Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kant on Ethics

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Immanuel Kant describes three versions of the categorical imperative, the law of reason on which a human will bases moral action. Morality, for Kant, exists in a sphere that is separate from prudent or sensibly motivated action, such as the quest for happiness. Kant did not put much stock in the pursuit of happiness and saw morality as something else, the duty to act in accordance with the universal moral law. The categorical imperative contrasts with the hypothetical imperative, which is just a reason to do things based on real-world motives, such as I aim to find a job so I ought to network and read the help wanted ads. Or I am a ship captain and therefore I ought to do what a ship captain ought to do. In determining what to do, people use what Kant calls "maxims" or rules of behavior such as Madoff's maxim that "lying to people to take their money is a good aim". While hypothetical imperatives determine action of a sensible nature, morality is universal and the categorical imperative is the universal ground of morality.

In contrast to the hypothetical imperative, the categorical imperative governs all maxims and defines morality. Because it is universal, argues, Kant, it must describe morality as a universal law. Thus the first way he states the categorical imperative is:

"Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law"

In other words, if you do something you are saying that you think it's ok if everyone does it.

The second way that Kant articulates the categorical imperative (and he controversially claims that all three ways are logically equivalent) is:

"So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only."

In other words, each person is an end to himself, and we should never use or harm others. The link between the categorical imperative and the Golden Rule is evident.

The third way relates to the second:

"A rational being must always regard himself as giving laws either as a member or as a sovereign in a kingdom of ends which is rendered possible by the freedom of will...Morality consists then in the reference of all action to the legislation which alone can render a kingdom of ends possible...In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity...Morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in himself, since by this alone is it possible that he should be a legislating member in the kingdom of ends."

Philosophers continue to debate about Kant's ethical system to this day. Scholars like Onora O'Neill articulate vigorous and elegant arguments on Kant's behalf, while particularists like Jonathan Dancy argue that moral principles are impossible because any principle must permit exceptions so that the basis on which a moral conclusion is reached cannot be the principle itself.

Kant wrote Groundwork 225 years ago, in 1785. His claim, that morality must be deducible from rational (or "a priori") principles, continues to challenge and amaze readers today.

Even if Kant does not ultimately prove a rational basis for morality, and even if his system has been misused and condemned for fracturing moral belief, it remains a monument to the good, great and reasonable in humanity. Much as Aristotle said that we must look to the phronimos, the man wise in practical wisdom for guidance, so we may look to the moral aims of Immanuel Kant, who sought to ground morality on the cold, hard foundation of practical reason. In doing so he articulated the notion of the kingdom of ends, of humanity's dignity, and so even if his scheme does not withstand philosophical skepticism, it stands as a monument to the ultimate in human morality, intellect and ambition.

1 comment:

Phil Orenstein said...

Well put. Kant stands out as the great german philosopher sounding the paean to the dignity of the individual, the basis of liberty and freedom. Isn't it ironic and absurd that the german romanticists who followed, Ficht, Hegel, Jundt, Arndt, et al. professed the absolute antithesis of Kant, a platform of absolute statism, total submission of the individual to the state. The ends justify the means = humans are the instruments of the state. They used the medium of the German university to promulgate the very docrtines that made nazism a deep seated indoctrinated reality in the 20th century which led to the blinding of conscience to the genocide of 12 million Jews, Gypsies and others.