Kant’s Moral Philosophy (2022)

1. Aims and Methods of Moral Philosophy

The most basic aim of moral philosophy, and so also of theGroundwork, is, in Kant’s view, to “seekout” the foundational principle of a “metaphysics ofmorals,” which Kant understands as a system of a priorimoral principles that apply the CI to human persons in all times andcultures. Kant pursues this project through the first two chapters ofthe Groundwork. He proceeds by analyzing and elucidatingcommonsense ideas about morality, including the ideas of a “goodwill” and “duty”. The point of this first project isto come up with a precise statement of the principle or principles onwhich all of our ordinary moral judgments are based. The judgments inquestion are supposed to be those that any normal, sane, adult humanbeing would accept on due rational reflection. Nowadays, however, manywould regard Kant as being overly optimistic about the depth andextent of moral agreement. Perhaps he is best thought of as drawing ona moral viewpoint that is very widely shared and which contains somegeneral judgments that are very deeply held. In any case, he does notappear to take himself to be primarily addressing a genuine moralskeptic such as those who often populate the works of moralphilosophers, that is, someone who doubts that she has any reason toact morally and whose moral behavior hinges on a rational proof thatphilosophers might try to give. For instance, when, in the third andfinal chapter of the Groundwork, Kant takes up his secondfundamental aim, to “establish” this foundational moralprinciple as a demand of each person’s own rational will, hisconclusion apparently falls short of answering those who want a proofthat we really are bound by moral requirements. He rests this secondproject on the position that we — or at least creatures withrational wills — possess autonomy. The argument of this secondproject does often appear to try to reach out to a metaphysical factabout our wills. This has led some readers to the conclusion that heis, after all, trying to justify moral requirements by appealing to afact — our autonomy — that even a moral skeptic would haveto recognize.

Kant’s analysis of the common moral concepts of“duty” and “good will” led him to believe thatwe are free and autonomous as long as morality, itself, is not anillusion. Yet in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant also triedto show that every event has a cause. Kant recognized that there seemsto be a deep tension between these two claims: If causal determinismis true then, it seems, we cannot have the kind of freedom thatmorality presupposes, which is “a kind of causality” that“can be active, independently of alien causes determiningit” (G 4:446).

Kant thought that the only way to resolve this apparent conflict is todistinguish between phenomena, which is what we know throughexperience, and noumena, which we can consistently think butnot know through experience. Our knowledge and understanding of theempirical world, Kant argued, can only arise within the limits of ourperceptual and cognitive powers. We should not assume, however, thatwe know all that may be true about “things in themselves,”although we lack the “intellectual intuition” that wouldbe needed to learn about such things.

These distinctions, according to Kant, allow us to resolve the“antinomy” about free will by interpreting the“thesis” that free will is possible as about noumena andthe “antithesis” that every event has a cause as aboutphenomena. Morality thus presupposes that agents, in anincomprehensible “intelligible world,” are able to makethings happen by their own free choices in a “sensibleworld” in which causal determinism is true.

Many of Kant’s commentators, who are skeptical about theseapparently exorbitant metaphysical claims, have attempted to makesense of his discussions of the intelligible and sensible worlds inless metaphysically demanding ways. On one interpretation (Hudson1994), one and the same act can be described in wholly physical terms(as an appearance) and also in irreducibly mental terms (as a thing initself). On this compatibilist picture, all acts are causallydetermined, but a free act is one that can be described as determinedby irreducibly mental causes, and in particular by the causality ofreason. A second interpretation holds that the intelligible andsensible worlds are used as metaphors for two ways of conceiving ofone and the same world (Korsgaard 1996; Allison 1990; Hill 1989a,1989b). When we are engaging in scientific or empiricalinvestigations, we often take up a perspective in which we think ofthings as subject to natural causation, but when we deliberate, act,reason and judge, we often take up a different perspective, in whichwe think of ourselves and others as agents who are not determined bynatural causes. When we take up this latter, practical, standpoint, weneed not believe that we or others really are free, in any deepmetaphysical sense; we need only operate “under the idea offreedom” (G 4:448). Controversy persists, however, about whetherKant’s conception of freedom requires a “two worlds”or “two perspectives” account of the sensible andintelligible worlds (Guyer 1987, 2009; Langton 2001; Kohl 2016; Wood1984; Hogan 2009).

Although the two most basic aims Kant saw for moral philosophy are toseek out and establish the supreme principle of morality, they arenot, in Kant’s view, its only aims. Moral philosophy, for Kant,is most fundamentally addressed to the first-person, deliberativequestion, “What ought I to do?”, and an answer to thatquestion requires much more than delivering or justifying thefundamental principle of morality. We also need some account, based onthis principle, of the nature and extent of the specific moral dutiesthat apply to us. To this end, Kant employs his findings from theGroundwork in The Metaphysics of Morals, and offersa categorization of our basic moral duties to ourselves and others. Inaddition, Kant thought that moral philosophy should characterize andexplain the demands that morality makes on human psychology and formsof human social interaction. These topics, among others, are addressedin central chapters of the second Critique, theReligion and again in the Metaphysics of Morals, andare perhaps given a sustained treatment in Anthropology from aPragmatic Point of View. Further, a satisfying answer to thequestion of what one ought to do would have to take into account anypolitical and religious requirements there are. Each of theserequirement turn out to be, indirectly at least, also moralobligations for Kant, and are discussed in the Metaphysics ofMorals and in Religion. Finally, moral philosophy shouldsay something about the ultimate end of human endeavor, the HighestGood, and its relationship to the moral life. In the Critique ofPractical Reason, Kant argued that this Highest Good for humanityis complete moral virtue together with complete happiness, the formerbeing the condition of our deserving the latter. Unfortunately, Kantnoted, virtue does not ensure wellbeing and may even conflict with it.Further, he thought that there is no real possibility of moralperfection in this life and indeed few of us fully deserve thehappiness we are lucky enough to enjoy. Reason cannot prove ordisprove the existence of Divine Providence, on Kant’s view, northe immortality of the soul, which seem necessary to rectify thesethings. Nevertheless, Kant argued, an unlimited amount of time toperfect ourselves (immortality) and a commensurate achievement ofwellbeing (ensured by God) are “postulates” required byreason when employed in moral matters.

Throughout his moral works, Kant returns time and again to thequestion of the method moral philosophy should employ when pursuingthese aims. A basic theme of these discussions is that the fundamentalphilosophical issues of morality must be addressed a priori,that is, without drawing on observations of human beings and theirbehavior. Kant’s insistence on an a priori method toseek out and establish fundamental moral principles, however, does notalways appear to be matched by his own practice. The Metaphysicsof Morals, for instance, is meant to be based on apriori rational principles, but many of the specific duties thatKant describes, along with some of the arguments he gives in supportof them, rely on general facts about human beings and ourcircumstances that are known from experience.

In one sense, it might seem obvious why Kant insists on an apriori method. A “metaphysics of morals” would be,more or less, an account of the nature and structure of moralrequirements — in effect, a categorization of duties and values.Such a project would address such questions as, What is aduty? What kinds of duties are there? What is thegood? What kinds of goods are there?, and so on. These appearto be metaphysical questions. Any principle used to provide suchcategorizations appears to be a principle of metaphysics, in a sense,but Kant did not see them as external moral truths that existindependently of rational agents. Moral requirements, instead, arerational principles that tell us what we have overriding reason to do.Metaphysical principles of this sort are always sought out andestablished by a priori methods.

Perhaps something like this was behind Kant’s thinking. However,the considerations he offers for an a priori method do notall obviously draw on this sort of rationale. The following are threeconsiderations favoring a priori methods that he emphasizesrepeatedly.

The first is that, as Kant and others have conceived of it, ethicsinitially requires an analysis of our moral concepts. We mustunderstand the concepts of a “good will”,“obligation”, “duty” and so on, as well astheir logical relationships to one another, before we can determinewhether our use of these concepts is justified. Given that theanalysis of concepts is an a priori matter, to the degreethat ethics consists of such an analysis, ethics is a priorias a well.

Of course, even were we to agree with Kant that ethics should beginwith analysis, and that analysis is or should be an entirely apriori undertaking, this would not explain why all ofthe fundamental questions of moral philosophy must be pursued apriori. Indeed, one of the most important projects of moralphilosophy, for Kant, is to show that we, as rational agents, arebound by moral requirements and that fully rational agents wouldnecessarily comply with them. Kant admits that his analyticalarguments for the CI are inadequate on their own because the most theycan show is that the CI is the supreme principle of morality ifthere is such a principle. Kant must therefore address thepossibility that morality itself is an illusion by showing that the CIreally is an unconditional requirement of reason that applies to us.Even though Kant thought that this project of“establishing” the CI must also be carried out apriori, he did not think we could pursue this project simply byanalyzing our moral concepts or examining the actual behavior ofothers. What is needed, instead, is a “synthetic”, butstill a priori, kind of argument that starts from ideas offreedom and rational agency and critically examines the nature andlimits of these capacities.

This is the second reason Kant held that fundamental issues in ethicsmust be addressed with an a priori method: The ultimatesubject matter of ethics is the nature and content of the principlesthat necessarily determine a rational will.

Fundamental issues in moral philosophy must also be settled apriori because of the nature of moral requirements themselves, orso Kant thought. This is a third reason he gives for an a priorimethod, and it appears to have been of great importance to Kant:Moral requirements present themselves as being unconditionallynecessary. But an a posteriori method seems ill-suitedto discovering and establishing what we must do whether wefeel like doing it or not; surely such a method could only tell uswhat we actually do. So an a posteriori method ofseeking out and establishing the principle that generates suchrequirements will not support the presentation of moral“oughts” as unconditional necessities. Kant argued thatempirical observations could only deliver conclusions about, forinstance, the relative advantages of moral behavior in variouscircumstances or how pleasing it might be in our own eyes or the eyesof others. Such findings clearly would not support the unconditionalnecessity of moral requirements. To appeal to a posterioriconsiderations would thus result in a tainted conception of moralrequirements. It would view them as demands for which compliance isnot unconditionally necessary, but rather necessary only if additionalconsiderations show it to be advantageous, optimific or in some otherway felicitous. Thus, Kant argued that if moral philosophy is to guardagainst undermining the unconditional necessity of obligation in itsanalysis and defense of moral thought, it must be carried out entirelya priori.

