COMMENTS ON KANT'S ETHICAL THEORY
Because we so commonly take it for granted that moral values are intimately connected with the goal of human well-being or happiness, Kant's insistence that these two concepts are absolutely independent makes it difficult to grasp his point of view and easy to misunderstand it. The following comments are intended to help the you to avoid the most common misunderstandings and appreciate the sort of outlook that characterizes what Kant takes to be the heart of the ethical life.

Kant's ethical theory is often cited as the paradigm of a deontological theory. Although the theory certainly can be seriously criticized, it remains probably the finest analysis of the bases of the concepts of moral principle and moral obligation. Kant's endeavor to ground moral duty in the nature of the human being as essentially a rational being marks him as the last great Enlightenment thinker. In spite of the fact that his critical philosophy in epistemology and metaphysics brought an end to The Age of Reason, in ethics his attempt to derive the form of any ethical duty from the very nature of a rational being is the philosophical high water mark of the Enlightenment's vision of humanity as essentially and uniquely rational. What Kant aims to provide is a "metaphysics of morals" in the sense of an analysis of the grounds of moral obligation in the nature of a rational being. In other words, Kant aims to deduce his ethical theory purely by a priori reasoning from the concept of what it is to be a human person as a rational agent. The fact that people have the faculty of being able to use reason to decide how to act expresses the fundamental metaphysical principle -the basis or foundation in the nature of reality- on which Kant's ethical theory is erected.

Kant begins his treatise, The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals with the famous dramatic sentence:

"Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will."

It will be convenient to begin by considering several key notions in this sentence.
 

1. What does Kant mean by "good without qualification"?
2. Why is a "good will" the only thing which is universally absolutely good?
3. Isn't "happiness" such a universal, absolute good in-itself?
4. What does Kant mean by a "good will"?
5. When does one act from a motive of doing one's duty?
6. Why does Kant believe that to have moral worth an action must be done on principle rather than inclination?
7. Do all persons have the same moral duties?
8. Why is it that actions done for the sake of some end cannot have moral worth?
9. What does reason tell us about the principle that determines the morally dutiful motive?
10. What is a "categorical imperative"?
11. What is required of a "universal law"?
12. Is there something wrong with this notion of "inconsistency"?
13. What else can we deduce from the concept of a rational being as such?

 
 

1. What does Kant mean by "good without qualification"?

Obviously people try to seek and avoid many different sorts of things; those things which they seek they call "good," while those they try to avoid, they call "bad". These "goods" which people seek may be divided into those which are sought as means to some further end and those which they seek as good as ends in themselves. Obviously some things may be "good" as means to one end and "bad" as means to some other end. Different persons, motivated by different ends, will thus find different things "good" and "bad" (relative to their different ends). More food is "good" to a starving man, but it is "bad" to one overweight.

In order for something to be good "without qualification" it must not be merely "good" as means to one end but "bad" as means to some other end. It must be sought as good totally independently of serving as a means to something else; it must be "good in-itself." Furthermore, while one thing may be good as means relative to a particular end, that "end" becomes a "means" relative to some other "end". So a college diploma may be sought as "good" as a means for the end of a higher-paying job. And a higher-paying job may be "good" as a means to increased financial security; and increased financial security may be "good" as a means to obtaining the necessities of life as well as a few of its luxuries. However, if we seek A only for the sake of B, and B only for the sake of C, etc., then there is never a justification for seeking A at the beginning of such a series unless there is something at the end of that series which we seek as a "good in-itself" not merely as means to some further end. Such an "ultimate" end would then be an "absolute" rather than a "relative" good. Kant means that a good will is "good without qualification" as such an absolute good in-itself, universally good in every instance and never merely as good to some yet further end.

