Key Concepts of the Ethics of Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was an 18th century German philosopher who is responsible for the foundations of modern deontological (rule based) ethics and for attempting to synthesis the views of 17th and 18th century rationalists and empiricists to resolve the major philosophical conflicts that had obsessed the last two centuries. Many consider Kant to be the most important philosopher of the modern period and many scholars consider him to be the most important single philosopher in the history of human civilization. Unlike most major philosophers, Kant wrote most of his major works later in life and had lived a quiet life as a professor of philosophy in his hometown, having never once left the city limits. Kant was a rationalist being heavily influenced by the works of Gottfried Leibnitz until reading the works of David Hume. Said Kant, “Hume awoken me from my dogmatic slumber,” and he set out to solve the problems that Hume had proposed in his radical works.

Kant’s major work Critique of Pure Reason starts as a response to the concerns of empiricist and rationalist thinkers and then goes off in a totally new direction. The next year Kant wrote Critique of Practical Reason, an outline of his moral philosophy that would forever change how human beings thought of moral reasoning and would remain, along with Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics, the three major ethical theories that are taken most seriously by contemporary philosophers. What follows is a summarizing of Kant’s ethical theory with a second hub dedicated to his other philosophical views.

Universalize Your Maxim

The Supreme Categorical Imperative is a list of three rules that form the basis of judging correct moral actions. The first, and most famous version of this, is where Kant asks you to form a maxim for your action. Then you must universalize it. If the universalizing of the maxim causes a logical contradiction then the action is impermissible. A common misconception of this version of the categorical imperative is that it amounts to “what is everybody did that?” This means that if you are going to commit an act, such as littering, you shouldn’t do it because living in a world where everybody litters would really suck. That isn’t what Kant is saying because the whole point of his ethics is to avoid appealing to consequences and this very obviously is appealing to consequences.

What Kant means is that your maxim forms a logical contradiction when universalized then it negates the point of the action that you plan to undertake. For instance, you are driving along the highway and there is a traffic jam. You decide to break the law and drive along the emergency ramp. If you universalize this action then everybody would drive along the emergency ramp and nobody would be able to get through the traffic jam. Kant most famously applied this to lying and suicide and both examples have led to famous objections.

In the case of lying, Kant states that lying in a logical contradiction because when one lies they intend to be believed. This means that the person intends to be trusted and at the same time betrays that trust. If this was universalized the foundation of trust in society would be completely destroyed and nobody would ever be able to make a promise. Kant stated that lying was never permissible under any circumstances but it was purposed that if a murderer was at a door asking you to tell them where somebody was that they wanted to kill, then by Kant’s theory you would have to tell them. This remains a much contested example and many philosophers have given their take on the dilemma over the years. Kant himself never wavered on this. He stated simply that you could not lie in this situation and his essay “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives” gives his detailed reasoning behind this.

In the second example of suicide, Kant considers somebody who wishes to kill themselves out of self-love. Kant thinks this an obviously a contradiction because to destroy the self out of love for the self seems counter intuitive to our logical intuitions. However, we must assume that Kant meant in his example someone who was suffering from an extreme depression. As euthanasia continues to be a hot issue in medical ethics we wonder if this applies to the terminally ill who are in great deal of pain. This continues to be an issue of contention. Kant’s ethics are duty based and we have duties to others and ourselves that we must fulfill. If one is in great pain Kant’s ethics do not take pleasure and pain into account so this is irrelevant to the situation while Utilitarians argue that the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain is the main goal of ethics.

Treating Others as Ends

In Kant’s second version of the Categorical Imperative it is stated that human beings should not be treated as means to an end but as ends in themselves. This is based on the idea that human beings have intrinsic value. Kant bases the intrinsic values of humans on their ability to act as moral agents and rational free beings. In this way, only human beings are intrinsically valuable. This has become another point of contention between Kantians and Utilitarians in contemporary philosophy because Kant dismisses the idea that human beings have any duty to animals while Utilitarians are traditionally proponents of animal rights. While Kant says that humans have no duty to animals he does state that harming of animals is in bad character and in violation of “indirect duties to humanity” but he gives little justification for this.

