Kant's Ethics

Sandra LaFave

  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

  • Deontic (concerned with acts)

  • Non-consequentialist (moral good derived independently of natural good)

  • Basic question of ethics: “What act accords with duty?”

  • Moral worth attaches to the right act performed with the right motive.


The Good Will

The right motive is “to do the right thing”, “to do one’s duty”, “to respect the moral law.” A rational being who consistently has the right motive has what Kant calls a Good Will. Nothing is more important for morality than having a good will. According to Kant, a rational being with a Good Will automatically does its duty. Why? Read on.


Why Consequentialism is Wrong

First consider what would motivate you if you had a Good Will. You’d do your duty simply because it’s your duty. You wouldn’t expect a reward. You wouldn’t expect to make yourself happy or give yourself pleasure. You’d want to do your duty simply because it’s your duty. In other words, all consequences — any pleasure or happiness that might result (or any pain and misery that might be avoided) — are irrelevant. Duty is what makes you good; it’s not what makes you (or anyone else) happy. It’s not what satisfies natural inclinations to attain pleasure or happiness. So part of having a Good Will is making your moral decisions without considering whether they would create happiness or pleasure, or avoid pain.

Consider the same point another way. You’re a person. You’re not an animal. Animals seek the fulfillment of natural inclinations; they automatically seek natural goods because they can’t act any other way. But rational beings are more than animals. Unlike animals, rational beings can reason; rational beings can contemplate alternative acts, and evaluate behavior in accordance with principles of reason. If you’re a consequentialist, you undervalue yourself; you place yourself on the same moral level as animals. Consequentialism says you should seek whatever makes for the best consequences; but that’s what your instinctive, animal self would do anyway. So a consequentialist theory like utilitarianism isn’t a moral theory at all, since it doesn’t recognize any essential difference between humans and animals.

A rational being with a Good Will thus won’t be a consequentialist. For a rational being with a Good Will, the consequences won’t matter in the determination of whether acts are moral or immoral. A Good Will is thus “purified”; it has no inferior motives, such as desire for pleasure, happiness, or self-interest.

Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives

Kant explains the nature of moral commands using his distinction between categorical imperatives and hypothetical imperatives.

An imperative is a command. A hypothetical imperative is a command that applies if you want to attain a particular outcome. The following conditional sentence expresses a hypothetical imperative: “If you want to see the new Star Wars movie on opening day in San Jose, then you must stand in line for hours.” Must you obey this imperative? Must you stand in line for hours? Only if you have the relevant desire to see the new Star Wars movie on opening day in San Jose. If you don’t care, you can ignore the imperative.

Kant says moral imperatives are never conditional. They are never hypothetical. For Kant, moral imperatives are always categorical, i.e., absolutely binding regardless of personal interest or desire. What you care about simply doesn’t matter. Your duty is your duty, and you must do it whether or not you want to. (That’s why a Good Will is so vital for Kant: a Good Will wants to.) Nothing exempts a moral agent from the demands of moral duty.

Why Bad Acts Are Bad

Kant analyzes evil as a kind of logical error, or mistake in reasoning. A contradiction is the worst logical error. It would obviously be a contradiction for a rational being to say “Every rational being should do X, except me.” Contradiction of this form is called special pleading. When rational beings will to do bad things, they want a contradiction: they want everybody else to do the right thing, because that's exactly what makes their wrongdoing possible. For example, the liar wants everyone else to tell the truth; if everyone lied, no one would believe the liar's lie. So the liar in effect is willing a contradiction: “Every rational being should tell the truth, except me.” This is special pleading: wanting the rule to apply to everyone AND not to me. Such a contradiction is a failure of universalizability.

Categorical Imperative — Universalizability Formulations

It follows for Kant that reason alone motivates a Good Will (one that is rational and discounts consequences). As Kant puts it, “As I have deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any law [of nature], there remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle.” In other words, a rational being of Good Will wants its actions to conform to universalizable principles of action.[1]  For Kant, all rational beings — all beings capable of formulating maxims and recognizing contradiction — would agree with and endorse actions that spring from any single individual rational being with a Good Will, because non-contradiction is a universal law for rational beings.

Therefore, the rational being of Good Will uses the Categorical Imperative to evaluate its actions: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Or, "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature."[2]  To discover your duty, see if your maxim accords with this rule.

Why a Rational Being with a Good Will is Never Bad

Desires for pleasure, happiness, or self-interest are inferior motives, since such desires are always at the bottom of special pleading: I want to make an exception for my own case because I think I’ll benefit — get some natural good — as a result. Special pleading is a kind of irrationality. Desires for pleasure, happiness, or self-interest thus are impediments to perfect rationality.

But a Good Will has been “purified” of such inferior motives. A Good Will has no such inferior motives. A Good Will thus never falls into the fallacy of special pleading. A Good Will’s maxims are invariably universalizable without contradiction, because the Good Will has no impediments to reasoning well. So a rational being with a Good Will always acts rightly, in accordance with the Categorical Imperative, and thus in accordance with duty.

In other words, for a rational being with a Good Will, being moral and being rational (logical) – and being fully human – are the same thing.

Why a Good Will Respects Rational Beings

Most things have only conditional value; that is, they are valuable only as means to an end, whose value is greater. Ultimately, to avoid infinite regress, something must exist of absolute value. Now, anything a rational being can have or get has only conditional value, because it merely satisfies an inclination of the rational being. But rational beings themselves are different. If not for rational beings, nothing would have value at all. Therefore, it is only through rational beings that value itself even exists. Therefore, rational beings, because they are the sources of value, cannot themselves have value. Their value is absolute and supreme. Therefore, rational beings command respect simply because they are rational beings. As Kant puts it: “Rational nature is an end in itself.”

Categorical Imperative (Respect Formulation)

“So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only.” Treat people with respect. Don’t use people; don’t allow yourself to be used.


1.   I say "its actions" rather than "his or her actions" because Kant intended his ethical system to apply to all rational beings, even those who might be non-human or genderless, like angels or God. For Kant, any being — human or non-human — that can formulate maxims and recognize contradiction is subject to the Categorical Imperative.

2.   Philosophers usually consider these two formulations the same. Palmer calls these formulations "Version 1" and "Version 2" of the Categorical Imperative, and then calls the Respect Formulation the "Third Version". This is a little odd. Usually philosophers consider both what Palmer calls Version 1 and Version 2 to be a single Version 1. (For Kant, what Palmer calls Version 1 and Version 2 mean exactly the same thing, since Kant defines "maxim" as "my rule for me", and "law" as "universal law of nature".) Thus it is much more common among philosophers to call the Respect Formulation the Second Version of the Categorical Imperative, and reserve the designation "Third" for the following: "So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends."

In other words, philosophers usually categorize the different versions of the Categorical Imperative as follows:

For an example of the usual list, see here.

This issue is not really important for beginning philosophy students, but if you intend to go on in philosophy, you should know the ordinary nomenclature.





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