In the 18th century, Europe was in a state of constant flux. The age of enlightenment was in full swing and new ideas about reason, science, and progress were taking hold. Amidst this revolutionary time, there was a man who sought to bring some semblance of order and structure to the world of morality.This man was Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who lived in the small town of Königsberg.
Kant was a man of routine. He would always take the same route to work and would have his meals at the same time every day. But, despite his seemingly mundane existence, his mind was a whirlwind of complex thoughts and ideas. He spent most of his life as a professor of philosophy, teaching the next generation of thinkers.
Kant’s moral philosophy is a reflection of the time in which he lived. He rejected the traditional notions of morality that were based on religious doctrine and societal norms, and instead, claimed that morality should come from within the individual. He believed that each person has the capacity for rationality and that this rationality should be the foundation for moral decisions.
He is considered one of the founders of deontological ethics, a philosophy focusing on the morality of actions based on their inherent rightness or wrongness, rather than on the consequences they produce. His formulation of the “Categorical Imperative” offers a moral principle stating that one should only act on a principle that one could will to be a universal law for all people.
We will explore Kant’s ethics, including his concept of the Categorical Imperative and its implications for moral decision-making, as well as the influence Kant would have on subsequent thinkers.
i. Virtue and Happiness – ‘Faring Well’ and ‘Doing Right’
First of all, Kant believed free will to be a central aspect of his moral philosophy. IThe works we will be mainly concerned with are the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason, and the Metaphysics of Morals, he saw free will to be the ability to make choices that are not determined by external factors or by innate desires or inclinations. While he acknowledged that the laws of nature determine the physical consequences of our actions, he did not see free will as incompatible with determinism. These choices are not predetermined. What determines the worth of our actions are our motives and intentions, which we freely choose. We can be held morally accountable. Without this accountability, morality would be meaningless.
Kant draws a distinction between “faring well” and “doing right”, in that “faring well” refers to the well-being or happiness of an individual, whereas “doing right” refers to following the moral laws and duty as set out by the Categorical Imperative.
In other words, Kant believed that individuals have a moral duty to act in accordance with the Categorical Imperative. This should be done regardless of whether or not it leads to their own personal happiness or well-being. He argued that actions should be motivated by a sense of duty to moral law, as opposed to some desire for personal happiness or pleasure. Therefore, “doing right” is about fulfilling one’s moral duty, whereas “faring well” is about personal happiness or well-being. Thus, an action can be considered morally good even if it does not lead to the happiness of the moral agent, as long as it is done out of respect for the moral law and duty.
For example, successful, financially well-off businesspeople may be said to be “faring well” in terms of their material success. However, if they achieve this success by engaging in unethical business practices, they would not be said to be “doing right” in terms of their moral conduct.
Here’s another example. Skilled doctors who save many lives may be said to be “faring well” in terms of their professional success. However, if they do not treat their patients with empathy and respect, they would not be said to be “doing right.”
Here’s one last example. A person who is in a fulfilling romantic relationship may be said to be “faring well” in terms of their personal happiness. However, if they cheat on their partner, they would not be said to be “doing right” in terms of their moral conduct.
Virtue, then, comes from sticking to the moral law as set out by the Categorical Imperative: acting in accordance with the moral law is what makes us virtuous. Virtue is not something that can be acquired through external means such as rewards or punishment, but rather it is something that we develop through our own willpower and rationality.
ii. Kant and the Good Will
Kant placed a great emphasis on the concept of “good will” in his ethical philosophy. He believed that good will is the only thing that is truly good without qualification, and is a will that acts in accordance with the Categorical Imperative. Things such as intelligence, talents, and even happiness, can be used for good or for evil, but a good will is always good.
Therefore, according to Kant, a good will is the ultimate test of moral worth; it is the foundation of virtue and morality, and it is what ultimately makes us morally good.
Kant’s idea of the good will has been influential in the work of several philosophers who came after him.
Just to take one example, John Rawls’s concept of “justice as fairness”, which emphasises fairness and the protection of individual rights, was heavily influenced by Kant’s emphasis on the good will as the only thing that is truly good without qualification. Like Kant, Rawls believed that moral principles should be grounded in rationality and that moral decisions should be based on a process of practical reasoning.
In A Theory of Justice, from 1971, Rawls argues that the good will is the most important aspect of a person’s moral character. Like Kant, he believed that the good will is the foundation of moral personality and that a person’s actions have moral value only if they are done from a sense of duty, not just for the sake of self-interest.
Raws also argues that a good will is important for the functioning of a just society. A society can only be just if its citizens have a good will and are committed to acting justly. A society in which the majority of citizens have a good will is more likely to be a just society.
iii. Hypothetical and Categorical Imperatives
To illustrate the concept of the Categorical Imperative, and how it can be applied in practice, in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant uses the example of a murderer who asks for the whereabouts of his intended victim.
Kant declares that the morality of an action should be based on the principle behind it, and not just on the consequences. He goes on to argue that it would be morally wrong to lie to the murderer, even if it would save the intended victim’s life, because lying is a violation of the categorical imperative. If everyone lied when it was in their best interest to do so, it would be impossible to have trust and cooperation in society.
