Lesson 11: Ethical Salience of Modern Philosophy: Kant on Ethics

A. Basic Themes

Aware of the problems of the natural rights ethics and utilitarianism, Immanuel Kant attempted to place ethical inquiry on a higher footing. He sought to overcome the problems of modern ethics by establishing moral duty on the new ground of moral autonomy and rationality. He attempted to prove that all men are bound by a universal system of moral duties and that they are so bound by their very rationality as moral agents. This system is often called "deontological" from the Greek term for duty. But by duty, Kant understood a principle absolutely separated from happiness and indeed often in conflict with it. Duty elicits the pure motivation of a "good will" with no regard for consequences or self-interest.

Kant distinguished the categorical imperative of morality from the so-called hypothetical imperatives of skill and prudence. A hypothetical imperative presupposes a given end or outcome in pursuit of which certain steps or means are demanded. One may or may not accept the given end, so the imperative is conditional or hypothetical. The utilitarian ethic is obviously conditioned by various outcomes and the natural rights ethic is conditioned by variable self-interest. Kant wished to defend the absolute or unconditional nature of moral norms. The imperatives of ethics are categorical, permitting no exceptions and requiring no ulterior motive. Kant formulated the categorical imperative in a number of ways, but the two most influential are "universalizability" and "respect for persons." The first formula states that one ought to act according to a maxim that can be a universal law. Such a restraint would exclude self-preference and promote fairness of consideration. Also it would promote consistency and rationality in human action. Kant thought that moral precepts are rational and that their violation would be inconsistent and/or self-interested. Lying for example entails a prior commitment to have one's word accepted as true; lying contradicts that good faith that we all must place in each other for rational conversation. The second formulation is that one should always act so as to treat other persons as ends in themselves and not as mere means. Again, the absolute ethical precepts protect another person from being used as means to another goal. Kant believed that he provided a high ground for human rights different from the low ground of enlightened self-interest provided by Hobbes and Locke.

The advantages of deontological ethics are the clear separation of duty from utility and self-interest. It embodies a principle of equal fairness and overcomes partiality and discrimination. It offers a rational and logical procedure for determining moral norms.

Deontological ethics has been criticized for being overly formal and subject to problems in applying the categorical imperative to concrete duties. It has been argued that it actually rests upon the Judeo-Christian belief in divine commands. Further, like natural rights ethics, it provides a minimal morality.

B. Outlines and Study Guides

1. Kennington on Kant's The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

1. The abandonment of nature is the liberation of morality.

Kantian morality is a function of pure reason. Why must it be pure? The empirical is "corrupting", in two ways:

  • a. epistemological - the empirical is particular and contingent e.g. the concept of happiness depends on appetite, whim, and shifting preferences. 

    - the a priori is universal and necessary, certainty of the categorical imperative.
  • b. Practical - empirical principle of action is self interest and it is out of control (nature, fortune) 

    - a priori principle has character of law and duty, it is within each man's control.

2. Kant combines ancients and moderns in a new Philosophy of morals. He combines a low view of human nature with a high view of morality. Human nature is selfish, there is not highest good, the good is the pleasant; these are principles of modern hedonism. On the other hand, Kant sees that morality is above the useful and the pleasant, a theme of ancient philosophy. Kant goes beyond them both by taking morality out of human nature. Morality becomes a matter of strict law and the self legislation of a rational being.

3. Kant is more modern than ancient; for he thinks that freedom is the essence of human nature. That enlightenment and philosophic ideal of autonomy is the peak of Kantian morality. Autonomy means auto - nomo, law from one's self. Rational man derives the moral law from within himself. The opposite of autonomy is heteronomy, heter, meaning "other." Kant's ideal of self-legislation is set against any other outside source of law or moral principle, e.g. God, nature, the city.

4. The trans-natural character of Kantian morality, its very purity, makes it very fragile. How livable is it? Does the common man really live at the knife edge of freedom and decision making? Or are not moral habits, virtues, the substance of the moral life? Is there room for prudence as a great moral virtue, as in acts of great statesmen? Kant liberates morality from nature. Later philosophers turn from pure reason to history and seek to realize this "pure reason", this demand of autonomy, in time.

Section I: "Transition from common to philosophical"

1. To have moral worth, an action must be done from duty (not merely in accordance with duty).

2. An action done from duty derives its moral worth not from the purpose which is to be attained from it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without any regard to the object of desire.

3. Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law.

THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE: "I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law."

Sum: Nothing is good without qualification except a good will. 
A good will acts on a universal law (Categorical imperative).
To act on a categorical imperative is to be free, free from all inclinations and consequences. 
Autonomy of will is the supreme principle of morality (necessary, sufficient)

Question: why be moral? (All incentives are removed as a condition for morality) can we be moral? i.e. are we in fact free?

