Morgan Keith / Wednesday, October 23, 2019 / Categories: Intro To Ethics Intro to Kantian Ethics The Theory of Duty Who is Kant? Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was born in the small port town of Königsberg, located on the fringes of the Prussian Kingdom which is now modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia. Kant is considered one of the most influential philosophers of the Western world whose work covers an astounding range of disciplines. Kant wrote treaties on ethics, religion, cosmology, politics, geography, metaphysics, and epistemology. However, despite Kant’s varied academic passions, it is widely accepted that he is most well-known for his Critiques (1781-90), which fundamentally altered the way in which metaphysics functioned as a philosophical disciple. While Kant’s Critiques made a lasting impact on the discipline of metaphysics, Kant also made a significant contribution to the field of ethics. In this regard, Kant fathered what we now call ‘deontological’ ethics, or duty-based ethics. In broad brush strokes Deontology is the ethical theory that holds three core concepts: rightness, wrongness, and obligation. Any two of these concepts can be defined in terms of the third. In short, the basic distinguishing features of deontology fall under three rubrics: (1) Constraints; (2) Duties of special relation; (3) options. Kant primarily dedicated two bodies of work to such a topic– namely, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the less well-known work, which is a follow up to The groundwork, entitled, The Metaphysics of Morals (1797). While these works are of profound importance to the history of Western ethics, they come with their own problems, mainly the daunting nature of their difficulty, and to some extent inaccessibility to beginners. Even by Kant’s standards these texts are exceedingly complex, involving many layers in their depictions of issues central to his moral thought, and it is a general consensus in Kant studies that some two hundred years after the publication of these works commentators still stand divided on how to best understand them. Kantian Ethics Despite such complexities and difficulties, Kant’s ethical theory can be best understood in one central way and then discussed in more detail. First and foremost, Kant’s ethics are a direct criticism of utilitarianism. In utilitarian terms, a will or an action is simply good because of what it effects or accomplishes. Utilitarianism, like any consequentialist theory holds that an action is right in so for as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct. Such an ethical system is in direct opposition to deontology, and most deontologist outwardly reject utilitarianism. As Kant tells us himself, “A good will is good not because of what it effects, or accomplishes, not because of its fitness to attain some intended end, but good just by its willing, that is in itself”. To put it more simply, something is good because of its nature not its consequences . Therefore, it is important to remember what Kant is attempting to achieve in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which is not to determine whether the end of an action is rational and good, (a utilitarian claim), but ‘only what one must do in order to attain it”. An important aspect of understanding Kant’s deontological framework is the distinction he draws between actions which can be done in conformity with duty and actions from duty . Kant suggests that while you might be committing an act that is generally considered good (conformity to duty), you might not be doing it for the right reasons (from duty). This intrinsic characteristic is called the good will. The Good Will For Kant, if I was simply befriending someone because I knew that they were rich and were generous with their money, this would be immoral on the premise that I am treating the agent as a means to secure financial gains, not simply because I want to befriend someone as an ends to a valid friendship. This example is relatively straight forward, however, there is also a pitfall to following such an idea. If we guide ourselves from Kant own words when he states “An action from duty has its moral worth not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which it is resolved upon,” the following example sheds light on this. Let us say there is small child drowning in a lake, and an able adult is standing on the edge of the water watching the child drown, what is their moral duty to the child? If the person makes no attempt to save the child from drowning most people would claim that act, or lack of, to be morally apprehensible, and thus, the person is inclined to save the boy’s life. However, Kant is suggesting that if the only reason that someone would save the drowning boy is out of inclination of fear of criticism, or moral approbation, then the act of saving the boy is done in conformity with duty, not from duty. In another circumstance, if the person has no intention of saving the drowning boy, but someone shouts “whoever saves that boy I will give them £1,000!”, and then automatically dives into the water to save the boy. In this instance, the person is not driven by any other motivating factor then a fiscal gain, and the outcome of saving the boy is not out of duty to save the boy’s life, but rather is a means to end to secure a financial gain. While the outcome of the action would be good this is still a utilitarian framework, and Kant would argue that the act and the will was not from duty, or a good will within itself. However, if the person rejected their inclination for money, or their inclination of moral heroism, then the act would be done from duty, as there are no extenuating or external factors that have affected the person from saving the boy, than simply the good will of preserving someone’s life. For Kant, the main reason as to why someone should always act from duty rather than in conformity to duty rests on the premise that an agent should never be merely used as a means for something else. For Kant, this strips the agent of their autonomy The Categorical Imperative Kant’s moral philosophy is concerned with three things. First, the autonomy of the will. For Kant, “the autonomy of the will is the ground of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature.” What Kant means by this, is that each agent’s autonomy is paramount in the pursuit of the ethical, and at no point can an agents free will or autonomy be taken away from them due to someone else actions. Second, the concept of pure reason. Kant believes that all human beings are intrinsically rational, and all human beings have a predisposition towards the good, because the good is rational. Kant calls this concept the Summum bonum (greatest good). Third, as a result of autonomy and reason, Kant arrives at the formation of his ‘categorical imperative’ , which is best described as a framework, which agents should follow if they wish to be morally right and attain the highest good. Kant’s categorical imperative is generally divided into three formulas. The Formula of Universal Law The first is entitled the The Formula of Universal Law (FUL), which states that one should “Act only in accordance with the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it becomes a universal law.” In a sense this formula is quite straight forward. What Kant is saying, is that one should not hold a moral action if it cannot be considered to become a universal law. An example a universal law can be something like murder or human trafficking. Most people, if not all people would and should agree that in no circumstance is murder or human trafficking ever morally right. The Formula of Humanity as End in Itself The second statement is The Formula of Humanity as End in Itself (FH), which claims that people should “act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means .” This statement needs a little more unpacking. Essentially, Kant is saying that an agent should never use another agent as an ends to something that can be gained, but rather as an end. A moments reflection to the example of befriending a rich person or saving a drowning child are what Kant would call ‘using another person merely as a means. The Formula of Autonomy The third premise is, The Formula of Autonomy (FA): “Act in accordance with “the idea of the will of every rational being as a will giving universal law.” Essentially, The Formual of Autonomy brings to light Kant’s universal ethics. Kant is in fact, a moral universalist, which means he wholeheartedly believes that there can be such a thing as one ethical code that can be harmonised universally. What is interesting about Kant’s Formula of Autonomy is that while it supports a universalist moral claim, it also reveals that Kant is concerned with the happiness of every free agent not just some. For Kant, the categorical imperative is a framework whereby if followed correctly agents can live harmoniously in what Kant’s entitles a kingdom of ends. Conclusion Kant has a reputation of being a perplexing and often hard to understand philosopher. Yet, his ethics still remain relevant and useful in the modern era. Perhaps after getting to know a bit about Kant you’ve fancied yourself a bit of a deontologist? Or perhaps this all sounds like some convoluted mess of an ethical theory? Either way, let us know what you think, and stay tuned for more articles at Just Ethics. Friendship and the Good Life Intro to Humanism: Desiderius Erasmus Print 889 Rate this article: 4.5 Please login or register to post comments.