This example has been subject of criticisms, as it is sometimes argued that the situation is too extreme to be a moral dilemma and that it doesn’t take into account the context of the citation, the consequences of lying, and the moral weight of the lives involved.
The Categorical Imperative is not the only type of Imperative outlined by Kant. A hypothetical imperative is a conditional command that tells us what we must do in order to achieve a certain goal or end. Hypothetical imperatives are based on desires or wants and are only binding if the individual wants the end or goal in question.
For example, take the statement “If you want to pass your exam, you must study.”
In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant uses another example of an axe-wielding man, this time to illustrate the difference between the hypothetical and categorical imperatives.
“Consider an axe-wielding man who is about to chop wood. He can use his axe to chop wood and achieve his desired end, or he can use it to harm others. However, it would be morally wrong to use the axe to harm others, regardless of the desired end. Using the axe to harm others would be in violation of the moral law, and would therefore be a violation of the categorical imperative..”
iv. Pure Practical Reason and the Moral Law
Kant believed that we can understand and follow moral law through what he called “pure practical reason.” It is the source of our moral obligations and the only thing that can give rise to a moral imperative.
According to Kant, the moral law is a principle of reason that tells us what we ought to do. It is not based on our wants or desires, but rather on the rational nature of human beings. Moral law is derived from the Categorical Imperative. It is our duty to follow the moral law as set out by the Categorical Imperative. Only by following the moral law can we achieve true moral worth. It is our ultimate test of moral worth.
To practise pure practical reason, one should first identify the principle behind one’s action, considering whether it can be consistently applied and is not in conflict with moral law. If it satisfies these conditions, then it is morally permissible to act on it.
Additionally, Kant proposed another formulation of the Categorical Imperative, knows as the Formula of Humanity:
“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” This version of the Categorical Imperative encourages individuals to consider the moral value of others and to treat them as ends in themselves and not as means to an end.
v. Universalizability Test
How can we determine the permissibility of an action? Kant suggests a “universalizability test.” It is a way to apply the Categorical Imperative to specific actions, and it consists of asking whether the principle behind the action could be consistently applied to all similar situations. If it can, then the action is morally permissible.
For example, if one is considering stealing money from a wealthy person, the principle behind the action would be, “It is permissible to steal from the wealthy.” When applying the Universalizability test, one would consider whether this principle could be consistently applied to all similar situations, such as if the thief were wealthy, or if the person being stolen from was poor.
If the principle cannot be consistently applied, or is in conflict with the moral law, then it is morally impermissible to act on it.
vi. Objections to the Categorical Imperative
Kant’s ethics, particularly his concept of the Categorical Imperative, has also been subject to criticism and several problems have been raised with its formulation and application.
One problem is that the Categorical Imperative can be difficult to apply in practice. First, it can be difficult to determine the principle behind an action and to determine whether it can be consistently applied to all similar situations. Additionally, it can be difficult to determine whether the principle is consistent with the moral law.
Another problem is that the Categorical Imperative does not take into account the particular circumstances of an action. It only focuses on the principle behind the action, ignoring specific context and consequences. This can lead to moral rigidity and inflexibility.
Yet another problem is that the Categorical Imperative does not take into account the emotions and feelings of the individuals involved in an action.
Finally, the Categorical Imperative can lead to moral dilemmas. For example, it can be difficult to determine whether it is morally permissible to lie to a murderer who is asking for the whereabouts of his intended victim.
Several solutions have been proposed to address these problems, such as a more flexible and nuanced version of the Categorical imperative, a more comprehensive version that takes into account the emotions and feelings of the individuals involved in an action, as well as versions that allow for exceptions in certain cases.
Moreover, some philosophers also propose the use of other ethical theories altogether, such as consequentialism, virtue ethics, or ethics of care, to supplement or complement Kant’s deontological approach.
vii. Influence and conclusion
Kant’s work in moral philosophy, as well as his contribution to epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and philosophy of history has had a lasting impact on these fields.
Several moral philosophers have been heavily influenced by his work and have developed their own versions of his ideas. We’ve already seen how influential Kant was on the philosophy of John Rawls.
Other philosophers, such as Dietrich von Hildebrand, Max Scheler, Roman Ingarden, and Edith Stein, heavily influenced the development of a type of Kantian ethics known as “personalism”, emphasising the importance of the individual person.
British philosopher Onora O’Neill developed “constructivist Kantianism,” which emphasises the importance of constructing moral principles through a process of practical reasoning.
American philosopher Christine Korsgaard’s version emphasises the role of practical reasoning in moral justification and the nature of agency.
In the end, Kant’s philosophy has stood the test of time, his moral philosophy continues to be studied and debated by philosophy and scholars all over the world. His ideas continue to shape the way we think about morality and the way we conduct ourselves in the world. Kant’s legacy lives on, as a reminder that reason, rationality and a sense of duty are the key to creating a more moral and just society.