Kant’s Deontological Ethics in Sum.

I. Kant begins The Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals by reducing the self to reason in order to understand the foundations of right thought. He concludes that at the base of one’s thoughts, there is an intention or will that is at the core of self.

A good will is the only qualification for good action. Kant says: “A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only though its willing, i.e., it is good in itself.” That is, a good will is good in itself, independent of any requirements that would make it good. Kant goes on to justify this by explaining that even if good will failed to achieve its end through action, it would still retain its value as good will because of its good intention.

In 395 Kant addresses the instinctual capacities and the cognitive capacities with regards to their function to achieving ends. He explains that nature, in all her divine wisdom, would not have imbued us with reason if instincts were purely capable of carrying out our purpose or happiness. On the other hand, he points out that reason alone is insufficient in achieving this aim and illustrates this by pointing to the added troubles men acquire from exercising too much reason. He concludes that nature bestows us with reason to supplement our imperfect inclinations in order to perform our purpose. Reason, as a practical function, serves to influence the will as well as to produce a will that is good in itself. Thus, Kant recognizes that will is contrived from both reason and inclination. This reason, while not the sole good, must be the highest good (396). In the event that happiness counted for nothing, the fact that reason can establish an end, and achieve that end is what constitutes a good will (396). Kant explains that, “reason recognizes as its highest practical function the establishment of a good will, whereby in the attainment of this end reason is capable only of its own kind of satisfaction…” (396)

Duty is good will with certain competing restrictions and hindrances. At the beginning of 397 Kant begins to outline three propositions of morality. For an action to be good it must stem from duty, not just according to duty or an inclination to duty (1st proposition). Kant explains that actions done from duty (a formal principle of volition) retain moral worth- regardless of purpose, desire, or inclination.

The principles of good will, formally determined a priori¸ are the foundation for any moral action because they are free from any conceivable incentive (400, 2nd proposition). The final proposition deals with duty as “the necessity of an action done out of respect for the law” (400). What characterizes this proposition is the relationship between respect and action in accordance with laws. This respect can only occur in relation to laws, which precede consideration and inclinations.

Kant concludes that there is no greater moral action than the one executed objectively with respect to the moral law. As a result, the evaluation of moral worth is not dictated by the effects of the action or by the principles of action that borrow motives from an expected effect. Instead, moral worth is inherently a priori to the action because it functions in accordance with duty. Essentially, good is already present before the action takes place as long as there is a respect to moral law.

After Kant exhausts the possible conditions and constraints of duty, stripping it of any possible inclination or impulse that may arise from obeying it, there are no principles left to serve the will except the ‘universal conformity of its actions to law.’ That is, actions should only be executed insofar as one can will the maxim to become a universal law. In order to answer the question of whether or not an action conforms to the universal law, we ask ourselves if the maxim under consideration would hold not only for ourselves, but for all others. This formulation of the Universal Law, or the Categorical Imperative, is the only way we can properly legislate maxims according to the contingencies we experience throughout life. If we cannot rely on inclination as an unbiased and accurate moral compass, we must rely on the respect that reason demands for a formal universal maxim. Only maxims that stand the test of impartial universality are of moral worth.

II. Moral actions can only be judged according to a priori principles to see whether it can be framed into an original model. Actions cannot be the raw material in which we ‘furnish’ morality (409). This moral standard cannot be derived empirically (which utilitarianism advocates), because it is dictated by subjective inclinations. Even infinite experience can not produce a moral law that sufficiently addresses all of life’s contingencies. Kant explains that if the maxims constituting moral law are to be universal and apply to all rational creatures, they must also be ‘apodeictic’, or absolutely necessary. They cannot be derived from experience, because all experience in the world cannot account for every moral contingency. In order to fulfill the “respect” which reason demands of laws, they must exist a priori. That is, they must be objectively free from subjective inclinations. This is explains how one can act from duty.

