Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): Faith and Morality



Ethical Theory: Primacy of Right 


         Classical Greek ethics of Plato & Aristotle give primacy to good character {virtue) 

o        right conduct is doing good deeds: the sorts of things virtuous people do. 

o        virtues are self actualizing characteristics, e.g., intelligence, artistry, & self possession.

o        virtue is its own reward: the exercise of these virtues = happiness since virtues are self actualizing traits we naturally admire and desire.

         Utilitarian Ethics: the ends justify the means

o        right conduct is that which has the best results

o        good results are defined in terms of human (and animals) natural inclinations: Bentham's hedonism: pleasure is good, pain is bad.

o        Do what produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

         Kant: Duty comes first & is self sufficient

o        right conduct is conduct

o        in conformity with the right rule -- the moral law

         & rightly motivated: by respect for the law1

o        the right rule is commanded by reason 

o        because duty is opposed to inclination, right conduct does not naturally tend toward happiness (satisfaction of inclinations)2

1.        Nothing can be conceived in  the world, or even out of it which can be called good, without qualification, except  a good will. (70) 

2.        A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition, that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favour of any inclination, nay, even the sum-total of all inclinations. (71)

Good Will & Duty as Conformity 
to Law in General

1.        [O]ur existence has a far nobler end [than happiness] for which ... reason is properly intended ...[cultivation of a] will not merely good as a means to something else but good in itself. (71)


                     Good will is an end in itself1

o                    and what makes it good is its inherent character -- the sheer obedience of it2

o                    not any tendency to produce good results.

                     Commands of morality are absolute

o                    no matter how desirable the ends (e.g., saving lives)

o                    never justify immoral means (e.g., lying or breaking a promise)

                     Three points

1.        the moral character of the act depends on its motive or maxim (the policy or principle on which you acted)

2.        to be morally motivated is to act from duty not inclination3

                     you did it because you thought it was right

                     not just because you wanted to 

3.        moral principles are categorical: they hold unconditionally or absolutely4

                     Prudence (pursuit of happiness) <> morality

o                    though all seek happiness happiness is too indefinite an end to be the source of definite moral laws6

o                    if moral laws were just those maxims most conducive to happiness they would just be "rules of thumb"

                     be frugal

                     be courteous

                     an apple a day keeps the doctor away

                     a stitch in time saves nine

o                    such "rules" not unconditionally binding, or categorical, merely conditionally or provisionally binding, or hypothetical7

                     the apple a day maxim applies only applies only on the condition that you seek to be healthy

                     the "stitch in time" maxim applies only provided you want to minimize your labors

                     Only the idea of universal conformity to absolute law5 can serve as an adequate basis for morality8

o                    the Biblical golden rule such a would-be absolute universal law

o                    Kant's Categorical Imperative: Act only on that maxim you could, at the same time, will to be universal law.

                     Criticism of Kant

o                    Humean point: "To suppose, that the mere regard for the virtue of the action, may be the first motive, which produced the action and rendered it virtuous, is to reason in a circle." (76)

o                    Would deem lead to judging maxims that weren't moral moral

                     amoral maxims: "Always write your name on the inside cover of your books."

                     immoral maxims: "Kill the weak."

2.        Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law. {72)

3.        It is only what is connected with my will as a principle, by no means as an effect -- what does not subserve my inclination, but overpowers it, or at least in case of choice excludes it from its calculation -- in other words, simply the law of itself, which can be an object of respect, and hence a command. (72-73)

4.        Now an action done from duty must wholly exclude the influence of inclination, and with it every object of the will, so that nothing remains which can determine the will except objectively the law, and subjectively respect for this practical law, and consequently the maxim that I should follow this law even, to the thwarting of all my inclinations. (73 )

5.        The preeminent good which we call moral can therefore consist in nothing else than the conception of law in itself, which certainly is only possible in a rational being, in so far as this conception, and not the expected effect, determines the will. (73)

6.        The notion of happiness is so indefinite that although every man wishes to attain it, yet he can never say definitely and consistently what he really wishes and wills. (74)

7.        [T]he imperatives of prudence do not, strictly speaking, command at all, that is, they cannot present actions objectively as practically necessary; . . . they are rather to be regarded as counsels . . . than precepts . . . of reason. {74)

8.        [Having] deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any [particular] law, there remains nothing [as a basis for morality] but the universal conformity of [the will's] actions to law in general, which alone can serve as a principle, i. e., I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become universal law. (75)

Good Will & Duty as Respect for 
Human Autonomy

1.                    So act as to treat humanity whether in thine own person or that of any other, in every case as an end . . . never as a means only. (78-79) 



  • 2nd formulation of the categorical  imperative: don't use people1
    • the 1st formulation more oriented to justice or fairness
    • 2nd formulation more rights based
      • right of self determination based on human rationality &    hence autonomy
      • as persons we are able to act rationally
        • on self chosen principles
        • not purely as desire or inclination move us
  • the two formulations are equivalent, Kant held: case in point:
    • lying is wrong (on the first formulation) since you can't universalize the maxim of dishonesty;
    • lying is wrong (on the second   formulation) since it involves using another as means in violation of their autonomy, interfering with their pursuit of their self chosen ends.
  • It is the autonomous -- self legislative -- power of reason that gives humanity its absolute value as an end in itself:2
    • nonrational beings, including all nonhuman animals, have only instrumental value as means: they have a price; 5 
    • rational beings have intrinsic value as ends: a dignity beyond all price.3 4
  • Problem regarding the self
    • it's only the noumenal self that is autonomous and unmoved by desire or inclination6
    • but the category of causation only  applies to the phenomenal
      • as noumenal  the self is  unmoved -- the buck stops here7 
      • but as phenomenal the self is not a mover: pure respect for the self given law can't cause me to act.

