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Immanuel Kant’s Deontological Ethics/Moral Law

There are mainly three important concepts in Kant’s moral philosophy: GOOD WILL,
DUTY, and CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE. Kant argues that moral law is categorical. But before you
proceed on to discuss his concept of moral law, we need to focus on his notions of ‘Good Will’
and ‘Duty’ first. Kant’s two main ethical writings include Groundwork of the Metaphysic of
Morals and Critique of Practical Reason.

KANT’S CONCEPT OF GOOD WILL (mw`”Qv)


Kant begins the First Section of the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals with a
statement that is one of the most memorable in all his writings: “Nothing in the World – indeed
nothing even beyond the world – can possibly be conceived which could be called good without
qualification (webvk‡Z©) except a GOOD WILL.” (393) Here Kant indicates that the identifying
mark of a good will is that it is good “without limitation or qualification (webvk‡Z© ev
wbi¼ykfv‡e).” In order to explain what he means by this expression Kant contrasts it (Good
Will) with other goods. All other goods, he tells us, are good only relatively (Av‡cw¶Kfv‡e). He
mentions three sets of relative or conditional (kZ©vaxb) goods and classifies the first two under
the heading “gifts of nature (cªK„wZi `vb).” Among the many gifts of nature are those he refers
to as “talents of mind (g‡bi cªwZfvmg~n).” Understanding (eyw×), wit (imÁvb), and judgment
(wePvi¶gZv) count as gifts of nature, presumably, because we owe our possession of them, at
least in part, to some inborn capacity. They are goods insofar as they provide some benefit
either to those who have them or to others. Kant likewise categorizes “qualities of
temperament (m¡fveMZ ¸Yvewj)” as gifts of nature. These include character traits such as
“courage (mvnwmKZv), resolution (msKíwPËZv), and perseverance (mn¨¶gZv) in one’s plans.”
Kant refers to the second kind of relative good as “gifts of fortune (fv‡M¨i Ae`vb).”
These gifts are bestowed upon us not by nature but by circumstance. Some of us, at some point
in our lives, are fortunate enough to enjoy goods such as power (¶gZv), riches (abm¤ú`), honor
(mg§vb), health (m¡v¯’¨), and happiness (myL). But not even happiness, which Kant defines here
as the “complete well-being and satisfaction with one’s condition (m¡v”Q›`¨ I Avcbvi Ae¯’’vq
Zywó‡eva),” is an unconditional good, on his account.
Qualities such as courage and kindness play no part in giving our wills unqualified value
and so no part in making us morally good persons. Further, Kant lists other qualities many of
which associate with being a good person, qualities such as “moderation in affects and
passions, self-control and calm reflection”, and declares these and like qualities are “conducive
to this good will itself” and that they “can make its work much easier” (G 4:393–4). Kant writes:
Even if, by some special disfavour of destiny, or by the niggardly endowment of
stepmotherly nature, this will is entirely lacking in power to carry out its
intentions, if by its utmost effort it still accomplishes nothing, and only good will
is left . . . even then it would still shine like a jewel for its own sake as something
which has its full value in itself. (G, 394)
Indeed, Kant claims that a good will, because of the weakness of the character in which
it is housed, might be utterly unable and unsuited to carry out any of its noble goals, goals such

