Who is Kant?
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is widely considered the central figure in modern philosophy. He is one of the most systematic and ambitious philosophers of all time, and his views shaped much of Western culture for the past two centuries. One fundamental idea of Kant's system is autonomy. For Kant, human understanding structures all of our experience. Human reason gives itself moral laws. And these laws are the basis for our belief/trust in God, freedom and immortality. Scientific knowledge, morality, and religious belief are mutually consistent and secure because they all rest on the same foundation of human autonomy... (From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Kant)
In this class, we will be reading some key selections from Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. He wrote this short book to explain the key points of his ethical philosophy (which is developed across other books.) You can read a PDF of the text HERE, if you prefer to work through that.
Kant's Moral Philosophy: A Brief Overview
Kant's ethical view is one of the most complex and influential ethical systems in the history of philosophy, but the basic ideas are really quite easy to grasp. For Kant, a moral agent has a good will insofar as they act consistently from duty. To act from duty is to follow the moral law, also known as the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative commands us to act only in ways that could rationally be made into universal laws of nature. In contrast with Aristotle's moral philosophy, happiness plays a minimal role in Kant's ethical system. Whereas Aristotle thinks virtuous agents will always aim ultimately at happiness (or eudaimonia), Kant thinks agents should be motivated primarily from duty, and happiness can only ever be a secondary motivation.
Key Principle The Good Will
Kant begins his essay with this famous passage on what we deserve moral credit and blame for:
Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. It is the same with the gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honor, even health, and the general well-being and contentment with one's condition which is called happiness, inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of these on the mind, and with this also to rectify the whole principle of acting and adapt it to its end. The sight of a being who is not adorned with a single feature of a pure and good will, enjoying unbroken prosperity, can never give pleasure to an impartial rational spectator. Thus a good will appears to constitute the indispensable condition even of being worthy of happiness.
There are even some qualities which are of service to this good will itself and may facilitate its action, yet which have no intrinsic unconditional value, but always presuppose a good will, and this qualifies the esteem that we justly have for them and does not permit us to regard them as absolutely good. Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.
A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations.
Even if it should happen that, owing to special disfavor of fortune, or the niggardly provision of a step-motherly nature, this will should wholly lack power to accomplish its purpose, if with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve nothing, and there should remain only the good will (not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power), then, like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add nor take away anything from this value. It would be, as it were, only the setting to enable us to handle it the more conveniently in common commerce, or to attract to it the attention of those who are not yet connoisseurs, but not to recommend it to true connoisseurs, or to determine its value.
There is, however, something so strange in this idea of the absolute value of the mere will, in which no account is taken of its utility, that notwithstanding the thorough assent of even common reason to the idea, yet a suspicion must arise that it may perhaps really be the product of mere high-flown fancy, and that we may have misunderstood the purpose of nature in assigning reason as the governor of our will. Therefore we will examine this idea from this point of view.
In this passage, Kant seems to support a Principle of Control for moral responsibility. The Principle of Control holds that you cannot get either moral credit or moral blame for what is outside your control. If you are a well-functioning, autonomous person you can control your decisions about which rules to follow. But none of us have complete control over the consequences of our actions, since there is always some element of luck involved in whether we achieve our plans.
Example 1: Suppose you decide to help out your sick friend by bringing her aspirin. Unbeknownst to you, the medicine has gone bad and is not poisonous. Your friend gets more ill. A defender of the Principle of Control would argue you are not responsible for making your friend sicker, since you could not have known or controlled the outcome. You are just responsible for a good deed--namely, the will to help your friend.
Example 2: Suppose Alex and Bea both have several drinks at a bar one night and decide to drive home. Alex loses control of his car an ends up killing another driver. Bea arrives home safely. By the Principle of Control, both are equally morally blameworthy for their decision to drive drunk. Bea does not get "off the hook" just because she was lucky enough to not harm another person.
Key Principle The Basis of Moral Value
Kant also tells us that what gives someone/something moral value is it's capacity for autonomy. He draws a distinction between persons and mere things.
Beings whose existence depends, not on our will, but on nature, have nonetheless, if they are non-rational beings, only a relative value as means and are consequently called things. Rational beings, on the other hand, are called persons because their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves—that is, as something which ought not to be used merely as a means---and consequently imposes to that extent a limit on all arbitrary treatment of them (and is an object of reverence). Persons, therefore, are not merely subjective ends whose existence as an effect of our actions has a value for us: they are objective ends—that is, things whose existence is in itself an end, and indeed an end such that in its place we can put no other end to which they should serve simply as a means.
What is it to treat a person as a mere means? For Kant, persons deserve reasons for how they are being treated. When we are interacting with persons, we have to respect the fact that they have rational plans and are capable of their own decision-making.
