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Ethical Theories. Immanuel Kant and the Ethics of Duty. The Ethics of Duty. More than any other philosopher, Kant emphasized the way in which the moral life was centered on duty.

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Ethical Theories

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Ethical Theories

Immanuel Kantand the Ethics of Duty

The Ethics of Duty

More than any other philosopher, Kant emphasized the way in which the moral life was centered on duty.

´two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe....the starry heavens above and the moral law within´

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason 1788.

Key concepts

  • Duty

  • Reason

  • Categorical Imperatives (2 types)

  • Principle of Universalisation

  • People as “Ends” not means to an End

Animal Nature

Before discussing Kant’s moral theories it is important to note his beliefs about the difference between human nature and animal nature.He believed animals were dominated by instinct and desire. Animal behaviour is shaped by these compulsions.

They eat

They fight

They have sex

And when its all over they sleep

Of course human beings are no different to animals and Kant believed we shared their instincts and desires

We eat


Have sex

And when its all over we sleep

However what separates humans from animals is our ability to REASON.

It is this faculty that enables us to act freely and against our instinctsand desires if we so choose.

It is also the reason why we are superior to the rest of the animal kingdom.

To be able to question, intellectualize, ponder, critically evaluate and philosophize

Something animals cannot do

Well most....

Kant: Reason alone should be the

Foundationof Moral Ethics

He believed…

The ethical rules we adopt are those which show

themselves to be logically consistent – (no self contradiction.)


Moral principles that meet the demands of reason are always valid for everyone.

´Duty for the sake of duty´.

For Kant there was only one ´intrinsically good thing´ and that is a ´good will´. To have a good will is to do ones duty.

  • Kant felt that what is right is what you feel you ought to do. We can understand what we ought to do by using practical reason.

  • “The intention of his (Kant’s) morality is to set aside all ego-centeredness, and move towards an unconditional and universal sympathy.”

    Ethical Theory, M Thompson, Hodder & Staughton, 1999

Kant thought that morality rarely had anything to do with happiness and is all to do with DUTY.

He argued that whenever people make decisions and actions that benefit themselves at the expense of other people then they are acting selfishly and therefore immorally.

Even if people appear to be acting unselfishly and honestly they can still be acting immorally if their actions are not based on duty and a good will. Kant gave the following example.

Kant’s shopkeepers

Kant compares two shopkeepers who both give correct change:

The first is honest because he is scared of being caught if he tries to cheat his customers.

The second is honest because it is his duty to be honest.

According to Kant, only the second shopkeeper is behaving morally.

Two Conceptions of Duty

  • Duty as following orders

  • The second conception of duty is much more morally advanced than the first.

  • Duty is external

  • Duty is imposed by others

  • Duty as freely imposing obligation on one’s

    own self

  • The Kantian model

  • Duty is internal

  • We impose duty on ourselves



Soldier attacks-gun position

Likely he will die in the first wave

(Saving Private Ryan)



Defendant has a long criminal history. Instinct says He is guilty. But she must decide on evidence alone. Not guilty.

Two situations involving DUTY regardless of consequences

Centrepiece of Kant’s Moral Philosophy:


Being good is a matter of duty

People who follow Kant care about rules and motives

not results.

Ethical duties should be the same for all in every


Kant: Moral truth stands by itself;

it is AUTONOMOUS and Self-Contained

Rejects consequentialist ethics

Check your learning

  • Kant and duty

  • Kant and reason

  • Kant and consequences

  • Kant and right and wrong

The Categorical Imperative

How do we discover what our DUTIES are?

Answer: Through the use of categorical imperatives.

Categorical = That which is Absolute.

Imperative =Must Do

A C.I. is then a command/law that allows no exceptions.

A C.I. is a general axiom that is not itself a moral rule, but a means of arriving at a specific moral rule that

applies to everyone.

Categorical Imperatives

  • “Act as if the maxim from which you were to act were to become through your will a general law.”

  • 2. ´Always recognize that human individuals are ends and do not use them as means to your end´.

  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

1. “Act as if the maxim from which you were to act were to become through your will a general law.”

  • What would it be like if everyone did that?

1. Universal maxim

  • The categorical imperative requires that any moral decision you make must be acceptable for everyone else to do too.

  • If so, your action is right.

  • If your decision is not okay for everyone everywhere then it would be wrong.

