislated by someone/ something else?

No. Clearly not for the same reasons as above.

3. To live according to no law whatsoever?

            No.  This is not freedom, but only random accident.

4. To live by a law one gives oneself as a free being?

            Ah, yes.


But “oneself” is not defined by those features given one by nature (inclinations).  The empirical details of an individual are assigned to a person by nature, so none of these features can figure into the law one gives oneself if it is to be a “free” law.  To be free, one must live one’s life according to a law one gives oneself, not as an empirical ego, but rather as a transcendental “I.”


But what would such a law look like?  What is the free law?  It turns out that the freely chosen law is the Moral Law.


A person whose behavior is governed by his or her inclinations, those desires and appetites imposed by nature is a subjugated person and thus does not act freely.  For such an individual, behavior is determined by the strength of the thing pushing or pulling.


But, when one acts out of respect for the moral law, a law one freely chooses to obey (it’s not like the law of gravity after all), a law one recognizes as a purely rational agent, unsullied by inclinations, then one acts autonomously (freely). 



2.     What is the Moral Law and Right Action


Now was sort of “Law” is this moral law?


Kant distinguishes two types of imperatives:


1. Categorical: Applies to all in the category without exception.

2. Hypothetical: Applies only to some under certain circumstances.

(“If X then do Y.”  or more usually, “If you want x then do y. )


Note: The imperative “Don’t smoke!” may look categorical.  But it is really an hypothetical imperative of the form, “If you want to avoid lung cancer, throat cancer, mouth cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and prematurely wrinkled skin, then don’t smoke.”


 Hypothetical Imperatives are either:


a. pragmatic:  imperatives of prudence

b. technical:  imperatives of skill


But hypothetical imperatives are optional; they apply only to some people, some times under some circumstances (and not others).


Morality, by contrast, is NOT optional.  All moral agents are obligated to act morally all the time.  (Who should do the right thing?  Everyone.  When should they do the right thing?  Always.  Where should they do the right thing?  Everywhere. Etc.)  Thus, morality (the Moral Law) is a Categorical Imperative.  That is, it applies to all moral agents, at all time, in all places, without exception.  Moral law is not a hypothetical imperative. 


You (morally) ought to follow the CI no matter what you might want.


Hypothetical Imperatives are empirical, i.e., discovered through experience. 


Categorical Imperatives are known a priori--They are discovered by means of pure practical reason, not by experience. 


Pure practical reason gives its commands: purely, unconditionally, and categorically.  (How?  Stay tuned.)


Note: This almost HAS to follow from his claim that we are all equal from the moral point of view.  Whatever moral duties apply to me apply to everyone else and whatever apply to everyone else would apply to me.  I’m not “special” so that special duties or privileges apply to me alone.


So for Kant, I must always do what duty requires of me and I must always refrain from doing what duty forbids.  Now, if doing “y” is not required nor forbidden by moral law one does not have to do it, but may if one wishes.


  1. What is “Respect for the Moral Law?”


Sometimes, doing the right this is also want we want to do for selfish or prudential reasons.  Suppose the moral law requires us to do y.  Suppose further that the doing of y also gives us what we want, viz., x, (if you want x then do y).  Then the consequent of our peculiar Hypothetical Imperative (Do Y.) is identical with that of the Categorical Imperative (Do Y.).  Such cases, Kant would say, demonstrate that the moral worth of an action depends on the motive behind the action and not the action in an of itself.  So one might ask “Did she do the right thing?”  Did her action conform to the CI?  But more deeply, one might ask, did she do the right thing for the right reasons?  If the latter, then not only did her she do the right thing, but her action had moral worth, according to Kant.


For Kant, it is very hard, if not impossible to know what our motive is in doing something, especially if our moral duty is also something we want to do. 


So a person can act rightly, (in accord with the moral law), but, if it is motivated by selfish or emotional factors, the act has no moral worth. Consider if one is forced to give money to charity or if one donates money to a charity merely to get one’s picture in the paper.  These would be actions in accord with the moral law, but not done out of respect for the moral law.  As such they lack moral worth.  Neither would they be instances of “good will.”  We could not say that the person acted wrongly, since the person did not violate the CI, nevertheless, there were not examples of acts of free or good will.


