Kantian Ethics – Understanding the Moral Law

“Two things fill with amazement, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Kant


Nice Summary of Kantian Ethics by Allen Wood

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)



Intuitions that support Kant’s view

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


Kantian Metaethics

A priori method

  • Moral requirements are necessary and therefore must be established a priori
  • A posteriori considerations can only tell us what we do, not what me must do
    • Cannot establish moral ‘oughts’ as necessary
    • If moral philosophy is to guard against undermining the absolute necessity of obligation in its analysis and defense of moral thought is must be carried out entirely a priori



  • Reason plays the central role in Kant’s account of the fundamental moral principle
  • Kant’s fundamental moral principle is a command of reason that applies to all rational beings
    • As rational beings we command the moral law to ourselves
    • “The ‘moral legitimacy’ of the CI is grounded in its being an expression of each person’s own rational will. It is because each person’s own reason is the legislator and executor of the moral law that it is authoritative for her.”
    • In contrast with David Hume who said  “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Kant recognizes two to three types of Reason[1]
      • instrumental reason/ prudential reason
      • Categorical reason/moral reason
      • All rational agents have a reason to act morally, it may not be a prudential reason but it is still a reason



The Good Will

  • The only thing good without qualification is a good will
  • The thing that is not valued conditionally or as a means to an end
  • Good in itself
  • A good will is a will whose decisions are wholly determined by moral demands or the moral law
  • In contrast a bad will acts out of self-love i.e. selfish considerations of personal gain
    • Pursues pleasure, self-interest, self-preservation, sympathy (or whatever) over the adherence to the moral law



  • 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
    • Perfect and imperfect
      • Perfect – a perfect duties is are those that result in logical contradiction when universalized (lying)
      • Perfect duties must always be obeyed
      • Imperfect – those that do not result in a logical contradiction but a contradiction of the will i.e. we would not desire to live in such a world (charity)
      • Imperfect duties are not as strict as perfect duty, we have a duty to assist those in need but that does not mean that we must always and in all places, times and circumstances assist others in need
      • Duties to ourselves and to other
      • Four types of duties
        • Perfect to ourselves (suicide)
        • Perfect to others ((lying)
        • Imperfect to ourselves (cultivating our talents)
        • Imperfect to others (charity)


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.
    • Universal Law Formula – Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law.
      • Maxim – guiding principle of an action (the material rule or principle used to guide a person in a particular situation about what to do (e.g., ‘I should never tell a lie’).
      • Four-Step Decision Process
        • Formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose
        • Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents so holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances
        • Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature
          • If your maxim fails to pass this test you have a perfect duty
          • Fourth, ask yourself whether you would, or could, rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world
            • If your maxim fails to pass this test you have an imperfect duty
            • If your maxim passes both criteria then acting is permissible
            • Humanity Formula – “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.”
            • The Kingdom of Ends Formula – “act in accordance with the maxims of a universally legislative member of a merely possible realm of ends” (Groundwork 4:439)
              • Kingdom of Ends – “union of different rational beings in a system by common laws.”



The moral community

  • 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
      • Most contemporary Kantians believe that animals are members of the moral community
      • Moral patients vs moral agents (Tom Reagan)


Kantian Ethics vs Consequentialism

  • What makes actions right or wrong – consequences vs motivations
  • Fundamental value – pleasure vs humanity (rational nature)
    • 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
    • Metaethical foundation – ??? vs. reason



