Kant’s Ethics – Lecture 2

May 9, 2016

Last week immanuel-kantwe looked at Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism, which is a version of consequentialism. This week we are going to investigate Kant’s ethics, which is a kind of deontology. In the former, what is of moral worth is the consequences of the act, and the criteria is whether the outcome of an act contributes to happiness of the greatest number. In the latter, moral value is ascribed to the intention of the agent, rather than the consequence of the act. What matters to both, however, and which they hold in common, is ethics is a matter of moral deliberation that begins with the rational self. It is this assumption that we will question is the last part of this module. First of all, as Gaita writes, ethics is not accessed through an ‘epistemic route’ (Gaita, 2000, p. 22), but through feeling and sensibility (in some way Kant will recognise this, but still it is not the major motivating force for his morality), and secondly, that such an ethics does not first begin with the rational self, who makes a decision about the limits or extent of its moral responsibility, but with suffering of others, who make a demand on the self and its self-satisfaction and egotism, as though the language of rights and responsibility were not one and the same.

At the heart of Kant’s ethics is autonomy and reason. Why are we moral beings? Not because, Kant would answer, of some mysterious attribute of our natural being, though like animals we feel sympathy for our kind, but because we can deliberate about our actions and choose them. If, like natural beings, our actions were only the result or our desires and appetites, then we would be held morally responsible. No one blames the lion for hunting the gazelle, though the gazelle probably does not like being eaten by the lion, for it is in the nature of the lion to eat gazelles. Human beings too are animals, but not just animals, because we can used ideas to guide our concepts, and these ideas, concepts, or principles are freely chosen by us.[1]

In other words, we are moral because we are rational, and we are rational because we are free. Freedom is at the heart of Kant’s ethics. He is saying to you that if you are willing to give up freedom, then you will live in an amoral universe. Just as no one blames the lion who eats the gazelle, since it is the nature of lions to do so, then no one blames, the asteroid that kills or life on earth, for it that is what asteroids do. So you can’t blame the murderer for killing, the robber for robbing, the rich man for exploiting the poor, and the liar for lying, and so. So Kant is saying to you do you really want to live in a world like that. It might be fun imagining yourself a nihilist, but it really isn’t a world anyone would want to live in for long. Equally, if you do want to live in a moral world, where people are held responsible for their actions, and people act morally, then you have to accept that people are free, otherwise that isn’t any reason for you to expect them to be moral at all

It is important to realise that Kant does not think that freedom is a real property of the universe. That we are free in the way that asteroids are determined by gravity, for example. For in this case, asteroids are not free at all, since they do not choose to be determined by gravity. Freedom isn’t a property of something, still less a mysterious property of human beings, that make them different from lions or asteroids. Rather freedom is an idea, and in that sense, one might say it is a necessary fiction. The sciences tell us about what asteroids do, and so to speak, why they do it (though there isn’t really a ‘why’ here at all, since they have no intentions), whereas morality is the explanation of why human beings behave in the way they do (and there really is a ‘why’ here, because human beings have ideas). Now it is true to say that you can give a naturalist explanation of why human beings have ideas (because we have large brains, which give us ideas and so on), but it is absurd to say that brains have ideas, as it is to say that they open doors, since that would be a very messy business indeed. The meaning of an idea is not reducible to physical state, otherwise the origin of ideas would be the same as the causal relation between physical things. Again Kant would say to you if you are going to accept such naturalist explanations, then you would have to forgo any kind of moral responsibility whatsoever for the murder would claim that it was her brain (perhaps through some kind of chemical reaction) that caused her to kill her victim she was not to blame (can one even speak of a ‘she’ here), and so would the concentration camp guard.

Freedom is not just the necessary condition of morality; it is a sufficient one as well. For it alone shows that what it means to be moral is to choose to be moral, and then only morality that could be freely chosen is a universal one. This is because a universally valid moral law would be the one that a free rationality would choose if it were free. The only reason it would not choose this law is if it were not free, in other words, there were some external constraint (desires, and inclination, that were causing me to choose this action against by reason). Another way of thinking this is that Kant is saying that a reason for an action cannot an individual or particular reason, because this reason would always be self-interested, and such a self-interested action would have another origin rather than a rational one, and it is only rationality that is compatible with freedom. A rational law is one that is freely chosen; not one that is forced upon you if you understand it (a child might not lie because they fear the anger of their parents, but I don’t lie, because I understand that it is wrong to. It would be absurd to say that in the latter case I am being forced not to lie, since I actively choose not to so through my reason.

The reciprocal determination of freedom and morality is a philosophical problem, but Kant would argue that what he is putting forward in the Groundwork, is common sense. He says that everyone knows the difference between acting morally and not so. To act morally is to act on principle (or duty), whereas to act self-interestedly (by inclination and desire), is not to. This distinction is only valid when at the level of intentions, and not outcomes of acts; that is to say internally, rather than externally. This is the point of the example of the grocer. Externally, in terms of outcomes, we cannot distinguish between the grocer who acts honestly because he wants more customers and thus to make more profit, and the grocer that acts honestly on principle, since the outcome is exactly the same. Only the second grocer, however, Kant thinks, anyone would say was truly moral. To act morally is act from principle as a rational agent and not in terms of consequences, which would always be self-interested, and therefore objectively and subjectively motivated by desires.