2. Good Will, Moral Worth and Duty

Kant’s analysis of commonsense ideas begins with the thoughtthat the only thing good without qualification is a “goodwill”. While the phrases “he’s good hearted”,“she’s good natured” and “she meanswell” are common, “the good will” as Kant thinks ofit is not the same as any of these ordinary notions. The idea of agood will is closer to the idea of a “good person”, or,more archaically, a “person of good will”. This use of theterm “will” early on in analyzing ordinary moral thoughtprefigures later and more technical discussions concerning the natureof rational agency. Nevertheless, this idea of a good will is animportant commonsense touchstone to which Kant returns throughout hisworks. The basic idea, as Kant describes it in the Groundwork, is thatwhat makes a good person good is his possession of a will that is in acertain way “determined” by, or makes its decisions on thebasis of, whatever basic moral principles there may be. The idea of agood will is supposed to be the idea of one who is committed only tomake decisions that she holds to be morally worthy and who takes moralconsiderations in themselves to be conclusive reasons for guiding herbehavior. This sort of disposition or character is something we allhighly value, Kant thought. He believes we value it without limitationor qualification. By this, we believe, he means primarily twothings.

First, unlike anything else, there is no conceivable circumstance inwhich we regard our own moral goodness as worth forfeiting simply inorder to obtain some desirable object. By contrast, the value of allother desirable qualities, such as courage or cleverness, can bediminished, forgone, or sacrificed under certain circumstances:Courage may be laid aside if it requires injustice, and it is betternot to be witty if it requires cruelty. There is no implicitrestriction or qualification to the effect that a commitment to givemoral considerations decisive weight is worth honoring, butonly under such and such circumstances.

Second, possessing and maintaining a steadfast commitment to moralprinciples is the very condition under which anything else is worthhaving or pursuing. Intelligence and even pleasure are worth havingonly on the condition that they do not require giving up one’sfundamental moral convictions. The value of a good will thus cannot bethat it secures certain valuable ends, whether of our own or ofothers, since their value is entirely conditional on our possessingand maintaining a good will. Indeed, since a good will is good underany condition, its goodness must not depend on any particularconditions obtaining. Thus, Kant points out that a good will must thenalso be good in itself and not in virtue of its relationshipto other things such as the agent’s own happiness, overallwelfare or any other effects it may or may not produce A good willwould still “shine like a jewel” even if it were“completely powerless to carry out its aims” (G4:394).

In Kant’s terms, a good will is a will whose decisions arewholly determined by moral demands or, as he often refers to this, bythe Moral Law. Human beings inevitably feel this Law as a constrainton their natural desires, which is why such Laws, as applied to humanbeings, are imperatives and duties. A human will in which the MoralLaw is decisive is motivated by the thought of duty. Aholy or divine will, if it exists, though good,would not be good because it is motivated by thoughts of duty becausesuch a will does not have natural inclinations and so necessarilyfulfills moral requirements without feeling constrained to do so. Itis the presence of desires that could operate independentlyof moral demands that makes goodness in human beings a constraint, anessential element of the idea of “duty.” So in analyzingunqualified goodness as it occurs in imperfectly rational creaturessuch as ourselves, we are investigating the idea of being motivated bythe thought that we are constrained to act in certain ways that wemight not want to simply from the thought that we are morallyrequired to do so.

Kant confirms this by comparing motivation by duty with other sorts ofmotives, in particular, with motives of self-interest,self-preservation, sympathy and happiness. He argues that a dutifulaction from any of these motives, however praiseworthy it may be, doesnot express a good will. Assuming an action has moral worth only if itexpresses a good will, such actions have no genuine “moralworth.” The conformity of one’s action to duty in suchcases is only related by accident to morality. For instance, if one ismotivated by happiness alone, then had conditions not conspired toalign one’s duty with one’s own happiness one would nothave done one’s duty. By contrast, were one to supplant any ofthese motivations with the motive of duty, the morality of the actionwould then express one’s determination to act dutifully out ofrespect for the moral law itself. Only then would the action havemoral worth.

Kant’s views in this regard have understandably been the subjectof much controversy. Many object that we do not think better ofactions done for the sake of duty than actions performed out ofemotional concern or sympathy for others, especially those things wedo for friends and family. Worse, moral worth appears to require notonly that one’s actions be motivated by duty, but also that noother motives, even love or friendship, cooperate. Yet Kant’sdefenders have argued that his point is not that we do not admire orpraise motivating concerns other than duty, only that from the pointof view of someone deliberating about what to do, these concerns arenot decisive in the way that considerations of moral duty are. What iscrucial in actions that express a good will is that in conforming toduty a perfectly virtuous person always would, and so ideally weshould, recognize and be moved by the thought that our conformity ismorally obligatory. The motivational structure of the agent should bearranged so that she always treats considerations of duty assufficient reasons for conforming to those requirements. In otherwords, we should have a firm commitment not to perform an action if itis morally forbidden and to perform an action if it is morallyrequired. Having a good will, in this sense, is compatible with havingfeelings and emotions of various kinds, and even with aiming tocultivate some of them in order to counteract desires and inclinationsthat tempt us to immorality. Controversy persists, however, aboutwhether Kant’s claims about the motive of duty go beyond thisbasic point (Timmermann 2007; Herman 1993; Wood 1998; Baron 1995).

Suppose for the sake of argument we agree with Kant. We now need toknow what distinguishes the principle that lays down our duties fromthese other motivating principles, and so makes motivation by it thesource of unqualified value.

(Video) Beginner's Guide to Kant's Moral Philosophy

3. Duty and Respect for Moral Law

According to Kant, what is singular about motivation by duty is thatit consists of bare respect for the moral law. What naturally comes tomind is this: Duties are rules or laws of some sort combined with somesort of felt constraint or incentive on our choices, whether fromexternal coercion by others or from our own powers of reason. Forinstance, the bylaws of a club lay down duties for its officers andenforce them with sanctions. City and state laws establish the dutiesof citizens and enforce them with coercive legal power. Thus, if we dosomething because it is our “civic” duty, or our duty“as a boy scout” or “a good American,” ourmotivation is respect for the code that makes it our duty. Thinking weare duty bound is simply respecting, as such, certain laws pertainingto us.

However intuitive, this cannot be all of Kant’s meaning. For onething, as with the Jim Crow laws of the old South and the Nuremberglaws of Nazi Germany, the laws to which these types of “actionsfrom duty” conform may be morally despicable. Respect for suchlaws could hardly be thought valuable. For another, our motive inconforming our actions to civic and other laws is rarely unconditionalrespect. We also have an eye toward doing our part in maintainingcivil or social order, toward punishments or loss of standing andreputation in violating such laws, and other outcomes of lawfulbehavior. Indeed, we respect these laws to the degree, but only to thedegree, that they do not violate values, laws or principles we holdmore dear. Yet Kant thinks that, in acting from duty, we are not atall motivated by a prospective outcome or some other extrinsic featureof our conduct except insofar as these are requirements of dutyitself. We are motivated by the mere conformity of our will to law assuch.

To act out of respect for the moral law, in Kant’s view, is tobe moved to act by a recognition that the moral law is a supremelyauthoritative standard that binds us and to experience a kind offeeling, which is akin to awe and fear, when we acknowledge the morallaw as the source of moral requirements. Human persons inevitably haverespect for the moral law even though we are not always moved by itand even though we do not always comply with the moral standards thatwe nonetheless recognize as authoritative.

Kant’s account of the content of moral requirements and thenature of moral reasoning is based on his analysis of the unique forcemoral considerations have as reasons to act. The force of moralrequirements as reasons is that we cannot ignore them no matter howcircumstances might conspire against any other consideration. Basicmoral requirements retain their reason-giving force under anycircumstance, they have universal validity. So, whatever else may besaid of basic moral requirements, their content is universal. Only auniversal law could be the content of a requirement that has thereason-giving force of morality. This brings Kant to a preliminaryformulation of the CI: “I ought never to act except in such away that I could also will that my maxim should become a universallaw” (G 4:402). This is the principle which motivates a goodwill, and which Kant holds to be the fundamental principle of all ofmorality.

4. Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives

Kant holds that the fundamental principle of our moral duties is acategorical imperative. It is an imperativebecause it is a command addressed to agents who could follow it butmight not (e.g. , “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”). Itis categorical in virtue of applying to us unconditionally,or simply because we possesses rational wills, without reference toany ends that we might or might not have. It does not, in other words,apply to us on the condition that we have antecedently adopted somegoal for ourselves.

There are “oughts” other than our moral duties, accordingto Kant, but these oughts are distinguished from the moral ought inbeing based on a quite different kind of principle, one that is thesource of hypothetical imperatives. A hypothetical imperativeis a command that also applies to us in virtue of our having arational will, but not simply in virtue of this. It requiresus to exercise our wills in a certain way given we haveantecedently willed an end. A hypothetical imperative is thus acommand in a conditional form. But not any command in this form countsas a hypothetical imperative in Kant’s sense. For instance,“if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”is a conditional command. But the antecedent conditions under whichthe command “clap your hands” applies to you do not positany end that you will, but consist rather of emotional and cognitivestates you may or may not be in. Further, “if you want pastrami,try the corner deli” is also a command in conditional form, butstrictly speaking it too fails to be a hypothetical imperative inKant’s sense since this command does not apply to us in virtueof our willing some end, but only in virtue of ourdesiring or wanting an end. For Kant, willing an endinvolves more than desiring; it requires actively choosing orcommitting to the end rather than merely finding oneself with apassive desire for it. Further, there is nothing irrational in failingto will means to what one desires. An imperative that applied to us invirtue of our desiring some end would thus not be a hypotheticalimperative of practical rationality in Kant’ssense.

The condition under which a hypothetical imperative applies to us,then, is that we will some end. Now, for the most part, the ends wewill we might not have willed, and some ends that we do not will wemight nevertheless have willed. But there is at least conceptual roomfor the idea of a natural or inclination-based end that wemust will. The distinction between ends that we might ormight not will and those, if any, we necessarily will as the kinds ofnatural beings we are, is the basis for his distinction between twokinds of hypothetical imperatives. Kant names these“problematic” and “assertoric”, based on howthe end is willed. If the end is one that we might or might not will— that is, it is a merely possible end — theimperative is problematic. For instance, “Don’t ever takeside with anyone against the Family.” is a problematicimperative, even if the end posited here is (apparently) one’sown continued existence. Almost all non-moral, rational imperativesare problematic, since there are virtually no ends that we necessarilywill as human beings.

