Julia Driver, Ethics: the Fundamentals
Chapter 5: Kantian Ethics, pp. 80 – 101
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals:
“A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, not because of its
fitness to attain some proposed end: it is good only through its willing, i.e. good in itself.”
Kantian ethics = a form of deontological ethics, i.e. an ethical theory that defines right independently
of the good. Kant denies any consequentialist elements to his theory. Instead, whether or not a
contemplated course of action is morally permissible will depend on whether or not it conforms to what
he terms the moral law, the categorical imperative. Our duties can be understood in terms of
respecting this imperative, even if respecting the moral law leads to bad effects rather than good
ones. One of the ideas underlying Kant’s theory is that what makes an action wrong is what of action it is,
not its outcomes.
According to Kant, morality is based on reason rather than sentiment (the opposing argument being
Hume’s). Morality is a priori, and holds for all rational beings.
“‘Thou shalt not lie’ does not hold only for men, as if other rational beings had no need to
abide by it, and so with all other moral laws properly so called […] the ground of
obligation here must therefore be sought not in the nature of man nor in the
circumstances of the world in which man is placed, but must be sought a priori solely in
the concepts of pure reason.”
Kant’s entire system of morality is based upon a rejection of Hume’s claim. For Kant, reason is what
makes us capable of morality to begin with. The emphasis that he placed on respect for autonomy, as
opposed to mere concern for wellbeing or happiness, can be seen in policies that make clear that the
individual has the right to be treated with respect and not simple benevolence.
1 – Reason.
David Hume: reason is subordinate to feeling in that reason only has an instrumental role to play in
practical deliberation. It is desire that sets our goals for us – reason simply enables us to choose the means
to achieve those goals. Moreover, the basis for morality can be found in human nature – specifically, our
capacity to sympathize with others.
Kant denies the aforementioned claims. He argues that reason can set goals and that it is particularly
required in order to set moral goals, which are independent of our desires. Indeed, the very concept of
a moral duty must be understood independent of desire. Genuine moral duties are categorical and unconditional. Further, the source of moral authority is not to be found in human nature at all.
Rather, the ground of morality is found in pure reason.
2 – Categorical versus hypothetical imperatives.
The moral law is categorical rather than hypothetical and it is an imperative. A hypothetical
imperative is a contingent command, one that we ought to follow given certain circumstances or factors
(such as our desires). A categorical imperative, however, binds us no matter what our desires are.
This is the nature of morality – obligations bind independent of our desires; they are based in reason.
3 – Duty versus inclination.
Aristotle has argued that the best and most virtuous person is the person who exhibits harmonious
psychological functioning. That is, it is necessary for the virtuous person to have the best parts of
the soul, the desiring and judgment parts, in harmony. Thus, what we are inclined to do should be in
harmony with our knowledge of what is right to do, our knowledge of our duty.
Kant believed a different thing. He argued that if we act well and are solely motivated by good
inclination, we lack moral worth. Genuine moral worth is not motivated by inclination. Animals act on
inclination. What differentiates us from them is our capacity to use reason, to make rational judgments
about what we ought to do. From the moral point of view, what is important to moral worth is
whether or not the sense of duty is what is motivating our actions. Inclination is not necessary. Desires
are too volatile to be a firm ground for moral motivation. The commands of reason do not change.
Even love is subject to this: according to Kant, the love that matters, morally speaking, is the one out of
Criticisms and responses:
This view has been criticized as being too cold. Michael Stocker has argued that this take on feelings in
unhealthy. According to him, friendship works because people want to spend time together, and are
inclined to do so – regardless of duty or obligation.
Marcia Baron defends the Kantian perspective on this subject. According to her, friendship out of duty
does not rule out a good inclination.
The general criticism of Kant’s view is that he gives emotions an instrumental value. Emotions interfere
with moral behavior, as much as they can help it. There is no recognition of their intrinsic value.
However, Kant does not view those emotions in a negative way. Rather, his argument is that they have no
moral worth. There is a difference between following a rule and behaving in such a way that our actions happen to conform to that rule. Admiration is deserved for following a rule due to a duty rather than an
4 – The categorical imperative.
4.1. Formulation one.
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should
become a universal law.”
1) The agent formulates a maxim describing the action he will perform.
2) The agent verifies if this maxim can be universalized or not.
CONTRADICTION IN CONCEPTION. When a maxim cannot be universalized, it’s a contradiction in
conception, which means it’s a logical contradiction. Kant’s clearest example of this is the person who
needs money and falsely promises to pay it back though he never intends to. The person’s maxim is:
when you need money, borrow it by falsely promising to pay it back. Imagine that everyone did that.
Then nobody would believe anybody’s promises to pay back money, and so the person’s action would
have to be unsuccessful. By willing that everyone should follow the maxim, one will have nullified
the point of the maxim—the maxim would then be quite useless. The maxim to borrow under false
pretenses only works if a few people follow it: if everybody does, it no longer succeeds. That is why
Kant thinks that it’s wrong to act on this maxim.
The question to ask when one is testing one’s maxim is: can we will that everyone be allowed to do this?
However, this question does not show the contradiction in conception that we find when asking “can we
will that everyone do this?” and which underlies Kant’s first formulation according to Paton.
It has been suggested that this is a misinterpretation, because Kant, rather than discussing a logical
contradiction was discussing a practical one. When an agent tests a maxim and gets a contradiction in
conception, the purpose that is undermined by the universalization of the maxim is the purpose that
appears in the maxim itself.
CONTRADICTION IN THE WILL. Some maxims produce states that no rational agent would want.