Unit Overview

Kantian ethics takes many of Hobbes’ ideas (and Locke’s and Rousseau’s, although we don’t have time to cover them) and refines them into a moral theory that is similar yet very different. Kant’s basic idea that treating people morally requires treating them as if we were part of a fair social contract, that morality is acting according to a set of rules that we would all agree to follow. He claims that the fundamental principle of morality is to treat persons as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to an end. Kant’s theory can seem complicated at first. In addition to the readings in the textbook there is alos a reading by O’nora O’neil and I’ve provided some notes below.


Section 9.5 contains the most useful explanation of Kant’s basic theory. The preceding sections of chapter 9 present the argument against Kant’s theory. it is a little strange to start that way but that is how the author chose to do so. I suspect he is biased in favor of utilitarianism. Chapter 10 presents the more attractive side of Kant’s theory. Most contemporary Kantians rely on Kant’s idea that we should not treat other persons as merely a means to an end. To understand the discussion on punishment in the second part of the chapter you may have to read a little of chapter 7 to understand the basic idea of utilitarianism.

Kantian Ethics


Contractualism vs. Contractarianism

Contractualism, a term used to describe Kantian style social contract theory, shares a set of features with contractarianism, or Hobbesian style social contract theory, which often leads them both to be classified as different types of social contract theories, which they are. The similarity lies in the similarity between the normative ethical principle of both theories, which is something along the lines of “an action right if and only if it wood be agreed to by all parties.” However, this similarity masks some very important differences. Although in both theories a certain set of rules that all parties agree to, or would agree to, that determines what actions are right or wrong the theories use different definitions of reason which leads to significant differences in what types of actions are consider right and wrong. In contractarianism reason is nothing more than self-interest, whereas in contractualism reason takes on a moral role dictating not merely what is in our self-interest but what we ought to do even if it conflicts with our self interest. So, in contractualism the problematic connection between self-interest/reason and morality is severed and according to contractualist ethical theory it will often be the case that reason/morality prescribes actions that are against one’s self-interest. Notice that contractualism employs a similar conception of reason as utilitarianism does in that both theories consider that the rational action is the one taken with reference to a universal or objective conception of reason.

In contractarianism the rules of morality arise as a matter of fact based on groups of self-interested individuals pursuing their self-interest. Groups of human beings agree to follow certain rules as long as other members of the group are following them out of self-interest. And the rules of morality are determined by what these self-interested individuals would in fact agree to, and anything they would not agree to is not a legitimate moral principle. But in contractualism the rules of morality arise by an idealized mutual agreement wherein all the members of the moral community agree to principles that benefit everyone. So, in contractualism the driving force is not self-interest but respect for the other members of the contract. In contractualism you have a group of self-interested individuals trying to get the most by negotiating a set of rules that others will agree to but will never the less benefit them the most, whereas in contractualism you have a group of individuals deliberating about what set of rules is fair and respects the needs of all the members of the group.

This difference is largely a result of a different definition of equality. Hobbes claimed that all were equal, in the state of nature, in that “even the weakest has strength to kill the strongest” and then from there once a commonwealth is established we can then say that all members are equal in that they all have the same rights. But in contractualism a much more robust sense of equality is built into the initial terms of the contract. Right from the beginning of deliberation all members deserve equal consideration and respect with regard to the principles the contractors will choose. All members of the moral community are equal in that they are all equally “the subject of a life”, to borrow a phrase from Tom Regan, and deserve equal consideration and respect.