Kant goes on to say that in a world governed by laws, whereby nature works according to laws, rational beings are the only creatures that act according to conceptions of laws and principles (412). That is to say, rational beings use practical reason to derive their actions from these laws, thereby exercising a will. Because reason infallibly determines will and operates on practical necessity free from inclinations, reason does not distinguish between what is objectively necessary and subjective necessary. In this way Kant begins to formulate imperatives based on the idea of what ought to happen (413). Imperatives present practical rules that determine what actions performed are good because the will is free from acting based on the knowledge of this goodness. This is because either the subject is unaware of the good or because his principles are ‘opposed to the objective principles of practical reason’ (414).

As a result, complications can arise when the will interferes with purely objective conditions by submitting to subjective incentives. This leads Kant to distinguish between two kinds of imperatives. The first commands action subjectively, or hypothetically; the second commands action objectively, or categorically.

When the will in action expresses subjective conditions, the moral law in action (in accordance with duty) is called a Hypothetical Imperative. That is, the will imperatively commands actions apodeictically based on the purpose in mind. The subjectivity of these conditions means that one can only know a Hypothetical Imperative when these conditions are known (420). The two hypothetical imperatives that Kant introduces are the Problematic Hypothetical Imperative, based on subjective tastes, and the Assertoric Hypothetical Imperative, based on a will influenced by happiness. The Problematic Hypothetical Imperative serves as a means to bring about a man’s purpose by recognizing the uniqueness of each mans individual pursuit (415). That is, each man has unique idiosyncratic preferences that are subjective. The PHI aids in the consideration of actions to satisfy those tastes or wants. The Assertoric Hypthetical Imperative addresses happiness, the one purpose that Kant applies as a natural necessity of all rational beings. Kant holds happiness as a necessary purpose that can be presupposed a priori with certainty in everyone because it belongs within oneself. The Assertoric Hypothetical Imperative serves as a means to bring about what we always want by nature, e.g. happiness (416).

Because Categorical Imperative exists a priori to any conditions, Kant reasons that “there remains nothing but the universality of the law as such with which the maxim of the action should conform.” (412). This means that the Categorical Imperative is not subject to any restrictions or bounds, therefore it retains a universality that all the principles of action should conform to. This leads to his Formulation of the Universal Law which states that we are to act only on that maxim that is universally valid as a moral law (437).*

After the formulating the Imperatives, Kant reexamines the idea of a subjective constitution while keeping the Categorical Imperative in mind. While looking at how we and others are affected by a proposed action, he formulates an argument for humanity by using maxims that are derived from the Categorical Imperative procedure (427-428). To do this, he asks “is it a necessary law for all rational beings always to judge their actions according to such maxims as they can themselves will that such should serve as universal laws?” If this law exists, according to Kant, then it exists in connection with a general concept of a rational being. This general concept of humanity identifies all rational beings as being ends in themselves. That is, the volition resulting from respecting one’s own rational nature relies on a respect for rational nature in general.

Because we all abide to the same moral law, and objective restraints apply universally, we can treat others as ends in themselves without undermining our own ends. This holds even when everyone shares separate and individual ends because the respect we have for our own rational capacities to set ends applies to all rational creatures. Through this self respect, our actions must reflect a disposition towards humanity (within ourselves and others) as an ends and never as a means.

Kant dismisses the Humean notion that we can feel humanity as an end in itself (427). A Humean approach deduces the morality of actions empirically based on the pleasure or displeasure of actions. Kant argues that deriving ends (via empirical psychology) only produces a subjective experience of what does happen, whereas practical philosophy is concerned with what ought to happen. The Humean approach relies on applying prior examples of morality in order to serve as an original example, which leads to over reliance on examples and discourages moral thinking for ourselves. Whereas, Kant posits that we call people moral because they really are moral. Only practical philosophy considers the relation of the will as something determined a priori by pure reasons (427). **

III. After the formulation for imperatives, Kant breaks duties into “negative (perfect) duties” and “positive (imperfect) duties”. Relating to positive “imperfect” duties, Kant explains in the Metaphysics of Morals that one is to act according to ends that are also duties, these being one’s own perfection and the happiness of others. Here, Kant’s “perfection” is an end in itself, thus it is teleological. Regarding the duty to ones own perfection, Kant sees perfection as describing things quantitatively or qualitatively. Since quantitative perfection is the grounded in material, referring to the totality that is perfect, it can only have one sense of perfection. Perfection as it relates qualitatively to ones end, however, can manifest in several different ways (386).

