Kantian Ethics

Basic Principles

  • Kant developed a deontological ethic, which implies that actions are morally right or wrong independently of their consequences.

  • The core principle of Kant’s moral philosophy is the Categorical Imperative, which is a universal moral law that Kant believed should guide all rational beings.

  • Unlike hypothetical imperatives, which tell us what to do in order to achieve a specific goal, the Categorical Imperative is unconditional and absolute.

The Three Formulations of the Categorical Imperative

  1. First Formulation (Universal Law): “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
    • It maintains that actions are only morally right if their maxim (the principle underlying them) could be universally applied without contradiction.
  2. Second Formulation (End in Itself): “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
    • This formulation emphasises the inherent worth and dignity of rational beings.
  3. Third Formulation (Kingdom of Ends): “Act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”
    • It suggests the idea that all individuals should act as though they are law-making members in the kingdom of ends, a hypothetical realm where all people act in accordance with the Categorical Imperative.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Kant’s Ethical Theory

  • Strengths: Kantian ethics is rule-based, and thus provides clear moral rules and respects human dignity by emphasising autonomy and rationality.

  • Weaknesses: Critics argue that Kantian ethics is too abstract and rigid, fails to factor in the differing contexts and complexities of moral situations, and can clash with our moral intuitions.

Relevant Applications

  • Kant’s universal principles can have applications in various moral situations. For example, consider lying. According to Kant, since we couldn’t universally will the maxim “it is morally permissible to lie,” lying would always be morally wrong.

  • Moreover, Kant’s ethics have implications for justice and human rights. It can be argued from a Kantian perspective that violating someone’s rights treats them as a means to an end, and is hence immoral.