MERE THINGS: For Kant, a mere thing is anything that is not a person -- not a being capable of rational autonomy. Mere things can be used as a mere means by rational agents. For example, I can use a mere shovel to dig a hole. I can use mere animals as sources of food.
PERSONS: For Kant, a person is an autonomous rational being -- someone capable of deciding which rules to follow, which plans to make for the future, and capable of realizing what their moral obligations are. Someone can be a human organism and not a person. For instance, someone in a permanent coma will not be a person in Kant's sense.
Kant thinks persons are "ends in themselves" -- sources of value that demand to be respected by other rational beings.
Key Principle Acting from Duty, with Examples
Acting from Duty
We have then to develop the notion of a will which deserves to be highly esteemed for itself and is good without a view to anything further, a notion which exists already in the sound natural understanding, requiring rather to be cleared up than to be taught, and which in estimating the value of our actions always takes the first place and constitutes the condition of all the rest. In order to do this, we will take the notion of duty, which includes that of a good will, although implying certain subjective restrictions and hindrances. These, however, far from concealing it, or rendering it unrecognizable, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth so much the brighter.
I omit here all actions which are already recognized as inconsistent with duty, although they may be useful for this or that purpose, for with these the question whether they are done from duty cannot arise at all, since they even conflict with it. I also set aside those actions which really conform to duty, but to which men have no direct inclination, performing them because they are impelled thereto by some other inclination. For in this case we can readily distinguish whether the action which agrees with duty is done from duty, or from a selfish view. It is much harder to make this distinction when the action accords with duty and the subject has besides a direct inclination to it.
Example 1: The Honest Grocer
Kant continues by offering examples of good motivations. You cannot be motivated purely by self-interest to do what is morally right:
It is always a matter of duty that a dealer should not over charge an inexperienced purchaser; and wherever there is much commerce the prudent tradesman does not overcharge, but keeps a fixed price for everyone, so that a child buys of him as well as any other. Men are thus honestly served; but this is not enough to make us believe that the tradesman has so acted from duty and from principles of honesty: his own advantage required it; it is out of the question in this case to suppose that he might besides have a direct inclination in favor of the buyers, so that, as it were, from love he should give no advantage to one over another.
Example 2: The Sad Philanthropist
And -- Kant argues -- you can do what is morally right even if you don't get satisfaction from it:
To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e. g., the inclination to honor, which, if it is happily directed to that which is in fact of public utility and accordant with duty and consequently honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem.
For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination. Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own, extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that, while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility, and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth. Further still; if nature has put little sympathy in the heart of this or that man; if he, supposed to be an upright man, is by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others, perhaps because in respect of his own he is provided with the special gift of patience and fortitude and supposes, or even requires, that others should have the same- and such a man would certainly not be the meanest product of nature- but if nature had not specially framed him for a philanthropist, would he not still find in himself a source from whence to give himself a far higher worth than that of a good-natured temperament could be? Unquestionably. It is just in this that the moral worth of the character is brought out which is incomparably the highest of all, namely, that he is beneficent, not from inclination, but from duty.
Acting from Inclination vs From Duty
Here is a key distinction we need to understand Kant's discussion of these examples.
Some actions are done purely from inclination (desire). For example, eating ice cream is something we do purely for the pleasure of it.
Some actions are done purely from duty. For example, a soldier who jumps on a grenade to save the life of a civilian is getting no pleasure from his sacrifice but does it instead because she believes she is obligated to make the sacrifice or because she respects the moral value that her sacrifice represents.
Many actions are done from a mixture of inclination and duty. For example, you might volunteer with a children's charity both because you have a sense of duty and because the children are cute and make you laugh.
For Kant, when you have mixed motives, you only get moral credit or blame for the motivations that come from duty.
Key Principle The Categorical Imperative
Kant then goes on to give us a test to decide whether are reasons for acting are from duty.
But what sort of law can that be, the conception of which must determine the will, even without paying any regard to the effect expected from it, in order that this will may be called good absolutely and without qualification? As I have deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any law, there remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle, that is:
Never act otherwise than so that you could also will that your maxim should become a universal law.
Now if all imperatives of duty can be deducted from this one imperative as from their principle, then, although it should remain undecided what is called duty is not merely a vain notion, yet at least we shall be able to show what we understand by it and what this notion means. Since the universality of the law according to which effects are produced constitutes what is properly called nature in the most general sense (as to form), that is the existence of things so far as it is determined by general laws, the imperative of duty may be expressed thus:
Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.
Breaking Down the Categorical Imperative
What is a Maxim?
An imperative is a command. A maxim combings such a command with some reason for acting, and the result is a description of an action that we can recognize as intentional.
For instance: "Always wear sunscreen at the beach in order to avoid sunburn."
Or: "Never cheat in order to get ahead."
For Kant, every intentional action has a corresponding maxim, a description that combines a command to act with the reason for which you are acting.