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as fostering the well-being of those around her and improving herself and her own character (G
4:394). Nevertheless, and again surprisingly, the person possessed of such a will would be a
morally good person.
Kant’s point is that conditional or relative goods can become “extremely evil and
harmful” if the will which is to make use of them “is not good.” His claim here is that these
goods are only conditionally good because they are not necessarily accompanied by a good
“character” or will. Unless they are accompanied by a good will, they can become “extremely
evil.” Even goods that are “conducive” to the good will and “make its work easier” (goods such
as “moderation in affects and passions” and “self-control”) lack unconditional worth, on this
account. They lack unconditional worth because it may happen that these traits are
accompanied by a will that is not good. As Kant observes, a “scoundrel (`yóRb ev cvwR)” may
possess qualities of self-control and calmness of reflection, qualities that aid him in achieving
his ends. But these qualities are only relatively good. Far from necessarily attaching to a will
that is good, they attach to the will of a scoundrel (394). This is also the reason why Kant claims
that not even happiness is unconditionally good; even happiness can be achieved by persons of
bad character. What is unconditionally good, in Kant’s view, is the person who, because of her
admirable character, is worthy of happiness (393). Such a person is motivated in the right kind
of way. That is to say, happiness is good only insofar as one is worthy of it, and one is worthy of
happiness only by possessing a good will.
Kant claims that the effects of our actions are of no relevance in our assessments of
character. In his words, the worth of a good will has to do “only” with its volition. A good will’s
“usefulness or fruitlessness” can neither add nor subtract from its worth. Kant holds that the
unconditional goodness of a good will is a function of what motivates (D‡Ïk¨ ev Awfcªvq) it. He
is explicit about this point when he writes that a good will is unconditionally good not because
of “what it effects or accomplishes . . . but only because of its volition (B”Qve„wË)” (394). Kant
distinguishes between conditional goodness and unconditional goodness. Something is
conditionally good just in case there is some condition that must be met for it to be good. Its
value depends on a condition, typically on the condition that some other thing is good. So a
given good thing is conditionally good when some other thing’s goodness is a condition of the
given good thing’s goodness. For instance, surgery is a good thing – but only on the condition
that some other thing, the thing it produces, is good, such as health. Money is a good thing –
but, again, only on the condition that there are other valuable things, things that it can be
exchanged for. Otherwise, it is just paper and metal, as it might become were one stranded on
a deserted island with a fat wallet. In each case, there is some good thing – health, things to
buy – whose value is the condition of the value of some other good thing – surgery and money.
Kant claims that, in some such way, everything other than a good will has a condition of its
goodness. The will’s goodness, additionally, is supposed to be the condition of the goodness of
everything that has value. That is, Kant believes that nothing is good unless the will of the
person who possesses it is good. And, unlike every other valuable thing, there is no further
condition of a good will’s value. That is, there is no other thing distinct from the good will such
that its value is the condition of the good will’s value.
Another aspect of Kant’s views on the value of a good will is that it is intrinsically good,
in the sense that it is “good in itself” (G 4:394). Kant clarifies what he means in saying that a
good will is good in itself by saying that it is good “only by virtue of its willing (volition)” (G

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4:394). Being disposed to volition seems to be an intrinsic property of the will. So at least part
of his meaning in saying that a good will is “good in itself” and “only by virtue of its willing” is
that a will is intrinsically valuable when its intrinsic properties are what make it valuable. A
thing’s intrinsic properties are those properties that it could still have regardless of how we
might change the circumstances around the spatio-temporal region inhabited by the thing. And
the only intrinsic property of a will is the volition that characterizes it.
In light of Kant’s claim that the goodness of a good will derives not from what it “effects
or accomplishes” but from its “volition,” it is easy to understand why his moral theory is often
classified as deontological. It is indeed accurate to attribute to him the view that the actual
consequences of an agent’s willing are irrelevant in determining the goodness of that agent’s
willing.

KANT’S CONCEPT OF DUTY (KZ©‡e¨i aviYv)


For Kant, a good will, then, is a will that acts from duty. In order to clear what Kant
means by saying that a good will is a will that acts from duty he distinguishes a will that acts
from duty from a will that is motivated in other ways. Kant sets aside, in the first place, “all
actions which are recognized as opposed to duty” (396), and, secondly, “actions which are
really in accordance with duty and to which no one has direct inclination, rather doing them
because impelled to do so by another inclination.” (396) Kant provides examples of four kinds
of motivational grounds of action. Only the fourth describes a will that acts from duty. Only the
fourth, then, is an example of the motivation of a good will. Kant discusses the other three
kinds of cases for purposes of contrast.
Case 1: Acting in a way that is obviously contrary to duty (KZ©‡e¨i ms‡M we‡ivac~Y©) (397)
Kant writes that he will “pass over” actions that are “already recognized as contrary to
duty.” Although Kant provides no examples, he probably has something like the following in
mind: Suppose that, while taking an exam, you notice a classmate engaged in an act of
cheating. Presumably, she does so because she believes this may help her get a good grade. In
cheating, she is clearly not much bothered by the fact that she is stealing the work of another
and very likely upsetting the fair distribution of grades. In a case like this, Kant says, the
question “never arises” whether the action is performed from duty. The question never arises,
because no one would for a moment consider it appropriate to characterize the cheater’s will
as good. Her cheating behavior is clear evidence that she acts contrary to duty.
Case 2: Acting in conformity with duty (KZ©e¨ Abyhvqx) but not from immediate inclination
(mv¶vr ev cªZ¨¶ cªeYZv n‡Z bq) (397)
Second kinds of actions are not performed from duty, for Kant; they are nevertheless “in
conformity with duty” (KZ©e¨ Abyhvqx). Example: “[I]t certainly conforms with duty that a
shopkeeper not overcharge an inexperienced customer, and where there is a good deal of trade
a prudent merchant does not overcharge but keeps a fixed general price for everyone, so that a
child can buy from him as well as everyone else. People are thus served honestly; but this is not
nearly enough for us to believe that the merchant acted in this way from duty and basic
principles of honesty.” (397)
Merchant’s actions conform with duty because he keeps a “fixed general price for
everyone” and does not overcharge. His customers are thus “served honestly,” as Kant says.

