Of Philosophy


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) attempted to discover the rational principle that would stand as a categorical imperative grounding all other ethical judgments. The imperative would have to be categorical rather than hypothetical, or conditional, since true morality should not depend on our individual likes and dislikes or on our abilities and opportunities. These are historical "accidents;" any ultimate principle of ethics must transcend them. Among the various formulations of the categorical imperative, two are particularly worth noting:

  • Always act in such a way that you can also will that the maxim of your action should become a universal law.
  • Act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.

Although ultimately these are formally equivalent, the first illustrates the need for moral principles to be universalizable. The second points to the radical distinction to be made between things and persons, and emphasizes the necessity of respect for persons.

Kant's theory is an example of a deontological or duty-based ethics : it judges morality by examining the nature of actions and the will of agents rather than goals achieved. (Roughly, a deontological theory looks at inputs rather than outcomes.) One reason for the shift away from consequences to duties is that, in spite of our best efforts, we cannot control the future. We are praised or blamed for actions within our control, and that includes our willing, not our achieving. This is not to say that Kant did not care about the outcomes of our actions–we all wish for good things. Rather Kant insisted that as far as the moral evaluation of our actions was concerned, consequences did not matter.

As suggested by the first version of the categorical imperative above, if the maxim or rule governing our action is not capable of being universalized, then it is unacceptable. Note that universalizability is not the same as universality. Kant's point is not that we would all agree on some rule if it is moral. Instead, we must be able to will that it be made universal; the idea is very much like the golden rule –Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you cannot will that everyone follow the same rule, your rule is not a moral one.

The second version of the categorical imperative given above emphasizes respect for persons . Persons, unlike things, ought never to be merely used. Their value is never merely instrumental; they are ends in themselves. Of course, a person may be useful, but must always at the same time be treated with all the respect due to a person, i.e., also as an end.

Deontological ethics is strongest in many of the areas where utilitarianism is weakest. In an ethics of duty, the ends can never justify the means.  Individual human rights are acknowledged and inviolable. We need not consider the satisfaction of harmful desires in our moral deliberations.  In practice, however, Kant's ethics poses two great problems that lead many to reject it:

1. Unlike the proportionality that comes out of the utility principle, the categorical imperative yields only absolutes . Actions either pass or fail with no allowance for a "gray area." Moreover, the rigid lines are often drawn in unlikely places. For example, lying is always wrong–even the "polite lie."

2. Moral dilemmas are created when duties come in conflict, and there is no mechanism for solving them. Utilitarianism permits a ready comparison of all actions, and if a set of alternatives have the same expected utility, they are equally good. Conflicting duties, however, may require that I perform logically or physically incompatible actions, and my failure to do any one is itself a moral wrong.


Copyright © 1997 Charles D. Kay. All rights reserved.