Kant, Immanuel

Philosophy with The VALiens: The Ethical Theory of Immanuel Kant

I.          The Good Will.  According to Kant, there is only one thing which is unqualifiedly and intrinsically good (What is the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental good?)  and that is a good will.  It is not happiness.  Intelligence, wit, judgment and other talents of the mind are good in many respects, but they can become bad when they are used for bad purposes.  Even such apparently moral traits like moderation and self-control can be used for bad purposes by someone.  A cool and temperate criminal is more dangerous than a passionate and intemperate one because the latter is more likely to leave careless clues.  The only thing that cannot be perverted is a good will.  Thus, only good will is unqualifiedly and intrinsically good.

II.         The Proper Motive: A Sense of Duty.  For Kant, the motive is the source of all moral worth, not consequences as the utilitarian suppose.  The reason is that the consequences of an act are often beyond our control.  For Kant, an unsuccessful attempted murder is as bad as a successful one because they had identical motives.

What then is the right motive that motivates a good will?  “The moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected form it, nor in any principle of action which requires to borrow its motive from this expected effect.  For all these effects — agreeableness of one’s condition, and even the promotion of the happiness of others — could have been also brought about by other causes, so that for this there would have been no need of the will of a rational being; whereas it is in this alone that the supreme and unconditional good can be found.  The pre-eminent good which we call moral can therefore consist in nothing else than the conception of law in itself, which certainly is only possible in a rational being, in so far as this conception, and not the expected effect, determines the will.”  Thus, a good will is good not in virtue of wanting to bring about happiness, but in virtue of wanting to obey the moral law — in other words, the good will is on motivated by duty.

Indeed, according to Kant the altruistic behavior of an individual who is acting only out of a desire to bring happiness or out of a felling of love, though obviously beneficial, has no true moral worth.  As Kant puts the point: “To be kind where one can is duty, and there are, moreover, many persons so sympathetically constituted that without any motive or vanity or selfishness they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy, and rejoice in the contentment of others which they have made possible.  But, I say that, however dutiful and amiable it may be, that kind of action has no true moral worth,  It is on this level with [actions arising from] other inclinations, such as the inclination to honor, which, if fortunately directed to what in fact accords with duty and is generally useful and thus honorable, deserve praise and encouragement but no esteem.”

What explains Kant’s view is the following sort of intuition.  The person who is not acting merely out of a sense of duty is acting wholly out of inclination.  Whereas the person who is acting entirely out of a sense of duty seems to be acting against his inclinations, the person who does not act out of sense of duty is acting out of inclination.  But such a person, then, cannot be acting morally because he is simply doing what he wants.

III.       The First Categorical Imperative.  The first categorical imperative is the supreme principle of morality as it is the principle that motivates a good will.  For Kant, the categorical imperative is the foundation of morality.  All imperatives, all moral principles and judgments, can be derived from the first categorical imperative.  The categorical imperative, then, is an absolute moral principle that binds everyone regardless of what they might want or think.  The first version of the categorical imperative is as follows:

            Categorical Imperative I.  Act only in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.

The idea here is that you should act in such a way that your act would form the basis for a          consistent moral principle that everyone would follow.  Here is an example: Is it permissible for me to make a promise I know I will not keep when I really need to?  Kant believes it is not.  For if everyone acted on the maxim that it is permissible to break a promise when one really needs to, then it would not be possible for anyone including myself to make a promise.  The whole institution of promise making would beak down because it relies on trust; and there would be no trust if everyone felt free to make a false promises when convenient.

It is important to see here what is really going on.  It is not that the consequences that make false promises bad.  Of course, it would be bad if the institution of promise-making broke down.  We would not be able to accomplish much: there would be no contracts — and without contracts there would be no economy.  But this is not what makes a false promise wrong.  It is that one cannot simultaneously will that one makes a false promise when convenient and that everyone makes a false promise when convenient because that would involve a contradiction.