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Kant goes on to point out that the reason why the merchant keeps a “fixed general price for
everyone” is because “his advantage required it.” The merchant has established that honesty
pays. He calculates that, should it become public knowledge that he overcharges his
inexperienced customers, he risks damaging his reputation and thus also his business. He
charges a fair price not because he is committed to “principles of honesty,” but “merely for
purposes of self-interest.” Had he no reason to fear that he might be exposed for overcharging,
he would overcharge. Kant’s here is focusing on merchant’s behavior, not on his intention or
principle of volition.
Kant tells us that these kinds of actions are those “to which human beings have no
inclination immediately and which they still perform because they are impelled to do so
through another inclination.” The merchant in Kant’s example receives no immediate
gratification from treating his customers honestly. He does not really want to serve them
honestly; he is not at this point in time particularly inclined to do so. He certainly is not honest,
Kant says, “from love” for his customers. He acts honestly only because he is “impelled to do so
through another inclination” – the thought that his good behavior will eventually benefit him.
He acts from inclination, but the inclination that motivates him is for a future reward. In this
sense, the inclination is not “immediate.” Kant turns his attention to examples of acting from
immediate inclination in Case 3.
Case 3. Acting in conformity with duty (KZ©e¨ Abyhvqx) and from immediate inclination
(mv¶vr ev cªZ¨¶ cªeYZv n‡Z) (397–398)
At least most of the time, everyone has an “immediate inclination,” Kant says, to
preserve his own life (397). But there is an important difference between preserving one’s life
from immediate inclination and doing so from duty. He wants to convince us that the person
who preserves his life from immediate inclination has “no inner worth,” and his principle of
intention has “no moral content.” Why not? Kant asks us to contrast the case of a person who
preserves his life because he enjoys it, with that of a person who preserves his life even though
he suffers from “adversity and hopeless grief.” If this second person preserves his life “without
loving it,” he does so for some reason other than to gratify immediate inclination. What
motivates him, Kant says, is duty.
To further clarify the contrast between acting from duty and acting from immediate
inclination, Kant describes a sympathetic soul who, “without any other motive of vanity or self-
interest” finds “inner satisfaction in spreading joy.” In spreading joy, this “philanthropist (gvbe-
wn‰Zlx)” indeed acts in conformity with duty. His behavior is certainly in line with what duty
demands. Nonetheless, his beneficent actions have “no true moral worth,” on Kant’s account.
As in the example of the merchant, what motivates the beneficent philanthropist is not duty
but inclination. The only difference is that the philanthropist acts from immediate inclination.
The philanthropist genuinely enjoys spreading joy. He derives gratification from doing so now;
unlike the merchant, he is not merely counting on some eventual reward. Kant grants that the
philanthropist’s kindness and generosity deserve “praise and encouragement”; but Kant also
thinks we will all agree that actions of this kind are not worthy of “esteem.”
Case 4: Acting from duty – Duty for Duty’s Sake (KZ‡©e¨i LvwZ‡i KZ©e¨) (398)
Kant finally introduces us to examples of actions performed from duty. He asks us to
imagine that the philanthropist’s circumstances change and he is overcome with grief. Because
the philanthropist is now preoccupied with his own troubles, he no longer has the inclination to