Note: Kant places a great deal of stress on the intention behind the action, something completely overlooked by consequentialist ethics with their focus on “the bottom line.”


An act has moral worth (i.e., is morally good) if and only if it


1. is in accordance with the moral law (right- morally permissible or obligatory);

2. it is not performed merely from inclination, regardless of whether or not the inclination be selfish or benevolent and;

3. is performed from respect for the moral law. 


The shopkeeper who acts from a selfish reason when not cheating his customers acts prudentially, not morally.


The shopkeeper who acts from feeling of compassion in not cheating his customers acts also cannot be said to act morally because it is motivated by personal emotion.


This might strike us as strange initially since many think that emotions (more precisely sympathy and compassion) are precisely what ground and motivate moral actions (see Hume).  But Kant denies this.  Consider, “What if the shopkeeper wasn’t feeling particularly compassionate that day?”  If the only reason he is acting morally is because a feeling, there is no guarantee that he is moral or is interested in morality nor is it any sign that he acts rightly or has considered the rightness of his act.  Many immoral things have been done and are done in the name of love and compassion. (Think of the mother who killed her five children to send them to heaven.)


Kant Posits a Moral Duty: Necessity to act from respect for the moral law.


Respect for the Moral Law: A person who has respect from the moral law is to be moved to act.

Respect for the moral law may motivate a person to do what he otherwise would not choose to do and not to do what he does want to do.


An act is right if and only if it is in accord with the moral law and it has moral worth if and only if done out of respect for the moral law. (This is so, regardless of the consequences.)


More on the Moral Law: Formulations of The Categorical Imperative


The Categorical Imperative: Kant's term for the "Moral Law."  By this phrase he implies that it is an obligation binding of all moral agents without exception.


This amounts to something like “Do the right thing!” 


The question then becomes, how does one come to know WHAT the right thing is in a given situation. 


Kant offers “formulations” of the Categorical Imperative to help us figure out what our moral duty is.  These are not meant to be separate rule or duties, but rather different articulations of the single universal moral command.


The First Formulation:


1. Always act in such a way that you could will that the maxim of your act become a Universal Law.


This is the requirement of Universalizablity (everyone could act the same way).


There are two ways of understanding this requirement. 


A. The Kant-lite Way


This is fairly intuitive.  It’s like when your mother would say to you, “What if everyone did that?  You wouldn’t like that would you?  Well then you shouldn’t do it either.” 


Again the idea is that you not singularly special so that different rules apply to you than do to everyone else.  So when acting out of respect for the moral law or from “the moral point of view” you see yourself as an equal among equals and will for yourself only those actions you will others to do.


There is some similarity here between this reading of Kant and “The Golden Rule,” however, the Golden Rule is a call to active ministry (DO unto others.) while one could, arguably, satisfy the first formulation by staying home and avoiding interacting with other people altogether.


B. The Logical Contradiction of Will Way


The idea here is not merely that you wouldn’t  want the maxim of your action to be a universal law, but rather whether you’d want it or not, you couldn’t will the maxim of you action a universal law.  That is, you could not even imagine a society where this rule were the law that everyone obeyed.  Universalizing certain maxims inevitably leads to a contradiction of will. 


Consider, for example, lying.


You might be tempted to lie on an occasion (say when you have an assignment due for me, but neglected to complete it).  You might even imagine universalizing the action.  “Let everyone lie all the time.” you might think to yourself.  Then you approach me and tell me with your false story (my dog ate my homework). 


But, as were are now living in the society you willed, a society where the rule is “lie all the time,” I am undeceived because WE BOTH KNOW the rule is “LIE.”  We both know that you are doing you best to deceive me.  (It would be like a case of stage magic; since I know it’s a trick, I’m not really deceived.  I know he isn’t really cutting a lady in half.)


Oddly enough, in a society which universalizing lying, one can’t lie (i.e. deceive).  In order to lie and to lie effectively, that is, in order for the intentional telling of falsehoods to deceive to have any practical value, the rule has to be “Don’t lie.”  Both parties have to know that one ought to tell the truth and one ought not lie.  You know this has to be the rule, in fact you need this to be the rule, AS YOU ARE LYING.  You are counting on the rule being “Don’t Lie.” or else your gambit will be useless.  You are counting on me thinking that you are telling the truth.