2. Why is a "good will" the only thing which is universally absolutely good?

Kant's point is that to be universally and absolutely good, something must be good in every instance of its occurrence. He argues that all those things which people call "good" (including intelligence, wit, judgment, courage, resolution, perseverance, power, riches, honor, health, and even happiness itself) can become "extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them...is not good." In other words, if we imagine a bad person (i.e. one who willed or wanted to do evil), who had all of these so-called "goods" (intelligence, wit, etc.), these very traits would make only that much worse his will to do what is wrong. (We would get the "criminal master-mind" of the comic books.) Even "health" often also cited as a "good in- itself" may serve to make a person insensitive and indifferent to the lack of good health in others.
 

3. Isn't "happiness" such a universal, absolute good in-itself?

Kant answers clearly, "No." However, many philosophers (the ones we call "eudaemonists") have assumed the obvious answer to be "Yes." All ancient eudaemonistic ethical theories as well as modern utilitarian theories virtually define "happiness" as the absolute end of all ethical behavior. Such eudaemonistic ethical theories are attractive because of  the fact that they make it easy to answer the question "Why should I do what is morally right?" For any eudaemonistic theory the answer will always be "Because the morally right action is always ultimately in the interest of your own happiness." Since these theories generally assume that people really are motivated by a desire for their own happiness, their only problem is to show that the morally right action really does serve as the best means to obtain the end of happiness. Once you are led to see this, so such theories assume, the question "Why should I do what is morally right?" is automatically answered.

Kant totally rejects this eudaemonistic way of ethical theorizing; he calls decisions made according to such a calculation of what produces your own happiness "prudential" decisions and he distinguishes them sharply from ethical decisions. This is not because Kant thinks we are not motivated by a desire for happiness, in fact like the ancient philosophers, he takes it for granted that we are; however, such motivation cannot be that which makes an action ethically right or wrong. The fact that an action might lead to happiness cannot be the grounds of moral obligation. Kant regards the notion of "happiness" as both too indefinite and too empirical to serve as the grounds for moral obligation - why we ought to do something. In the first place it is "too indefinite" because all people have very different sorts of talents, tastes and enjoyments which mean in effect that one person's happiness may be another person's misery. This is because the concept is "empirical" in the sense that the only way you can know whether what you seek will actually serve to bring you happiness is by experience. As Kant points out, "...it is impossible that the most clear-sighted [man] should frame to himself a definite conception of what he really wills in this...." Since we cannot know a priori before an action whether it really will be conducive to our happiness (because the notion is so indefinite that even the most clear-sighted amongst us cannot know everything that must form part of his own happiness) the desire for our own happiness cannot serve as a motive to determine our will to do this or that action. Moreover, Kant observes that even "...the general well-being and contentment with one's condition that is called happiness, can inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of these on the mind...." In other words happiness cannot be good without qualification for if we imagine it occurring in a person totally devoid of the desire to do what is right, it could very well lead to all sorts of immoral actions.

4. What does Kant mean by a "good will"?

To act out of a "good will" for Kant means to act out of a sense of moral obligation or "duty". In other words, the moral agent does a particular action not because of what it produces (its consequences) in terms of human experience, but because he or she recognizes by reasoning that it is morally the right thing to do and thus regards him or herself as having a moral duty or obligation to do that action. One may of course as an added fact get some pleasure or other gain from doing the right thing, but to act morally, one does not do it for the sake of its desirable consequences, but rather because one understands that it is morally the right thing to do. In this respect Kant's view towards morality parallels the Christian's view concerning obedience to God's commandments, according to which the Christian obeys God's commandments simply because God commands them, not for the sake of rewards in heaven after death or from fear of punishment in hell. In a similar way, for Kant the rational being does what is morally right because he recognizes himself as having a moral duty to do so rather than for anything he or she may get out of it.

