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Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) | ETHICS

Introduction | Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) | ETHICS 

  • Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the central figure in modern philosophy.
  • He synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields.
  • The fundamental idea of Kant’s “critical philosophy” – especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) – is human autonomy.
  • He argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality.
  • Therefore, scientific knowledge, morality, and religious belief are mutually consistent and secure because they all rest on the same foundation of human autonomy, which is also the final end of nature according to the teleological worldview of reflecting judgment that Kant introduces to unify the theoretical and practical parts of his philosophical system.

Immanuel Kant’s Ethical Theory

  • Kant’s ethical theory adopts a deontological approach which highlights the concept of duty and the idea of universal moral law.
  • This ethical theory has at its centre the idea of categorical imperative, as the ethical command is not hypothetical or conditional, but categorical. Kant discusses various formulations of the categorical imperative.
  • Many concepts like the cosmos, self and God, which pure reason found unable to prove, appear as essential regulative principles and postulates of morality in the context of practical reason.
  • With all these concepts, Kant initiates an ethical theory, which he thought would rationally justify a morality based on duties.

Hypothetical Imperative and Categorical Imperative | Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) | ETHICS 

  • In order to demonstrate the unconditional nature of the moral imperative, Kant distinguishes the categorical imperative from other forms of imperatives, primarily from the hypothetical imperative.
  • The latter holds only for certain limited groups of people who, under certain conditions, have certain ends in view. For eg., the statement, “if I wish to score good marks in the examination, then I should study well’, is a hypothetical imperative, as it obviously depends on certain conditions.
  • The assertorial imperatives too are conditional. For eg., the statement, “everybody seeks certain ends like happiness etc. Kant says that the hypothetical rules for attaining them are universally applicable. But they are conditional because they hold only because of the condition that people seek these ends.
  • The rules, which are to be observed in order to attain happiness, are assertorial laws. Kant does not consider such rules as constituting the part of morality, as they are conditional. For him an ethical imperative should be unconditional.
  • The hedonists on the other hand, affirm that all the laws of morality are assertorial. Kant here asserts the importance of the categorical imperative, which holds unconditionally and universally true. He finds that the moral law alone qualifies to be considered as an imperative in this sense.
  • The moral law is conceived as absolute, a priori, rational and as based on the idea of Good Will. There are no ifs and buts when it is applied.
  • It does not depend on any of our purposes or goals and in this sense Kant opposes all forms of teleological and consequentialist ethical theories that bind ethics to external conditions.

Kant’s Moral Philosophy

  • Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) argued that the supreme principle of morality is a standard of rationality that he dubbed the “Categorical Imperative” (CI).
  • Kant characterized the CI as an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow despite any natural desires or inclinations we may have to the contrary.
  • All specific moral requirements, according to Kant, are justified by this principle, which means that all immoral actions are irrational because they violate the CI. Other philosophers, such as Hobbes, Locke and Aquinas, had also argued that moral requirements are based on standards of rationality.
  • However, these standards were either instrumental principles of rationality for satisfying one’s desires, as in Hobbes, or external rational principles that are discoverable by reason, as in Locke and Aquinas.
  • Kant agreed with many of his predecessors that an analysis of practical reason reveals the requirement that rational agents must conform to instrumental principles. Yet he also argued that conformity to the CI (a non-instrumental principle), and hence to moral requirements themselves, can nevertheless be shown to be essential to rational agency.
  • This argument was based on his striking doctrine that a rational will must be regarded as autonomous, or free, in the sense of being the author of the law that binds it.
  • The fundamental principle of morality — the CI — is none other than the law of an autonomous will. Thus, at the heart of Kant’s moral philosophy is a conception of reason whose reach in practical affairs goes well beyond that of a Humean ‘slave’ to the passions.
  • Moreover, it is the presence of this self-governing reason in each person that Kant thought offered decisive grounds for viewing each as possessed of equal worth and deserving of equal respect.

Theoretical And Practical Philosophy | Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) | ETHICS 

  • Theoretical philosophy is about how the world is (A633/B661). Its highest principle is self-consciousness, on which our knowledge of the basic laws of nature is based.
  • Given sensory data, our understanding constructs experience according to these a priori laws.
  • Practical philosophy is about how the world ought to be (ibid., A800–801/B828–829).
  • Its highest principle is the moral law, from which we derive duties that command how we ought to act in specific situations. Kant also claims that reflection on our moral duties and our need for happiness leads to the thought of an ideal world, which he calls the highest good.
  • Given how the world is (theoretical philosophy) and how it ought to be (practical philosophy), we aim to make the world better by constructing or realizing the highest good.

The Highest Good And Practical Postulates

  • Kant holds that reason unavoidably produces not only consciousness of the moral law but also the idea of a world in which there is both complete virtue and complete happiness, which he calls the highest good.
  • Our duty to promote the highest good, on Kant’s view, is the sum of all moral duties, and we can fulfill this duty only if we believe that the highest good is a possible state of affairs. Furthermore, we can believe that the highest good is possible only if we also believe in the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, according to Kant.
  • On this basis, he claims that it is morally necessary to believe in the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, which he calls postulates of pure practical reason.

Criticism |Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) | ETHICS 

  • This notion of finding a universal moral standard has been criticised by philosophers who argue that because of cultural differences in societies, arriving at absolute standards of morality is not possible.
  • This approach can introduce impersonality by eliminating all the emotions for example empathy, which in certain situation can allow an individual to perform better in terms of ethics e.g. in achieving common good.
  • This approach may require actions which are known to produce harms, even though they are strictly in keeping with a particular moral rule. For example, in situations like Second World War, where German bureaucrats may justify their actions as result of duty or obligations cast up on them.
  • It also does not provide a way to determine which duty we should follow if we are presented with a situation in which two or more duties conflict.
  • It can also be rigid in applying the notion of duty to everyone regardless of personal situation.




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