Problem: can we be moral, are we free? 
morality and freedom have been shown as connected, circle (195) 
but freedom has not been proved; it is an idea of pure reason and thus not really knowable. 
Circle: Free because moral; moral because free.

Solution distinction between appearance and thing in itself allows us to regard ourselves from two points of view:

    as a member of the world of sense, the phenomenal world man is completely determined. Desires and inclinations are no more than pushes and pulls. Heteronomy. Passive. Happiness.

    as a member of the world of intelligence, noumenal world, man is completely free, active, autonomous. Morality.

    idea of freedom cannot be proved, but it can be defended as possible and consistent. Then we can adapt to its point of view.


  • 1. Status of transcendental ego? Can we say that it "is "
  • 2. Is it coherent to explain human action twice?
  • 3. Can the phenomena of life (desire) be explained mechanistically?

Kant begins his ethical reflection with the assertion: nothing in the world can be called good without qualification except a good will. What is a good will? A will that acts for the sake of duty. What is one's duty? It may be found in the categorical imperative, a general or universal law. A good will can universalize its maxims. When it acts for duty, on a universalizable maxim, the agent is free from all empirical and self-interested conditions. So Kant concludes section two saying "autonomy of the will is the supreme principle of morality." In other words, freedom, rightly understood, is both necessary and sufficient for a moral act. Freedom and morality are inevitably connected (191). Kant claims to have explained the idea of morality. But two questions remain: why be moral? Kant has removed all incentive as the very condition for morality. But he does not address himself to this questions directly. The second, which he does take up, is how is morality possible? That is, can man act freely? Kant admits that he cannot prove man is free. Freedom is an idea of pure reason. In its speculative use, it is illusory. It cannot be proved, but it must be assumed if we are to think of ourselves as moral agents (194). But we are in circle here (195). We assume we are free because we consider ourselves moral. But we consider ourselves moral because we have conferred freedom. How do we break out? Go back to the Critique of Pure Reason and the distinction between appearance and thing in itself. We can consider ourselves from two points of view: as in the world of sense. And as in the world of the intelligible (196-97). As a member of the sensible world he is completely determined. His inclinations and desires are not more than 1/2 pushes and pulls over which he has not control. His action is ruled from outside, it is heteronomous, he is passive (198). As member of the world of mind or as a noumenal being he is entirely an agent, autonomous and free. It is the sphere of morality. The sense world is the sphere of happiness. Yet man is a whole. The noumenal somehow calls to the phenomenal and delivers its "OUGHT". The idea of freedom is consistent with our knowledge of nature, but we cannot explain how it works. There must be something outside of nature - the transcendental ego is a condition for the appearance of nature. But we cannot say in any meaningful way whether "it is" because existence is a term only applicable to phenomena. Very curious dilemma. Further, specifically about will: how can human action be explained twice? Do we explain it once through mechanism? Why then invoke another cause, free will? It seems unnecessary. Finally, Kant makes a big assumption about desires and inclinations - i.e. whether they can be explained mechanistically. To bring all of nature under mechanical laws is a project, not yet an accomplishment. Maybe life cannot be fully explained through mechanism.

Kant sets the stage for further developments in philosophy:

  • Marxism: realize the kingdom of ends in time, in social economic conditions.
  • Existentialism: man as homeless in the world, cut off from nature, having only his own subjectivity and freedom, abandoning even practical reason.
  • Positivism: continue the project of modern science, bring all nature (man also under mathematical and mechanistic explanation, eliminate all metaphysics)
  • Phenomenology: continue to explore the "conditions for the possibility" of experience; how objects appear to a subject.


1. Kant on The Existence of God as a Postulate of Pure Practical Reason.

In the foregoing analysis the moral law led to a practical problem which is prescribed by pure reason alone, without the aid of any sensible motives, namely, that of the necessary completeness of the first and principle element of the summum bonum, viz., morality; and, as this can be perfectly solved only in eternity, to the postulate of immortality. The same law must also lead us to affirm the possibility of the second element of the summum bonum, viz., happiness proportioned to that morality, and this on grounds as disinterested as before, and solely from impartial reason; that is, it must lead to the supposition of the existence of a cause adequate to this effect; in other words, it must postulate the existence of God, as the necessary condition of the possibility of the summum bonum (an object of the will which is necessarily connected with the moral legislation of pure reason). We proceed to exhibit this connection in a convincing manner.