In Kant’s favor, is the fact that this second version of the categorical imperative expressly forbids the use of human beings in the service of “the greater good.” This means that it is impermissible to harm or kill a human being in order to serve the interests of the majority. In Utilitarian ethics it would be morally justified to murder another human being in order to save the lives of other people. A Utilitarian could theoretically kill and harvest the organs of one person to give them to four sick people who needs them to live. (My hub on John Stuart Mill will address the Utilitarian side of this debate.) Kant’s ethics have been indispensible in medical ethics where doctors are expected to treat their patients interests as completely separate from the well-being of their other patients.

For this second rule, it is important to note that the key thing for Kant is intent. A person may do harm to another person if the harm is not the direct intent of their actions. An arm can be amputated from a patient in order to save his life. Kantians have also used this while justifying acts of war. In the case of military action, the point is not to kill the enemy but to right an injustice committed by the opposing side. This is the Kantian version of a “just war theory.” Kant’s theory had an influence on human rights, especially after World War II where both sides attacked civilian areas purposely. In Kantian theory, it is unacceptable to attack civilians. If civilians are killed while attempting to destroy a military base this is tragic but it was not the intent of the action. There are still many critics of this justification of war but Kant remains the primary template for human right decisions in our modern world.

Act Always as a Free and Rational Being

Kant’s theory of free will was influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who emphasized autonomy in his political theories. To Kant, a moral imperative (an ought) implied that one could act in this way. What this means is that Kant based a person’s ability to act as a moral agent on their ability to reason and then act on the conclusion of reason. Kant discounted the role of desires in moral reasoning. He believed that moral decisions were controlled by “the will” which was the faculty by which a moral agent was able to use reason to look past desire and to prioritize higher desires from lower desires. Some philosophers argue that the will is in fact just another desire (a desire to be moral or to be reasonable) and is not a separate faculty but Kant strongly disagreed.

One of the common criticisms of Kantian ethics is that it only is good at telling us what we shouldn’t do but provides no moral incentive to act in a way that would be helpful. Kant would disagree saying that our duty to other human beings is in helping them to maximize their freedom. An example of this would be if you saw a man with a flat tire along the road and you stopped to help him. This would be an effort to maximize his freedom. The same can be said when you try to help the poor or any other charity to disadvantaged individuals. Their freedom is compromised you have a duty to help them achieve a higher level of freedom so that they can more easily act as free and rational beings.

Using the example of the man with the flat tire, it is possible that your helping him could have bad consequences. Say the man was rushing home because his wife was about to leave him. Because you helped him he was able to get home just in time and in a dispute he killed her. A Utilitarian would say your action was wrong because it led to bad consequences. Kant says that you can’t possibly predict the consequences. What you did was right in spite of the consequences because you were fulfilling your duty to your fellow man. What he does with his free will is not your responsibility.


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Comments 29 comments

cbl2988 profile image

cbl2988 5 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

Concerning free will:

Would Kant say that we have a duty to help everyone, even if it meant stopping to help every single person that may need help to the point that it destroys yours? What about a conflict between duties? Would Kant say that you have a duty to yourself?


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

Yes, Kant says you have duties to yourself as well as to others. When you have conflicting duties it is supposed to be up to you to decide what to do. In terms of free will Kant says "ought implies can" so if you are in a situation where you couldn't possibly help everybody then you can't be expected to help everybody. If you have to hurt yourself to help somebody else then Kant would say that you have the right to refuse to help because you have rational duties to yourself. Also duties to your family or duties to your job might trump duties to a stranger. Kant focuses more on what you can't do but when it comes to things you should do there is no compulsion to help others unless you 1. Can help them 2. It doesn't cause harm to you or neglect one of your other duties. So if you saw a person bleeding on the street and didn't call an ambulence that would be morally wrong but you don't have a duty to sell everything you own to feed the homeless. That would neglect your duties to yourself and to your family.


cbl2988 profile image

cbl2988 5 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

Let's take the person bleeding. According to Kant, is government justified in requiring you to help that person, or is it entirely up to you, the only compromise being your own conscience instead of liberty?


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

politically Kant was a supporter of Rousseau's version of social contract theory. He would probably not object to "good samaritan laws" or what we legally call "depraved indifference." If you let somebody die it would depend a lot on how capable you were to help them how morally responsible you were. But it isn't the same as killing somebody. He would probably say that if you willingly allowed somebody to die then you should receive some kind of punishment but I'm not sure what exactly he would have said that punishment might be. Certainly not the same as a murderer. Also if you didn't know the person would die then you wouldn't be responsible. Your intent matters. If you had bad intent then you are responsible according to Kant.


cbl2988 profile image

cbl2988 5 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

I see. So he was a classical republican?