So note what the state of your mind must be.  “I will that no one lies.”  (Necessary for the lie to be possible at all.) AND… “I will that someone lies (me).”  This is what Kant calls a “contradiction of will.”  I suppose you are really willing something like “I will that no one except me lies.”  But why “except you?” What makes you so special that special rules apply to you and no one else?  From a moral point of view, absolutely nothing.  Thus your “exception” is irrational since it stand counter to reason.


You might also consider “cheating.”  If that were universalized then a 4.0 GPA would mean nothing.   (Everyone would have one and it would indicate nothing about skill or competence).  So the whole point of cheating would vanish in any society that universalized it.  The person cheating wills “that no one cheats.” (so the grades mean something in that society) AND will “that someone cheats.” (him) at the same time.  The person cheating WILLS grades to accurately reflect skills and abilities (or else his GPA would be worthless) AND he WILLS that grades to NOT accurately reflect (his) skills and abilities.  There again is the “contradiction of will.”


Note: Morality, Freedom and Rationality:


Therefore, for Kant, moral action, done out of respect for the moral law, IS the most free (a law one freely chooses for oneself as a free being) action and the most rational (free of logical or rational contradictions).


The Second Formulation:


2. Always act in such a way that you treat Humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another as an end in itself and never merely as a means.


The “Anti-coercion” Principle or Requirement of Human Dignity (don't just use people).


According to Kant there are two types of beings: persons and things.  Persons have infinite worth, while things have finite worth and a price and can be bought or sold. The second formulation of the Categorical Imperative is based on this distinction between persons and things.


Like Aristotle, Kant believe that our rationality was the most salient feature of our nature.  It was the source of our autonomy and dignity. One is morally obligated to respect this dignity and value in oneself and in others.  It is not the human body that gives human beings their dignity, but their rationality and their status as rational beings and moral agents. 


We have duties toward the humanity in ourselves and others.


Kant is not saying never treat another as a means; rather, never treat another human merely as a means.


We use other people differently or for various purposes and this can be perfectly moral. 


1.  You are using me as a means toward earning 3 credits in philosophy (and perhaps as a means toward greater understanding of philosophical issues).


2. I am using you as a means to a paycheck (and perhaps as a means to greater understanding of philosophical issues).


3. You go to the store to buy something use the grocer as a means to a loaf of bread while he uses you as a means to a dollar bill. 


However, if these are to be MORAL exchanges, all parties must treat each other not merely as objects of instrumental value alone (things with finite value), but as objects of intrinsic value as well.  That is, we must recognize one another as autonomous, rational beings capable of willing freely.  We must not frustrate that freedom and autonomy, but rather enhance it by allowing the other to make a free autonomous choice.  To frustrate that freedom through coercion (force, threats of force, deception) is always immoral.


This is what is meant by a “Free Exchange


One cannot/ does not will that one be treated as a thing.  Thus it is immoral to will that any other moral agent be treated as a thing.


The Third Formulation:


3. Always act in such a way that your are both legislator and legislated in the kingdom of "Ends."


Requirement of Reciprocity (would be considered fair from all perspectives).


This formulation is a close echo of the first, but acknowledges the social and systematic nature of the Moral Law. The Moral Law is a  “systematic union of different rational beings under common laws.”[2]  Imagine a society where we were blind to the empirical differences among ourselves and others.  Further, imagine that no one acted from inclinations (accidental preferences placed upon individuals by nature or society), but rather acted purely out of respect for the moral law.  Notice, since all (morally irrelevant) differences among agents have been neutralized with respect to their behavioral consequences, everyone would act in the same ways and endorse the same moral rules.  Curiously, as with the first formulation, ethics is at once subjective and universal and necessary.


An action or principle that appeared moral from one vantage point in society (say a rich person’s point of view) would appear moral from all vantage points in society (say a poor persons point of view) and vice versa.  This is the thinking behind his talk of “The Kingdom of Ends.”  Well this imagines “kingdom” exists (albeit imperfectly) as the moral reality.  We are ends who should be blind to the morally irrelevant empirical detail among agents and we ought to be willing laws that are moral from all vantage points (once we adopt the moral-point-of-view eyeglasses).  So this  is no mere thought experiment.  If Kant is correct, we are already living in the “Kingdom of Ends” (albeit not perfectly) since we are moral agents who should be blind to our inclinations and those of others passing universal laws by which we and others are to live.


