Thursday, October 26, 2006

Kant and Ethics

Immanuel Kant's body of work occupies a rarefied postion in the history of ideas. He is considered by some to be the first of the great German Idealist philosopher's but his writings transcend this easy classification. He did, in fact, bring together the two divergent ideas of Idealism and Empiricism that dominated the philosophical Inquiry of the time. A more careful examination of Kant's work will hint at the scope of his ideas.

Early ethical theories were predicated on religious' authority and were essentially tautological arguments, that is to say, circular arguments where the underlying principle was essentially an affirmation based on faith. Further along in history more sophisticated arguments developed.

Prior to Kant's arrival on the scene there are two major schools of thought. The Idealists argued that all knowledge could be built on the basis of certain basic principles that could deductively lead to more complex arguments. George Berkeley offered the most sophisticated and current Idealist perspective of Kant's time. The Empiricists, on the other hand, believed that knowledge could only be acquired through the senses.

When Kant came on the scene his treatise, Critique of Pure Reason, challenged the prevailing traditions. Critique of Pure Reason called for careful critical appraisal of all areas of knowledge, all theories on their respective strengths and limitations rather than the blind adoption of tradition that had be
en the trend.

Kant believed that it was specious to focus on one particular type of analysis. Rather he believed ethical inquiry involved the subtle interplay and
overlapping of different schools of thought. Despite this, he was not by any means a Relativist. His idea of ethics argued that the principles should stand alone as universals,or in other words they should be autonomous, rather than the composed of alternatives, which he referred to as heteronomous.

The concepts of Autonomy and Heteronomy
are all important and should be further clarified. Autonomy referred to the idea that ethics had their own intrinsic moral order and that anyone with a rational mind would come to realise that order of their own free will. The choice to follow this code was made from the realisation of the underlying truth of the code and therefore there was no need to impose an external requirement on this path.

Heteronomy , on the other hand,
suggested that a ethical code came from an external influence and therefore required a constant adjustment by the individual of his own thinking to the theoretical nature of the code; it was not the outcome of intrinsic truth but rather a struggle to adjust ones code of conduct in the interest of moral order in the world to an outside code of behaviour.

Kant believed the world was understood through the senses but, unlike the Empiricists, he believed it was not entirely defined in a sensual way since there was already an inborn idea of what is good, and this regard, he echoed sentiments of the idealists. He further developed this idea, which he labeled the Categorical Imperative which was in a sense, a moral obligation or duty. He built this idea in the way
of the Empiricists deductively building layers to his argument from basic principles.

Kant defined his Categorical Imperative in a very precise way based on three so-called formulations. These formulations called for a belief in a Humanistic Universal law that had two qualities: (1) it was intrinsically good (2) because of this innate value, the ends could never justify the means. Then in a synthesis of these two ideas, the new principle where the individual would affirm the previous two formulations in what he referred to as an ongoing legislation of the Categorical Imperative. (Stratton-Lake, 2000, p. 37) This latter quality he referred to as the Formulation of Autonomy since it was disseminated by individuals acting alone but then spreading out the idea into the public sphere so that it became a collective phenomenon.

The legislation of of the Cateogorical Imperative entailed that each and every person had the will, the autononous will to choose the moral path which had broad meaning, that it was Universal, and by conducting themselves in this way they contributed to th e collective order of society.

In real world terms the Categorical Imperative emphasized the intrinsic value of ethics rather than the end in itself. For example, the idea of cheating on a test in order to get a high mark t
o then gain access to some other reward which would benefit others would in itself would be a negation of the process of taking the test in the first place regardless of what good that could come of it.

This view is perhaps the finest argument for ethics available since it elevates the idea of process and this way ensures standards that overall lead to the success of a community, a nation and
a civilization in itself. As Kant himself stated a human being

possesses a dignity (an absolute inner worth) by which he exacts respect for himself from all other rational beings in the world. He can measure himself with every other being of this kind and value himself on a footing of equality with them. (Sarkar, 2005.p.1)

This statement underlines the essential democracy and fairness inherent in Kant's theory, predicated as it is on the idea that each and every one of has a personal responsibility in guiding the ethics of the society in which we live.

Kant outlined a rationale for the examination of Ethics that was freed from the circular arguments that were based on faith. He also waded into the fractious debate between the Idealists and Empiricists and introduced a rational calm by suggesting that reality is never the exclusive domain of one or another set of principles but complex enough to show synthesis. He introduced a system of Ethical Inquiry that refused to respect dogma but offered critique as alternative. He suggested that doing good work was in it self the true aim and in this sense he is champion of quality, the one thing that leads to advance in all fields. He was a forbear of the modern age and he is rightfully held in such high regard.


Day, R. B. (2002). History, Reason and Hope: A Comparative Study of Kant, Hayek and Habermas Dialogue on Personal and Political Ethics. Humanitas, 15(2), 4+. Retrieved July 24, 2006, from Questia database:

Dickerson, A. B. (2003). Kant on Representation and Objectivity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved July 24, 2006, from Questia database:

Hinton, T. (2002). Kant and Aquinas on the Priority of the Good. The Review of Metaphysics, 55(4), 825+. Retrieved July 24, 2006, from Questia database:

Keller, P. (1998). Kant and the Demands of Self-Consciousness. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved July 24, 2006, from Questia database: Kant, I. (1916). Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics (Abbott, T. K., Trans.) (5th ed.). London: Longmans, Green. Retrieved August 10, 2006, from Questia database:

Morgan, D. (2000). Kant Trouble: The Obscurities of the Enlightened. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 24, 2006, from Questia database:

Sarkar, H. (2005). Kant: Let Us Compare. The Review of Metaphysics, 58(4), 755+. Retrieved July 24, 2006, from Questia database:

Stratton-Lake, P. (2000). Kant, Duty, and Moral Worth. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 24, 2006, from Questia database:

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