5. When does one act from a motive of doing one's duty?

Kant answers that we do our moral duty when our motive is determined by a principle recognized by reason rather than the desire for any expected consequence or emotional feeling which may cause us to act the way we do. The "will" is defined as that which provides the motives for our actions. Obviously many times we are motivated by specific desires or emotions. I may act the way I do from a feeling of friendship for a particular individual, or from desire for a particular consequence. I may also be motivated by particular emotions of fear, or envy, or pity, etc. When I act in these ways, I am motivated by a desire for a particular end; in Kant's vocabulary I am said to act out of "inclination." Insofar as an action is motivated by inclination, the motive to do it is contingent upon the desire for the particular end which the action is imagined to produce. Thus as different rational agents might have different inclinations, there is no one motive from inclination common to all rational beings.

Kant distinguishes acts motivated by inclination from those done on principle. For example someone may ask why I did a certain thing, and point out that it brought me no gain, or perhaps even made life a bit less pleasant; to which I might reply, "I know I do not stand to gain by this action, but I do it because of the principle of the thing." For Kant, this sort of state of mind is the essence of the moral consciousness. When I act on principle the sole factor determining my motive is that this particular action exemplifies a particular case falling under a general law or "maxim." For Kant the mental process by which the actor understands that a particular case falls under a certain principle is an exercise in "reasoning," or to be more precise, what Kant called "practical reason," reason used as a guide to action. ("Pure Reason" is reason used to attain certainty, or what Kant called "scientific knowledge.") Since to have moral worth an action must be done on principle, and to see that a certain principle applies to a particular action requires the exercise of reason, only rational beings can be said to behave morally.

6. Why does Kant believe that to have moral worth an action must be done on principle rather than inclination?

Kant's argument here may seem strange to the contemporary outlook, for it assumes that everything in nature is designed to serve a purpose. Now it is an obvious fact that human beings do have a faculty of "practical reason," reason applied to the guidance of actions. (Kant is of course fully aware the people often fail to employ this faculty; i.e. they act non-rationally (without reason) or even irrationally (against what reason dictates); but he intends that his ethical theory is normative, prescribing how people ought to behave, rather than descriptive of how they actually do behave.) If everything in nature serves some purpose then the faculty of practical reason must have some purpose. Kant argues that this purpose cannot be merely the attainment of some specific desired end, or even the attainment of happiness in general, for if it were, it would have been far better for nature simply to have endowed persons with an instinct to achieve this end, as is the case with the non- rational animals. Therefore, the fact that human beings have a faculty of practical reason cannot be explained by claiming that it allows them to attain some particular end. So the fact that reason can guide our actions, but cannot do so for the sake of achieving some desired end, leads Kant to the conclusion that the function of practical reason must be to allow humans as rational beings to apply general principles to particular instances of action, or in other words to engage in moral reasoning as a way of determining one's moral obligation: what is the "right" action to do. Thus we act morally only when we act rationally to apply a moral principle to "determine" the motive of our action.

7. Do all persons have the same moral duties?

According to Kant only rational beings can be said to act morally. Reason for Kant (as for all the Enlightenment thinkers) is the same for all persons; in other words there isn't a poor man's reason versus a rich man's reason or a white man's reason versus a black man's reason. All persons are equal as potentially rational beings. Therefore, if reason dictates that one person, in a particular situation, has a moral duty to do a particular thing, then any person, in that same situation, would equally well have a duty to do that same thing. In this sense Kant's reasoning parallels the way in which stoicism led Roman lawyers to the conclusion that all citizens are equal before the law. Thus Kant is a moral "absolutist" in the sense that all persons have the same moral duties, for all persons are equal as rational beings. But this "absolutism" does not mean that Kant holds that our moral duties are not relative to the situation in which we find ourselves. Thus it is quite possible for Kant to conclude that in one particular situation I may have a duty to keep my promise, but in another situation (in which, for example, keeping a promise conflicts with a higher duty) I may equally well be morally obligated to break a promise.

