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  • Kant’s ethics is deontological, that is, duty is to be performed for the sake of duty alone without regard for the consequences. He asserts that morality must be based solely on reason.
  • He maintains that apart from theoretical aspect (Pure Reason), reason has a practical component as well, which guides us in deciding our course of action. He calls it Practical Reason.
  • Further, Kant points out that morality does not depend on particular societies, it does not depend on feelings or desires. Morality, for him, consists solely of rational principles.
  • Kant’s important ethical works: Ground Work of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788) & Metaphysic of Morals (1797).

Good Will:

  • According to Kant, Good Will is the only thing which is good without qualification. Good Will is good in itself, not because of its effects.
  • It is unconditioned good. Wealth, intelligence and talents are not unconditionally good. They can be abused by a bad will. They can be good only when they are used by a Good Will.
  • Good Will is the moral will, it is the power of rational agent to act for the sake of duty only. However, Kant believes that human beings are partly perfect, they have desires, instincts etc. which act as obstacles in the path of Good Will.
  • Again, Good Will is different from Holy Will. God alone possesses ‘Holy Will’, there are no duties for God. There are no obstacles to prevent the manifestation of Holy Will.


  • Kant points out that agent shall have highest regard for the duty or law. But duty or law must not be imposed by external authorities (Heteronomy). An action, according to Kant, has no moral significance if it is based on an external law.
  • We act morally only when we act in accordance with a law that we freely accept and impose on ourselves (Autonomy). But the question is how can we formulate such principles of action (duties) or laws?
  • Kant answers by saying through the principle of Universalizability, which states that: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Kant maintains that a law must be universal; it must be applicable in all cases without any exception, like the laws of nature.
  • Thus, a subjective principle of action (maxim) can become a law (objective principle of action) only if the agent grants that everyone under the given circumstances should be doing the same.
  • For instance, breaking a promise can never become a duty or law, since it cannot be universalized. Again, suicide is morally wrong because it cannot become a universal law.

Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives:

  • Kant regards moral law as categorical imperative. It is called ‘categorical’ in the sense that it is ‘universal’ and ‘unconditional’, that is, it must be obeyed without any exception.
  • It acts as an imperative to us, because human beings are only partly rational. Performance of duty is not a part of our nature.
  • Kant distinguishes between categorical and hypothetical imperative. Unlike categorical imperative, hypothetical imperative is conditioned by some end/goal/purpose.
  • It has ‘if —then’ form, for example, ‘if you want to become a civil servant then you should study tenaciously’. Hypothetical imperative has nothing to do with morality.
  • Categorical imperative, on the other hand, asks us to do our duty for the sake of duty alone, there is no further end to be achieved. DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS OF KANT (1724-1804)

Duties: Perfect & Imperfect

  • According to Kant, Categorical Imperatives give us two kinds of duties- Perfect and Imperfect. Perfect duties prescribe a single course of action while Imperfect duties can be carried out variously.
  • Perfect duties are those that admit of no exception, the denial of the maxim cannot be conceived without contradiction. For example, the duty not to commit suicide, paying a debt and keeping a promise.
  • Imperfect duties, on the other hand, are those that admit of some exception. These are duties that are expected from us at some times but not all the time. For example, duty to give to charity and cultivating a natural talent.

Formula of the End:

  • According to Kant, human beings are an end in themselves and not means. He says, we should act in such a way whereby we treat humanity, both in our own person as well as in the person of every other, never simply as a means but always as an end.
  • Thus, it would be wrong to commit suicide, since it would be inconsistent with the ideal of humanity as an end in itself. Likewise, making false promise is equivalent to treating one as a means.
  • The principle of human dignity can play an important role in contemporary debates on issues of human rights, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and so on.

Formula of the Kingdom of Ends:

  • Kant says, act as a member of a kingdom of ends. He envisages ‘kingdom of ends’ as an ideal society in which every person would act in a rational way, follow the categorical imperative and thereby live in perfect harmony with others. DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS OF KANT (1724-1804)

Postulates of Morality:

The postulates of morality are the fundamental metaphysical assumptions which, according to Kant, are required in order to develop a consistent moral system.

  1. Freedom of the will: According to Kant, freedom of the will is necessary for voluntary action and moral responsibility. He says, ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, that is, morality implies freedom of the will. If the will is not free, morality becomes impossible. Thus, freedom is presupposed by moral obligation.
  2. Immortality of the soul: Morality consists in overcoming the conflict of desire with duty, but desire cannot be eliminated in a finite life. One needs to be persistent through an infinite life in order to become virtuous. Further, there must be an afterlife where there will be a perfect harmony of virtue with happiness and vice with pain.
  3. Existence of God: According to Kant, morality necessitates that virtue should be rewarded with happiness and vice be punished with pain. Virtue is the moral good and virtue and happiness constitute the complete good (highest good) or Summum Bonum. Thus, Kant states that there must be a God, who will harmonise virtue with happiness in future life.

Critical points:

  1. Kant’s ethics is formalistic. He does not recognize the significance of sensibility in moral life. He maintains that reason and sensibility are completely opposite to each other.
  2. However, there are many thinkers who have acknowledged the role of positive emotions, such as love and compassion, in ethics. Perhaps Kant is not absolutely justified in maintaining that sensibility is necessarily irrational.
  3. Kant makes his ethics too rigorous by excluding all exceptions to moral laws. However, some actions are right simply because they are exceptions, e.g., 36 martyrdom and celibacy are moral because they are exceptions. Also, in some cases, it can be ethically permissible to lie in order to save lives.
  4. According to some, we cannot act in blind obedience to the law, after all the law is, made for the sake of people and not people for the sake of the law.
  5. According to some, Kant’s conception of the Complete Good as the harmony of virtue with happiness implies his recognition of moral ends. In other words, Kant’s formalistic ethics also contains elements of teleological ethics.
  6. According to critics, Kant’s second formula states that people should never use other human beings as a mere means to their own ends. But it does not say anything about animals and the environment. Does that mean people can use these as means for their ends? Perhaps Kant’s position needs to be understood in a broader perspective to ward off such wrong implications. DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS OF KANT (1724-1804)




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