Subject: The Philosophy and Morality of Immanuel Kant

Tony Hollick (
Thu, 16 Oct 97 10:31 BST-1

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If you'd like a summary introduction to Kant's work, here is Britannica's:

(Alas, Ayn Rand (so good on many issues) got Kant all wrong; does
anyone know if she ever encountered Karl Popper's -- vastly more
poweful -- _Critical Rational_ Objectivist philosophy? -- TH).


"* Sapere Aude! * Dare to use your own intelligence! This is the
maxim of the Enlightenment!" [From 'Was ist Aufklarung?' (What is
Enlightenment?) -- Immanuel Kant].

"Interestingly, Kant (1724-1804) acknowledged that he had despised
the ignorant masses until he read Rousseau and came to appreciate the
worth that exists in every human being. For other reasons too, Kant
is part of the tradition deriving from both Spinoza and Rousseau.
Like his predecessors, Kant insisted that actions resulting from
desires cannot be free.

Freedom is to be found only in rational action. Moreover, whatever is
demanded by reason must be demanded of all rational beings; hence,
rational action cannot be based on a single individual's personal
desires, but must be action in accordance with something that he can
will to be a universal law. This view roughly parallels Rousseau's
idea of the general will as that which, as opposed to the individual
will, a person shares with the whole community. Kant extended this
community to all rational beings.

Kant's most distinctive contribution to ethics was his insistence
that our actions possess moral worth only when we do our duty for
its own sake. He first introduced this idea as something accepted by
our common moral consciousness and only then tried to show that it is
an essential element of any rational morality. In claiming that this
idea is central to the common moral consciousness, Kant was
expressing in heightened form a tendency of Judeo-Christian ethics
and revealing how much the Western ethical consciousness had changed
since the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Does our common moral consciousness really insist that there is no
moral worth in any action done for any motive other than duty?
Certainly we would be less inclined to praise the young man who
plunges into the surf to rescue a drowning child if we learned that
he did it because he expected a handsome reward from the child's
millionaire father. This feeling lies behind Kant's disagreement with
all those moral philosophers who have argued that we should do what
is right because that is the path to happiness, either on earth or in

But Kant went further than this. He was equally opposed to those who
see benevolent or sympathetic feelings as the basis of morality. Here
he may be reflecting the moral consciousness of 18th-century
Protestant Germany, but it appears that even then the moral
consciousness of Britain, as reflected in the writings of
Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Butler, and Hume, was very different. The
moral consciousness of Western civilization in the last quarter of
the 20th century also appears to be different from the one Kant was

Kant's ethics is based on his distinction between hypothetical and
categorical imperatives. He called any action based on desires a
hypothetical imperative, meaning by this that it is a command of
reason that applies only if we desire the goal. For example, "Be
honest, so that people will think well of you!" is an imperative that
applies only if you want people to think well of you. A similarly
hypothetical analysis can be given of the imperatives suggested by,
say, Shaftesbury's ethics: "Help those in distress, if you sympathize
with their sufferings!"

In contrast to such approaches to ethics, Kant said that the commands
of morality must be categorical imperatives: they must apply to all
rational beings, regardless of their wants and feelings. To most
philosophers this poses an insuperable problem: a moral law that
applied to all rational beings, irrespective of their personal wants
and desires, could have no specific goals or aims because all such
aims would have to be based on someone's wants or desires.

It took Kant's peculiar genius to seize upon precisely this
implication, which to others would have refuted his claims, and to
use it to derive the nature of the moral law. Because nothing else
but reason is left to determine the content of the moral law, the
only form this law can take is the universal principle of reason.
Thus the supreme formal principle of Kant's ethics is: "Act only on
that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should
become a universal law."

Kant still faced two major problems. First, he had to explain how we
can be moved by reason alone to act in accordance with this supreme
moral law; and, second, he had to show that this principle is able to
provide practical guidance in our choices. If we were to couple
Hume's theory that reason is always the slave of the passions with
Kant's denial of moral worth to all actions motivated by desires, the
outcome would be that no actions can have moral worth.

