The Moral Philosophy of Immanuel Kant

The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant was a true philosopher. Despite decades of poverty, he explored almost all areas of philosophical inquiry  metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, teleology and politics.

His Critique of Practical Reason and Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals have been the basis of his ethical philosophy. Kant was one of its kind and distinguished himself from the rationalists and the empiricists of his time by formulating his deontological ethics and defining his so-called categorical imperative. Kants ethics remain to this day the basis of Christian philosophy and almost all religious and national laws.

Imperative. Kant defines an imperative as any proposition that declares a certain action or inaction to be necessary and practical. However although the action may be practical, it may not be necessarily perfect in that an imperative may direct a will that does not recognize what is moral and what is not (Kant 413).

Hypothetical Imperative. The hypothetical imperative compels action in any given circumstance and that it indicates an action as the best or only means to an end that an individual has (414). Hypothetical imperatives are but a mere indication that one action is most likely to have such a given end. If, for example, one wants to do A, then he should do B. However, the hypothetical imperative does not imply that one really ought to do B, which means he can choose not to do B if he wants to do A, or even choose not to do A at all. One example of a hypothetical imperative is If you are thirsty, you ought to drink. This particular example implies that the most consistent means to quenching ones thirst is to drink nevertheless, the imperative does not imply that by all means one really has to drink, or that drinking is a moral duty.

The problem with the aforementioned example of hypothetical imperative if we have to use them as a basis for moral judgment is that we do not know for certain whether the quenching of the thirst is really a legitimate goal, and whether the act of drinking will actually produce such a result. Thus, hypothetical imperatives cannot be used as a basis for morality.

Categorical Imperative. The categorical imperative, on the other hand, states what one ought to do under certain circumstances. The categorical imperative requires that if wants to do A, then he really ought to do B, and that doing B is of an absolute necessity, is considered a moral duty, and is therefore unconditional (420). The categorical imperative implies that the requirement of morality is that we act directly and unconditionally and not that we act in certain ways as to achieve some end or purpose (417). If, therefore, you have promised to love someone forever, then you ought to love him forever. The reason behind this is not the same as that with hypothetical imperatives but that the idea of fulfilling ones promise is a moral duty, regardless of the circumstances.

The First Formulation. For an imperative to be a categorical imperative or a true moral proposition, Kant proposes that it should possess universality, which means that it must not concern itself with the particular physical details and circumstances surrounding the present situation including the identity of the individual who is making a moral deliberation.

Kant therefore states that there is only one categorical imperative and it is this Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. (421)

If, for example, one borrows some money and promises to return the money at a fixed time, then it is his moral duty to do so (422). This is classified as a perfect duty, which is blameworthy if not met (424). This means that if the notion of promising to pay back yet not doing so is universalized, based on the first formulation of the categorical imperative, then there would be no promises at all and no such thing as honest transactions.

The Second Formulation. Another characteristic of the categorical imperative is that it should not only be a principle but also an end in itself unlike hypothetical imperatives. Thus, if a hypothetical imperative goes like, If you want to do A, you should do B, the categorical imperative should go like, Do B, for doing B is an end in itself and not a means to any other end like A.

Kant therefore states, Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end. (428)
If, for example, you think you should help others in order for you to achieve fame and success, then, according to Kant, you are not acting out of moral duty for if you are, then you will be helping others as an end in itself. The same goes true with the hypothetical imperative that one should do good things in order that he goes to heaven. For Kant, true morality is doing ones moral duty without concerning himself with the results. (417)

Moral Duty. Kant formulates the moral law in terms of duty and the categorical imperative (the definition of which is found in Question A) because of a number of reasons.

One of these reasons is the weakness of the hypothetical imperative if used as a basis of morality. A hypothetical imperative always presupposes an end to a certain action (414). Therefore, if it is used as a moral basis, it would then imply that in order for an action to be moral it has to have a certain practically good end. Following this line of reasoning, one would conclude that the act of cheating is moral just because it can result in a practically good end such as getting a high score in the test. Similarly, the hypothetical imperative will consider the act of stealing as also practically good for it can bring about more wealth and happiness to the household. However, with the first formulation of the categorical imperative, all of the aforementioned examples of practical goodness fall short of the qualities of a moral proposition. Kants ethics is certainly not synonymous with utilitarianism, and that the notion of moral duty is certainly different from the notion of moral practicality.

Another reason for the categorical imperative is the basis for perfect duty. Perfect duty refers to categorical imperatives that are blameworthy if they are not met (424). For example, it is a perfect duty to fulfill a promise, for if the act of not fulfilling a promise is universalized then we would not have any promises at all. If perfect duties are therefore disregarded, then we would certainly have such a new value system that would replace all the good virtues in it. Although this may be logically challenged such as proposing that the centuries-old system of fulfilling promises were totally evil, still Kants categorical imperative stands by saying that the non-fulfillment of promises presupposes the nonexistence of many other virtues such as peace and love. Furthermore, it also presupposes the existence of many other evils.

Perhaps a third reason is the basis for imperfect duty. An imperfect duty is not morally binding and you do not deserve blame should you not fulfill it but instead you will receive praise (424). If, therefore, the basis of morality were only the hypothetical imperatives and not this imperfect duty, then there would definitely be no room for improvement and development in this world. One example of imperfect duty is the cultivation of ones talents. If, however, one look at this not as an end in itself but as a means to an end, then there is the danger of not being able to think of a worthy end leaving him disillusioned. However, if one considers cultivation of talents an imperfect duty and an end in itself, one will have no reason not to do it and someday the fruits of such act will just present themselves.

Kant teaches us that an action is good not because it has good results as what the utilitarians say, nor is it wise as the rationalists contend, but that it is done in obedience to this inner sense of duty  the categorical imperative. Kant therefore encourages us to follow the moral law regardless of profit or loss to ourselves. One should never mind his happiness one should do his duty. For Kant, morality is not about making oneself happy but rather making oneself worthy of happiness.


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