Happiness is the condition of a rational being in the world with whom everything goes according to his wish and will; it rests, therefore, on the harmony of physical nature with his whole end and likewise with the essential determining principle of his will. Now the moral law as a law of freedom commands by determining principles, which ought to be quite independent of nature and of its harmony with our faculty of desire (as springs). But the acting rational being in the world is not the cause of the world and of nature itself. There is not the least ground, therefore, in the moral law for a necessary connection between morality and proportionate happiness in a being that belongs to the world as part of it, and therefore dependent on it, and which for that reason cannot by his will be a cause of this nature, nor by his own power make it thoroughly harmonize, as far as his happiness is concerned, with his practical principles. Nevertheless, in the practical problem of pure reason, i.e. the necessary pursuit of the summum bonum, such a connection is postulated as necessary: we ought to endeavour to promote the summum bonum, which, therefore, must be possible. Accordingly, the existence of a cause of all nature, distinct from nature itself and containing the principle of this connection, namely, of the exact harmony of happiness with morality, is also postulated. Now this supreme cause must contain the principle of the harmony of nature, not merely with a law of the will of rational beings, but with the conception of this law, in so far as they make it the supreme determining principle of the will, and consequently not merely with the form of morals, but with their morality as their motive, that is, with their moral character. Therefore, the summum bonum is possible in the world only on the supposition of a Supreme Being having a causality corresponding to moral character. Now a being that is capable of acting on the conception of laws is an intelligence (a rational being), and the causality of such a being according to this conception of laws is his will; therefore the supreme cause of nature, which must be presupposed as a condition of the summum bonum is a being which is the cause of nature by intelligence and will, consequently its author, that is God. It follows that the postulate of the possibility of the highest derived good (the best world) is likewise the postulate of the reality of a highest original good, that is to say, of the existence of God. Now it was seen to be a duty for us to promote the summum bonum; consequently it is not merely allowable, but it is a necessity connected with duty as a requisite, that we should presuppose the possibility of this summum bonum; and as this is possible only on condition of the existence of God, it inseparably connects the supposition of this with duty; that is, it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God.

It must be remarked here that this moral necessity is subjective, that is, it is a want, and not objective, that is, itself a duty, for there cannot be a duty to suppose the existence of anything (since this concerns only the theoretical employment of reason). Moreover, it is not meant by this that it is necessary to suppose the existence of God as a basis of all obligation in general (for this rests, as has been sufficiently proved, simply on the autonomy of reason itself). What belongs to duty here is only the endeavour to realize and promote the summum bonum in the world, the possibility of which can therefore be postulated; and as our reason finds it not conceivable except on the supposition of a supreme intelligence, the admission of this existence is therefore connected with the consciousness of our duty, although the admission itself belongs to the domain of speculative reason. Considered in respect of this alone, as a principle of explanation, it may be called a hypothesis, but in reference to the intelligibility of an object given us by the moral law (the summum bonum), and consequently of a requirement for practical purposes, it may be called faith, that is to say a pure rational faith, since pure reason (both in its theoretical and practical use) is the sole source from which it springs.

The doctrine of Christianity, even if we do not yet consider it as a religious doctrine, gives, touching this point, a conception of the summum bonum (the kingdom of God), which alone satisfies the strictest demand of practical reason. The moral law is holy (unyielding) and demands holiness of morals, although all the moral perfection to which man can attain is still only virtue, that is, a rightful disposition arising from respect for the law, implying consciousness of a constant propensity to transgression, or at least a want of purity, that is, a mixture of many spurious (not moral) motives of obedience to the law, consequently a self-esteem combined with humility. In respect, then, of the holiness which the Christian law requires, this leaves the creature nothing but a progress in infinitum, but for that very reason it justifies him in hoping for an endless duration of his existence. The worth of a character perfectly accordant with the moral law is infinite, since the only restriction on all possible happiness in the judgement of a wise and all powerful distributor of it is the absence of conformity of rational beings to their duty. But the moral law of itself does not promise any happiness, for according to our conceptions of an order of nature in general, this is not necessarily connected with obedience to the law. Now Christian morality supplies this defect (of the second indispensable element of the summum bonum) by representing the world in which rational beings devote themselves with all their soul to the moral law, as a kingdom of God, in which nature and morality are brought into a harmony foreign to each of itself, by a holy Author who makes the derived summum bonum possible. Holiness of life is prescribed to them as a rule even in this life, while the welfare proportioned to it, namely, bliss, is represented as attainable only in an eternity; because the former must always be the pattern of their conduct in every state, and progress towards it is already possible and necessary in this life; while the latter, under the name of happiness, cannot be attained at all in this world (so far as our own power is concerned), and therefore is made simply an object of hope. Nevertheless, the Christian principle of morality itself is not theological (so as to be heteronomy), but is autonomy of pure practical reason, since it does not make the knowledge of God and His will the foundation of these laws, but only of the attainment of the summum bonum, on condition of following these laws, and it does not even place the proper spring of this obedience in the desired results, but solely in the conception of duty, as that of which the faithful observance alone constitutes the worthiness to obtain those happy consequences.


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