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

He was more of a collectivist than Locke (who definitely was a classical Republican) but my guess is he would approve of the basic way most Democratic-Republics are run today. I couldn't say for sure what he would make of how governments have evolved since his time.

Robert Nozick is a Kantian and a libertarian but John Rawls is a Kantian and a socialist and they both taught at Harvard and were supposedly good friends. So you can take Kant in a libertarian direction and in a socialist direction and make them both work. In most political philosophy classes Rawls and Nozick are taught together because their work is really a response to each other and they both use Kant as the basis for their political theories.


someonewhoknows profile image

someonewhoknows 5 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

I Kant Imagine he would help someone who he knew was going to do something immoral as a result of his helping.


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

It is hard to imagine somebody doing this in real life. Kant said that you should do the "right" thing even if it means the end of the world. would he practice this in real life? I at least know that most people wouldn't.


cbl2988 profile image

cbl2988 5 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

For example, if some ax-murderer came to my door asking me where my wife were, I would tell him to go to hell and kill him myself if he tried to enter.

That is the biggest issue that I have with his ethics. It is still immoral to lie (or even to refuse to tell the truth) even in self defense or in the defense of others.


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

Kant does allow you to kill in self defense because your intent is not to kill but to protect yourself and loved ones. He just went nuts with the whole lying thing. It is what I have the biggest problem with too.


cbl2988 profile image

cbl2988 5 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

So how is lying in self defense worse? Was this when he was getting old and a little loopy?


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

Kant didn't do his best work until he was already well into middle age. There are a number of answers other people have given, like your intent is not to defraud the killer but to protect his victim. I prefer to just think you don't have a duty to somebody who is trying to kill another human being. In his essay Kant says that you could lie to the killer but then his intended victim could be sneaking out of the back and he sees him or her because you lied to him and he was leaving. Pretty weak to me but Kant just had a thing about lying. He seemed to think it was the worst thing you could ever do.


cbl2988 profile image

cbl2988 5 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

I agree with the thought of not having any duty to a killer. I think betraying someone you love by selling him or her out to a killer is worse than lying. I'm not saying that lying is good and it should be avoided whenever possible, but I don't feel like I have to be perfectly honest with certain people who would do either harm to myself or others.


someonewhoknows profile image

someonewhoknows 5 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

I never read Kants work,but If,anyone came to my door I didn't know - asking where a particular person was.I wouldn't have to lie to him unless I were afraid of what he might do if I didn't.If,I suspected he was up to no good or If,I didn't know that person I would naturally ask them why they wanted to know.

If,they said it was an emergency or something that required Immeadiate attention.I would think it would be required that I use my best judgement in dealing with the situation as best I can without comprimising the privacy and safety of someone I knew.

Ask,for the persons name and some kind of Identification.If,they are unwilling or unable to do so,then I wouldn't give then any information.


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

Yes, it is an extremely contrived situation. Philosophers often come up with these very contrived situations to make their point. However, modern critics of Kant usually use the very specific example that it is Nazi Germany and you are hiding Jews. That example is a very specific one where Kant's insistence that you can't lie seems not to work. If a nazi is asking whether you have Jews in your attic lying to him might be the best option in that very specific situation.


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Very unique hub - original and informative

I've never heard Kant being interpreted this way before. The way I understand it (I'm not a philosopher), Kant wanted to know how it's that we know what we know - e.g, "All mothers are female." The subject and the predicate are the same; furthermore, Kant thought Hume was mistaken when he said that we could not fully know or predict the future because what has not yet happened cannot be known (Hume was an important forerunner to Determinism). You're portraying Kant as a monk.... Nevertheless, you make some really good points - voted up!

Thank you and take care of yourself

John


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

Kant's ethics and metaphysics are both so important that I could not fit them on one hub. I will go into the other stuff in another hub but I just stuck to ethical theory here.


Thek1ngsway profile image

Thek1ngsway 5 years ago

I like Kant a lot . He deserves being viewed as one of the greatest philosophers ever.

I especially loved his essay on enlightenment which explained peoples lack of self guidance and inability to reason for themselves .

He is just a giant eventhough some of his works are relatively hard to interpret and understand correctly .