To avoid such moral skepticism, Kant maintained that reason alone can
lead to action. Unfortunately he was unable to say much in defense of
this claim. Of course, the mere fact that we otherwise face so
unpalatable a conclusion is in itself a powerful incentive to believe
that somehow a categorical imperative must be possible, but this is
not convincing to anyone not already wedded to Kant's view of moral

At one point Kant appeared to be taking a different line. He wrote
that the moral law inevitably produces in us a feeling of reverence
or awe. If he meant to say that this feeling then becomes the
motivation for obedience, however, he was conceding Hume's point that
reason alone is powerless to bring about action. It would also be
difficult to accept that anything, even the moral law, can
necessarily produce a certain kind of feeling in all rational beings
regardless of their psychological constitution. Thus this approach
does not succeed in clarifying Kant's position or rendering it

Kant gave closer attention to the problem of how his supreme formal
principle of morality can provide guidance in concrete situations.
One of his examples is as follows. Suppose that I plan to get some
money by promising to pay it back, although I have no intention of
keeping my promise. The maxim of such an action might be "Make false
promises when it suits you to do so." Could such a maxim be a
universal law? Of course not. If promises were so easily broken, no
one would rely on them, and the practice of promising would cease.
For this reason, I know that the moral law does not allow me to carry
out my plan.

Not all situations are so easily decided. Another of Kant's examples
deals with aiding those in distress. I see someone in distress, whom
I could easily help, but I prefer not to do so. Can I will as a
universal law the maxim that a person should refuse assistance to
those in distress? Unlike the case of promising, there is no strict
inconsistency in this maxim being a universal law.

Kant, however, says that I cannot will it to be such because I may
someday be in distress myself, and I would then want assistance from
others. This type of example is less convincing than the previous
one. If I value self-sufficiency so highly that I would rather remain
in distress than escape from it through the intervention of another,
Kant's principle no longer tells me that I have a duty to assist
those in distress.

In effect, Kant's supreme principle of practical reason can only tell
us what to do in those special cases in which turning the maxim of
our action into a universal law yields a contradiction. Outside this
limited range, the moral law that was to apply to all rational beings
regardless of their wants and desires cannot guide us except by
appealing to our desires.

Kant does offer alternative formulations of the categorical
imperative, and one of these has been seen as providing more
substantial guidance than the formulation so far considered. This
formulation is: "So act that you treat humanity in your own person
and in the person of everyone else always at the same time as an end
and never merely as means."

The connection between this formulation and the first one is not
entirely clear, but the idea seems to be that when I choose for
myself I treat myself as an end. If, therefore, in accordance with
the principle of universal law, I must choose so that all could
choose similarly, I must respect everyone else as an end. Even if
this is valid, the application of the principle raises further

What is it to treat someone merely as a means? Using a person as a
slave is an obvious example; Kant, like Bentham, was making a stand
against this kind of inequality while it still flourished as an
institution in some parts of the world. But to condemn slavery we
have only to give equal weight to the interests of the slaves. Does
Kant's principle take us any further than Utilitarianism? Modern
Kantians hold that it does because they interpret it as denying the
legitimacy of sacrificing the rights of one human being in order to
benefit others.

One thing that can be said confidently is that Kant was firmly
opposed to the Utilitarian principle of judging every action by its
consequences. His ethics is a deontology. In other words, the
rightness of an action depends on whether it accords with a rule
irrespective of its consequences. In one essay Kant went so far as to
say that it would be wrong to tell a lie even to a would-be murderer
who came to your door seeking to kill an innocent person hidden in
your house.

This kind of situation illustrates how difficult it is to remain a
strict deontologist when principles may clash. Apparently Kant
believed that his principle of universal law required that one never
tell lies, but it could also be argued that his principle of treating
everyone as an end would necessitate doing everything possible to
save the life of an innocent person. Another possibility would be to
formulate the maxim of the action with sufficient precision to define
the circumstances under which it would be permissible to tell
lies--e.g., we could all agree to a universal law that permitted lies
to people intending to commit murder.

Kant did not explore such solutions."

Copyright (c) 1996 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. All Rights Reserved

I hope this is of some interest.

/ /\ \

Tony Hollick

PS: Thanks for this text are due to Dave Lorde (