Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was an 18th-century German Enlightenment philosopher. Kant is perhaps best known for his ethical theory of deontology. The term deontology is derived from two Greek root words: deos, meaning duty, and logos, meaning study. He was writing in response to the prevailing moral ethical philosophy of the time— utilitarianism. Kant argued that utilitarian theories, which judge morality in terms of the consequences, missed the concept of duty. Kant believed that a person’s intention is an important part of the decision-making process and that focusing on the consequences alone results in an inaccurate understanding of how moral decisions are made.
Kant wrote two major works in which he presented his thoughts on ethics: The Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Pure Reason. Kantian ethics is a deontological theory that is based on the concept of “duty.” Kant argued that consequentialist theories, such as utilitarianism, missed something crucial by excluding the concept of duty. He also argued that by solely focusing on consequences, utilitarian principles missed something even more basic to morality, namely, a good will or the intention to do what is right.
Kant thought that the key to morality was human will or intention, not the consequences. He claimed that a good will was the only intrinsically good thing, and that actions are only morally right if they are performed out of a sense of duty, not driven by desires or needs. That is to say, people should not be driven to act because they are seeking notoriety or reward. For example, two people see a wallet drop out of someone’s coat pocket. The first person returns the wallet because he or she believes it to be the right thing to do. The second person also returns the wallet but he or she secretly hopes the owner of the wallet will give a reward for the return of the wallet. Kant would likely argue that the latter action, although it resulted in a good outcome, is still unethical because the person’s actions were motivated by reward rather than a sense of duty.
Kant referred to the principle of morality as the categorical imperative. An imperative is a moral command. The imperative tells individuals what they must do. The idea of the categorical imperative is captured in the phrase, do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Kant contrasted the categorical imperative with what he called the hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative leaves room for guesswork in making moral decisions. It begins with “if.” For instance, if one wants a good job, one should go to college, or if one wants to make one’s parents happy, one should get married. Kant believed that an action only has moral worth if it is performed in accordance with the categorical imperative.
There are two formulations essential to the categorical imperative. The first is universalizability. Universalizability states that for one’s actions to be classified as morally right the individual must be able to argue that anyone in similar circumstances would have acted in the same manner. For instance, an individual decides to run a traffic light. If that person thinks this action is morally right, then he or she has to wish all others in a similar situation would do the same. However, if everyone ran traffic lights, there would be a lot of accidents that could result in serious injury or death. Running traffic lights, therefore, should not be universalizable. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is that of intrinsic value. The term intrinsic value refers to the fact that all humans have value in and of themselves. Kant used the concept of intrinsic value to argue that humans should never be treated as mere things, nor should they be treated as a means to an end. That is, people should not use other people merely to get what they want without regard to how their actions impact others.
Kant applied these principles to the concept of crime in his book The Metaphysics of Morals. He argued that punishment is justified merely by the fact that the criminal committed a crime. In addition, he went on to argue that the utilitarian theory of crime was flawed for two reasons: The philosophy treated criminals as mere means, and punishment could be justified by the good it might bring to society. In other words, sanctions should be imposed only because the individual committed a crime. He argued that these flaws may allow people to be charged with a crime even if they were truly innocent. In addition, he discusses how to punish those who have committed a criminal act. He argues the hurt done to the criminal should equal that hurt the criminal did to others, both in harm and type. In relation to murder, Kant argued that the murderer must be condemned to die because there is no alternative that can achieve the satisfaction of justice. He went on to say that even though death was the only just sanction, the sanction must be kept free from all maltreatment.
It is important to point out that Kant believed that all human beings possess free will and were rational autonomous actors. Human beings are capable of deliberate action. Specifically, Kant claimed that individuals have the ability to reflect and decide how to act in a given circumstance. This is known as the principle of self-legislation. He concluded that even though individuals are autonomous, they can act in accordance with universal moral laws because people submit to these laws only after rational self-reflection.
- Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. Marcus Weigelt, trans. New York: Penguin, 2008.
- Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Arnulf Zweig, trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Piper, Adrian M. S. “Kant’s Self-Legislation Procedure Reconsidered.” Kant Studies Online (2012). http://www.kantstudiesonline.net/KSO_Recent_files/PiperAdrian01412.pdf (Accessed September 2013).
- Webber, Jonathan. “A Law Unto Oneself.” Philosophical Quarterly, v.62 (2012).
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