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sympathize with the plight of others. Kant asks us to suppose that, even though the
philanthropist now lacks the desire to do so, he nonetheless “tears himself out of this deadly
insensibility” and reaches out to help others. Here, for the first time, Kant says, we have an
example of what is involved in acting “simply from duty.” Here, finally, is an instance of
“genuine moral worth (weky× ev LuvwU ‰bwZK g~j¨).”
Notice that in describing this as a case of “genuine moral worth,” Kant refers to the
philanthropist’s will. Kant is concerned to emphasize the sense in which this fourth case differs
from the other cases. What is different is the grieving philanthropist’s will – the fact that he is
motivated by duty. This is likewise true of the example Kant next considers. In this example, a
man is “by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others.” If he nonetheless
finds “within himself a source from which to give himself a far higher worth than what a mere
good-natured temperament might have,” then, in being beneficent from duty, the man
demonstrates his good character. Like the grieving philanthropist, this man has a good will.
Based on the above analysis, we can now formulate Kant’s first proposition of duty as:
An action has moral worth, not because it is done from inclination, but because it is done for
the sake of duty (399).
Kant’s second proposition about duty is: “An action done from duty does not have its
moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim whereby it is
determined.” (399) If an action does not derive its moral worth from results sought, it must
derive its worth from its motive, and this motive must be other than a mere desire to produce
certain results. Kant expresses this by saying that an action derives its moral worth from its
maxim. A maxim is a principle upon which we act. Kant calls it ‘subjective’ principle, meaning by
this a principle on which a rational agent does act – a principle manifested in actions which are
in fact performed. An ‘objective’ principle, on the other hand, is one on which every rational
agent would necessarily act if reason has full control over his passions. Objective principles are
thus valid for every rational agent, and they may be called ‘principles of reason’ or ‘practical
laws.’
Maxims that are based on sensuous inclinations Kant calls a posteriori maxims: they
depend on our experience of desire. Maxims not based on sensuous inclinations Kant calls a
priori maxims. A posteriori maxims are also called material maxims: they referred to the desired
ends which the action attempt to realize, and these ends are the matter of the maxim. A priori
maxims are called formal maxims: they do not refer to desired ends which the action attempts
to realize.
For Kant, the maxim which gives moral worth to actions is the maxim or principle of
doing one’s duty whatever one’s duty may be. Such a maxim is empty of any particular matter:
it is not a maxim of satisfying particular desires or attaining particular results. In Kant’s
language, it is a formal maxim. To act for the sake of duty is to act on a formal maxim, a maxim
independent of the desired ends which the action seeks to produce.
Kant’s third proposition about duty is: “Duty is the necessity of an action done from
respect for the law.” (400) Kant tells us that this third proposition is “a consequence of” the
preceding two. According to the first proposition, a good will is motivated by duty. According to
the second, the moral worth of a good will derives from its maxim or principle of volition, and
that principle of volition must be formal or a priori. The third proposition asserts that a will that
is good acts “from respect for law” (400). By law Kant means law as such. To act for the sake of

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duty is to act out of the respect for law as such. And the essential characteristic of law as such is
universality, that is to say, strict universality which must hold for all cases and admit of no
exceptions. In Kant’s technical language, universality is the form of the law. Whatever a law
may be about it must have the form of universality; for unless it is universal, it is not a law at all.

KANT’S CONCEPTION OF MORAL LAW OR CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE


In our discussion thus far, we determined that the law of reason that commands our
will, according to Kant, is the law that expresses our duty. But this still does not inform us about
the content of the law. That is, it tells us nothing about what the law specifically requires. In
Section II Kant prepares the way for the account he will eventually provide of the content or
meaning of the supreme law of practical reason, the law he comes to identify as the
“categorical imperative.” As a first step, he introduces a distinction between imperatives that
are “categorical” and those that are “hypothetical.”
Hypothetical versus Categorical Imperatives: All imperatives command actions in the service of
achieving some purpose or end. In Kant’s more technical terms, an imperative is a “practical
law” that “represents a possible action as good and thus as necessary for a subject practically
determinable by reason” (414). When defining an imperative, Kant makes a distinction between
command and imperative. “The conception of an objective principle, in so far as it is obligatory
for a will, is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an
imperative.” (413) All imperatives are expressed by an ‘ought’. Now, for Kant all imperatives
command either hypothetically or categorically.
Generally speaking, hypothetical imperatives, for Kant, have merely conditional or
relative validity. They are of the following form: “Given that I will to achieve X, I ought to do Y.”
Kant rejects all hypothetical imperatives as qualifying for the title of moral imperative. It
remains, therefore, that the moral imperative must be categorical. That is to say, it must
command actions, not as means to any end, but as good in themselves. It is what Kant calls an
apodictic (m¡-wfwËK) imperative. “The categorical imperative which declares an action to be
objectively necessary in itself without reference to any purpose, i.e., without any other end, is
valid as an apodictic (practical) principle.” (415)

Formulas of the Categorical Imperatives:

Kant presented three formulas of the Categorical Imperatives-

1. Formula of Universal Law. (FUL)


2. Formula of Humanity. (FH)
3. Formula of the Kingdom of Ends (FKE)

Formula of Universal Law (FUL)

“Always act in such a way that you can will that the maxim (rule) behind your action can be
willed as a universal law”.