Let us say that we accept Kant’s description of morality. How would we actually put this in practice? Kant’s answer is the categorical imperative. Only act on those maxims that can universally applied. The key here is universality, for universality shows that at I am acting rationally, and only in acting rationally, on principle, can I be truly free (otherwise, as we have seen, I am the mercy of my desires and inclinations, and am thrown this way and that, like boat tossed about on a stormy sea).

There are three forms of the categorical imperative that Kant describes in the Groundwork: act in accordance with a universal law; treat people as ends rather than as means; act in harmony with a kingdom of ends. Usually when people explain Kant’s morality they only discuss in any depth the first version of the categorical imperative, and forget the other two, but all three versions are equally important.

Kant makes a distinction between two kinds of rational action: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical rational action is both technical and pragmatic and is related to the self-interests of the agent. I am thirsty. I need a cup of tea. In order to assuage my thirst I will need to leave my desk go down to the kitchen and boil the kettle. Categorical imperatives are different. This is technical end for Kant. The pragmatic end is happiness. So I might say that I need food, water, clothing and shelter for a happy life and all human beings do. Utilitarianism is therefore a pragmatic hypothetical imperative for Kant. This does not mean that it insignificant for Kant, since of course everyone desires to be happy, but this in itself does not make it categorical.

What is unique to a categorical imperative is that they are unconditional and are not dependent on ends but principles. He has to prove to us that such imperative exist, since we are likely to think that there are only hypothetical ends. To act on principle means to act through a law which is universal to everyone. I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law (ich auch wollen können, meine Maxime solle ein allgemeines Gesetz werden).

So I have to show that it makes sense to speak of morality is that way. Do we act through laws that are universal to every rational being? The test for universality here is consistency and coherence, and this is what Kant’s examples demonstrate. To universal lying is to be incoherent, because one cannot at the same time thing that one can benefit from lying and at the same time make it universal, because if everyone one lied, then there would be no self-interest to lie. This is not the case with keeping promises, because one can universal it. Let us imagine that there is a rich man who decides that he doesn’t wish to give money to beggars and he universalises this as a maxim that we should never help others who are in need, then the rich man is being inconsistent, because he does would not wish to live in a world where he too would not be helped if he were in need because some disaster was to befall him. We can see that his desire not to help others is not a moral imperative at all but merely an expression of his own selfish greed.

Objects are relative to my desires. I am hungry so I consume food. Food is a means to an end for me. But persons are rational beings like me, so they could never be merely means. To treat a human being as end is to treat them as a thing, rather than as a free being. The second formulation of the categorical imperative, therefore, is to treat other human beings as ends in themselves, which is tantamount to saying treat others as you would wish to be treated, since we both are members of the same rational moral universe. ‘Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as a means’ (Handle so, daß du die Menschheit, sowohl in deiner Person, als in der Person eines jeden andern, jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals bloß als Mittel brauchest). To lie to another, then, is to use them for one’s own means, even if it some context that might mean you do not wish to hurt them, since their happiness is of course something that you benefit from.

Rather than promoting my happiness, I ought to promote the happiness of others. The end of the moral law, then, is the promotion of ‘kingdom of ends’, where each lives in accordance or harmony with others. We can see, if each of us act morally, how this must necessarily be the case, since the moral law would be the same for us all, and we could see that it would benefit us all. A rational free society is the best for everyone. It is clear also that Kant does not rid his moral theory of ends, as though the happiness of all, were of no importance, but that it obtains that end through universal moral law rather than through the outcomes of actions in the first place.[2]

We might ask ourselves why Kant needs different formulations of the categorical imperative. I think it is because it is perfectly possible in the first case (universal laws) to think of exceptions. So for example if a murderer were to come my door and I would think that it would be permissible to lie, which seems to contradict principle of universality, whereas if I were to apply the principle of humanity and kingdom of ends, it would not be, because here I am not universalising a particular situation (should I not lie in this situation), but what is it to be a human being and does it mean to belong to an ethical community. To treat someone as a means, is not only to use them, but also to deprive them of their humanity.

What Kant’s argument sets out are ideals that guide our actions. He is well aware that in the ‘real world’ things might not be as that easy, but if we were to give up our ideals altogether, then there would world would in chaos. We might readily agree that if everyone acted morally, then the world would be better, but the problem is that the world we live in isn’t like that at all. Not only is the world full of evil, even those who are evil, do not get punished. It seems grotesque to say that in telling the truth to the murderer I have done the moral thing, but the consequences of the act are of no interest. Kant gets out this problem by supplementing a religious argument for a moral one. If the kingdom of ends is only ideal in this world, then it will be real in the next one, but we might find this religious supplement in a secular world not comforting at all, and might even have the suspicion that Kant’s morality is only possible because of his religious beliefs and not the other way around.

Works Cited

Franks, P.W., 2005. All Or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism in German Idealism. Harvard University Press.

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity : Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. Routledge, London.


[1] Even if Kant shows that freedom and morality are reciprocal, this does not prove that anything like freedom exists as an empirical possibility, and in fact cannot do so. On freedoms as a fact of reason, see (Franks, 2005, pp. 278–84).

[2] It is for this reason that the difference between rule utilitarianism and deontology can be slight indeed. It is certainly the way that Mill understood Kant.

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