This much more traditional and robust sense of equality is due to the different definition of reason that contractualism uses. According to contractarianism reason commands us to pursue our self-interest and nothing more. But according to contractualism reason commands us to acknowledge that our ends, desires, and happiness are no more important than anyone else’s. Reason is an objective and impartial voice that views us as merely one member of a group. These key differences are illustrated in the following chart:


Contractarianism Contractualism
Reason Self-interest: reason commands us only to pursue self-interest Other-interest: reason commands us to curtail our pursuit of self-interest when it conflicts with the interest of others
Equality Equal Strength: the weakest can kill the strongest Equal Dignity: all members of the moral community are equally important


Here is a nice summary from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on contractualism:

Contractarianism has its roots in Hobbes, whose account is based on mutual self-interest. Morality consists in those forms of cooperative behaviour that it is mutually advantageous for self-interested agents to engage in. (The most prominent modern exponent is David Gauthier. See Gauthier 1986.)

By contrast, any form of contractualism is grounded on the equal moral status of persons. It interprets this moral status as based on their capacity for rational autonomous agency. According to contractualism, morality consists in what would result if we were to make binding agreements from a point of view that respects our equal moral importance as rational autonomous agents. Contractualism has its roots in Rousseau, rather than Hobbes: the general will is what we would jointly will if we adopted the perspective of free and equal citizens. Contractualism offers an alternative to contractarianism. Under contractarianism, I seek to maximise my own interests in a bargain with others. Under contractualism, I seek to pursue my interests in a way that I can justify to others who have their own interests to pursue.

As you might have recognized contractualism is much closer to our everyday moral intuitions than either utilitarianism or contractarianism. In the basic contractualist principles you might even recognize echoes of the golden rule.


Kantian Ethics and Contractualism

Kantian ethics is one tradition of ethical theory within the broader contractualist tradition, although for much of the past several hundred years it has been the main representative of contractualism. The above quote suggests Rousseau as the modern day founder of contractualism, but one might also consider Locke as a contractualist or proto-contractualist. We will primarily consider Kant as the main representative of this tradition as he has certainly been the most influential contractualist, but we will also consider John Rawls’ neo-Kantianism as a modern contractualist theory.

Kantian ethics is sometimes classified as a deontological, or duty based, theory of ethics, which is usually contrasted with teleological theories of ethics, like utilitarianism. Teleological theories proceed by defining the right action in terms of some particular end (teleos) whereas deontological theory proceed in their ethical reasoning by defining the right action in terms of a duty or set of duties (deon). There are many ways in which the theories we are covering can be classified however for our purposes we will think of Kantian ethics as a contractualist theory of ethics. It is deontological but the duties are derived in a contractualist way which, I believe, makes it more appropriate to classify it as a contractualist theory.

Here is a nice summary of Kantian Ethics by Allen Wood from his book Kantian Ethics:

“Kant’s moral philosophy is grounded on several related values. Its primary idea is that of the rational agent as a self-governing being. This is closely related to the equal dignity of all rational beings as ends in themselves, deserving of respect in all rational actions. These two values are combined in the conception of an ideal community, or “realm of ends,” in which all the ends of rational beings are to be combined in a single harmonious system as an object of striving by all of them. These basic values, and their philosophical grounding, are articulated in Kant’s two principle foundational works in ethics: Groundwork for the metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the Analytic of the Critique of Practical Reason (1788).” (Wood, 129)


The Categorical Imperatives

“Imperative” means command and “categorical” means that the commands of morality are absolute commands, which allow no exceptions regardless of one’s personal desires on the matter i.e. you may not want to do the right thing but you have to. The categorical imperatives are Kant’s way of describing the fundamental command of morality. Kant identifies three versions of the categorical imperative, which he claims are equivalent. We will consider the second and third versions of the categorical imperatives. We won’t talk about Kant’s Formula of Universal Law, the first formulation of the categorical imperative.

The Formula of Humanity

Formula of Humanity – Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.

This second version of the categorical imperative is the most intuitive and easiest to use. It has also made its way into pop culture through sayings like “Love people and use things, don’t use people and love things.” You might have heard something like “She’s just using him” or “He used her.” With this version of the categorical imperative the contractualist elements of Kant’s theory are becoming more explicit. The contractualism is implicit in the FUL because our breaking the rule is only meaningful in the context of everyone else following the rule. In this formulation Kant introduces the idea of “humanity” and the idea that entities that posses humanity are “ends in themselves.” He says:

Now I say that the human being and in general every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion; instead he must in all his actions, whether directed to himself or also to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end. . .

