Ethics, Revised Edition
Identification: German Idealist philosopher who wrote Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the Three Critiques (1781-1790)
Born: April 22, 1724, Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia)
Died: February 12, 1804, Königsberg, Prussia
Type of Ethics: Enlightenment history
Significance: Kant viewed moral rules as self-imposed, binding on all humans, and derived from one supreme principle of morality: the categorical imperative.
Late in his life, after his revolutionary work in epistemology, Immanuel Kant first presented his mature moral philosophy in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. That book develops Kant's influential idea that human beings as rational agents are "autonomous," or have the capacity for moral self-government. For Kant, autonomy means that, as rational beings, people set their own standards of conduct, as distinct from the demands made by their desires, and are able to decide and act on these standards. On the basis of a complex argument, Kant concluded that autonomy is possible only if the will is guided by a supreme principle of morality that he called the "categorical imperative." Kant viewed this imperative as the product of reason and as the basis for determining moral duties. He expressed it in three basic formulations.
Formulating Universal Law
Kant wrote, "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." He defined a maxim as a subjective principle on which a person intends to act, and a universal law as a principle that applies to everyone. Therefore, his formula of universal law demands that one act only on maxims that one can rationally will that everyone adopt. Kant provided this example of how to use the formula: Suppose that a person must borrow money for a personal need and knows that he is unable to repay it. Is it morally permissible for him to act on the maxim of falsely promising to repay a loan in order to get the money? The formula tells that the person may act on the maxim if he can rationally will its universalization. The person cannot rationally will this because it would mean that people would no longer trust promises to repay loans, including his own. Kant added that the immorality of the maxim is clear in that the person really wants other people to keep their promises so that he can be an exception to the rule for this one occasion.
The Formula of Humanity
Kant wrote, "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only." In his view, "humanity" refers to people's uniquely human characteristics, their rational characteristics, including autonomy and the capacity to understand the world and to form and pursue life-plans. Thus, his formula of humanity demands that people always act so that they respect themselves and others as beings with a rational nature.
In The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant used the formula of humanity to argue for a variety of duties to oneself and others. According to Kant, respect for rational nature in oneself implies that one ought not to destroy or deny one's intellectual and moral capacities through suicide, drug abuse, lying, self-deception, or servility. It also implies that one must further one's own rational nature through developing one's natural talents and striving to become virtuous. Respect for rational nature in others involves that one ought not harm them and must uphold their individual liberty, but Kant discussed these duties as part of his legal and political philosophy. More exclusive ethical duties to others are that one must fulfill the duty of beneficence, contributing to the flourishing of rational nature in others, and that one must not deny people's humanity through arrogance, defamation, or ridicule.
The Formula of the Realm of Ends
"All maxims_._._. ought to harmonize with a possible realm of ends," Kant wrote. This formula shows that the two previous formulas are interconnected. (Kant held them all to be equivalent, but this has not been widely accepted.) Kant described the realm of ends as a harmony between human beings, resulting from each acting only on maxims that can become universal laws. It is a harmony of ends in that its members, by acting only on universalizable maxims, act only on maxims that can meet everyone's consent; thus, they respect one another as rational self-determining agents, or ends in themselves. It is also a harmony of ends in that people will seek to further one another's individual ends.
Kant held that people must mirror the realm of ends in their moral choices and actions, and that it is humanity's duty to bring about this ideal. He viewed the French Revolution and the Enlightenment as steps in the right direction; argued for a worldwide league of democratic states as a further step toward the realm of ends; and claimed, moreover, that the religious institutions of his time must embrace the ideal, setting aside their historically evolved differences. Kant maintained that moral philosophy must not formulate new duties, but should only clarify the moral principle operative in "common moral reason" in order to help ordinary persons more adequately resist immoral desires. Kant's clarification went beyond these confines and ended with an inspiring moral vision of the realm of ends as the purpose of history, the kingdom of God on Earth, and the ultimate individual and collective vocation.
Harry van der LindenBibliography
Banham, Gary. Kant's Practical Philosophy: From Critique to Doctrine. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.
Hill, Thomas E., Jr. Dignity and Practical Reason in Kant's Moral Theory. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Edited and translated by Lewis W. Beck. 3d ed. New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1993.
_______. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. Introduction by Howard Caygill. Rev. 2d ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003.
_______. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Edited by Paul Guyer. Translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
_______. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited and translated by Allen W. Wood. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
Kerstein, Samuel J. Kant's Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Sullivan, Roger J. Immanuel Kant's Moral Theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Timmons, Mark, ed. Kant's "Metaphysics of Morals": Interpretive Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Autonomy; Capital punishment; Consistency; Deontological ethics; Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals; Golden Rule; Idealist ethics; Kantian ethics; Practical reason; Transcendentalism; Universalizability.
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