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Immanuel Kant: Ethics And Morality

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Beyond the phenomenological understanding of the world, human ethics and morals are as fermented in human reason as our need for oxygen to breathe. Most discussions about ethics and morals seem synonymous with one association in particular: God. Divine Command Theory argues that what’s good, and what’s not, are determined by a deity, whether that’s the God of Abraham, or a plethora of gods with their own ethical rules. In the theory of Natural Law, Thomas Aquinas, says that morality comes from us, but only because we were made by God who preprogrammed our moral sensibilities. But, as time progressed, Moral Philosophy advanced beyond a supernatural force giving humanity a moral code to live by. Immanuel Kant, 18th Century German Philosopher, believed that morality and religion were not to be paired so easily and should in fact stay apart. Kant was an Enlightenment philosopher, and in an essay titled “What is Enlightenment?”, published in 1784, Kant proposed that the identifying feature of his age was its “growing secularism”, Kant welcomed the decline in Christianity, but in a rational sense he was alarmed by it. Kant argued that in order to determine what is morally right, humanity had to use reason as an application and not religion.

Kant appears to take morality pretty seriously, and he thought we should, too - all of us - regardless of our religious beliefs, or lack of. Kant seems to operate under the framework that if we continue to look for religion for morality, we are all going to be asking the same question but receiving different answers. In the Kantian perspective, morality is a constant almost in a mathematical sense. There are fundemental universal laws that are constant whether your an athiest, Christian, or Muslim, and for Immanuel Kant the same went for moral truths. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Moral philosophy, for Kant, is most fundamentally addressed to the first-person, deliberative question, “What ought I to do?”, and the answer to that question requires much more than delivering or justifying the fundamental principle of morality.” This “I ought” is the supreme building block of the nature of morality.

But he made a distinction between the things we ought to do morally, and the things we ought to do for other non-moral reasons. Kant acknowledges that, “most of the time, whether or not we ought to do something isn’t really a moral choice, instead it’s just a contingent on our desires”. For example, if your desire is to get money then you ought to get a job. The Kantian terminology for these is Hypothetical Imperatives, these are the commands you should follow if you desire something; but hypothetical imperatives are about frugality rather than morality. If you don’t want money, then you don’t have to work, totally optional. This is why Kant chose to view morality in hypothetical imperatives but in what he termed categorical imperatives. These imperatives are commands that a person must adhere to regardless of your desires, because categorical imperatives are our moral obligations derived from pure reason. The categorical applies to us unconditionally due to our possession of rational wills, “....without reference to any ends that we might or might not have. It does not, in other words, apply to us on the condition that we have antecedently adopted for ourselves”. So, whether you want to be moral or not, the moral law is binding to us all whether we are using pure reason or not. So, understanding what is wrong and right is completely comprehensible by using your own reason and intellect, and in doing so you don’t need religion for morality.

Continuing, how do you really figure out what's moral? Kant argues that the categorical imperative can be understood in a number of formulations, or different ways of phrasing while looking at the same idea. He came up with four, this essay will only focus on what seem to be the most popular.

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The first of these is often understood as the universalizability principle.

The force of moral requirements as reasons is that we cannot ignore them no matter how circumstances might conspire against any other consideration. Basic moral requirements retain their reason-giving force under any circumstances, they have universal validity. So, whatever else may be said of basic moral requirements, their content is universal. In summation, “So, whatever else may be said of basic moral requirements, their content is universal. Only a universal law could be the content of a requirement that has the reason-giving force of morality. This brings Kant to a preliminary formulation of the CI: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (G 4:402). This is the principle which motivates a good will, and which Kant holds to be the fundamental principle of morality”. A maxim is just a rule and, as previously understood, a universal law is something that must always be done in situations. Now knowing this, as a Kantian, before I act I must ask myself, “what’s the maxim of my action?” “Will it be in accordance to universal law?”.

Well, according to Kant, “it is possible that a universal law of nature could subsist in harmony with this maxim, yet it is impossible to will that which principle should hold everywhere as a law of nature. For a will which decided in this way would be in conflict with itself, since many a situation might arise in which the man needed love and sympathy from others, and in which by such a law of nature sprung from his own will, he would rob himself of all the help he wants for himself”. Let us attempt to ‘de-Kant’ this for a more simpler understanding. So a person wakes up late late for work and in leaving their house they forget their wallet. On the way to work, they stop by the local corner store for a bagel and apple, but after realizing they had left their wallet at home they face a moral dilemma. They notice the clerk is caught in conversation and they could easily just walk out with bagel and apple in hand. Is it ok, morally, for a person to do this? Well this action is considered stealing, and if you approve of theft as a maxim then what this person is actually doing is universalizing this action. They are saying that everyone should always steal, which would go against universal law and bring about a contradiction, and to the Kantian perspective, moral action cannot bring about contradictions. This is saying that stealing would be alright some of the time, but in making this a law that would mean everyone would steal from each other and you’d never get your bagel and an apple for breakfast. So, the argument here is that it is not universalizable to make exceptions for yourself. To place your own self desires above the understanding of the universal moral law contradicts the categorical imperative and in doing so is not recognized as a moral law.

Now, Kant's view that moral laws apply to everyone equally sounds all fair and nice, but it can possibly lead to some cumbersome results. Let’s imagine one morning Leigh and Mark were having dinner and they heard a knock on the door where a stranger is and asks Leigh where Mark is, who answers while leaving Mark in the kitchen, so he can kill him. Leigh’s first instinct is to lie and say that Mark is gone in order to protect him, but according to Kant says Leigh cannot lie, not even to save Mark’s life. The reasoning here is that suppose she is at the front door distracting the stranger, and Mark was curious about the stranger and followed her into the living room, after overhearing the strangers intentions Mark escapes from the back door. But, stranger, believing Leigh, turns to leave and sees Mark escaping and kills him. Due to Leigh’s lie, Mark dies and if she had told the truth the stranger might have headed toward the kitchen and given Mark ample time to escape. So, by Kant’s reasoning, Leigh is responsible for Mark’s death, because her lie to the stranger caused it. If she had the moral thing and told the truth, only the murderer would’ve been responsible for Mark’s death. Yes, she could have refused to answer or try to talk him out of it but to a Kantian she is not allowed to violate the moral law. This brings us to the second most popular formation, the Humanity Formula, which goes like, “This formulation states that we should never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself. This is often seen as introducing the idea of “respect” for persons, for whatever it is that is essential to our humanity.” To use something as a “mere means” is to use it only for your own benefit, with no thought to the interests or benefit of the thing you’re using. It is perfectly fine to use things as mere means, but not humans, because we do not exist to be used we autonomous and rationional. We are our own ends.

Pens exist for writers, cameras for filmers, books for readers, forks for eaters, but humans exist for themselves. So, to treat someone as an end-in-themselves is to recognize that the humanity of a person you are in contact with, to see that the have values, interests, and goals of their own, and one must, with the use of moral philosophy and the understanding of Kant’s categorical imperative, keep in mind that your encounters with them. The “Supreme Principle of Morality” is the categorical imperative, act only on that maxim which you will to be a universal law. The only true morality is that of the “good will”, and with the application of reason, not religion, humanity can grow into true moral beings.


  1. Kant, Immanuel, and H. J. Paton. The Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Routledge Classics, 2005.
  2. Johnson, Robert, and Adam Cureton. “Kant's Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 7 July 2016,
  3. Kant, I. and Nisbet, H. (n.d.). An answer to the question, ``What is Enlightenment?'.
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