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FUL commands that we can only act on maxims that we can universalize. Kant discusses the FUL
with four examples of specific duties: duties we have to ourselves, and duties we have to
others. Second, duties are either perfect or imperfect.

a. Perfect duty to oneself: to preserves one’s own life

Kant explains why it is wrong for me to kill myself when misfortunes push me to the point of
despair. The maxim of this action is “From self-love, I make it my principle to shorten my life if
its continuance threatens eviler than it promises pleasure.” But a law of nature of this sort
would be contradictory. The self-love principle inclines me to preserve my life, but according to
this maxim, it also inclines me to end my life.

b. Perfect duties to others: the duty not to tell a false promise

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The clearest of the four examples is this: Suppose I borrow money from you promising to return
it later, but I know well that I will not return it. The intended maxim or guiding principle behind
my action is this: “Whenever I believe myself short of money, I will borrow money and promise
to pay it back, though I know that this will never be done.” Kant then explains that a
contradiction arises once I view this maxim as a universal rule. Specifically, if such deceit were
followed universally, then the whole institution of promising would be undermined and I could
not make my promise to begin with.
c. Imperfect duty to oneself: the duty to develop one’s talent

In a third example, Kant explains why I must develop my talents rather than let them waste
away. The maxim of the contrary action might be something like “I will let my talents decay and
devote my life to idleness.” Kant concedes that this maxim by itself is not contradictory since in
theory everyone could become an idle slug. However, the contradiction emerges when I
willfully assert this maxim while, at the same time, acknowledging my inherent rational
obligation to develop my talents.
d. Imperfect duty to others: the duty of benevolence

In a final example, Kant explains why it is wrong to be uncharitable. The maxim of this action
might be “I will not help someone in need.” Similar to the last example, a contradiction arises
when I willfully assert this maxim while at the same time acknowledging my inherent rational
obligation to receive charity when I am in need.
From these four examples, two different types of contradictions emerge. The first example in
particular involves an internal contradiction within the proposed universal rule; the last two
involve a contradiction between the proposed universal rule and another inherently rational
obligation.

Formula of Humanity (FH)


“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the
person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

In other words, we should not use people as objects, but instead recognize the inherent dignity
and value that we all have. It helps to understand Kant’s point if we distinguish between things
that have merely instrumental value and things that have inherent value. Some things in life are
valuable only as instruments to obtain something else.

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Kant believes that human beings have inherent value and should never be treated as
instruments. The reason humans have inherent value, according to Kant, is because, unlike
animals, we have the ability to rise above our brute instincts and to freely make crucial
decisions in shaping our lives and the world around us. Everything else in the world is driven by
purely mechanistic forces, but we are different with our ability to make free choices. This
freedom of the will is a feature of our human reason, and it confers on us an inherent dignity
that is valuable in and of itself. So, when I treat someone as an end, I respect her inherent
value; and when I treat someone as a means, I see her as having only instrumental value.
Kant again illustrates this formula with the same four examples that we considered earlier.
a. If I make a deceitful promise to you with the intention of acquiring financial gain, then
I’m treating you as a thing or instrument and not recognizing your inherent value.
b. If I commit suicide, then I am using myself as a means to attain a tolerable state of
affairs until the point that I’m actually dead.
c. If I let my talents decline, then I am not acknowledging my inherent worth as a
rational person who shapes the world through my decisions; I’m not treating myself as an end.
d. And if I fail to help people in need, then I am not helping them maintain their dignity;
I’m failing to treat them as an end.

The first two examples illustrate the negative obligation to avoid treating people as a means,
and the last two illustrate the positive obligation to undertake treating people as an end.
Kant’s first two formulations of the categorical imperative are the most famous of the four and
he devotes the most attention to these. The remaining two formulations draw from the central
points of both the first and second formulations.
Formula of Autonomy. (FA)
“So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its
maxims.”
The focus of this formula is the authority that rests within our human will to productively shape
the world around us when following reason. As we act, we should consider whether our
intended maxims are worthy of our status as shapers of the world.

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Formula of The Kingdom of Ends (FKE) :
“So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”

The point here is that the moral fate of all people hangs together. We saw that Kant thinks of
human beings as ends in themselves, and so, collectively, we are a “kingdom of ends” or, more
simply, a moral community. As I act, I should consider whether my actions contribute to or
detract from the moral community. Specifically, I should consider whether the intended maxim
of my action could productively function as a universal rule in the moral community.
Kant offered the categorical imperative as the supreme principle of morality from which
all moral duties emerge. The categorical imperative originates from human reason—as opposed
to selfish inclinations—and Kant argued that it can be formulated in different ways,
emphasizing different components of human reason. The Formula of the Law of Nature
suggests that truly moral actions are those that are free from contradiction when universalized.
The Formula of the End in Itself suggests that truly moral actions are those that acknowledge
and support a person’s dignity and inherent value. The Formula of the Law of Nature does not
depart much from traditional duty theory, and the true contribution of the categorical
imperative is the Formula of the End in Itself, with its emphasis on the intrinsic value and
dignity of people.

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