As it turns out, the only (non-moral) end that we will, as a matter ofnatural necessity, is our own happiness. Any imperative that appliedto us because we will our own happiness would thus be anassertoric imperative. Rationality, Kant thinks, can issue noimperative if the end is indeterminate, and happiness is anindeterminate end. Although we can say for the most part that if oneis to be happy, one should save for the future, take care ofone’s health and nourish one’s relationships, these failto be genuine commands in the strictest sense and so are instead mere“counsels.” Some people are happy without these, andwhether you could be happy without them is, although doubtful, an openquestion.

Since Kant presents moral and prudential rational requirements asfirst and foremost demands on our wills rather than on external acts,moral and prudential evaluation is first and foremost an evaluation ofthe will our actions express. Thus, it is not an error of rationalityto fail to take the necessary means to one’s (willed) ends, norto fail to want to take the means; one only falls foul ofnon-moral practical reason if one fails to will the means.Likewise, while actions, feelings or desires may be the focus of othermoral views, for Kant practical irrationality, both moral andprudential, focuses mainly on our willing.

One recent interpretive dispute (Hill 1973; Schroeder 2009; Rippon2014) has been about whether hypothetical imperatives, in Kant’sview, have a “wide” or “narrow” scope. Thatis, do such imperatives tell us to take the necessary means to ourends or give up our ends (wide scope) or do they simply tell us that,if we have an end, then take the necessary means to it.

Kant describes the will as operating on the basis of subjectivevolitional principles he calls “maxims”. Hence, moralityand other rational requirements are, for the most part, demands thatapply to the maxims that we act on. . The form of a maxim is “Iwill A in C in order to realize or produceE” where “A” is some act type,“C” is some type of circumstance, and“E” is some type of end to be realized orachieved by A in C. Since this is a principle stating only what someagent wills, it is subjective. (A principle thatgoverns any rational will is an objective principleof volition, which Kant refers to as a practical law). For anything tocount as human willing, it must be based on a maxim to pursue some endthrough some means. Hence, in employing a maxim, any human willingalready embodies the form of means-end reasoning that calls forevaluation in terms of hypothetical imperatives. To that extent atleast, then, anything dignified as human willing is subjectto rational requirements.

5. The Formula of the Universal Law of Nature

Kant’s first formulation of the CI states that you are to“act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can atthe same time will that it become a universal law” (G 4:421).O’Neill (1975, 1989) and Rawls (1980, 1989), among others, takethis formulation in effect to summarize a decision procedure for moralreasoning, and we will follow their basic outline: First, formulate amaxim that enshrines your proposed plan of action. Second, recast thatmaxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, andso as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourselfpropose to act in these circumstances. Third, consider whether yourmaxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this new law ofnature. If it is, then, fourth, ask yourself whether you would, orcould, rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world.If you could, then your action is morally permissible.

If your maxim fails the third step, you have a “perfect”duty admitting “of no exception in favor of inclination”to refrain from acting on that maxim (G 4:421). If your maxim failsthe fourth step, you have an “imperfect” duty requiringyou to pursue a policy that can admit of such exceptions. If yourmaxim passes all four steps, only then is acting on it morallypermissible. Following Hill (1971), we can understand the differencein duties as formal: Perfect duties come in the form “One mustnever (or always) φ to the fullest extent possible inC”, while imperfect duties, since they require us toadopt an end, at least require that “One must sometimes and tosome extent φ in C.” So, for instance, Kant heldthat the maxim of committing suicide to avoid future unhappiness didnot pass the third step, the contradiction in conception test. Hence,one is forbidden to act on the maxim of committing suicide to avoidunhappiness. By contrast, the maxim of refusing to assist others inpursuit of their projects passes the contradiction in conception test,but fails the contradiction in the will test at the fourth step.Hence, we have a duty to sometimes and to some extent aid and assistothers.

Kant held that ordinary moral thought recognized moral duties towardourselves as well as toward others. Hence, together with thedistinction between perfect and imperfect duties, Kant recognized fourcategories of duties: perfect duties toward ourselves, perfect dutiestoward others, imperfect duties toward ourselves and imperfect dutiestoward others. Kant uses four examples in the Groundwork, oneof each kind of duty, to demonstrate that every kind of duty can bederived from the CI, and hence to bolster his case that the CI isindeed the fundamental principle of morality. To refrain from suicideis a perfect duty toward oneself; to refrain from making promises youhave no intention of keeping is a perfect duty toward others; todevelop one’s talents is an imperfect duty toward oneself; andto contribute to the happiness of others is an imperfect duty towardothers. Again, Kant’s interpreters differ over exactly how toreconstruct the derivation of these duties. We will briefly sketch oneway of doing so for the perfect duty to others to refrain from lyingpromises and the imperfect duty to ourselves to develop talents.

Kant’s example of a perfect duty to others concerns a promiseyou might consider making but have no intention of keeping in order toget needed money. Naturally, being rational requires not contradictingoneself, but there is no self-contradiction in the maxim “I willmake lying promises when it achieves something I want.” Animmoral action clearly does not involve a self-contradiction in thissense (as would the maxim of finding a married bachelor). Kant’sposition is that it is irrational to perform an action if thataction’s maxim contradicts itself once made into a universallaw of nature. The maxim of lying whenever it gets you what youwant generates a contradiction once you try to combine it with theuniversalized version that all rational agents must, by a law ofnature, lie when doing so gets them what they want.

Here is one way of seeing how this might work: If I conceive of aworld in which everyone by nature must try to deceive people any timethis will get them what they want, I am conceiving of a world in whichno practice of giving one’s word could ever arise and, becausethis is a law of nature, we can assume that it is widely known that nosuch practice could exist. So I am conceiving of a world in whicheveryone knows that no practice of giving one’s word exists. Mymaxim, however, is to make a deceptive promise in order to get neededmoney. And it is a necessary means of doing this that a practice oftaking the word of others exists, so that someone might take my wordand I take advantage of their doing so. Thus, in trying to conceive ofmy maxim in a world in which no one ever takes anyone’s word insuch circumstances, and knows this about one another, I am trying toconceive of this: A world in which no practice of giving one’sword exists, but also, at the very same time, a world in which justsuch a practice does exist, for me to make use of in my maxim. It is aworld containing my promise and a world in which there can be nopromises. Hence, it is inconceivable that I could sincerely act on mymaxim in a world in which my maxim is a universal law of nature. Sinceit is inconceivable that these two things could exist together, I amforbidden ever to act on the maxim of lying to get money.

By contrast with the maxim of the lying promise, we can easilyconceive of adopting a maxim of refusing to develop any of our talentsin a world in which that maxim is a universal law of nature. It wouldundoubtedly be a world more primitive than our own, but pursuing sucha policy is still conceivable in it. However, it is not, Kant argues,possible to rationally will this maxim in such a world. The argumentfor why this is so, however, is not obvious, and some of Kant’sthinking seems hardly convincing: Insofar as we are rational, he says,we already necessarily will that all of our talents and abilities bedeveloped. Hence, although I can conceive of a talentless world, Icannot rationally will that it come about, given that I already will,insofar as I am rational, that I develop all of my own. Yet, givenlimitations on our time, energy and interest, it is difficult to seehow full rationality requires us to aim to fully develop literally allof our talents. Indeed, it seems to require much less, a judiciouspicking and choosing among one’s abilities. Further, all that isrequired to show that I cannot will a talentless world is that,insofar as I am rational, I necessarily will that sometalents in me be developed, not the dubious claim that I rationallywill that they all be developed. Moreover, supposerationality did require me to aim at developing all of my talents.Then, there seems to be no need to go further in the CI procedure toshow that refusing to develop talents is immoral. Given that, insofaras we are rational, we must will to develop capacities, it is by thisvery fact irrational not to do so.

However, mere failure to conform to something we rationally will isnot yet immorality. Failure to conform to instrumental principles, forinstance, is irrational but not always immoral. In order to show thatthis maxim is categorically forbidden, one strategy is to make use ofseveral other of Kant’s claims or assumptions.

First, we must accept Kant’s claim that, by “naturalnecessity,” we will our own happiness as an end (G 4:415). Thisis a claim he uses not only to distinguish assertoric from problematicimperatives, but also to argue for the imperfect duty of helpingothers (G 4:423) He also appears to rely on this claim in each of hisexamples. Each maxim he is testing appears to have happiness as itsaim. One explanation for this is that, since each person necessarilywills her own happiness, maxims in pursuit of this goal will be thetypical object of moral evaluation. This, at any rate, is clear in thetalents example itself: The forbidden maxim adopted by thene’er-do-well is supposed to be “devoting his life solelyto…enjoyment” (G 4:423) rather than to developing histalents.

Second, we must assume, as also seems reasonable, that a necessarymeans to achieving (normal) human happiness is not only that weourselves develop some talent, but also that others develop somecapacities of theirs at some time. For instance, I cannot engage inthe normal pursuits that make up my own happiness, such as playingpiano, writing philosophy or eating delicious meals, unless I havedeveloped some talents myself, and, moreover, someone else has madepianos and written music, taught me writing, harvested foods anddeveloped traditions of their preparation.

(Video) Kant & Categorical Imperatives: Crash Course Philosophy #35

Finally, Kant’s examples come on the heels of defending theposition that rationality requires conformity to hypotheticalimperatives. Thus, we should assume that, necessarily, rational agentswill the necessary and available means to any ends that they will. Andonce we add this to the assumptions that we must will our ownhappiness as an end, and that developed talents are necessary means toachieving that end, it follows that we cannot rationally will that aworld come about in which it is a law that no one ever develops any oftheir natural talents. We cannot do so, because our own happiness isthe very end contained in the maxim of giving ourselves over topleasure rather than self-development. Since we will the necessary andavailable means to our ends, we are rationally committed to willingthat everyone sometime develop his or her talents. So since we cannotwill as a universal law of nature that no one ever develop any talents— given that it is inconsistent with what we now see that werationally will — we are forbidden from adopting the maxim ofrefusing to develop any of our own.

