Kantian Ethics

A set of universal moral principles that applies to all human beings, regardless of context or situation

What is Kantian Ethics?

Kantian ethics are a set of universal moral principles that apply to all human beings, regardless of context or situation. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, calls the principles Categorical Imperatives, which are defined by their morality and level of freedom.

Kantian Ethics

Who was Immanuel Kant?

Immanuel Kant (Prussia, 1724-1804) was one of the most influential intellectuals in the field of political philosophy. Today, justice systems in democracies are fundamentally based on Kant’s writings. The philosopher’s work provides a compelling account of a single set of moral principles that can be used to design just institutions for governing society perfectly. The United Nations, formed centuries after Kant’s first book was published, is largely based on his vision of an international government that binds nation-states together and maintains peace.

Categorical Imperatives in Kantian Ethics

A hypothetical imperative is a moral obligation applicable only in pursuit of a predetermined goal. For example, a student studies to get good grades. Hypothetical imperatives are independent of morality. Kant holds that our moral duties are driven by categorical imperatives. The rules are categorical as they are universally applicable, to every person, in every situation, regardless of their personal goals and inhibitions. They are imperative because a human being may be inclined to not adhere to a moral code of conduct, as it is only human to seek pleasure and reduce pain.

Kant derives a test to determine a categorical imperative. He says, “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” It means that an idea can be only be exposed when applied to everyone. Cheating on a test can only be moral when everyone else’s cheating on a test is justified. However, in a practical sense, a mass cheating scandal will eradicate trust in the system of meritocracy, which will lead to a breakdown of educational institutions.

To conclude, cheating on a test is immoral. According to Kantian ethics, categorical imperatives are counterintuitive in the sense that even though human beings may be inclined to act in self-interest, their actions must be driven by their duty to humanity. Kant considered self-improvement and preservation to be an undebatable obligation that is placed on everyone. Therefore, unproductivity, suicide, or any form of self-destruction is inherently immoral.

Kant’s Definition of Morality

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. To live ethically, one must never treat another human being as a means to some greater end. Human beings, by virtue of their unique ability to reason, are different from other forms of physical existence.

Kant wrote that “without rationality, the universe would be a waste, in vain, and without purpose.” The only way to preserve such consciousness, which is unique to the universe or at least the Earth, is by treating all humans as ends in and of themselves. It’s alright to eat food to satiate hunger, but stealing is wrong as it deprives the owner of her private property.

Kant advocates a stringent notion of morality, which demands that virtue is universal. Stealing is immoral regardless of one’s circumstance. Murder is wrong even in the case of self-defense. It is this objectivity that remains Kant’s most remarkable yet disputed idea, as it challenges the basis of civilization since Aristotle.

However, Kant is not a masochist or an anarchist. He understands that for civilization to exist, a student must use herself as a means to get good grades and her professor as a means to amass knowledge. This is where he introduces the idea of respect being essential to humanity, which is different from sentiments like love, sympathy, or altruism. Respect doesn’t discriminate like love. One is human and, therefore, one deserves respect. Kant called it the Formula for Humanity, and it remains, by far, his least controversial formulation.

Autonomy and Freedom

The Critique of Pure Reason is considered history’s most comprehensive account of the determination of free will. Kant talked about freedom not as a universal law set in concrete, but instead as something of one’s own making. That is to say that acting virtuously simply because one fears a penalty is self-defeating.

Free will goes beyond the pessimistic view of a “freedom from” external actors and becomes a “freedom to” autonomously determine and impose moral requirements. It is similar to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of freedom. When one acts in accordance with her desires or intuition, she is simply acting to satisfy a necessity. This makes one a slave to impulse, and for Kant, freedom is the opposite of necessity. His notion of freedom is therefore different from libertarianism, which preaches one must possess the freedom to do as she pleases.

Critics argue that autonomy creates a space for subjectivity, as different principles might hold a decisive authority over different people. Kant’s response is simple – rationality is universal, regardless of one’s personal experiences and circumstances. As long as morality is derived from reason, there should be a fairly objective sense of what is virtuous and what isn’t.

Additional Resources

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