So only those actions that conform to rules that could be adopted by all people at all times are moral.

2. Always recognize that human individuals are ends and do not use them as means to your end´.

  • Kant: People are Intrinsically Valuable; they should never be manipulated to achieve a goal.

  • Basically: Do our actions treat humanity as an end or do they use people as a means????????????

2. Treating people as ends

Human beings can never be treated or used as a means to an end.

Kant argued that human beings occupy a special place in creation and have an ´intrinsic worth´ that makes humankind ´valuable above all price´.

Human being are to treated with dignity. Kant considered human beings ´Holy´.

Other animals, by contrast have value only in so much as they serve human purposes.

According to Kant humans can use animals in any way they please.

We do not even have a direct duty to refrain from torturing them – although Kant thought it wrong, especially as it was far more likely that ´he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men´.

So what would Kant think about this

Treating people as an ends/inherently

valuable, corrects a problem of

consequentialist systems i.e.:

The happiness of the majority/or some

other end opens the door for exploiting

people- i.e. SLAVERY.

+Enslaving people constitutes the

use of these individuals for the

happiness of the majority.

This cannot for Kant be tolerated


1. Kant’s emphasis on Duty helps anchor morality so that we are not swayed by changing moods /emotions or sidetracked by unpredictable


Duty as a basis – helps prevent choices being arbitrary and changeable.

2.Kant takes us beyond Non Ethical questions like:‘‘What do I want’’?And to ethical questions like:

‘‘What is RIGHT?’’

3. For Kant ethics is like Mathematics or science:

Truth is truth.

Even if we change our thinking- the universe does not change.

So: Ethical Laws do not change. They are not open to negotiation.

 Kant’s system is attractive if you do not simply want to justify what you want to believe but really want to know what is right.

I want B to be true BUT

 A is the truth.

4. Ethics needs to be rational not irrational (this can be frightening).

Kant asserts that an ethical conclusion must be rationally supported –this is preferable to a system that is not rationally supported.

5. Kant gives use a method of checking if our wants are ethical.

~ we put ourselves in others shoes.

~ we must avoid using people as means to an end.

6.Kant affirms God’s existence but God has no place in Kantian Ethics

REASON alone is the foundation of moral truth.

However Christians can be attracted to Kant’s ethic

~ There is objective moral truth.

~ Many of Kant’s ethical rules parallel the 10 commandments.

~ Scripture-Ethical directives for all = Kant’s rules Universalised.

Problems with Duty and Reason

  • Can there be such a thing as pure reason, and if there is, can we apply it to moral-decision making?

  • How do we agree on what ‘ought’ to be done in a given situation?

  • Do we share the same concept of ‘duty’ universally? If not how can we agree on what ‘ought’ to be done?

Problems with Duty and Reason

  • Can we really apply clear reason in the real world? (human error)

  • Surely consequences do matter…

  • Can we really apply a moral rule like not killing others to every situation?

Suppose one evening you hear a knock on the door. You answer and a woman is standing there looking scared. She tells you she is on the run from a man who is trying to kill her and asks for you to help hide her.

  • What is the correct decision according to Kant? Why?

  • What problems does this raise?

In this case the fundamental principle is whether you should help someone who is in need.

Kant would have felt that this was a right thing to do.

Using reason you could argue that helping someone who is in need is something everyone ought to do (a duty).

It is also universalisable as everyone should do it.

A few minutes later you hear a knock on the door. A man is standing there with an axe in his hand. He appears to be very angry, shows you a picture of the woman you have just hidden and asks you if you have seen her.

  • What is the correct decision according to Kant? Why?

  • What problems does this raise?

In this case the fundamental principle is whether you should lie.

Kant would have felt that this was the wrong thing to do.

Using reason you could argue that lying should not be allowed.

If I lie I am saying the everyone else has a duty to lie also. This is not universalisable.

Christianity on Kant’s Duty and Reason

  • There is also an emphasis on duty in Christianity.

  • Clear guiding principles exist within the Bible especially the teaching of Jesus.

  • ‘To love one another’ sounds like a universal principle and therefore the categorical imperative.

Christianity on Kant’s Duty and Reason

  • However these principles require interpretation, meaning that to keep one you have to ignore another.

  • For example: Christians think you ought to protect the weak and you ought to preserve life. These principles may become contradictory depending on the situation.