By “humanity” Kant is referring to rationality. “Rational dignity” is another phrase that Kant sometimes uses. By “dignity” Kant refers to a special value that is independent of any “market value” something or someone posses. One person might be a billionaire and another homeless and penniless but both have equal dignity or equal moral worth. Kant says:

. . . everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity. What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; that which . . . but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but inner worth, that is, dignity.

Here is the crucial paragraph where Kant offers the argument for the principle:

The foundation of this principle is: rational nature exists as an end in itself. Man necessarily conceives his own existence as being so: so far then this is a subjective principle of human actions. But every other rational being regards its existence similarly, just on the same rational principle that holds for me: so that it is at the same time an objective principle . . . Accordingly the practical imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only . . .

Kant’s argument for the formula of humanity something along the following lines:

  1. From a subjective point of view I consider myself as an “end in itself.”
  2. Every other person’s subjective view they consider themselves as an “end in itself.”
  3. From an objective point of view, or the perspective of reason, every persons is an “ends in itself.”
  4. So, as a rational agent capable of taking the objective point of view I ought to treat all persons as ends in themselves.

In the next formulation Kant further develops the idea of rational beings as ends in themselves.

The Formula of Realm of Ends

Formula of Realm of Ends – “act in accordance with the maxims of a universally legislative member of a merely possible realm of ends” (Groundwork 4:439)

What is a realm of ends? A realm of ends is a “union of different rational beings in a system by common laws.” Kant describes the realm of ends as “merely possible” to indicate that this is not an actual state or group that we are part of but rather it is a way of thinking about oneself in relation to others. It is not a physical place but a way of thinking. The realm of ends is a way of talking about all the ends of all the members of the realm of ends, how they are all connected, and how to best respect the various ends of all the members of the realm of ends. Here are some helpful quotes from Allen Wood on what Kant is getting at in his Formula of Realm of Ends:

The realm of ends is not a state of affairs but a system of purposive activity shared by different rational beings who stand in social relationships to one another – they respect one another as ends in themselves and choose to live according to a common set of objective moral laws expressing this mutual respect. This is why they choose to share a common set of ends that brings the happiness of each into harmony with the happiness of all others, and why each one chooses to limit the pursuit of her own happiness in such a way that it can belong to such a shared, purposive system.” (Wood, 266)

“The realm of ends is a way of representing maxims to which each member is bound in belonging to the end.” (Wood, 267)

“Kantian ethics differs from ethical theories whose style of practical reasoning is oriented to producing the best states of affairs  by making the primary thing the relationships between rational beings, and the terms on which rational beings relate to one another. The basic thing is that rational beings should follow a common set of laws or principles expressing their self-respect and their respect for one another as ends in themselves and the idea that they are legislators in a common of the laws to which they are subject.”(Wood, 268)

“Our task is to respect the rights of persons (and the right more generally) and to set as ends those instances of goods falling under the rubrics of our own perfection and the happiness of other toward which we are capable of making a meaningful contribution with our limited powers in our limited life. The larger practical context for our action is not the highest good (regarded as “the greatest good overall”) but the realm of ends. That is to say, it is not an encompassing consequence to be brought about but a web of relationships between rational beings in which all their particular ends can be shared and all are respected as ends in themselves.” (268-9)

In the final formulation, the fundamental moral command is to act in such a way that we respect all other rational agents as ends in themselves. What this formulation adds, compared to the formula of humanity, is that some actions may not look like they use anyone as a means to some end of yours but nevertheless an action may ultimately affect how others are able to pursue their ends. So, to act morally is to act as a conscientious and considerate member of an ideal community and to curtail the pursuit of ones own ends when they conflict with laws that all members would agree to follow.


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