Kant’s Ethics

Week 15, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss differences between hypothetical imperative and categorical imperative
  2. Discuss the role of reason in Kant’s principle of universality

Let me begin by setting the stage in this way: Kant’s argument for grounding our moral actions in reason is also part of his arguing that we have free will.

“‘Ethics […] is not the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy, but of how we are to be worthy of happiness.’ [….T]here is nothing morally admirable about a person seeking his own happiness, but there is something worthy of admiration about a person who, in the face of dangers, does his duty and does it for no other reason than it is his duty.” (Pessin Engel, 142)

Kant believes that what we need is to establish morality in a way that is beyond our everyday experience of personal inclinations. That is to say, we need to develop a metaphysic of morals that is independent of any particular moral belief or custom.

Fulfilling our moral potential
This can only be established by uncovering universal laws of moral action that are a priori—laws that are true regardless of whether humans ever experience them or not. Like a square is the polygon with four right angles, or 2+3=5, a priori laws are always the case.

But, for Kant, it’s not enough that folks know that they ought to do what their moral obligations are, they must choose to do what is morally correct. This is a matter of possessing a good will.

In order to fulfill our moral potential each of us must:

  • First come to an understanding of the necessity for universal moral laws and then,
  • We must cultivate our own “good will” to act in accordance with these moral laws.

In order to uncover these universal moral laws, we each have an obligation to use our reason to think through the logic of proposed moral laws. Only by embracing and enhancing our rationality can we thereby develop our “good will” and thereby meet the requirements of our universal moral laws.

The goodness of our will is the result of using our intelligence, courage, and wealth in the service of duty.

What does this mean?
Acting from duty is acting based on reason, not based on what we desire.

“It is the will of one who does the right thing not because that is what he or she wants to do, or because of the good consequences that will follow from it, but because it is what pure reason demands of him or her. And only actions springing from such a motive are deserving of moral praise and respect.” (Pessin & Engel, 143)

Let’s imagine how three scenarios and see if any of them meet Kant’s criteria for being morally commendable, shall we?

A homeless person appears before us and asks us for money. We don’t feel comfortable around them and give them money because it will get that person to leave us alone.

This one is less about morally correct actions, but illustrates a principle:

Imagine we are playing a game of chess and a child walks up to our board and moves one of our pieces. Not only does the child make a move that is permissible by the rules, but they make an excellent move. Is that move commendable?

Imagine that I am the kind of person who loves to share joy with others and do so without regard for what I am doing beyond the pleasure it brings me to share with others. Imagine I am this kind of warmhearted person. Now imagine that the same homeless person from earlier has approached me and I give them twenty bucks, happily.

According to Kant my donation is not morally praiseworthy—it may be an activity that we’d like others to feel encouraged to do, but it is not morally praiseworthy because I did it out of my own sense of satisfaction.

Another word for obligations is “imperatives.” Kant is committed to discovering a grounds for our moral obligations to one another. In this pursuit he makes a distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.

A hypothetical imperative is a command that we do something if we are trying to achieve a particular end. They are conditional. With hypothetical imperatives, we “ought” to do something only to the extent that we are committed to or motivated by a particular outcome.

A categorical imperative is a command that we do something because it is the morally-correct thing to be done; it is our duty and obligation, unconditionally.

For example, the statement, “You should pay your debts,” is a categorical imperative. But, if we add the phrase, “if you want people to trust you,” to that statement, then it becomes a hypothetical imperative.

Hypothetical imperatives embody the logical form, “If_______, then________.”

But, why should we act according to the categorical imperative? What’s in it for me?

Kant is on the side of Aristotle here. Humans should act morally and guided by reason because to do otherwise is beneath us. Humans are the unique animal in the universe that has reason and because reason exists we must fulfill what reason requires of us: consistency. To be human, according to Kant, “is to be rational, and to act as a human being is to act rationally. It is to possess a will that is motivated not by impulses or feelings but reason. Since the essence of reason (unlike impulses and feelings) is consistency, and since the test of consistency is universal validity, in order to be rational an action must be motivated by a universally valid and binding principle of conduct.” (Pessin & Engel, 144)

Kant believes that animals don’t have the power to reason, they are driven only by their impulses. Because they cannot use reason, they are innocent. On the other side of the spectrum there is God. What God wills to do is, by definition, always what is reasonable and good and there is never any tension between what He wills and what is reasonable and good.

Only humans are in the unique position to do either good or evil because we are the creature that is uniquely able to decide to follow either our inclinations and feelings or to follow our reason.

Kant’s “metaphysics of morals” is based on the assumption that people, exclusively, are rational creatures and because of this we must be committed to a belief in logical consistency. Accordingly, humans are (or they ought to) find it repugnant when someone or something acts irrationally.

Rationality requires that not only would we act in the same way across all similar circumstances, but so would everyone else. Reason is universal and applies to cases. There can be no exceptions to our universal principle because that is contrary to what “universal” means.

And this is what we see when Kant announces, “I am never to conduct myself in a way I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, Abbott translation, 119)

The translation here is awkward, I think Kant’s meaning here is better communicated by stating the point in a positive manner: “Act on that maxim and that maxim only, which you can at the same time will to be a universal law.”

Kant’s principle of universality requires us to ask the classic question: “What if everybody behaved this way?” For example, what if everyone refused to pay back their debts? First we should ask the question, why does anyone ever lend money? The answer, of course, is that people lend money because they expect they will not only get the money back but they will also be paid interest on the borrowed sum and the borrower understands that this interest is the cost that must be paid in order to borrow money. So, if everyone were to stop paying back their debts, then no one would ever lend anyone else money because the would-be lenders would know that they will never be able to recoup their losses.

Kant isn’t concerned that, if I lie, then others will stop believing me. He isn’t even arguing the point that if everyone lies then there will be widespread distrust and the destruction of promising. Those are, essentially, only utilitarian considerations.

Kant’s concern is with the logic of the situation: there cannot be both promises and no promises because that is illogical. There either are promises or there are not, it cannot be both simultaneously. This might seem like a circular argument, but Kant’s strategy here is not simply to ground moral action in reason, but also to argue that humans possess freedom.

We must be free since the obligation to be moral (to do what reason demands) would make no sense were we not free to carry out such demands.