Hi! My name’s Immanuel Kant! I lived from 1724-1804.

I was very into deontological ethics which means I did not think about the consequences of actions, but the motives and the actions themselves.

In many ways, my ideas were the opposite of those of Bentham and Mills.

I’m the ghost of Immanuel Kant!

I don’t agree with Bentham and Mills’ utilitarian theories because I don’t think moral actions are based on consequences. I think they are based on motives and the actions themselves. Let me show you an example!

My sister’s being bullied. Some of my friends are really hard and they have started to bully her too. I am worried about her. I want my friends to like me though and if I stand up to them they will bully both of us.

What would utilitarians say about this?

According to utilitarian theory, it would be okay for the boy to do nothing about her sister because that would result in the greatest pleasure for the greatest number.

What do you think I would say about this?

According to deontological ethics, this boy should not even think about the consequences it would have for him or his sister. He should just follow his inbuilt moral code and do his duty. He has this duty because he has reason.

A person performs an action not for wealth, prestige etc

because it is your duty.

You see, all human beings have reason. This reason allows them to access an objective moral law. In order to act morally, therefore, everybody must follow their duty. Their duty is to follow the moral law.

We all have an in built awareness of what we should do and we should follow that. We should not be lead by our emotions or our experiences because we know what to do from our duty.


“Good will shines forth like a precious jewell.

It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will” (Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals)

A person performs an action not for wealth, prestige etc

because it is your duty.

It is IMPERATIVE that you revise thoroughly for your Nab!

What does imperative mean? And what does it mean with reference to Kant’s ethical theory?

Imperative is something that you have to do.

The Categorical Imperative –This is when a person makes a decision based on their duty and reason. i.e the moral law. For example. I will tell the truth.

  • Universal Maxim

  • Treat people as ends not means.

What is Kantian Ethics?

  • Duty and Reason

  • Moral Absolutes (deontological)

  • Categorical Imperatives

    • Universal Maxim

    • Treat people as ends not means.

  • Moral Law: Behave because we know we must. This is the only way of fulfilling our duty.

So, what about Kant and Punishment?

  • Bearing in mind that

  • All moral laws should be universalised

  • Treat people as ends not means

What do you think Kant would say about;


Capital Punishment?

The purposes of punishment?

Who should be punished?

Kantian viewCrime and Punishment

In The Philosophy of Law (1887) Kant argued that:

The penal law (law which punishes) is a categorical imperative.

Everybody is equal and therefore equal before law.

Criminals must pay for their crimes.

Punishment is necessary but not for the greater good of society, which would mean individuals would be used as a means to an end.

This means that deterrence and protection are immoral purposes for punishment because they are not a response to guilt they are a benefit to others.

Only the guilty should be punished; innocents must be protected.

Punishment is necessary because there is a duty to punish criminals to establish justice and demonstrate dignity for the victims.

The punishment must fit the crime, for example a murderer must be murdered.

An ‘eye for an eye’underpins Kantian teaching.

  • What are the main principles of Kantian ethics 4KU

  • How can these principles be applied to Punishments. 4AE

Kant and Punishment

  • Everybody is equal -therefore equal before the law.

  • Cannot punish people for the benefit of others.

  • Only the guilty should be punished.

  • Innocents must be protected.

  • Punishment should be in proportion to the crime.

  • Deterrence and protection are immoral purposes because they are not a response to guilt they are to benefit others.

  • Eye for an eye underpins Kantian teaching.

  • What you give you should receive.

Kant and Capital Punishment

  • The guilty must be punished or else justice and equality, the only proper foundations for the law, will not have been served.

  • He refers to the principle of equality

    • One is the familiar idea of "an eye for an eye."

    • If you steal from another, you steal from yourself.

  • Kant thinks CP both permissible and obligatory in the case of murder.

  • Why? Two reasons:

    • "that everyone may realise the desert of his deeds

    • "that blood guiltiness may not remain upon the people."

  • But “Torture is inhuman”

  • “His death... must be kept free from all maltreatment that would make the humanity suffering in his person loathsome or abominable.”

  • Even a person guilty of murder is to be treated with a certain sort of dignity, because even the murderer is still a person -- still an end in himself.

“There is only one suitable punishment for any crime – imprisonment”Evaluate a secular viewpoint on this statement.

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