6. The Humanity Formula

Most philosophers who find Kant’s views attractive find them sobecause of the Humanity Formulation of the CI. This formulation statesthat we should never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whetherin ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end initself. This is often seen as introducing the idea of“respect” for persons, for whatever it is that isessential to our humanity. Kant was clearly right that this and theother formulations bring the CI “closer to intuition” thanthe Universal Law formula. Intuitively, there seems something wrongwith treating human beings as mere instruments with no value beyondthis. But this very intuitiveness can also invitemisunderstandings.

First, the Humanity Formula does not rule out using people as means toour ends. Clearly this would be an absurd demand, since we apparentlydo this all the time in morally appropriate ways. Indeed, it is hardto imagine any life that is recognizably human without the use ofothers in pursuit of our goals. The food we eat, the clothes we wear,the chairs we sit on and the computers we type at are gotten only byway of talents and abilities that have been developed through theexercise of the wills of many people. What the Humanity Formula rulesout is engaging in this pervasive use of humanity in such a way thatwe treat it as a mere means to our ends. Thus, the differencebetween a horse and a taxi driver is not that we may use one but notthe other as a means of transportation. Unlike a horse, the taxidriver’s humanity must at the same time be treated as an end initself.

Second, it is not human beings per se but the“humanity” in human beings that we must treat as an end initself. Our “humanity” is that collection of features thatmake us distinctively human, and these include capacities to engage inself-directed rational behavior and to adopt and pursue our own ends,and any other rational capacities necessarily connected with these.Thus, supposing that the taxi driver has freely exercised his rationalcapacities in pursuing his line of work, we make permissible use ofthese capacities as a means only if we behave in a way that he could,when exercising his rational capacities, consent to — forinstance, by paying an agreed on price.

Third, the idea of an end has three senses for Kant, two positivesenses and a negative sense. An end in the first positive sense is athing we will to produce or bring about in the world. For instance, iflosing weight is my end, then losing weight is something I aim tobring about. An end in this sense guides my actions in that once Iwill to produce something, I then deliberate about and aim to pursuemeans of producing it if I am rational. Humanity is not an“end” in this sense, though even in this case, the end“lays down a law” for me. Once I have adopted an end inthis sense, it dictates that I do something: I should act in ways thatwill bring about the end or instead choose to abandon my goal.

An end in the negative sense lays down a law for me as well, and soguides action, but in a different way. Korsgaard (1996) offersself-preservation as an example of an end in a negative sense: We donot try to produce our self-preservation. Rather, the end ofself-preservation prevents us from engaging in certain kinds ofactivities, for instance, picking fights with mobsters, and so on.That is, as an end, it is something I do not act against inpursuing my positive ends, rather than something I produce.

Humanity is in the first instance an end in this negative sense: It issomething that limits what I may do in pursuit of my otherends, similar to the way that my end of self-preservation limits whatI may do in pursuit of other ends. Insofar as it limits myactions, it is a source of perfect duties. Now many of ourends are subjective in that they are not ends that every rationalbeing must have. Humanity is an objective end, because it isan end that every rational being must have. Hence, my own humanity aswell as the humanity of others limit what I am morallypermitted to do when I pursue my other, non-mandatory, ends.

The humanity in myself and others is also a positive end,though not in the first positive sense above, as something to beproduced by my actions. Rather, it is something to realize, cultivateor further by my actions. Becoming a philosopher, pianist or novelistmight be my end in this sense. When my end is becoming a pianist, myactions do not, or at least not simply, produce something, being apianist, but constitute or realize the activity of being a pianist.Insofar as the humanity in ourselves must be treated as an end initself in this second positive sense, it must be cultivated,developed or fully actualized. Hence, the humanity in oneself is thesource of a duty to develop one’s talents or to“perfect” one’s humanity. When one makes one’sown humanity one’s end, one pursues its development, much aswhen one makes becoming a pianist one’s end, one pursues thedevelopment of piano playing. And insofar as humanity is a positiveend in others, I must attempt to further their ends as well. In sodoing, I further the humanity in others, by helping further theprojects and ends that they have willingly adopted for themselves. Itis this sense of humanity as an end-in-itself on which some ofKant’s arguments for imperfect duties rely.

Finally, Kant’s Humanity Formula requires “respect”for the humanity in persons. Proper regard for something with absolutevalue or worth requires respect for it. But this can invitemisunderstandings. One way in which we respect persons, termed“appraisal respect” by Stephen Darwall (1977), is clearlynot the same as the kind of respect required by the Humanity Formula:I may respect you as a rebounder but not a scorer, or as a researcherbut not as a teacher. When I respect you in this way, I am positivelyappraising you in light of some achievement or virtue you possessrelative to some standard of success. If this were the sort of respectKant is counseling then clearly it may vary from person to person andis surely not what treating something as an end-in-itself requires.For instance, it does not seem to prevent me from regardingrationality as an achievement and respecting one person as a rationalagent in this sense, but not another. And Kant is not telling us toignore differences, to pretend that we are blind to them on mindlessegalitarian grounds. However, a distinct way in which we respectpersons, referred to as “recognition respect” by Darwall,better captures Kant’s position: I may respect you because youare a student, a Dean, a doctor or a mother. In such cases ofrespecting you because of who or what you are, I am giving the properregard to a certain fact about you, your being a Dean for instance.This sort of respect, unlike appraisal respect, is not a matter ofdegree based on your having measured up to some standard ofassessment. Respect for the humanity in persons is more likeDarwall’s recognition respect. We are to respect human beingssimply because they are persons and this requires a certain sort ofregard. We are not called on to respect them insofar as they have metsome standard of evaluation appropriate to persons. And, crucially forKant, persons cannot lose their humanity by their misdeeds –even the most vicious persons, Kant thought, deserve basic respect aspersons with humanity.

7. The Autonomy Formula

The third formulation of the CI is “the Idea of the will ofevery rational being as a will that legislates universallaw.” (G 4:432). Although Kant does not state this as animperative, as he does in the other formulations, it is easy enough toput it in that form: Act so that through your maxims you could be alegislator of universal laws. This sounds very similar to the firstformulation. However, in this case we focus on our status as universallaw givers rather than universal law followers. Thisis of course the source of the very dignity of humanity Kant speaks ofin the second formulation. A rational will that is merely bound byuniversal laws could act accordingly from natural and non-moralmotives, such as self-interest. But in order to be a legislator ofuniversal laws, such contingent motives, motives that rational agentssuch as ourselves may or may not have, must be set aside. Hence, weare required, according to this formulation, to conform our behaviorto principles that express this autonomy of the rational will —its status as a source of the very universal laws that obligate it. Aswith the Humanity Formula, this new formulation of the CI does notchange the outcome, since each is supposed to formulate the very samemoral law, and in some sense “unite” the otherformulations within it. Kant takes each formulation that succeeds thefirst in its own way as bringing the moral law “closer tofeeling”. The Autonomy Formula presumably does this by puttingon display the source of our dignity and worth, our status as freerational agents who are the source of the authority behind the verymoral laws that bind us.

8. The Kingdom of Ends Formula

This formulation has gained favor among Kantians in recent years (seeRawls, 1971; Hill, 1972). Many see it as introducing more of a socialdimension to Kantian morality. Kant states that the above concept ofevery rational will as a will that must regard itself as enacting lawsbinding all rational wills is closely connected to another concept,that of a “systematic union of different rational beings undercommon laws”, or a “Kingdom of Ends” (G 4:433). Theformulation of the CI states that we must “act in accordancewith the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a merelypossible kingdom of ends” (G 4:439). It combines the others inthat (i) it requires that we conform our actions to the laws of anideal moral legislature, (ii) that this legislature lays downuniversal laws, binding all rational wills including our own, and(iii) that those laws are of “a merely possible kingdom”each of whose members equally possesses this status as legislator ofuniversal laws, and hence must be treated always as an end in itself.The intuitive idea behind this formulation is that our fundamentalmoral obligation is to act only on principles which could earnacceptance by a community of fully rational agents each of whom havean equal share in legislating these principles for theircommunity.

9. The Unity of the Formulas

Kant claimed that all of these CI formulas were equivalent.Unfortunately, he does not say in what sense. What he says isthat these “are basically only so many formulations of preciselythe same law, each one of them by itself uniting the other two withinit,” and that the differences between them are “moresubjectively than objectively practical” in the sense that eachaims “to bring an Idea of reason closer to intuition (by meansof a certain analogy) and thus nearer to feeling” (G 4:435). Healso says that one formula “follows from” another (G4:431), and that the concept foundational to one formula “leadsto a closely connected” concept at the basis of another formula(G 4:433). Thus, his claim that the formulations are equivalent couldbe interpreted in a number of ways.

Kant’s statement that each formula “unites the other twowithin it” initially suggests that the formulas are equivalentin meaning, or at least one could analytically derive oneformula from another. Some of Kant’s commentators, for example,have argued along the following lines: That I should always treathumanity as an end in itself entails that I should act only on maximsthat are consistent with themselves as universal laws of nature(O’Neill 1975, 1990; Engstrom 2009; Sensen 2011). There areremaining doubts some commentators have, however, about whether thisstrategy can capture the full meaning of the Humanity Formula orexplain all of the duties that Kant claims to derive from it (Wood1999, 2007; Cureton 2013).

Perhaps, then, if the formulas are not equivalent in meaning, they arenevertheless logically interderivable and hence equivalent in thissense. The universal law formula is not itself derived, as some ofKant’s interpreters have suggested, from the principle ofnon-contradiction. That would have the consequence that the CI is alogical truth, and Kant insists that it is not or at least that it isnot analytic. Since the CI formulas are not logical truths, then, itis possible that they could be logically interderivable. However,despite his claim that each contains the others within it, what wefind in the Groundwork seems best interpreted as a derivationof each successive formula from the immediately preceding formula.There are, nonetheless, a few places in which it seems that Kant istrying to work in the opposite direction. One is found in hisdiscussion of the Humanity Formula. There Kant says that onlysomething “whose existence in itself had an absoluteworth” could be the ground of a categorically binding law (G4:428). He then boldly proclaims that humanity is this absolutelyvaluable thing, referring to this as a “postulate” that hewill argue for in the final chapter of the Groundwork (G4:429n). One might take this as expressing Kant’s intention toderive thereby the universal law formula from the Humanity Formula:If something is absolutely valuable, then we mustact only on maxims that can be universal laws. But (he postulates)humanity is absolutely valuable. Thus, we must act only onmaxims that can be universal laws. This (we think) anomalousdiscussion may well get at some deep sense in which Kant thought theformulations were equivalent. Nonetheless, this derivation of theuniversal law formulation from the Humanity Formulation seems torequire a substantive, synthetic claim, namely, that humanityis indeed absolutely valuable. And if it does require this, then,contrary to Kant’s own insistence, the argument ofGroundwork II does not appear to be merely ananalytic argument meant simply to establish the content of the morallaw.