8. Why is it that actions done for the sake of some end cannot have moral worth?

Since what one's moral duties are in a particular situation are the same for all persons, one's moral duties must be independent of the particular likes and dislikes of the moral agent. Now any action which is motivated by the desire for some particular end presupposes that the agent has the desire for that end. However, from the simple concept of a "rational being" it is not possible to deduce that any particular rational being would have any particular desired ends. Most people, of course, desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but there is no logical contradiction involved in the notion of a "rational being who does not desire pleasure" or perhaps who desires pain. Thus reason does not dictate that any particular rational being has any particular end. But if the desire for a particular end gave an action its moral worth, then only those rational beings who happened in fact to desire that end would regard such actions as "good," while those that desired to avoid such an end, would regard the action as "bad." (Thus for example eudaemonistic theories which assume the end of achieving happiness is what gives an action its moral value, would serve to induce only those beings who happened to have the desire for happiness to behave morally. For those rational beings who happened to desire to avoid happiness, there would be no incentive to behave morally and what appears "good" to the happiness-seeker will appear positively "bad" to one who seeks to avoid happiness.) But, as we have seen above, Kant's absolutism reaches the conclusion that moral obligation is the same for all persons. Thus the ground of moral obligation, what makes an action a moral duty, cannot lie in the end which that act produces.

9. What does reason tell us about the principle that determines the morally dutiful motive?

Since Kant has ruled out the ends (i.e. the "consequences") which an act produces as well as any motive but those determined by the application of principle as determining moral duty, he is faced now with the task of deriving the "fundamental principles" of his ethical theory solely from the concept of what it is to be a rational being. He now argues (in a very obscure manner) that from this notion of what is demanded by being rational, he can deduce that it would be irrational to act on any principle which would not apply equally to any other actor in the same situation. In other words, Kant claims that reason dictates that the act we are morally obligated to do is one which is motivated by adherence to a principle which could, without inconsistency, be held to apply to any (and all) rational agents. This fundamental ethical principle, which is commonly called "The Categorical Imperative," Kant summarizes with the statement that "I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law." Kant's claim that Reason demands the moral agent to act on a universal law thus in many ways parallels Jesus' dictum that God commands that those who love Him obey "The Golden Rule."

10. What is a "categorical imperative"?

Any statement of moral obligation which I make the principle of my action (my "maxim" in Kant's vocabulary), in the context of a specific situation, constitutes an "imperative." I might, in such a situation, choose to act on a statement of the form, "If I desire some specific end (e.g. happiness, maximum pleasure, power, etc.), then I ought to do such and such an action." In doing so I would be acting on what Kant calls "a hypothetical imperative." However, Kant has already ruled out ends as the grounds for moral obligation; thus hypothetical imperatives cannot serve as the basis for determining my moral duty. However, if I act on a principle which has the form, "In circumstances of such and such a character, I ought to do this particular act, (quite apart from consequences)," then I am acting on what Kant calls a "categorical imperative."

However when Kant talks about "The Categorical Imperative, he does not mean simplyhis claim that the principle of our action cannot be a hypothetical imperative. Instead, the phrase, "The Categorical Imperative" refers to the principle that all principles of our action (maxims) could consistently become universal laws. The Categorical Imperative is a principle about principles, or a "second order" principle. "First order" principles would be the specific moral principles which determine one's ethical obligation, such as, for example the Ten Commandments; what The Categorical Imperative determines is the form of these first order principles. They must have the "form" that can be consistently "universalized," i.e. held to apply as universal moral laws for all rational agents. Kant holds that this is all reason can deduce. Exactly which specific moral principles are those which can consistently be universalized cannot be determined by reasoning a priori, but only empirically, by experience. Kant's "metaphysics of morals" thus makes no claim to deduce what our specific moral duties are. All Kant claims to deduce is the form which any such principles must have. It is thus unfair to criticize Kant's ethics as "sterile" or "empty" because it does not tell us specifically what our duties are; he never intended to provide a system of morality, but instead the philosophical ground for why a moral principle has the form it does.