EL Chapter 11 – Immanuel Kant: The Good Will and the Categorical Imperative


The Good Will

  • The good will has value, not pleasure
  • Pleasure (or any other desirable thing) is not a good thing if it makes someone proud or cruel (103)
    • Consider the pleasure a murder gets from torturing and murdering
    • Even more traditional virtues like self-control, moderation and calm reflection are dependent on the good will (103)
    • “A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself and regarded for itself, is to be valued incomparably higher than all that could merley be brought about by it in favor of some inclination and indeed, if you will, of the sum of all inclinations. Even if, by a special disfavor of fortune or by the niggardly provision of a stepmotherly nature, this will should wholly lack the capacity to carry out its purpose – if with tis greatest efforts it should yet achieve nothing and only the good will were left (not, of course, as a mere wish but as the summoning of all means insofar as they are in our control) – then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has its full worth in itself. Usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add anything to this worth nor take anything away from it. Its usefulness would be, as it were, only the setting to enable us to handle it more conveniently in ordinary commerce or to attract to it the attention of those who are not yet expert enough, but not to recommend it to experts or to determine its worth” (104)
    • The task of ethics then is to explicate the concept of the good will that “dwells in natural sound understanding” (104)
    • The good will acts not merely in accordance with the moral law but solely out of respect for the moral law
      • shop keeper example (105)
      • suicide example – “the often anxious care that most people take of it (preserving one’s life) has no inner worth and their maxim no moral content. They look after their lives in conformity with duty but not from duty. ON the other hand, if adversity and hopeless grief have quite taken away the tast for life; if an unfortunate man, stong of soul and more indignant about his fate than despondent or dejected, wishes for death and yet preserves his life without loving it, not from inclination or fear but from duty, then his maxim has moral content.” (105)
      • actions done out of sympathy or a kind and sympathetic nature have no moral worth (105)
        • the content of their maxims is morally neutral
        • such actions are on the same moral level as actions influence by other emotional states (fear, anger, jealousy, etc)
        • However one of our duties is beneficence (105)
          • Actions done out of respect for this duty have moral worth
          • A good will is a will that wills not out of expectations of producing a good result but one that wills only as a representation of the law itself (106)


The Categorical Imperative

  • “But what kind of law can that be, the representation of which must determines the will, even without regard for the effect expected from it, in order for the will to be called good absolutely and without limitation?” (106)
    • the moral law “determines the will” without regard for the consequences
      • i.e. it obligates us even if we don’t want the consequences
        • the moral law obligates us to help others even if we don’t want to spend the time or money to so
        • Formula of Universal Law: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law.” (106)
        • The lying promise example (107)
          • Two Questions
            • Is it prudential?
            • Is it moral?
  • A lying promise can be prudential but it can never be moral
    • Because we cannot will it and and the same will it to become a moral law
      • It destroys itself (106)
      • It is literally impossible to rationally will both things
        • It is as irrational as willing two opposite things
        • Hypothetic vs Categorical Imperatives
          • “The categorical imperative would be that which represented an action as objectively necessary of itself, without reference to another end” (108)
          • “If the action  would be good merely as a means to something else the imperative is hypothetical; if the action is represented as in itself good, hence as necessary in a will in itself conforming to reason, as its principle, then it is categorical” (108)
          • Kant’s Four Examples
            • Suicide (perfect duty to oneself)
            • Lying promise (perfect duty to others)
            • Wasted talents (imperfect duty to oneself)
            • Charity (imperfect duty to others)
            • Kant’s First formulation of the moral law is supposed to illustrate what he takes to be a key piece of moral psychology, the state of mind of someone who is acting immorally
              • “If we now attend to ourselves in any transgression of a duty, we find that we do not really will that our maxim should be a universal law, since that is impossible for us, but that the opposite of our maxim should instead remain a universal law, only we take the liberty of making an exception to it for ourselves (or just this once) to the advantage of our inclination.” (111)
              • The ground of the categorical imperative must (111)
                • Have absolute worth
                  • To have absolute worth is to be an end in itself
                  • Humanity (111)
                    • Is an end in itself
                    • Has absolute worth
                      • Objects have only conditional worth i.e. if there were nothing that valued them they would not have any value
                      • their value is contigent on being valued by an agent
  • “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.”
  • “rational nature exists as an end in itself” (112)
  • Formula of Humanity: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” (112)
  • Kant’s Four Examples Revisited
    • All the formulations are supposed to be equivalent so should have the same results
      • Suicide (perfect duty to oneself)
      • Lying promise (perfect duty to others)
      • Wasted talents (imperfect duty to oneself)
      • Charity (imperfect duty to others)

[1] Wood, Allen. Kantian Ethics (20)

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