The most straightforward interpretation of the claim that the formulasare equivalent is as the claim that following or applying each formulawould generate all and only the same duties (Allison 2011). This seemsto be supported by the fact that Kant used the same examples throughthe Law of Nature Formula and the Humanity Formula. Thus, theUniversal Law Formulation generates a duty to φ if and only if theHumanity Formula generates a duty to φ, (and so on for the otherformulations). In other words, respect for humanity as an end initself could never lead you to act on maxims that would generate acontradiction when universalized, and vice versa. This way ofunderstanding Kant’s claim also fits with his statement thatthere is no “objective practical difference” between theformulations although there are “subjective” differences.The subjective differences between formulas are presumably differencesthat appeal in different ways to various conceptions of what moralitydemands of us. But this difference in meaning is compatible with therebeing no practical difference, in the sense that conformity to oneformulation cannot lead one to violate another formulation.

10. Autonomy

At the heart of Kant’s moral theory is the idea of autonomy.Most readers interpret Kant as holding that autonomy is a property ofrational wills or agents. Understanding the idea of autonomy was, inKant’s view, key to understanding and justifying the authoritythat moral requirements have over us. As with Rousseau, whose viewsinfluenced Kant, freedom does not consist in being bound by no law,but by laws that are in some sense of one’s own making. The ideaof freedom as autonomy thus goes beyond the merely“negative” sense of being free from causes on ourconduct originating outside of ourselves. It contains first andforemost the idea of laws made and laid down by oneself, and, invirtue of this, laws that have decisive authority over oneself.

Kant’s basic idea can be grasped intuitively by analogy with theidea of political freedom as autonomy (See Reath 1994). Consider howpolitical freedom in liberal theories is thought to be related tolegitimate political authority: A state is free when its citizens arebound only by laws in some sense of their own making — createdand put into effect, say, by vote or by elected representatives. Thelaws of that state then express the will of the citizens who are boundby them. The idea, then, is that the source of legitimate politicalauthority is not external to its citizens, but internal to them,internal to “the will of the people.” It is because thebody politic created and enacted these laws for itself that it can bebound by them. An autonomous state is thus one in which the authorityof its laws is in the will of the people in that state, rather than inthe will of a people external to that state, as when one state imposeslaws on another during occupation or colonization. In the latter case,the laws have no legitimate authority over those citizens. In asimilar fashion, we may think of a person as free when bound only byher own will and not by the will of another. Her actions then expressher own will and not the will of someone or something else. Theauthority of the principles binding her will is then also not externalto her will. It comes from the fact that she willed them. So autonomy,when applied to an individual, ensures that the source of theauthority of the principles that bind her is in her own will.Kant’s view can be seen as the view that the moral law is justsuch a principle. Hence, the “moral legitimacy” of the CIis grounded in its being an expression of each person’s ownrational will. It is because each person’s own reason is thelegislator and executor of the moral law that it is authoritative forher. (For a contrasting interpretation of autonomy that emphasizes theintrinsic value of freedom of choice and the instrumental role ofreason in preserving that value, see Guyer 2007).

Kant argues that the idea of an autonomous will emerges from aconsideration of the idea of a will that is free “in a negativesense.” The concept of a rational will is of a will thatoperates by responding to what it takes to be reasons. This is,firstly, the concept of a will that does not operate through theinfluence of factors outside of this responsiveness to apparentreasons. For a will to be free is thus for it to be physically andpsychologically unforced in its operation. Hence, behaviors that areperformed because of obsessions or thought disorders are not free inthis negative sense. But also, for Kant, a will that operates by beingdetermined through the operation of natural laws, such as those ofbiology or psychology, cannot be thought of as operating by respondingto reasons. Hence, determination by natural laws is conceptuallyincompatible with being free in a negative sense.

A crucial move in Kant’s argument is his claim that a rationalwill cannot act except “under the Idea” of its own freedom(G 4:448). The expression “acting under the Idea offreedom” is easy to misunderstand. It does not mean that arational will must believe it is free, since determinists areas free as libertarians in Kant’s view. Indeed, Kant goes out ofhis way in his most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason,to argue that we have no rational basis for believing ourwills to be free. This would involve, he argues, attributing aproperty to our wills that they would have to have as ‘things inthemselves’ apart from the causally determined world ofappearances. Of such things, he insists, we can have no knowledge. Formuch the same reason, Kant is not claiming that a rational will cannotoperate without feeling free. Feelings, even the feeling ofoperating freely or the “looseness” Hume refers to when weact, cannot be used in an a priori argument to establish theCI, since they are empirical data.

One helpful way to understand acting “under the Idea offreedom” is by analogy with acting “under the Idea”that there are purposes in nature: Although there is, according toKant, no rational basis for the belief that the natural world is (oris not) arranged according to some purpose by a Designer, the actualpractices of science often require looking for the purpose of this orthat chemical, organ, creature, environment, and so on. Thus, oneengages in these natural sciences by searching for purposes in nature.Yet when an evolutionary biologist, for instance, looks for thepurpose of some organ in some creature, she does not after all therebybelieve that the creature was designed that way, forinstance, by a Deity. Nor is she having some feeling of“designedness” in the creature. To say that she“acts under the Idea of” design is to say something aboutthe practice of biology: Practicing biology involves searching for thepurposes of the parts of living organisms. In much the same way,although there is no rational justification for the belief that ourwills are (or are not) free, the actual practice of practicaldeliberation and decision consists of a search for the right causalchain of which to be the origin — consists, that is, seeking tobe the first causes of things, wholly and completely through theexercise of one’s own will.

(Video) Kant's Moral Philosophy

Kant says that a will that cannot exercise itself except under theIdea of its freedom is free from a practical point of view(im practischer Absicht). In saying such wills are free froma practical point of view, he is saying that in engaging in practicalendeavors — trying to decide what to do, what to hold oneselfand others responsible for, and so on — one is justified inholding oneself to all of the principles to which one would bejustified in holding wills that are autonomous free wills. Thus, oncewe have established the set of prescriptions, rules, laws anddirectives that would bind an autonomous free will, we then holdourselves to this very same of set prescriptions, rules, laws anddirectives. And one is justified in this because rational agency canonly operate by seeking to be the first cause of its actions, andthese are the prescriptions, and so on, of being a first cause ofaction. Therefore, rational agents are free in a negative senseinsofar as any practical matter is at issue.

Crucially, rational wills that are negatively free must be autonomous,or so Kant argues. This is because the will is a kind ofcause—willing causes action. Kant took from Hume the idea thatcausation implies universal regularities: if x causesy, then there is some universally valid law connectingXs to Ys. So, if my will is the cause of myφing, then Φing is connected to the sort of willing I engagein by some universal law. But it can’t be a natural law, such asa psychological, physical, chemical or biological law. These laws,which Kant thought were universal too, govern the movements of mybody, the workings of my brain and nervous system and the operation ofmy environment and its effects on me as a material being. But theycannot be the laws governing the operation of my will; that, Kantalready argued, is inconsistent with the freedom of my will in anegative sense. So, the will operates according to a universal law,though not one authored by nature, but one of which I am the origin orauthor. And that is to say that, in viewing my willing to φ as anegatively free cause of my φing, I must view my will as theautonomous cause of my having φed, as causing my having φed byway of some law that I, insofar as I am a rational will, laid down formy will.

Thus, Kant argues, a rational will, insofar as it is rational, is awill conforming itself to those laws valid for any rational will.Addressed to imperfectly rational wills, such as our own, this becomesan imperative: “Conform your action to a universal non-naturallaw.” Kant assumed that there was some connection between thisformal requirement and the formulation of the CI which enjoins us to“Act as though the maxim of your action were to become by yourwill a universal law of nature.” But, as commentators have longnoticed (see, e.g. , Hill, 1989a, 1989b), it is not clear what thelink is between the claim that rational autonomous wills conformthemselves to whatever universally valid laws require, and the moresubstantial and controversial claim that you should evaluate yourmaxims in the ways implied by the universal law of natureformulation.

Kant appeared not to recognize the gap between the law of anautonomous rational will and the CI, but he was apparently unsatisfiedwith the argument establishing the CI in Groundwork III foranother reason, namely, the fact that it does not prove that we reallyare free. In the Critique of Practical Reason, he states thatit is simply a “fact of reason” (Factum derVernunft) that our wills are bound by the CI, and he uses this toargue that our wills are autonomous. Hence, while in theGroundwork Kant relies on a dubious argument for our autonomyto establish that we are bound by the moral law, in the secondCritique, he argues from the bold assertion of our beingbound by the moral law to our autonomy.

