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. Kantian ethics is sometimes classified as a deontological, or duty based, theory of ethics, which is usually contrasted with teleogical theories of ethics, like utilitarianism. Teleological thoeries 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 deontogical but the duties are derived in a contractual way which, I believe, makes it more appropriate to classify it as a contractualist theory.

Nice Summaries of Kantian Ethics by Allen Wood and John Rawls

“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 Critque of Practical Reason (1788).” (Wood, 129)

“Kantian ethics is not a morality of austere command but an ethic of mutual respect.” John Rawls

Intuitions that support Kantian or Contractualist view

  • Certain thought experiments (Organ stealing doctors)
  • Inviolability of Individuals (Rights)
  • Our intuition that peoples motivations are important, not just the consequences


  • Kantian ethics is the main traditional is what has come to be called Deontological ethics
  • Deotonological = duty based
  • Duty plays a very important role in Kantian ethics
  • Whatever the moral law commands
  •  Duties to ourselves and to other

Moral Worth

  • Only actions done out of respect for the moral law have moral worth
  • It is not enough to act merely in accord with the moral law for an action to have moral worth
  • Shopkeeper who doesn’t cheat is customer because he knows it will be bad for business is acting in accord with the moral law but his action does not have moral worth because he is not acting exclusively out of respect for the moral law
  • The same is true of a mother who cares for her children because she loves them, her action is in accord with the moral law but does not have moral worth

The Moral Law

  • The commands of morality

Categorical Imperative – the form that the moral law takes

  • Imperative = Command
  • Hypothetical Imperative vs. Categorical Imperative (moral vs. prudential ought)
  • Hypothetical Imperative
  •  Applies only conditionally
    • If you want x do y.
    • If you don’t want x then you have no obligation to do y.
  • Categorical Imperative
  • Applies to all rational beings
  • Not contingent on personal desire
    • Do y.
  • It does not matter what you want, you are still obligated to do y.

Formula Universal Law – Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law.

Kant uses this first formulation of the categorical imperative to derive a system of perfect and imperfect duties and this has traditionally come to define Kantian Ethics as well as drive much of the criticism Kantian ethics has received. Following the lead of Allen Wood in his book Kantian Ethics we are going to focus our attention on passage where Kant describes what he is trying to get at with this formulation of the categorical imperative.

Kant says:

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.”

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

Realm of Ends – “union of different rational beings in a system by common laws.”

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 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)

The moral community

This will become an important feature of kantian/contractualist ethical theory as we turn our attention to abortion and animal rights in the next section of the book.

  • According to Kant only beings that are rational and autonomous are members of the moral community
  • Autonomous: “Autonomous literally means being a self-legislator.” (FoE 170)
  • Kant did not believe that animals were members of the moral community
  • Kantian ethics vs Kant’s ethics
  • Some contemporary Kantians believe that animals are members of the moral community
    • Moral patients vs moral agents (Tom Reagan)


Kantian Ethics vs Consequentialism

  • Fundamental value – pleasure vs humanity (rational nature)
  • normative principle – maximize utility vs. respect humanity



Kantian Ethics


Fundamental Value







Normative Principle



Maximize Utility


Respect Humanity

Consequentialism requires maximizes pleasure whereas in Kantian ethics there is no maximization but rather a respect for the ends that other rational beings set for themselves


 Final Words from Allen Wood on Kantian Ethics

“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)


Comparing Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant

Hobbes and Rousseau

  • emphasis on state of nature and transition to social state from state of nature
  • By entering the social contract we give up our right to everything to gain a more limited but more secure set of rights

Differences with Hobbes

  • Rousseau doesn’t explicitly claim to derive all moral obligations from self-interest
  • At times Rousseau sounds more like Kant in talking about the role of reason in determining the content of our moral duties, and reason seems to encompass something more than prudence (self-interest)

Kant and Rousseau

  • Individual Will is constrained by Duty/reason

◦                                  “The first (the people) must be obligated to conform their wills to reason” (79)

◦                                  “No doubt there is a universal justice emanating from reason alone.” (77)

◦                                  Real freedom is obedience to a law one has prescribed to oneself

▪                                                    “So long as subjects are subjected only to conventions such as these, they obey no one, but only their own will (74)

▪                                                    “one need no longer ask . . . how one is both free and subject to laws, since they are merely records of our wills.” (78)

▪                                                    “the people subject to laws ought to be their own author” (78)

▪                                                    Morality as a system of free individuals with equal rights

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” (55)

“This common freedom is a consequence of man’s nature. (56)

“To renounce one’s freedom is to renounce one’s quality as man . . .” (59)

Differences with Kant

  • Rousseau very clearly uses the social contract as the metaethical foundation of his system, whereas Kant skips over the social contract and uses reason as the metaethical foundation of moral duties

In Kant we find the complete transition from self-interest based ethics (contractarianism) traditional morality based ethics (contractualism).

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