Kant's moral theory



  • 1724-1804, German
  • Part of the European enlightenmentquestioned traditional authority + superstition and instead aimed to deal with the world through rationality.
  • Believed that people have an inherent sense of right and wrong → we experience moral choice.
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  • Kant's moral theory is deontological: concerned with duties and what is rightirrespective of consequences → people have a duty to perform the right actions, even if they produce negative results.
  • Unlike religious deontological theories, the rules (maxims) found in Kant's theory derive from human reason.
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  • Kant was a rationalist: he believed that we are born with certain categories of thought which allow us to interpret the world; reason is the foundation of certainty, not experience.
  • Kant argued that ethical statements are not analytic (true by definition) or a posteriori (knowable through experience) INSTEAD, he argued that ethical statements are A PRIORI SYNTHETIC → a priori as they are knowable without reference to experience (based on reason alone) and synthetic because they require justification by reference to some outside principle.
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  • Kant believed that actions are morally right in virtue of their motives, which must derive from a sense of duty rather than anything else. For example, not committing a robbery because you were too scared is not acting in a morally good way; you should refrain from robbery because it is your duty not to.
  • However other reasons for acting do not stop an action from being right, so long as duty was the 'operational reason' for our action.
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Three postulates underpin Kant's theory:

  • FREEDOM: if it wasn't possible for us to do something, we would never get a sense that we 'ought' to; we are free because we experience the moral law. Freedom is a practical necessity of morality 
  • GOD: Because we feel obliged to do things, the world must have been designed or set up to entail the fact that doing the right thing leads to happiness; there must be some transcendent cause (God) otherwise our actions would not matter.
  • IMMORTALITY: Those who follow moral obligation often do not achieve the good they are aiming for in life. The fact that we still follow our duty shows that we are looking beyond this life.
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  • SUMMUM BONUM - 'supreme good'/ highest happiness - community of content and morally good people. Cannot be reached in this world - there are always people who are not dutiful. Kant reasoned that for this 'highest good' to be achieved, life must continue after death.
  • The summum bonum is therefore recieved in the afterlife, as a reward to those who acted out of duty. It is a happy and fulfilled state of mind. A necessary reward, because without it, it would not be rational to act morally. - it ensures justice to those who have acted dutifully.To obtain the summum bonum, one must follow the categorical imperative and accept the three postulates. 
  • Does NOT make Kant's approach teleological (concerned with consequences) because if one acts morally only to obtain the summum bonum then they have not acted dutifully, so will not gain any reward. The summum bonum is not a goal, it is the just result of acting dutifully. 
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The categorical imperative is a formula to determine the correctness of actions. It is binding in all circumstances and applies to everyone at all times → to act for the sake of duty only.

  • UNIVERSALISATION: 'One should act in a way that one would will it that one's actions should become a universal law' →essentially, if you are not willing for the ethical rule you claim to be following to be applied universally to all people, then it is not a valid moral rule.
  • TREATING PEOPLE AS ENDS RATHER THAN MEANS: you shouldn't treat people as objects, tools, or resources that are to be used to accomplish your goals.
  • ACT AS THOUGH YOU ARE A LEGISLATOR OF A 'UNIVERSAL KINGDOM OF ENDS': I cannot prescribe a rule that, if held by someone else, would result in my being treated merely as a means to end.
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