Unit 4: How One Should Live

An Introduction to Kant’s Moral Theory

Heather Wilburn, Ph.D.

Morally speaking, Kant is a deontologist; from the Greek, this is the science of duties. For Kant, morality is not defined by the consequences of our actions, our emotions, or an external factor. Morality is defined by duties and one’s action is moral if it is an act motivated by duty.

According to Kant the only thing that is good in itself is the “good will.” The will is what drives our actions and grounds the intention of our act. It is good when it acts from duty. To clarify, Kant thinks the good will is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable. If we think about the other goods and things that we value, such are not good without qualification. For example, we value knowledge, but such can be used to commit atrocities in the world, so knowledge is good sometimes. The same can be said of courage. We value courage, but a suicide bomber also exhibits courage. So, courage can only be good sometimes. We can think of other examples as well. This leads Kant to claim that the good will is the only thing good without qualification–or the only thing that is intrinsically good. Accordingly, the will is a good will provided it acts from duty.

Kant recognizes that it is difficult to determine one’s intentions, so he makes a distinction between acting in conformity with duty and acting from duty. To illustrate this distinction, let’s take the example of three young men who see an elderly woman needing help across the street. Man A decides he will help the woman across the street because if he didn’t he would feel guilty all day. Man B decides he will help the woman across the street because he recognizes her as his neighbor, Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Wilson makes the best cookies in the neighborhood. So, Man B helps her because he reasons that he will be rewarded. Man C decides he will help the woman across the street because it is the right thing to do; he understands that he has a moral obligation to help others in need when he can.

The results of all three individuals are the same–the woman is helped across the street. If we were looking at this from a utilitarian perspective, all three of the young men would be morally praiseworthy because in all three cases, happiness or well-being is increased (or pain is relieved). However, for Kant, only one of the young men’s actions have moral worth and it is Man C; he understands what his moral duty is and he acts from it. The other two act only in conformity with duty–they are driven by some other goal or desire aside from duty itself.

Duties are principles that guide our actions. Duties are imperatives in the sense that they tell us what to do. Kant recognizes that there are different types of imperatives in his distinction between a hypothetical and a categorical imperative. An imperative is essentially a ought; something I ought to do. Hypothetical imperatives are the oughts that direct my actions provided I have certain goals or interests. In fact, these oughts are entirely dependent upon my goals or interests. For example, if I want to be a good basketball player I ought to practice free throws or if I want to go to law school I ought to take a logic class. If I change my goal and decide to be a baseball player or a welder instead then my oughts may also change. Hypothetical imperatives have nothing to do with morality. However a categorical imperative does not depend upon my desires or wants. These are necessary and always binding and are the oughts that determine what our moral duties are. Even if I don’t want to help the elderly person across the street, if I have a duty to do so, my ought is binding. We should all be familiar enough with feeling we must do something even if we’d rather do something else.

Kant’s moral theory has three formulas for the categorical imperative. So, if you’re facing a moral dilemma you must determine whether or not your action is permissible according to the formulas. Simply put, think of the formulas as tests that have to be passed in order for a principle or act to be moral.

Formula one states that we ought to act in a way such that the maxim, or principle, of our act can be willed a universal law. If your maxim cannot be universalized then that act is morally off limits. For example, if I am considering stealing a loaf of bread, I have to ask myself if my maxim can be made a universal law. This would look something like this: Is it okay for all people to steal all the time? The answer is no; the maxim itself would be self-defeating because if everyone stole all the time there would be no private property and stealing would no longer be possible.

The second formula states that we ought to treat humanity (self and others) as an end and never as a mere means. Essentially, this entails that I treat all persons with respect and dignity; I help others achieve their goals when possible, and I avoid using them as tools or objects to further my own goals. For Kant, since humans have the capacity for autonomy and rationality, it is crucial that we treat humans with respect and dignity.

The third formula states that we act on principles that could be accepted within a community of other rational agents. The third formula, “the kingdom of ends,” moves us from the individual level to the social level.

In brief, Kant’s moral philosophy focuses on fairness and the value of the individual. His method rests on our ability to reason, our autonomy (i.e. our ability to give ourselves moral law and govern our own lives), and logical consistency. He also offers an objective sense of morality in the form of absolute duties–duties that are binding regardless of our desires, goals, or outcomes.



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An Introduction to Kant's Moral Theory Copyright © 2020 by Heather Wilburn, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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