In the passage provided from Kant’s The Moral Law, Kant puts forward the idea that if one isn’t willing to perform an act on the basis of being seduced by its consequences, and instead performs the act only because it is their duty, then and only then will that act be considered moral, or morally good. He proposed that once you removed the factor of consequence when considering the performance of an act and can will that that act be universalized, only then should you perform the act, and only then can you call yourself a good person.
Let’s say if a person thinks of making an empty promise – this person will be facing two further questions: 1) is making a false promise wise? 2) is it right? It would be wise if you think of the fact that the promise might be saving you from an embarrassing situation at that particular moment even though you know you don’t intend to keep it. But you might end up facing further adverse consequences once you make that false promise; it might cause you embarrassment in the long term. This would lead you to conclude that one should never make such a promise which might be disadvantageous for you, but as a matter of fact this maxim is entirely established on the fear of consequences. Being truthful for the sake of duty is completely different from telling the truth because you fear the consequences. Before doing such a task one should ask themselves whether they’d want the action that they’re about to commit be turned into a universal maxim – in this case, whether you’d want everyone to make a false promise to save themselves from difficult situations? Then you’d become aware of the fact that you might want to lie but you would not rationally want the act of lying to be universalized; because the implementation of such a law would mean the act of promising would never be honest, and no one would believe you or anyone else if a promise was to be made, and therefore your maxim would prove to annul itself.
Hence, you don’t need some profound insight to find out whether you have a good will. If you’re confused about a standing of a particular action, the only question you must ask is what would be the impact if that maxim were to be universalized. You should then refuse to act on that maxim not because the consequences of that action might possibly grief you or someone else, but because that maxim, if universalized, cannot possibly fit into universal law.
Therefore, to perform an act, your only motive should be duty, not the consequences of a particular action.
Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher (1724 – 1804) challenged utilitarianism. Philosophers who put forward consequentialism like Bentham and Mill believed that any action that would bring about more happiness than the alternative was a good action, even if that action included lying, deceit, theft or murder. But Kant was a stark opponent of this principle. He believed that certain acts are forbidden no matter the consequence.
Kantian ethics falls under deontological moral theory. These theories say that the only motive of performing an action should be duty, and not the consequences of that action. It says that focusing on the duty instead of the consequence helps determine whether an action is right or wrong. According to Kant, the Categorical Imperative determines what our moral duties are as it is the supreme principle of morality.
Kant’s Categorical Imperative relies on two questions: 1) if the maxim that you’re acting on should be universalized? 2) if the action you’re performing respects the autonomy of human beings and doesn’t use them as means for you to achieve your goal? If the answer of either one of these questions is “no”, then the action must not be performed as it is not moral.
What exactly is a Categorical Imperative? The word imperative means a command. For example, “don’t kill” is an imperative unto itself. One must always draw a distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, because this distinction determines whether you stand by the principles of Mill or Kant. Hypothetical imperatives are those commands that are conditional, and depend on your desires. For example, the imperative “don’t kill otherwise you’ll go to prison” is hypothetical in view of the fact that it states a consequence of killing, and elucidates that it’s only wrong because the consequences wouldn’t be in your favor. Meanwhile, a categorical imperative is an unconditional command. For example, “one must not kill”, is a pretty clear cut command, and even if killing someone is something that one would want to do to maximize their happiness, they cannot do it because it is their duty to not kill. Thus, Kantian ethics does not rely on conditions, the imperatives are unconditional, and by this one can see how Kantian ethics conflicts the consequentialist perspective.
Elaborating Categorical Imperative’s two part test further, let’s assume that a teenager wants to buy a PS4, but knows his mother would not give him the money for it, so he decides to lie to his mother and tell him that he wants the money to buy books as he knows that his mother wouldn’t deny him money for books. Now, according to Kant, the boy is performing an immoral act i.e. lying. This is because firstly, he is disregarding his duty of always telling the truth, and performing the act of lying because he’s intent on maximizing his happiness, i.e. performing the act not because he thinks it’s his duty but because he’s more concerned with the consequences. Secondly, he is using his mother as a means to achieve his goals by lying. Because when he lies, he robs his mother a chance to make an autonomous decision, hence using her as a tool to achieve his own happiness, i.e. the PS4.
Therefore, if you can’t will for a maxim to be universalized, you cannot say that that maxim is right, and if you’re using a human as a means, you’re not acknowledging that they’re rational beings who can make their own decisions. For instance, if you lie, you’re acting on the maxim “It is permissible to lie.” But this maxim could not be endorsed universally due to the fact that it is self-defeating; once it is universalized, people would believe that everyone’s lying, no one would believe the next person, and then lying won’t give you the same consequences it used to before.
Ergo, according to Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperatives, a good person is that who always performs their duty, and their only motive to perform that duty is solely because it is their duty. A good person would perform a duty even if they know that the result wouldn’t be in their favor, so what makes them good is that they’re doing things for the sake of goodness and goodness alone.
- Kant denied the role of emotions as a motive to behind any act. According to him, the only relevant motive behind any act is duty, and so he dismisses the role of emotions such as sympathy, guilt, pity or compassion as motives to perform an act. By dismissing these qualities, Kant also ignores the most basic aspects of moral actions.
- Immanuel Kant says that persons are always ends to themselves, and one must not exploit another person no matter the purpose. But let’s not forget, Kant was racist himself. He claimed that the “race of whites contains all talents and motives in itself.” He also claimed that Hindus are more inclined towards arts than sciences, that blacks were only good for serving the whites, and that indigenous Americans were ‘lazy and impassionate’. By employing these claims, Kant himself contradicts his principle of never exploiting another person.
- Kant’s principle does not consider the consequences of actions. Let’s assume a situation. There are two friends – friend A and friend B – and they are hanging out at friend A’s house. The doorbell rings, and friend B goes to check who’s there. Now, when he opens the door, he sees that there is a man standing there with a gun which is now being pointed at him, and the man with the gun is asking where friend A is. Now if the boy lies to save his friend’s life, according to Kant’s principles he’s being immoral, because one cannot will the act of lying to be universalized; secondly, by lying, he’s using the man with a gun as a means by not being honest with him and robbing him off a chance to make his own decisions. According to Kant, one must not act on such maxims, so one must not lie in any circumstance. But if the boy doesn’t lie, he might put the life of his friend in danger. So Kant does not take into account the actions of well-intentioned fools who cause problems unintentionally because according to him only the intentions count, so the person stands blameless, even if the action causes multiple deaths.