The apparent failure of Kant’s argument to establish theautonomy of the will, and hence the authority of moral demands overus, has not deterred his followers from trying to make good on thisproject. One strategy favored recently has been to turn back to thearguments of Groundwork II for help. Kant himself repeatedlyclaimed that these arguments are merely analytic but that they do notestablish that there is anything that answers to the concepts heanalyzes. The conclusions are thus fully compatible with moralitybeing, as he puts it, a “mere phantom of the brain” (G4:445). Kant clearly takes himself to have established that rationalagents such as ourselves must take the means to our ends, since thisis analytic of rational agency. But there is a chasm between thisanalytic claim and the supposed synthetic conclusion that rationalagency also requires conforming to a further, non-desire based,principle of practical reason such as the CI. Nevertheless, some seearguments in Groundwork II that establish just this. Thesestrategies involve a new “teleological” reading ofKant’s ethics that relies on establishing the existence of anabsolute value or an “end in itself” (we say more aboutthis teleological reading below). They begin with Kant’s ownstated assumption that there is such an end in itself if and only ifthere is a categorical imperative binding on all rational agents assuch. If this assumption is true, then if one can on independentgrounds prove that there is something which is an end in itself, onewill have an argument for a categorical imperative. One such strategy,favored by Korsgaard (1996) and Wood (1999) relies on the apparentargument Kant gives that humanity is an end in itself. Guyer, bycontrast, sees an argument for freedom as an end in itself (Guyer2000). Both strategies have faced textual and philosophical hurdles.Considerable interpretive finesse, for instance, is required toexplain Kant’s stark insistence on the priority of principlesand law over the good in the second Critique (CPrR5:57–67)

Although most of Kant’s readers understand the property ofautonomy as being a property of rational wills, some, such as ThomasE. Hill, have held that Kant’s central idea is that of autonomyis a property, not primarily of wills, but of principles. The coreidea is that Kant believed that all moral theories prior to his ownwent astray because they portrayed fundamental moral principles asappealing to the existing interests of those bound by them. Bycontrast, in Kant’s view moral principles must not appeal tosuch interests, for no interest is necessarily universal. Thus, inassuming at the outset that moral principles must embody some interest(or “heteronomous” principles), such theories rule out thevery possibility that morality is universally binding. By contrast,the Categorical Imperative, because it does not enshrine existinginterests, presumes that rational agents can conform to a principlethat does not appeal to their interests (or an“autonomous” principle), and so can fully ground ourconception, according to Kant, of what morality requires of us.

A different interpretive strategy, which has gained prominence inrecent years, focuses on Kant’s apparent identification, inGroundwork III, of the will and practical reason. One naturalway of interpreting Kant’s conception of freedom is tounderstand it in terms of the freedom and spontaneity of reasonitself. This in turn apparently implies that our wills are necessarilyaimed at what is rational and reasonable. To will something, on thispicture, is to govern oneself in accordance with reason. Often,however, we fail to effectively so govern ourselves because we areimperfect rational beings who are caused to act by ournon–rational desires and inclinations. The result, at least onone version of this interpretation (Wolff 1973), is that we either actrationally and reasonably (and so autonomously) or we are merelycaused to behave in certain ways by non–rational forces actingon us (and so heteronomously). This is, however, an implausible view.It implies that all irrational acts, and hence all immoral acts, arenot willed and therefore not free. Most interpreters have denied thatthis is the proper interpretation of Kant’s views. However,several prominent commentators nonetheless think that there is sometruth in it (Engstrom 2009; Reath 2015; Korsgaard 1996, 2008, 2009).They agree that we always act under the “guise of thegood” in the sense that our will is necessarily aimed at what isobjectively and subjectively rational and reasonable, but theseinterpreters also think that, for Kant, there is a middle–groundbetween perfect conformity to reason and being caused to act bynatural forces. In particular, when we act immorally, we are eitherweak–willed or we are misusing our practical reason by willingbadly. We do not have the capacity to aim to act on an immoral maximbecause the will is identified with practical reason, so when we willto perform an immoral act, we implicitly but mistakenly take ourunderlying policy to be required by reason. By representing ourimmoral act as rational and reasonable, we are not exercising ourpowers of reason well, so we are simply making a “choice”that is contrary to reason without “willing” it as such.Our choice is nonetheless free and attributable to us because our willwas involved in leading us to take the act to be rational andreasonable. It remains to be seen whether, on this complicatedinterpretation of Kant, it sufficiently allows for the possibilitythat one can knowingly and willingly do wrong if the will is practicalreason and practical reason is, in part, the moral law.

11. Non-rational Beings and Disabled Humans

Several recent discussions of Kant’s moral theory have focusedon understanding and assessing its implications for how we shouldregard and treat people with various kinds of disabilities. Kant doesnot say much explicitly about those with disabilities, but his moralframework is often seen as both hostile to and supportive of theinterests of disabled people.

One of the most important criticisms of Kant’s moral theoryconcerns human beings with severe cognitive disabilities who lack themoral capacities and dispositions that, according to Kant, are neededfor people to have dignity, be ends in themselves, possess moralrights, legislate moral laws, be a member of the kingdom of ends, orotherwise have basic moral status (Kittay 2005, Vorhaus 2020, Barclay2020; cf. the SEP entry cognitive disability and moral status).When we reflect on what makes us morally special, according to Kant,we find that it is not our contingent properties, the biologicalspecies we belong to, or even our capacity to be conscious or to feelpain. Kant argues that rational nature, specifically the moralcapacities and dispositions to legislate and follow moral principles,is what gives us inner worth and makes us deserving of respect (G4:428–36, 446–7; Rel 6:26). Our basic moral status does not come indegrees. It is always equal to that of other people regardless of thelevel, if any, at which our moral capacities and dispositions aredeveloped, realized, or exercised. Infants and young children,according to Kant, almost always have a moral nature even though theirmoral capacities and dispositions are undeveloped or underdeveloped(MM 6:280–1, 422; see also Schapiro 1999). Virtually all people withDown Syndrome and autism have basic moral status even if their moralcapacities and dispositions are not as fully realized or exercised asthey are in other people. Being asleep or in a coma does not precludesomeone from having basic moral status even if their moral capacitiesand dispositions are temporarily or permanently dormant. Some humanbeings with significant cognitive disabilities, however, do not haveeven bare capacities or dispositions to recognize, accept, legislate,and follow moral norms. Kant seems to imply that anencephalic infants,those in persistent vegetative states, and other human beings with themost severe cognitive disabilities lack dignity and are not ends inthemselves. They are apparently excluded from the moral community inways that have unacceptable implications for how we should or shouldnot regard and treat them.

There is little or no evidence that Kant himself thought about thisproblem, which is also connected with the moral status of manynon-human animals who seem to matter morally but who lack the moralcapacities and dispositions that, according to Kant, are necessary forbasic moral status. Kant’s defenders have nonetheless exploredwhat his basic moral framework might imply about the moral status ofthose with severe cognitive disabilities. One approach is simply tobite the bullet by admitting that people with certain severe cognitivedisabilities lack the basic moral status that others of us share (Wood1998, Sussman 2001. (This general strategy is deployed by Regan andfollowed by Wood, McMahan, Warren, Merkel, and others. For the claimthat such humans are not persons, on Kant’s theory, see alsoSussman, Idea, 242.) Proponents of this view can emphasizethat, although we do not have duties to such people, we can haveduties regarding them, such as duties of moral self-improvement thatgive us reasons to treat those with significant cognitive disabilitieshumanely for the sake of improving how we treat other human beingswith basic moral status (MM 6:442) or duties of beneficence that giveus reasons to care for them as a kindness to their families (G 4:430).Pragmatic considerations might also give us reasons to err on the sideof caution when it comes to assessing whether someone entirely lacksthe moral capacities and dispositions that ground basic moral status.Because of difficulties making such determinations and the moral risksinvolved in judging incorrectly, we should perhaps assume, unless wehave very strong evidence to the contrary, that each human being hasbasic moral status (Korsgaard 1996).

A second approach to addressing the problem of moral status for thosewith significant cognitive disabilities is to emphasize passages inwhich Kant says all human beings have dignity or are ends inthemselves (G 4:428–29; MM 6:410) and to argue that, accordingto Kant’s theories of biology and psychology, all human beings,including those with severe cognitive disabilities, necessarily havethe requisite features of moral personhood (Kain 2009). A thirdapproach is to draw on and perhaps supplement some of Kant’smoral views by, for example, arguing that because we value things, wemust value ourselves as ends, which in turn commits us to valuing allhuman and non-human animals as ends (Korsgaard 2020) or that respectfor all human beings is a constitutive feature of rational agency thatdoes not depend on any intrinsic properties of the objects ofrespect (Sensen 2018).

In addition to discussing the moral status of people with severecognitive disabilities, Kantian philosophers have also been exploringhow his moral theory applies to other moral issues that concern how weshould regard and treat people with disabilities. AlthoughKant’s focus was on specifying principles for all circumstancesor for all human contexts, he recognized that a complete specificationof his system of moral duties, ends, and ideals must includeapplications of basic moral standards to particular contexts andgroups of people (MM 6:468–9).

When prospective parents choose not to produce children that wouldlikely have disabilities, they might express disrespectful attitudesabout existing people with disabilities (Velleman 2015, Sussman 2018).People with disabilities are often ridiculed, abused, treated aschildren, denied opportunities to continue developing their naturalabilities in, for example, assisted living facilities that insteademphasize their comfort, and excluded from friendships or other formsof solidarity in ways that arguably violate moral duties that Kantdescribes (Cureton 2021, Hill 2020). They often face obstacles todeveloping and maintaining self-respect by those who regard them as,for example, burdensome, malingering, or curiosities (Stohr 2018).People with disabilities also tend to receive assistance from othersthat is incompatible with the respect they are owed. Beneficence,according to Kant, must be tempered by respect so that we do not, forexample, impose burdensome obligations of gratitude on a blind personwho would rather navigate to the next conference session herself,“help” a Deaf person by offering to pay for cochlearimplants that he does not want, finish the sentences of someone with aspeech impediment in ways that express condescension or pity, ormistake a strict duty to install a wheelchair ramp as an optional dutyof charity (Cureton 2016, Holtman 2018).

12. Virtue and Vice

Kant defines virtue as “the moral strength of a humanbeing’s will in fulfilling his duty” (MM 6:405) andvice as principled immorality (MM 6:390). This definition appears toput Kant’s views on virtue at odds with classical views such asAristotle’s in several important respects.

First, Kant’s account of virtue presupposes an account of moralduty already in place. Thus, rather than treating admirable charactertraits as more basic than the notions of right and wrong conduct, Kanttakes virtues to be explicable only in terms of a prior account ofmoral or dutiful behavior. He does not try to make out what shape agood character has and then draw conclusions about how we ought to acton that basis. He sets out the principles of moral conduct based onhis philosophical account of rational agency, and then on that basisdefines virtue as a kind of strength and resolve to act on thoseprinciples despite temptations to the contrary.