Third Formulation and Perfect and Imperfect Duties


With the first formulation you are asked to formulate a maxim that summarizes your action and the reason for acting as you propose. You then imagine your maxim as a universal law of nature governing all moral  agents.  You then consider whether a society operating by that maxim is even conceivable.  However, what the third formulation asks you to consider is whether you would will to live community so governed. 


Morality requires that, by our actions, we will moral rules to stand alongside the physical laws of nature to govern society.  People who belong to the kingdom of ends individually “legislate” universal laws, and are subject to those same laws.  They thus are both legislators and legislated within the Kingdom.  (This is similar to Rawls’ original bargainers choosing principles of justice from behind the veil of ignorance.) For an action to be just, it must be rationally desirable from all perspectives in society.  Notice, even the thief does not want things stolen from him.  And the rich person would want someone to help him out if he were poor.  Thus, morally requires that we will only actions which would be acceptable were “the shoe on the other foot,” so to speak.


If your maxim fails the first formulation, you have a ‘perfect’ duty to avoid such behavior, admitting “of no exception in favor of inclination.” You must refrain from acting on it. If your maxim passes the first (youy could envision such a society) but fails the third formulation you have an ‘imperfect’ duty requiring you to pursue a policy that can admit of some exceptions.  Thus you have a perfect duty to tell the truth, since one cannot even conceive of a society where the moral rule is “Lie.”  However, on has an imperfect duty to give to charity, because while a society where no one gives to charity may be conceivable, is it not rationally desirable from the point of view of reciprocity.  While one is not duty bound to be charitable to each and every moral agent, according to Kant, to never help others one is NOT acting as both legislator and legislated in the Kingdom of Ends.  You have a duty to be charitable, to be sure, but whom to be charitable to and when is at the discretion of the agent.  Thus the duty to charity does NOT correspond to any right held by moral agents.


Duties and Rights:


Can there be rights without duties?  Not according to Kant.  Duty is a central concept on morality. Not rights.  Wherever there is a right, there is a duty. 


Can there be duties without rights?  Yes, according to Kant. 


If we cannot imagine our maxim as a universal law, then we have a perfect duty not to perform the act that is covered by the maxim (and that occasioned its formulation).  On Kant's example, we have a perfect duty never to make false promises .  Here the government might very well have a justified role in protecting my rights if you are trying to break a contract or take my life, say.


If we conceive but cannot will that our maxim be a universal law for all rational beings (i.e. passes the first formulation but not the third), then we have an imperfect duty to do the opposite of the maxim.  On Kant's example, we have an imperfect duty to cultivate some of our talents some of the time.  Since we could not/ would not will the maxim that says all should neglect their talents, we then have the imperfect duty to do the opposite of neglecting our talents--which is developing them.


The obligation to help others in need is an imperfect duty according to Kant.  It is an obligation that is general and therefore grants no rights to any one person. To fail to help a person in need might be wrong, but it is not unjust.  If so, then no one is entitled to help, and the use of force through government taxation (coercion), for example, for purposes of redistribution may be seen as illegitimate, a confusion of two rather different kinds of obligation.  Charity is an individual virtue and a private matter, according to Kant, not something to be conducted with the coercive power of government.


[1] For Kant, the connection between moral conduct and happiness was not an empirical “is” correlation, but rather an a prior “ought” correlation.  Moral individuals ought to be happy, though in point of fact, they often are not happy (in this life).  Likewise, immoral people do not deserve to be happy, though in point of fact they often are (in this life).  This line of reasoning lead him to believe that morality requires an Divine Arbiter of Justice (God) and an afterlife (An Immortal Soul- of some sort).  These taken together with “free will” are metaphysical concepts, necessitated or presumed by practical reason, but inaccessible to Pure Reason.

[2] Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals By Immanuel Kant, H. J. Paton Page 100 Harper Perennial Modern Thought Edition 1964