Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most important philosophers of all time.
Kant thought that it was possible to develop an objective theory of ethics by using reason.
Philosophising during the Enlightenment period in the 18th Century, Kant believed that if people were to think about ethics rationally they would realise that there were some moral laws that all rational beings had to obey simply because it made logical sense; and this would apply to any rational beings in any universe that might ever exist.
Moral statements: a priori synthetic
Kant thought that we must act according to some moral laws; otherwise our actions are random and without purpose. Therefore, rational beings must determine for themselves a set of laws by which they will act by using their intellect.
Kant said, therefore, that moral statements are not like normal statements.
The Good Will and Duty
For Kant all morals had to intrinsically ‘good’. This means they are good in and of themselves. Kant did not believe that any outcome was inherently good because pleasure or happiness could result out of immoral acts. He also did not believe in ‘good’ character traits, such as intelligence, wit and courage, as they can be used for evil – many intelligent people throughout history have been responsible for evil. Unlike Joseph Fletcher, Kant believed that moral laws cannot be based on love or empathy as these emotions can become irrational.
Therefore, Kant used the term good to describe the ‘good will’, by which he meant the resolve to act purely in accordance with one’s duty. He believed that, using reason, an individual could work out what one’s duty was. This is what one “ought to” do.
Free Will, God and Immortality
Kant argued that if our actions are pre-determined we cannot be described as free and morality doesn’t apply to us. Although Kant could not prove that we are free, he presumed that we could only act morally if we had free will. Thus free will needs to exist for moral decisions to be meaningful.
He also argued that there must be a God and an afterlife; otherwise morality would make no sense. Some students see this as a flaw in his case for a ‘rational’ non-religious ethics.
The Categorical Imperative
An imperative is a statement of what should be done. Kant divides imperatives into two types: hypothetical and categorical.
A hypothetical imperative states that an action is conditional. For example, “If I want to lose weight I must eat less fatty foods”. Basically, hypothetical imperatives tell us how to act in order to achieve a specific goal i.e. I must study to get a degree. Importantly, the imperative relies on the outcome.
A Categorical Imperative doesn’t rely on a particular outcome because you “ought to” do something regardless of outcome; not committing murder, for example. Importantly, it logically precedes experience. We could not demonstrate or prove that murder is wrong through experience; otherwise we will be responsible for something that is immoral.
Kant gives this statement as an example of a categorical imperative:
“I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”
The Universal Law of Nature
Kant also states:
Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.
It is important to consider whether any moral decision or action you make should be a universal law; a moral law that ought to be applied to everyone. For example, if “do not lie” is a moral statement (“maxim”) that applies in one situation, would it not be better if that applied in all situations. It is illogical to apply morals inconsistently. Moreover, a universal law should apply to others as well as yourself. If you do not want people to lie, then do not lie yourself.
Treat people as ends not means
Kant argued that all rational beings were ends in themselves and should never be treated purely as a means to an end. You should treat each and every person with the dignity and respect and not use them for any self-interested purpose. He put this two different ways:
“So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end in itself, never as means only.”
Kingdom of Ends
“So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”
If we apply the first the ideas of universalizability (universal law) and treating people as an end in themselves, then we will live in a Kingdom of Ends. If everyone lived by and adhered to the same “universal” moral laws we would not need to worry about the greater good because there would be no greater good. Importantly, you would need to assume that everyone understands moral decisions in the same way as you – a priori synthetically – otherwise moral laws will be inconstant and society too chaotic.
The Summum Bonum
Kant noted that if we are to do our duty then we must be able to be rewarded for our actions and, therefore, talked about the summum bonum – the place where our good actions through doing our duty come together and we are happy.
This is obviously not something that can be found on earth – we see bad people living happy lives and good people living unhappy lives – therefore the summum bonum must be able to be achieved in the afterlife. This adds a religious element to Kant’s thinking and we can question whether his theory is really free of religion.
Three Postulates of Pure Practical Reason
Following on from this approach, Kant postulated (suggested) three things that were necessary for his theory to work, but which rationally must exist.