Second, virtue is, for Kant, strength of will, and hence does notarise as the result of instilling a “second nature” by aprocess of habituating or training ourselves to act and feel inparticular ways. It is indeed a disposition, but a disposition ofone’s will, not a disposition of emotions, feelings, desires orany other feature of human nature that might be amenable tohabituation. Moreover, the disposition is to overcome obstacles tomoral behavior that Kant thought were ineradicable features of humannature. Thus, virtue appears to be much more like what Aristotle wouldhave thought of as a lesser trait, viz., continence orself-control.

Third, in viewing virtue as a trait grounded in moral principles, andvice as principled transgression of moral law, Kant thought of himselfas thoroughly rejecting what he took to be the Aristotelian view thatvirtue is a mean between two vices. The Aristotelian view, he claimed,assumes that virtue typically differs from vice only in terms ofdegree rather than in terms of the different principles each involves(MM 6:404, 432). Prodigality and avarice, for instance, do not differby being too loose or not loose enough with one’s means. Theydiffer in that the prodigal person acts on the principle of acquiringmeans with the sole intention of enjoyment, while the avariciousperson acts on the principle of acquiring means with the soleintention of possessing them.

Fourth, in classical views the distinction between moral and non-moralvirtues is not particularly significant. A virtue is some sort ofexcellence of the soul, but one finds classical theorists treating witand friendliness alongside courage and justice. Since Kant holds moralvirtue to be a trait grounded in moral principle, the boundary betweennon-moral and moral virtues could not be more sharp. Even so, Kantshows a remarkable interest in non-moral virtues; indeed, much ofAnthropology is given over to discussing the nature andsources of a variety of character traits, both moral andnon-moral.

Fifth, virtue cannot be a trait of divine beings, if there are such,since it is the power to overcome obstacles that would not be presentin them. This is not to say that to be virtuous is to be the victor ina constant and permanent war with ineradicable evil impulses ortemptations. Morality is “duty” for human beings becauseit is possible (and we recognize that it is possible) for ourdesires and interests to run counter to its demands. Should all of ourdesires and interests be trained ever so carefully to comport withwhat morality actually requires of us, this would not change in theleast the fact that morality is still duty for us. For should thiscome to pass, it would not change the fact that each and every desireand interest could have run contrary to the moral law. And itis the fact that they can conflict with moral law, not thefact that they actually do conflict with it, that makes dutya constraint, and hence is virtue essentially a trait concerned withconstraint.

Sixth, virtue, while important, does not hold pride of place inKant’s system in other respects. For instance, he holds that thelack of virtue is compatible with possessing a good will (G 6: 408).That one acts from duty, even repeatedly and reliably can thus bequite compatible with an absence of the moral strength to overcomecontrary interests and desires. Indeed, it may often be no challengeat all to do one’s duty from duty alone. Someone with a goodwill, who is genuinely committed to duty for its own sake, mightsimply fail to encounter any significant temptation that would revealthe lack of strength to follow through with that commitment. Thatsaid, he also appeared to hold that if an act is to be of genuinemoral worth, it must be motivated by the kind of purity of motivationachievable only through a permanent, quasi-religious conversion or“revolution” in the orientation of the will of the sortdescribed in Religion. Until one achieves a permanent changein the will’s orientation in this respect, a revolution in whichmoral righteousness is the nonnegotiable condition of any ofone’s pursuits, all of one’s actions that are inaccordance with duty are nevertheless morally worthless, no matterwhat else may be said of them. However, even this revolution in thewill must be followed up with a gradual, lifelong strengthening ofone’s will to put this revolution into practice. This suggeststhat Kant’s considered view is that a good will is a will inwhich this revolution of priorities has been achieved, while avirtuous will is one with the strength to overcome obstacles to itsmanifestation in practice.

(Video) Immanuel Kant's Moral Theory

Kant distinguishes between virtue, which is strength of will to doone’s duty from duty, and particular virtues, which arecommitments to particular moral ends that we are morally required toadopt. Among the virtues Kant discusses are those of self-respect,honesty, thrift, self-improvement, beneficence, gratitude,sociability, and forgiveness. Kant also distinguishes vice, which is asteadfast commitment to immorality, from particular vices, whichinvolve refusing to adopt specific moral ends or committing to actagainst those ends. For example, malice, lust, gluttony, greed,laziness, vengefulness, envy, servility, contempt and arrogance areall vices in Kant’s normative ethical theory.

(Interest in Kant’s conception of virtue has rapidly grown inrecent years. For further discussion, see Cureton and Hill 2014,forthcoming; Wood 2008; Surprenant 2014; Sherman 1997; O’Neil1996; Johnson 2008; Hill 2012; Herman 1996; Engstrom 2002; Denis 2006;Cureton forthcoming; Betzler 2008; Baxley 2010).

13. Normative Ethical Theory

The Categorical Imperative, in Kant’s view, is an objective,unconditional and necessary principle of reason that applies to allrational agents in all circumstances. Although Kant gives severalexamples in the Groundwork that illustrate this principle, hegoes on to describe in later writings, especially in TheMetaphysics of Morals, a complicated normative ethical theory forinterpreting and applying the CI to human persons in the naturalworld. His framework includes various levels, distinctions andapplication procedures. Kant, in particular, describes two subsidiaryprinciples that are supposed to capture different aspects of the CI.The Universal Principle of Right, which governs issues about justice,rights and external acts that can be coercively enforced, holds that“Any action is right if it can coexist witheveryone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if onits maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist witheveryone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law” (MM6:230). The Supreme Principle of the Doctrine of Virtue, which governsquestions about moral ends, attitudes, and virtue, requires us to“act in accordance with a maxim of ends that it can bea universal law for everyone to have” (MM 6:395). Theseprinciples, in turn, justify more specific duties of right and ofethics and virtue.

In Kant’s framework, duties of right are narrow and perfectbecause they require or forbid particular acts, while duties of ethicsand virtue are wide and imperfect because they allow significantlatitude in how we may decide to fulfill them. For example, Kantclaims that the duty not to steal the property of another person isnarrow and perfect because it precisely defines a kind of act that isforbidden. The duty of beneficence, on the other hand, ischaracterized as wide and imperfect because it does not specifyexactly how much assistance we must provide to others.

Even with a system of moral duties in place, Kant admits that judgmentis often required to determine how these duties apply to particularcircumstances. Moral laws, Kant says, “must be meticulouslyobserved” but “they cannot, after all, have regard toevery little circumstance, and the latter may yield exceptions, whichdo not always find their exact resolution in the laws” (V27:574; see also CPR A133/B172; MM 6:411).

14. Teleology or Deontology?

The received view is that Kant’s moral philosophy is adeontological normative theory at least to this extent: it denies thatright and wrong are in some way or other functions of goodness orbadness. It denies, in other words, the central claim of teleologicalmoral views. For instance, act consequentialism is one sort ofteleological theory. It asserts that the right action is that actionof all the alternatives available to the agent that has the bestoverall outcome. Here, the goodness of the outcome determines therightness of an action. Another sort of teleological theory mightfocus instead on character traits. “Virtue ethics” assertsthat a right action in any given circumstance is that action avirtuous person does or would perform in those circumstances. In thiscase, it is the goodness of the character of the person who does orwould perform it that determines the rightness of an action. In bothcases, as it were, the source or ground of rightness is goodness. AndKant’s own views have typically been classified as deontologicalprecisely because they have seemed to reverse this priority and denyjust what such theories assert. Rightness, on the standard reading ofKant, is not grounded in the value of outcomes or character.

There are several reasons why readers have thought that Kant deniesthe teleological thesis. First, he makes a plethora of statementsabout outcomes and character traits that appear to imply an outrightrejection of both forms of teleology. For instance, inGroundwork I, he says that he takes himself to have arguedthat “the objectives we may have in acting, and also ouractions’ effects considered as ends and what motivates ourvolition, can give to actions no unconditional or moralworth…[this] can be found nowhere but in the principle of thewill, irrespective of the ends that can be brought about by suchaction” (G 4: 400). This appears to say that moral rightness isnot a function of the value of intended or actual outcomes. Kantsubsequently says that a categorical imperative “declares anaction to be objectively necessary of itself without reference to anypurpose—that is, even without any further end” (G 4:415).A categorical imperative “commands a certain line of conductdirectly, without assuming or being conditional on any further goal tobe reached by that conduct” (G 4:416). These certainly appear tobe the words of someone who rejects the idea that what makes actionsright is primarily their relationship to what good may come of thoseactions, someone who rejects outright the act consequentialist form ofteleology. Moreover, Kant begins the Groundwork by notingthat character traits such as the traditional virtues of courage,resolution, moderation, self-control, or a sympathetic cast of mindpossess no unconditional moral worth, (G 4:393–94,398–99). If the moral rightness of an action is grounded in thevalue of the character traits of the person who performs or wouldperform it then it seems Kant thinks that it would be grounded insomething of only conditional value. This certainly would not comportwell with the virtue ethics form of teleology.

Second, there are deeper theoretical claims and arguments ofKant’s in both the Groundwork and in the secondCritique that appear to be incompatible with any sort ofteleological form of ethics. These claims and arguments all stem fromKant’s insistence that morality is grounded in the autonomy of arational will. For instance, Kant states that “if the will seeksthe law that is to determine it anywhere else than in the fitness ofits maxims for its own giving of universal law…heteronomyalways results” (G 4:441). If the law determining right andwrong is grounded in either the value of outcomes or the value of thecharacter of the agent, it seems it will not be found in the fitnessof the action’s maxim to be a universal law laid down by theagent’s own rational will. And Kant’s most completetreatment of value, the second Critique’s “On theConcept of an Object of Pure Practical Reason”, appears to be arelentless attack on any sort of teleological moral theory. “Theconcept of good and evil” he states, “must not bedetermined before the moral law (for which, as it would seem, thisconcept would have to be made the basis) but only (as was done here)after it and by means of it” (CPrR 5:63).