2.                    Man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end. (79)

3.                    Rational beings . . . are called persons, because their nature points them out as ends in themselves. (79)

4.                    Reason then refers every maxim of the will, regarding it as legislating universally, to every other will and also to every action towards oneself; and this not on account of any other practical motive or any future advantage, but

from the idea of the dignity of a rational being, obeying no law but that which he himself also gives. (81)

5.                    Autonomy then is the basis of the dignity of human and of every rational nature. (81 )

6.                    Autonomy of the will is that property of it by which it is a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition). (82)

7.                    Supposing that there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute worth, something which, being an end in itself, could be a source of definite laws, then in this and this alone would lie the source of a possible categorical imperative. (83)

Free Will

1.        [W]e ought to conform ... consequently we must be able to do so. (84n6)


  • Problem: Ought implies can1
    • Kant holds I ought to act from self legislated duty alone.
      • or else I'm not responsible
      • since to have done otherwise would have not been in my power2
    • But -- if the noumenal self is causally powerless -- I can't act from self legislated duty alone.
  • Attempted solution: noumenal causation
    • as an empirical self I am in time & thus causally determined in all my thoughts and actions,
    • but as a noumenal self I can still be a self legislative member of the kingdom of ends.3 4
  • Problem: the train of reasoning I am conscious of and that actually moves me (it seems) is in time
    • time being the form of all inner perception.
    • Consequently, I am not conscious of myself {have no experience of myself) as a noumenal being outside of time.
    • "as long as one insists on freedom as  a real spontaneity intruding into the  natural world, no solution is possible." (Jones 87)

2.        Now as time past is no longer in my power, hence every action that I perform must be a necessary result of certain determining grounds which are not in my power, that is, at the moment in which I am acting I am never free. (85)

3.        Consequently, if we would save [freedom], no other way remains but to consider that the existence of a thing, so far as it is determinable in time, and therefore its causality, according to the law of physical necessity, belong to appearance, and to attribute, freedom to the same being as a thing in itself. (85)

4.        "[T]he very same subject being on the other side conscious of himself as a thing in himself, considers his existence also in so far as it is not subject to time-conditions, and regards himself as only determinable by laws which he gives to himself through reason." (86)


1.        [I]t is morally necessary to assume the existence of God. (92)


  •   The critical conception
    • God -- being transcendent -- is not a   possible object of knowledge -- not a possible object of understanding or of   experience.
    • But God is still thinkable -- hence a possible object of belief.
    • God's existence cannot be proved by theoretical reason
  • Nevertheless the assumption that God exists can be "proved" -- motivated -- as a postulate of practical reason
  • The "proof' of God and immortality4
    • virtue -- being contrary to inclination -- is no guarantee of happiness: far from it!
    • but that happiness should be proportioned to virtue is the perfect   good -- since only the virtuous are worthy of happiness -- and as such this is "an object of the will which is necessarily connected with the moral legislation of pure reason"1
      • ought implies can: if we ought to pursue this then it must be  attainable
      • this is attainable only on the assumption of a God who rewards virtue and punishes vice in the afterlife2 3
      • which further presumes human immortality5
  • Criticisms of the "proof"
    • does not "prove" an omnipotent omniscient eternal God only an agency with sufficient power to reward virtue and punish vice in an afterlife.
      • Indeed, God, being noumenal, has no causal powers.
    • does not "prove" immortality only survival for a sufficient duration to let the vicious to get their comeuppance and the virtuous their rewards
    • it's only "proof" of a need to postulate God 

1.        to save Kant's doctrine that virtue is opposed to inclination (unnatural)

2.        but nevertheless always rewarded

        • or else "life ain't fair"
    • "proof" <> proof: only goes to show that nonexistence of God is inconsistent with (2) Kant's hopes given (1) Kant's take on virtue; not that it's inconsistent with what's known to be true.

2.        The distribution of happiness in exact proportion to morality {which is the worth of a person, his worthiness to be happy) constitutes the summum bonum of a possible world; hence this summum bonum expresses the whole, the perfect good, in which however, virtue as the condition is always the supreme good. (91)

3.        The possibility of ... the summum bonum, viz. Happiness proportioned to that morality ... must lead to the supposition of the existence of a cause adequate to this effect; in other words, it must postulate the existence of God, as the necessary condition of the possibility of the summum bonum (an object of the will which is necessarily connected with the moral legislation of pure reason.) (91 )

4.        The summum bonum is possible in the world only on the supposition of a Supreme Being having a causality corresponding to moral character. (91)

5.        The summum bonum, then, is only possible on the supposition of the immortality of the soul; consequently, this immortality, being inseparably connected with the moral law, is a postulate of pure practical reason .... (92)


Next: Hegel