Universalizing Your Maxim
The key to obeying the categorical imperative, then, is to make sure that your maxim is such that you could consistently will that it become a universal law. What does this mean?
A maxim would be a universal law if any agent who found herself in circumstances relevantly similar to the circumstances in which you now find yourself obeyed the maxim that you are now acting on.
The crucial question is, could this hypothetical world in which your maxim is a universal law exist without creating a contradiction or a conflict with another universal law of nature.
Example: False Promises
Kant thinks one categorical imperative is to not manipulate other rational agents by making false/lying promises to them:
The common reason of men in its practical judgments perfectly coincides with this and always has in view the principle here suggested. Let the question be, for example: May I when in distress make a promise with the intention not to keep it? I readily distinguish here between the two significations which the question may have: Whether it is prudent, or whether it is right, to make a false promise?
The shortest way, however, and an unerring one, to discover the answer to this question whether a lying promise is consistent with duty, is to ask myself, “Should I be content that my maxim (to extricate myself from difficulty by a false promise) should hold good as a universal law, for myself as well as for others? and should I be able to say to myself, “Every one may make a deceitful promise when he finds himself in a difficulty from which he cannot otherwise extricate himself?” Then I presently become aware that while I can will the lie, I can by no means will that lying should be a universal law. For with such a law there would be no promises at all, since it would be in vain to allege my intention in regard to my future actions to those who would not believe this allegation, or if they over hastily did so would pay me back in my own coin. Hence my maxim, as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself. I do not, therefore, need any far-reaching penetration to discern what I have to do in order that my will may be morally good. Inexperienced in the course of the world, incapable of being prepared for all its contingencies, I only ask myself: Canst thou also will that thy maxim should be a universal law? If not, then it must be rejected, and that not because of a disadvantage accruing from it to myself or even to others, but because it cannot enter as a principle into a possible universal legislation, and reason extorts from me immediate respect for such legislation.
A Video Example: Lying
Thought Experiment Four Additional Cases
Kant gives other examples of moral decisions which involve the categorical imperative:
A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels wearied of life, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life. Now he inquires whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature. His maxim is: “From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction.” It is asked then simply whether this principle founded on self-love can become a universal law of nature.
Now we see at once that a system of nature of which it should be a law to destroy life by means of the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life would contradict itself and, therefore, could not exist as a system of nature; hence that maxim cannot possibly exist as a universal law of nature and, consequently, would be wholly inconsistent with the supreme principle of all duty.
Another finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a definite time. He desires to make this promise, but he has still so much conscience as to ask himself: “Is it not unlawful and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way?” Suppose however that he resolves to do so: then the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: “When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I never can do so.”
Now this principle of self-love or of one’s own advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare; but the question now is, “Is it right?” I change then the suggestion of self-love into a universal law, and state the question thus: “How would it be if my maxim were a universal law?” Then I see at once that it could never hold as a universal law of nature, but would necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it to be a universal law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping his promise, the promise itself would become impossible, as well as the end that one might have in view in it, since no one would consider that anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all such statements as vain pretenses.
The Bitter Rich Man
A third, who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness and that he could help them, thinks: “What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven pleases, or as be can make himself; I will take nothing from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in distress!” Now no doubt if such a mode of thinking were a universal law, the human race might very well subsist and doubtless even better than in a state in which everyone talks of sympathy and good-will, or even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but, on the other side, also cheats when he can, betrays the rights of men, or otherwise violates them.
But although it is possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which, by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires. These are a few of the many actual duties, or at least what we regard as such, which obviously fall into two classes on the one principle that we have laid down.
The Talented Recluse
A fourth finds in himself a talent which with the help of some culture might make him a useful man in many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural capacities. He asks, however, whether his maxim of neglect of his natural gifts, besides agreeing with his inclination to indulgence, agrees also with what is called duty.
He sees then that a system of nature could indeed subsist with such a universal law although men (like the South Sea islanders) should let their talents rest and resolve to devote their lives merely to idleness, amusement, and propagation of their species- in a word, to enjoyment; but he cannot possibly will that this should be a universal law of nature, or be implanted in us as such by a natural instinct. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him and have been given him, for all sorts of possible purposes.
We must be able to will that a maxim of our action should be a universal law. This is the canon of the moral appreciation of the action generally. Some actions are of such a character that their maxim cannot without contradiction be even conceived as a universal law of nature, far from it being possible that we should will that it should be so. In other this intrinsic impossibility is not found, but still it is impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law of nature, since such a will would contradict itself... Thus it has been completely shown how all duties depend as regards the nature of the obligation (not the object of the action) on the same principle.
This digital essay was prepared by Paul Blaschko, Meghan Sullivan and GGL Fellow Sam Kennedy.