A number of Kant’s readers have come to question this receivedview, however. Perhaps the first philosopher to suggest a teleologicalreading of Kant was John Stuart Mill. In the first chapter of hisUtilitarianism, Mill implies that the Universal Lawformulation of the Categorical Imperative could only sensibly beinterpreted as a test of the consequences of universal adoption of amaxim. Several 20th century theorists have followed Mill’ssuggestion, most notably, R. M. Hare. Hare argued that moral judgmentssuch as “Stealing is wrong” are in fact universalprescriptions (“No stealing anywhere by anyone!”). Andbecause they are universal, Hare argued, they forbid makingexceptions. That in turn requires moral judgments to give eachperson’s wellbeing, including our own, equal weight. And when wegive each person’s wellbeing equal weight, we are acting toproduce the best overall outcome. Thus, in his view, the CI is“simply utilitarianism put into other words” (1993, p.103). More recently, David Cummiskey (1996) has argued thatKant’s view that moral principles are justified because they areuniversalizable is compatible with those principles themselves beingconsequentialist. Indeed, Cummiskey argues that they must be: Respectfor the value of humanity entails treating the interests of each ascounting for one and one only, and hence for always acting to producethe best overall outcome.

There are also teleological readings of Kant’s ethics that arenon-consequentialist. Barbara Herman (1993) has urged philosophers to“leave deontology behind” as an understanding ofKant’s moral theory on the grounds that the conception ofpractical reason grounding the Categorical Imperative is itself aconception of value. Herman’s idea is that Kant never meant tosay that no value grounds moral principles. That, she argues, wouldimply that there would be no reason to conform to them. Instead, Kantthought the principles of rationality taken together constituterational agency, and rational agency so constituted itself functionsas a value that justifies moral action (1993, 231). Herman’sproposal thus has Kant’s view grounding the rightness of actionsin rational agency, and then in turn offering rational agency itselfup as a value. Both Paul Guyer and Allen Wood have offered proposalsthat differ from Herman’s in content, but agree on the generalform of teleology that she defends as a reading of Kant. Guyer arguesthat autonomy itself is the value grounding moral requirements. Moralthinking consists in recognizing the priceless value of a rationalagent’s autonomous will, something in light of whose value it isnecessary for any rational agent to modify his behavior (1998,22–35). And Wood argues that humanity itself is the groundingvalue for Kant. While the second Critique claims that goodthings owe their value to being the objects of the choices of rationalagents, they could not, in his view, acquire any value at all if thesource of that value, rational agency, itself had no value (1999, 130;see also 157–8). Finally, Rae Langton has argued that ifKant’s theory is to be thought of as an objectivistic view, wemust suppose that the value of humanity and the good will areindependent of simply being the objects of our rational choices. Iftheir value thereby becomes the source of the rightness of our actions— say, our actions are right if and because they treat thatself-standing value in various ways — then her reading too isteleological.

It is of considerable interest to those who follow Kant to determinewhich reading — teleological or deontological — wasactually Kant’s, as well as which view ought to have been his. Apowerful argument for the teleological reading is the motivation forHerman’s proposal: What rationale can we provide for doing ourduty at all if we don’t appeal to it’s being good to doit? But a powerful argument for the deontological reading isKant’s own apparent insistence that the authority of moraldemands must come simply from their being the demands of a rationalwill, quite apart from the value that will may have (see Schneewind1996; Johnson 2007, 2008; and Reath 1994). On the latter view, moraldemands gain their authority simply because a rational will, insofaras you are rational, must will them. Proponents of this reading areleft with the burden of answering Herman’s challenge to providea rationale for having willed such demands, although one response maybe that the very question Herman raises does not make sense because itasks, in effect, why it is rational to be rational. On the formerview, by contrast, a rationale is at hand: because your will is,insofar as it is rational, good. Proponents of this former readingare, however, then left with the burden of explaining how it could bethe autonomy of the will alone that explains the authority ofmorality.

15. Metaethics

It has seemed to a number of Kant’s interpreters that it isimportant to determine whether Kant’s moral philosophy wasrealist, anti-realist or something else (e.g. a constructivist). Theissue is tricky because terms such as “realism,”“anti-realism” and “constructivism” are termsof art, so it is all too easy for interlocutors to talk past oneanother.

One relevant issue is whether Kant’s views commit him to thethesis that moral judgments are beliefs, and so apt to be evaluatedfor their truth or falsity (or are “truth apt”).

One might have thought that this question is quite easy to settle. Atthe basis of morality, Kant argued, is the Categorical Imperative, andimperatives are not truth apt. It makes little sense to ask whether“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” is true. But, in fact,the question is not at all easy. For one thing, moral judgments suchas “Lying is wrong” might well be best analyzed accordingto Kant’s views as “The Categorical Imperative commands usnot to lie”, and this judgment is not an imperative, but areport about what an imperative commands. Thus while at the foundationof morality there would be an imperative which is not truth apt,particular moral judgments themselves would describe what thatimperative rules out and so would themselves be truth apt.

Philosophers such as R.M. Hare, however, have taken Kant’s viewto be that moral judgments are not truth apt. Although on the surfacemoral judgments can look as if they describe a moral world, they are,as Hare reads Kant, “prescriptions”, not“descriptions”. This is not, in his view, to say thatKant’s ethics portrays moral judgments as lacking objectivity.Objectivity, according to Hare, is to be understood as universality,and the Categorical Imperative prescribes universally.

A second issue that has received considerable attention is whetherKant is a metaethical constructivist or realist.

Constructivism in metaethics is the view that moral truths are, or aredetermined by, the outcomes of actual or hypothetical procedures ofdeliberation or choice. Many who interpret Kant as a constructivistclaim that his analysis of “duty” and “goodwill” reveals that if there are moral requirements then theagents who are bound to them have autonomy of the will (Rawls 1980;Korsgaard 1996; O’Neil 1989; Reath 2006; Hill 1989a, 1989b,2001; Cureton 2013, 2014; Engstrom 2009). Autonomy, in this sense,means that such agents are both authors and subjects of the moral lawand, as such, are not bound by any external requirements that mayexist outside of our wills. Instead, we are only subject to moralrequirements that we impose on ourselves through the operation of ourown reason independently of our natural desires and inclinations. Thecommon error of previous ethical theories, including sentimentalism,egoism and rationalism, is that they failed to recognize that moralitypresupposes that we have autonomy of the will. These theoriesmistakenly held that our only reasons to be moral derive fromhypothetical imperatives about how to achieve given moral ends thatexist independently of the activity of reason itself (for a discussionof Kant’s more specific objections to previous ethical theories,see Schneewind 2009). On these interpretations, Kant is a skepticabout arbitrary authorities, such as God, natural feelings, intrinsicvalues or primitive reasons that exist independently of us. Onlyreason itself has genuine authority over us, so we must exercise ourshared powers of reasoned deliberation, thought and judgment, guidedby the Categorical Imperative as the most basic internal norm ofreason, to construct more specific moral requirements. Kantians inthis camp, however, disagree about how this rational procedure shouldbe characterized.

Other commentators interpret Kant as a robust moral realist (Ameriks2003; Wood 1999; Langton 2007; Kain 2004). According to thesephilosophers, Kant’s theory, properly presented, begins with theclaim that rational nature is an objective, agent-neutral andintrinsic value. The moral law then specifies how we should regard andtreat agents who have this special status. Autonomy of the will, onthis view, is a way of considering moral principles that are groundedin the objective value of rational nature and whose authority is thusindependent of the exercise of our wills or rational capacities.

Some interpreters of Kant, most notably Korsgaard (1996), seem toaffirm a kind of quietism about metaethics by rejecting many of theassumptions that contemporary metaethical debates rest on. Forexample, some of these philosophers seem not to want to assert thatmoral facts and properties just are the outcomes of deliberativeprocedures. Rather, they seem more eager to reject talk of facts andproperties as unnecessary, once a wholly acceptable and defensibleprocedure is in place for deliberation. That is, the whole frameworkof facts and properties suggests that there is something we need tomoor our moral conceptions to “out there” in reality, whenin fact what we only need a route to a decision. Once we are moresensitive to the ethical concerns that really matter to us as rationalagents, we will find that many of the questions that animatemetaethicists turn out to be non-questions or of only minorimportance. Others have raised doubts, however, about whether Kantianscan so easily avoid engaging in metaethical debates (Hussain &Shaw 2013).


What does Kant's moral philosophy say? ›

Kant argued that the moral law is a truth of reason, and hence that all rational creatures are bound by the same moral law. Thus in answer to the question, “What should I do?” Kant replies that we should act rationally, in accordance with a universal moral law.

What is Kant's main philosophy? ›

His moral philosophy is a philosophy of freedom. Without human freedom, thought Kant, moral appraisal and moral responsibility would be impossible. Kant believes that if a person could not act otherwise, then his or her act can have no moral worth.

What is Kant's moral philosophical maxim? ›

Kant's moral philosophy is a deontological normative theory, which is to say he rejects the utilitarian idea that the rightness of an action is a function of how fruitful its outcome is. He says that the motive (or means), and not consequence (or end), of an action determines its moral value.

What are Kant's 3 maxims? ›

If this discussion is correct, maxims contain three distinct elements: a choice of one's character, a choice of basic ends of action, and a choice of kinds or policies of action.

What are two of Kant's important ideas about ethics? ›

What are two of Kant's important ideas about ethics? One idea is universality, we should follow rules of behaviors that we can apply universally to everyone. and one must never treat people as a means to an end but as an end in themselves.

Why is Kantian ethics the best? ›

It is easier to determine an action as morally right in Kantian ethics than in utilitarian ethics. When data is scarce, Kantian theory offers more precision than utilitarianism because one can generally determine if somebody is being used as a mere means, even if the impact on human happiness is ambiguous.

What is Kant best known for? ›

Kant's most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason, was published in 1781 and revised in 1787. It is a treatise which seeks to show the impossibility of one sort of metaphysics and to lay the foundations for another. His other books included the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of Judgment (1790).

What is the meaning of Kant? ›

Kant in British English

(kænt , German kant ) Immanuel (ɪˈmaːnueːl ). 1724–1804, German idealist philosopher. He sought to determine the limits of human knowledge in Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and propounded his system of ethics as guided by the categorical imperative in Critique of Practical Reason (1788)


1. PHILOSOPHY: Immanuel Kant
(The School of Life)
2. Kantian Ethics
(Philosophy Vibe)
3. Kant's Moral Theory (Part 1 of 2)
4. Kingdom of Heaven | A Kingdom of Conscience, or Nothing - Kant's Moral Philosophy
(Like Stories of Old)
5. 6.1 Kant's Moral Theory in 7 Steps (What Kant can teach you about your morality)
6. A History of Philosophy | 55 Kant's Ethics

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