11. What is required of a "universal law"?

Any principle which can be "universalized" is one which can be held to apply to all persons without involving inconsistency. Presumably Kant reaches this conclusion because what it is to be a "rational being" is to act in a way so as to avoid "inconsistency." Thus a great deal of Kant's ethics depends on giving some meaning to what it is to act "inconsistently." The general intent of The Categorical Imperative is clear enough: it is to eliminate acting on any principles which would clearly involve outrageously immoral conduct. Thus for example to act on the principle that I can pursue my own pleasure even if it causes others pain or unhappiness would be considered "inconsistent" for if all persons acted on such a principle, then they would pursue their own pleasure even if it caused me pain, and that would be "inconsistent" with the principle that I act on in pursuing my own pleasure. Or another example: to act on the principle that I may break my promises whenever it is convenient to do so, would, if universalized, mean everyone could do so. The practice of promise making would then quickly loose its very purpose which is to secure a commitment on which one can depend. To act on such a principle, then, would be "inconsistent" with the very practice of making promises.

12. Is there something wrong with this notion of "inconsistency"?

We must recall that Kant's claim is to deduce The Categorical Imperative from the concept of the moral agent as a rational being. Thus the "inconsistency" which he intends should be a form of rational inconsistency. In other words there should be no appeal made to what the agent desires or doesn't desire, for to do so would be to appeal to "ends" and they might vary from one agent to another.

Now let us suppose that I consider acting on the principle, "Steal anything you like." I would have to universalize this principle, so I would have to accept the principle that everyone could steal anything they liked. Society would quickly get very much worse and turn into a war of all against all. Life might even become brief, and certainly my private property would be very insecure. These might be terrible consequences of my principle, but remember, they are not supposed to count in determining my moral duties. Have I acted inconsistently? Foolishly, perhaps, but why might I not say I prefer a world of constant battle with my fellow men. There seems nothing inconceivable about the concept of a rational being who might prefer the struggle and turmoil of a war of all against all to a world with secure property and no theft. In any event, all we could point to in order to justify the desirability of the one over the other is the consequences of living in such worlds. Thus it seems that when we actually try to apply The Categorical Imperative, consequences come in again "by the back door."

13. What else does Kant claim we can deduce from the concept of a rational being as such?

Kant claims that there is but one Categorical Imperative, what is normally called "The Categorical Imperative." But he also claims that he can deduce three different formulations of the one principle. We have already seen the first of these, and how Kant arrived at it. The route to the other two formulations is too obscure to be considered in these notes. But it is significant to an appreciation of Kant's whole ethical position to know what these are.

The second is as follows: "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means merely." In other words you must always treat every rational being including yourself as an end and never as a means to some further end. This formulation of the categorical Imperative reflects the typical Enlightenment outlook (which may seem today commonplace, but was then a vigorous new idea) that each human person is of value in and for him/herself. To "use" aother person as a means for the furtherance of one's own ends is to reduce that person to a thing, to deny him/her status as a rational being. The Categorical Imperative, then, is also the absolute injunction never to act in such a way.

The third formulation of The Categorical Imperative states that you must act in accordance with the principle that "the laws to which you are subject are those of your own giving, although at the same time they are universal." The moral agent is one who recognizes the source for the moral obligation under which he/she lives to be him/herself. For the physical world "natural" law prevails; this world is determined by that natural law to behave in the way it does. In contrast, the human will as the will of a moral agent, a rational being, is a will which is also determined by law, but it is a law which that rational agent freely chooses to adopt and impose on him/herself. The stone does not choose to obey the law of gravity, but the moral agent freely chooses in full awareness to adopt that moral principle which governs his/her life. The value or "dignity" of a moral being lies in the fact that he/she lives by a law which he/she freely "legislates" on his/her own life. Each member of a community of such moral agents would "legislate" on him/herself the same law, for all would be universalizable. Thus we would have what Kant calls a "kingdom" of individual persons each obeying the same moral law which each had freely chosen to impose on him/herself, recognizing his/her own dignity as a free rational self-legislating being. Kant refers to this ideal moral community as "a kingdom of ends." It remains one of the most exalted conceptual ideals which we still today treasure from our Enlightenment heritage.