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

Exactly how I feel.


guest 4 years ago

to whom then, will i give the organ?

to the president of the country?

to the summacumlaude medical student?

to my uncle who sponsored my schooling?

to a poor girl?


Johnd252 2 years ago

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OdysseusMakridis profile image

OdysseusMakridis 2 years ago from Netcong, NJ

I wouldn't call Rawls a "socialist" - Welfare Liberal, rather. It is not the same. Notice how the Liberty Principle is given lexical priority or ranking over the Difference Principle - that does the job. Sure, Rawls is still to the left of Nozick.

Kant's theory cannot handle moral dilemmas - he blamed it on the grounds furnished by necessity as opposed to freedom within which the normative paradigm is properly erected. This may go together with what you mentioned - that "ought implies can" for Kant. But I am not sure. Kant also has the asymptotic theory - with normative targets being ideal and to be reached only asymptotically.

In deontic logic, the "ought implies can" maxim renders moral dilemmas akin to logical contradictions: this is a problem because, there is a view, moral dilemmas are very much part and parcel of the moral life and, unlike contradictions, are not to be ruled out as anomalies of meaning. Have you heard about this? Are you interested?

odysseusmakridis.hubpages.com


adagio4639 profile image

adagio4639 17 months ago from Brattleboro Vermont

Well done Robes. You always come through with a brilliant reading of a philosophical position.

Duty v inclination

Motives:

If the action would be good solely as a means to some end, the imperative is hypothetical. If the action is good in itself, and therefore necessary for will which of itself accords with reason, the imperative is categorical.

A catagorical imperative commands without reference to or dependence on any further purpose. The actions are done for their own sake. Not for what they will get you.

“Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”.

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.”

I had always taken the Golden Rule as a standard of moral reasoning. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But...there's a flaw in that reasoning according to Kant. By practicing the Golden Rule we are acting out of self-interest. We are treating others well because that's how we want to be treated. According to Kant there would be no moral worth to that. Treat others well out of duty. Do the right thing for the right reasons.

A story:

A young boy walks into a store to buy some bread. The store owner knows that the boy is too young to understand the concept of making change, so he knows that he could short-change the kid and he'd never know it. But he then reasons that if he does that and it got out that he cheated a kid, he could lose customers, so he gives the boy the right change. Is there any moral worth to what he did? The answer is no. He did the right thing but for all the wrong reasons. You give the boy the right change because its the right thing to do. The motive is out of duty. It’s the idea that human beings as rational beings are ends in themselves not open to use merely as a means to some other end.

Well done as always.


adagio4639 profile image

adagio4639 17 months ago from Brattleboro Vermont

"He just went nuts with the whole lying thing. It is what I have the biggest problem with too."

He really danced around lying. I always felt he was looking for escape route's to justify lying.


adagio4639 profile image

adagio4639 17 months ago from Brattleboro Vermont

Once again, Robes comes through with a brilliant description of a philosophical concept. You've hit all the key points of Kant. I always find your Hubs excellent and wonderfully researched. You put Kant before the reader in a very concise way.

Universalize Your Maxim

Act Always as a Free and Rational Being

The Catagorical Imperative

Well done Robes.


TheBizWhiz 17 months ago

Robephiles,

Great Hub. Voted up.

I actually took a Business Ethics class and in a couple of chapters they taught Rawls and Nozick together. Some of the essays we read were An Egalitarian Theory of Justice by John Rawls and The Entitlement Theory by Robert Nozick. I thought they both presented their arguments very well in those two readings.

I have a few hubs on business ethics if you would like to read them. A critique on Rawls essay, Maitland's essay on sweatshops, and one on marketing energy drinks to kids. I also wrote a review on The MBA Oath, The Trillion Dollar Bet, and trade policies if you are interested.


Jwffieshotwell profile image

Jwffieshotwell 3 months ago from bangladesh

For example, if some ax-murderer came to my door asking me where my wife were, I would tell him to go to hell and kill him myself if he tried to enter.

That is the biggest issue that I have with his ethics. It is still immoral to lie (or even to refuse to tell the truth) even in self defense or in the defense of others.


adagio4639 profile image

adagio4639 3 months ago from Brattleboro Vermont

Really well done as usual Robe's. Spot on accurate. I have nothing to add. You covered him really well.


Wild Bill 3 months ago

It's as though you read it again for the first time. lol

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