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Ethics According to Immanuel Kant

How Can We Determine the Right Action to Take?

This is the first of a series of blogs on modern ethics philosophies. Ethics deals with standards of behavior that define how a person should act. Ethics does not describe how we do act. Ethics deals with questions such as: What sort of person do I want to be.

One view of ethics is Deontology. The foremost deontologist is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In Kantian ethics, the morality of an action is determined based on the reasons for our actions. Kant applied a “categorical imperative” to determine the moral validity for a particular action: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” The “maxim” of our acts can be thought of as the intention behind our acts. The maxim answers the question: What am I doing and why?

A maxim is the rule or principle on which you act. For example, you might make it your maxim to give at least as much to charity each year as you spend on vacations. Or, you might make it your maxim to reduce your ecological footprint.

The categorical imperative is an unconditional law. For example, “Don’t cheat on your taxes.”  Even if you want to cheat and doing so would serve your interests, you may not cheat.

Kant’s principles are based on the notion that each of us has a worth or dignity that must be respected. This dignity makes it wrong for others to abuse us or to use us against our will. Kant expressed this idea as a moral principle: Humanity must always be treated as an end, not merely a means. To treat someone as a mere means to an end is to use that person to advance one’s own interest. But to treat a person as an end is to respect that person’s dignity by allowing each the freedom to choose for oneself.

Kant’s moral law is based on “rational will” – the will which is entirely devoted to, or guided by impartiality and universality of action. Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals has two distinct parts: the “Doctrine of Right” and the “Doctrine of Virtue.” Right concerns acts themselves independent of the motive an agent may have for performing them, virtue concerns the proper motive for dutiful actions. Right actions are determined based on the moral principle of Universality. The Doctrine of Virtue addresses duties by establishing that there are certain ends which it is our duty to have – “duties of virtue.” Moral excellence can be achieved by acting in accordance with these ends.

Kant conceived of virtue as a strength or will to fulfill one’s duties despite internal and external obstacles. Kant believed that to be full virtuous is to have a good will that is firmly resolved and fully ready to overcome temptations to immorality. Although we can never fully achieve it, we have a duty to strive for it. For Kant, the highest good consists of perfect virtue and well-deserved happiness together.

Kant treats happiness and morality as two disparate notions. He introduced the concept of a categorical imperative, irrespective of whether or not abiding by it directly increases happiness. The formulations of the categorical imperative provide us with laws by which to abide to maintain human freedom and autonomy through reasoning about one’s duties to humankind, not what makes one happy.

Kantian ethics is an appealing approach to ethical decision making but suffers from its strict absolutes. Sometimes in life we should deviate from its norms, for example, we may have to lie to save the life of another. Still, Kant’s laws provide a pathway to ethical behavior that is appealing because it directly addresses what is right and wrong.

Blog posted on May 2, 2017 by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve blogs under the pseudonym, Ethics Sage.

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