The idea here is that we are necessarily rational beings and our behavior is thus governed by the standards of rationality.  Moral standards are one kind of standard of rationality.  Rationality requires that we never do anything that involves us in a contradiction.  So the categorical imperative builds on this conception of rationality — and prohibits us from doing that which involves us in a contradictory state of affairs.  It is a contradiction that causes the problem — and that makes the behavior wrong — and not the consequences of the behavior.  Contrast these two formulations:

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

2.         Act only on that maxim whereby you would want that it should become a universal law.

(Is there a difference between these two formulations?)

IV.       Immorality and Irrationality.  Kant believes that every form of immorality is a form of irrationality.  Not every form of irrationality is a form of immorality.  Violating the categorical imperative is a form of irrationality that is immoral, but there is another form of irrationality that has nothing to do with morality.

A.        Hypothetical Rationality.  For Kant there are two different models of rationality.  According to one model of rationality, the Humean or classical model, the emotions supply the ends and rationality supplies the means.  In other words, it is your emotions that tell you what is good for you or what you want.  Then, you use rationality to figure out how you get what you want.  According to this model, reason cannot supply you with why ends. It is purely instrumental in that it helps you figure out how to get what you want.

The Humean model results in what are called hypothetical imperatives.  A hypothetical imperative has the following form: If you want X, then you ought do Y.  The ought in a hypothetical imperative is conditional in the following sense: It applies to me only if I have the relevant desire.  For example, if you want to get to Los Angeles quickly, you ought to fly there.  The ought is conditional only.  It  applies to me only if the if part applies to me.  That is, it applies to me only if I want to get to Las Angeles quickly.  That is why it is called a hypothetical imperative.

Hypothetical irrationality (i.e., rationality with respect to hypothetical imperatives) does not have anything to do with morality because hypothetical imperatives are not universal; they apply only to people who have the relevant desires.  If you do not have the relevant desires, hypothetical imperatives do not apply to you.  Thus, hypothetical irrationality has nothing to do with morality (according to Kant) because moral imperatives are universal and hypothetical imperatives are not.

B.         Categorical Imperatives.  A categorical imperative has the form: You ought to do Y or simply Do Y.  In contrast to hypothetical imperatives, categorical imperatives are universal.  Categorical imperatives apply to me regardless of my preferences or desires.  Fully rational beings are just built in such a way that certain things are good — regardless of whether they are perceived or felt as good.  The categorical imperative commands such ends.  The categorical imperative presupposes that reason can supply more than means, it can supply ends as well.  In other words, there are some things that are good independent of whether the emotions recognize them as good.  They are good to all beings that have a rational nature — regardless of how one may feel about it.  The ought applies to everyone.  For example, Tell the truth is categorical, it applies to everyone no matter how they feel about telling the truth.

According to Kant, all moral imperatives are categorical.  They apply to every rational being because they are rational beings.  The validity of categorical imperative depends only on our being rational and not on any particular desires we might or might not have.  Hypothetical imperatives derive their authority from the inclinations and since inclinations vary from person to person, hypothetical imperatives do not bind everyone.  Categorical imperatives are different, they have an authority that is separate from the inclinations that we have.  The authority of categorical imperatives depends on the dictates of reason — and these dictates apply to every rational being.  That is why categorical imperatives are universal.

Thus, categorical irrationality is immoral.  Hypothetical irrationality is not.

V.        The Second Categorical Imperative.  Kant seeks to derive a second categorical imperative from the first.  According to Kant, every rational being has intrinsic and not merely instrumental value.  That is, every rational being exists as an end-in-itself and not merely as a means to an end.  Thus, the second categorical imperative is formulated as follows:

                        Categorical Imperative II.  Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.

Kant here stresses the rational nature of humans as free, intelligent, self-directing beings.  In saying they must never be treated as a means only, he means that we must not merely “use” them as means to our selfish ends.  They are not objects or instruments to be used.  To use people is to disrespect their humanity.

Notice that Kant does not say that there is anything wrong with using someone as a means.  We have to use people as a means in any cooperative scheme of action.  I cannot, for example, cash a check without using the bank teller as a means.  This is acceptable because each side consents to the transaction and thus both sides are respecting the humanity of the other person. Categorical Imperative II does not prohibit using a person as a means; it prohibits using a person only as a means.

— taken from bellevuecollege.edu —


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