18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (pronounced Kahnt) is the Charles Darwin of Western Philosophy: virtually all analytic and continental philosophy is in dialogue to Kant’s legacy. This is not to say Kant “Got it all right,” rather, he made a number of very important contributions establishing the style, scope, and direction of Western philosophy for the next 300 years. Kant is perhaps best known for his theory of deontological ethics, which attempts to derive objective, normative morality out of the notion of duty.
Kant begins his quest by a few key premises: first, he asserts that we have free will, because, in his words, “Ought implies can.” This is actually a pretty controversial move, and I have to admit, as a compatabilist on free will (that is, I believe in both a deterministic universe and the existence of moral responsibility), I don’t find it exhaustive, but let’s grant Kant this point: we are moral agents, and we are answerable to our actions.
Second, Kant argues that we are rational creatures. By this, he means that we are motivated by reasons, and self-reflection will allow us to parse through ideas, and produce reasons for actions. This is why, in Kant’s eyes, we do not regard animals or the mentally ill as moral agents. Once again, I would challenge that position, but I’ll grant Kant the premise for the argument.
Third, Kant says we cannot prove or confirm the existence of God or any sort of higher power (he was a Christian his whole life, but he thought philosophy could not, in principle, confirm theology), thus our moral sense must originate from something we do have access to, our own moral reasoning. We are capable of willing laws for ourselves, and these moral laws are bound by the laws of logic, most importantly, the law of non-contradiction. As a free, rational agent, interacting with other free, rational agents, I must consider impartiality and universality for my willing of moral judgements as to not lead to a contradiction.
From this, the normativity of ethical reasoning, its “binding force,” must arise from our own wills, and the only thing that can be said to be purely good, is a good will.
So what does this moral reasoning look like? Kant produces a heuristic called “The Categorical Imperative,” which he believes highlights what a consistent moral decision would need to consider.
1. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” I cannot justify stealing, for example, because if everybody stole whatever they wanted, than society wouldn’t really work. There is a contradiction. Of course, perhaps the current economic system is exploitative, and thus a contradiction, too. This leads us to the next formulation,
2. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Others’ standing as rational agents prohibits you from treating them as merely instruments for your own goals. Both of these seem like good “Side-Restraints” for ethics, but what about an actual prescription, would should we do rather than simply not do? Kant gives us,
3. “Act according to maxims of a universally legislating member of a merely possible kingdom of ends.” Kant can’t tell us exactly what our individual lives should look like, because we all have different circumstances. But wherever we are in life, we can, and must, consider how our actions uphold or work toward a hypothetical society in which all people are treated as ends, and not as means.
Philosophers since Kant have argued as to whether we really are rational creatures, if different sorts of partiality are necessary, if Kant really justifies the existence of ethics strongly enough, or more pressingly, how to prioritize our commitments or went to break promises, I do find Kant’s project comforting. His is a very complicated way of telling us that the Golden Rule really is a sophisticated, elaborate moral system worth living into.