In order to act from the duty of one’s own perfection, one must act according to deed. Deeds are those actions put forth to aid in cultivating the capacities to the highest degree of understanding and of concepts relating to duty.

One fulfils two duties to one’s own perfection when one acts according to deeds. The first is the duty to diminish ignorance and correct errors. This is characterized by the transition from animalism towards the respect for humanity. The second duty is to cultivate will to the purest virtuous disposition, where law also becomes an incentive of duty (387).

Here I will speak only of the first duty to one’s own perfection as it relates to the cultivation of our capacities. In the Grounding, Kant established the Formulation of Humanity by universalizing the concept of a will within rational beings that acts according to maxims that serve as moral (universal) laws. By cultivating our capacities, we respect dignity of humanity. Kant explains this in the Metaphysics of Morals: Exposition of Duties of Virtues by addressing the teleological idea of natural perfection as the cultivation of any capacities for furthering ends set forth by reason (the duty to act according to natural perfection is based on unconditional moral imperative set forth despite advantage.) The key here is ends. Humans are creatures with the capacity to set whatever end they choose. Our duty is to make ourselves worthy of humanity by procuring, promoting the capacities to realize all sorts of possible ends. Kant goes on to say that ends are subjective to individuals and their vocation, and that only the law of maxims can aid in reason for action. Our duty is to cultivate the powers of mind in body in order to realize any ends we encounter.

An example Kant provides in the Grounding is that of suicide. If someone wishes to destroy themselves in order to avoid continued suffering, then he is using himself as a means to bring on a more favorable end and thereby undermines the dignity of humanity (430). However, Kant stresses that it is not enough that our actions do not conflict with the humanity within ourselves as an end in itself; the action must also complement the end. Cultivating human capacities for greater perfection ensures that we are not merely maintaining humanity as an end in itself, but are advancing this end.

The positive duties are “imperfect” because we cannot possible know which ends to adequately promote, or to what extent they should be promoted. There is only so much time and energy to devote to these cultivations that limits the demands of all that could be cultivated. All we can conclude is that we have a duty to the advancement of the ends of humanity to the best of our ability.

As this relates to the cultivation of my own capacities, three areas stand out that should be developed if I am to respectfully promote the ends of humanity within myself. These three include the cultivation of my capacities that suit my duties to presently existing vocations, capacities that may serve duties to possible future vocations, and capacities that serve duties to develop my idiosyncratic tastes as they relate to personal hobbies.

The cultivation of the capacities concerning my current vocation involves my present undertakings as a student. As a student, this means outlining for myself ways to improve my academic performance in each class. To achieve this I would outline goals to strive for. These goals will establish a clear standard for my pursuit of excellence. Prepare for class before hand, actively read the text with thorough margin notes, and asking critical questions about the material in and out of the class room will increase my capacities as a human and increase my ability to advance my current duties.

The cultivation of capacities that may serve future vocations may involve exploring the development of other interests. This can be achieved by getting involved with a club that exposes to a breadth of new challenges in leadership. I may not run a business of my own at the moment, but cultivating leadership skills now will prepare me for advancing my duty for future vocations.

Lastly, I would the cultivate the capacities that serve my idiosyncratic tastes by spending more time developing my creative talents, be it through artistic drawing or writing. These capacities will improve my ability to ‘think outside the box’ which widen perceptions and increase problem solving skills. These skills will aid humanity by improving my ability to perform all other duties more effectively.

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