Kantian Ethics


Introduction - Kantian Ethics

  • Kant's theories are not rooted in religion (religion doesn't work for everyone and often requires basing your moral decisions on pleasing a supreme being, however, he did argue that God existed). 
  • Humans have the ability to reason thus the ability to make the correct moral decisions. 
  • Reason is the key to all knowledge. 
  • His theory is deontological which means it focuses on actions over consequences. Even though good actions can bring about bad consequences, good consequences can be brought about by bad actions. 
  • Aimed to find a universal, objective morality. 
  • Feelings are too subjective whereas reason can be used in every situation. 
  • Argued that all moral statements were a priori synthetic (a priori meaning knowledge prior to sensory experience and synthetic meaning can be true or false but needs verification of the senses). 
  • Transcendental Idealism: the notion that the rational mind is what humans use in order to sort out the world. 
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Good-Will and Duty

  • ''Good-will shines forth like a precious jewel" - Kant. 
  • Kant did not believe that the outcome of actions was inherently good since a good outcome can come about as the result of a bad action (which he argued was wrong). 
  • He also did not believe that ''good'' character traits such as intelligence could always be used for good. I might use my intelligence in order to manipulate someone to do something for me (thus using them as a means to an end). 
  • He used the term ''good'' to describe good-will. Good-will describes the ability to use our free-will in order to rationally follow our moral duty. 
  • Good-will and duty are essential aspects of Kant's moral decision making. 
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The Three Ethical Postulates

  • Kant believed that we did not act morally for no reason. There must be a reason for us to act morally.
  • If our actions were already determined, we would not be able to even act morally since moral freedom determines our ability to act morally. A determinist world would not work and since some actions cause good and some cause bad, it means that the world is not determinist anyway. 
  • From this, Kant concluded that we must be free beings because we have the ability to act morally and choose our own moral futures. 
  • We must be able to carry out our own moral decisions otherwise we are not free. 
  • He also thought that this must be promoted by God and an afterlife, since morality would be pointless if there was no reward for good actions. 
  • A sense of duty must be evoked by something (God). The world is designed so we act in one way rather than another. 
  • Since we are not rewarded for good morality in this life, we must be rewarded in the next, so from this, Kant concluded there must be an afterlife. 
  • Even though Kant theorised that there must be an afterlife and a God - we should not use these factors as a way of deciding our moral actions because then we would not be trying exercising good-will. 
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Weaknesses of the Three Ethical Postulates


  • Rational thinking excludes the pull of passions, desires and emotions.
  • Dismisses human instinct, sometimes we behave in ways which are instinctive to us. 
  • Aquinas argued for a conscience which is individual to each moral agent. 


  • Relies on God's existence for us to be able to act morally. 
  • If God really gave us free-will, how can we be truly free if we always have to follow the moral highground?

The summum bonum (immortality)

  • Assumes the existence of an afterlife in order to reward us for our good deeds. 
  • Doesn't elaborate on the existence of an afterlife. 
  • ''Ought'' does not always imply ''can''. We may ought to act morally in order to be rewarded in the next life, but this does not always mean that we can. 
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Hypothetical vs Categorical Imperative

  • Being moral is a matter of the categorical imperative (what you must do). 
  • Different to the hypothetical imperative, which commands you to follow something ''if'' and ony if you want to achieve the outcome that the ''if'' will bring. E.g, If you want to lose weight, you should go to the gym. For Kant this was too relative since, if you didn't want to lose any weight then you wouldn't go to the gym or similarly, if you didn't want to act morally then you wouldn't do so. Significance of the word ''hypothetical" 
  • Instead he argued for the categorical imperative. This suggests that you MUST follow moral commands regardless of the situation or outcome they will produce. Instead of ''you shouldn't lie if you want to be Prime Minister'' the rule becomes: ''you must not lie''. 
  • If you decide to do something because you will benefit from it - it is not a true moral choice because you are making it self-centered and morality focuses on others. Good-will is aided by pure practical reason. 
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The Three Universal Maxims

  • The word ''maxim'' expresses or refers to a general rule. In Kantian ethics - these rules are universal and unchanging. It is a legalistic and absolutist theory. 
  • The first is the principle of universalisability (universal law). This is a bit like the golden rule (treat others how you would like to be treated), however it is more effective. If Kant went by the golden rule, if you didn't mind being treated like garbage then you would treat other people in this way and that doesn't provoke moral goodness. Instead, he suggested that before we make any moral decision, we must imagine it being universalised. For example, dropping litter would mean I'm allowing everyone on the planet to drop litter. Similarly, if I lie, I am allowing everyone else in the world to lie. This would be impossible to universalise realistically since, if everyone lied, our moral decisions would be based on false information. So, I must not lie or do anything which would provoke badness universally. 
  • Secondly, Kant taught that we must not use humans as a means to an end. This is where Kantianism becomes human centric. We must not make other rational beings suffer, this is not a good way of exercising our good will. E.g Analogy of the Axeman. 
  • The third maxim that Kant introduced was a kingdom of ends. This suggests that we are in charge of our own moral compass and thus should use our reasoning to decide what's right and what's wrong. We should not use other people and we must not let them use us. 
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Application of Kantian Ethics

  • Stem cell research: Assuming that an embyo is a human being, we must not conduct stem cell research. This would mean using the embryo as a means to an end - using the embryo for our own personal gain, to find out more about stem cells. Additionally, this principle would not work universally since it would mean killing all future human embryos. 
  • Atom bomb: Justifying dropping an atom bomb on Hiroshima is defended on utilitarian grounds, however, in Kantian ethics, this would be a morally bad action. This is because the Japanese people were used as a means to an end - using the Japanese to bring the war to a close. 
  • Prison: If we imprison someone because they are a dangerous person and we need to keep them away from society, this means using them as a means to an end. If we imprison them because they need reforming, this is taking away their free will. 
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Strengths and Weaknesses of the Categorical Impera


  • Universal, can used in any situation. 
  • Legalistic and absolutist - more reliable than relative or situationist approaches. 
  • Humans become more altruistic through Kantian ethics. 
  • Everyone receives the same treatment. 
  • Everyone is treated with dignity and respect. 


  • Ignores the pull of desires, emotions and human instinct. 
  • Relies on an after-life an God for us to be able to act morally (since humans don't usually perform actions of their own accord''. 
  • Can we really have a general rule which we have to apply in every situation?
  • Humans have moved away from absolutism and legalism. 
  • Jean Paul Sartre and moral dilemmas - the story of the man with a dead father and a widowed mother. 
  • Peter Singer, argues its too human centric. 
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