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Kant’s Ethics of Duty. 3 insights form the basis for Kant’s Ethical Theory An action has moral worth if it is done for the sake of duty. ( DUTY) An action is morally correct if its maxim can be willed as a universal law. ( UNIVERSALIZABILITY)

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kant s ethics of duty
Kant’s Ethics of Duty

3 insights form the basis for Kant’s Ethical Theory

  • An action has moral worth if it is done for the sake of duty. (DUTY)
  • An action is morally correct if its maxim can be willed as a universal law. (UNIVERSALIZABILITY)
  • We should always treat humanity, whether in ourselves or other people, as an end in itself and never merely as means to an end. (RESPECT)
the ethics of duty
The Ethics of Duty

Acting for the sake of duty is:

  • Acting without self-interest
  • Acting without concern for consequences
  • Acting without inclination [downplays the role of compassion]
immanuel kant a matter of duty
Immanuel Kant: a matter of "duty"

Before Kant ethics focused on the concept of "the good"

    • Two questions were asked:
      • What is "the good"?
      • How do we attain it?
  • There was no disagreement on the above two points.
    • The only puzzle was why didn't some people aim at the good. [Plato said "ignorance". Aristotle said “weakness of will.”]
how christianity changed ethics
How Christianity changed ethics
  • In the Christian view
    • to act morally a person must see the act is right (i.e., it is commanded by GOD) and must do the act because they see it is right.
  • For KantReason, not God, is the source of the moral law. We can rephrase the above as:
    • to act morally a person must see the act is right (i.e., it is commanded by REASON) and must do the act because they see it is right.
the good will and duty
The "good will" and duty...
  • Kant believed that only a GOOD WILL is morally valuable.
    • A good will knows what its duty is (that is, the good will knows what reason commands it to do.)
    • And the good will DOES the dutiful act because the good will is dutiful.
the nature of the good will
The nature of the "good will"
  • The will determines how our talents and temperaments are used. It affects [or conditions] everything else we do.
  • Kant argues that some qualities are helpful to the good will, such as moderation, self-control and "sober reflexion", but they are not good in themselves.
    • Some talents & temperaments are a MEANS to the end of a “good will” , but are not an end in themselves.
the good will and results
The "good will" and results
  • The will is good through its willing alone. Even if the good will cannot carry out its intentions, it is good in itself.
  • According to Kant we should not judge the good will by its "fruitfulness".
    • “fruitfulness” = the consequences of its willing.
    • The good will is to be judged by its motive alone.
reason as the source of the moral law reason commands
Reason as the source of the moral law (reason "commands")
  • Kant's premise: "nothing in nature is in vain", therefore reason must have some function.
    • The functions of the preservation of life or the gaining of happiness are better performed by instinct. [examples?]
    • Thus he concludes that Reason has nothing to do with our actions, yet is a practical power -- it influences our will.
  • Kant concludes that the true function of reason is to produce a will that is good.
the good will and duty9
The "Good Will" and Duty

What does it mean to act from duty?

  • It is not enough that an act of a certain kind be done:
    • For example: You might, while lying, accidentally tell the truth.
  • It is not enough that the act is INTENDED:
    • For example: If you are moved by a sudden feeling of pity, your act is still without moral value.
an act must be done from principle
An Act Must Be Done From Principle
  • In order for an act to be done from principle there must be a thought-out rule.
  • And you must perform the act because you see it is an INSTANCE of the rule.
    • From slide 2: “to act morally a person must see the act is right (i.e., it is commanded by REASON) and must do the act because they see it is right. “
the motive of duty i
The Motive of Duty I
  • Kant believed that the only motive that makes an act morally valuable is that of DUTY
    • Kant believed that “inclinations” other than duty, such as love for humanity, are variable in nature, as is self-interest.
    • He also makes a distinction between
      • Acting in conformity with duty (but not for the right motive) and
      • Acting from the MOTIVE of duty.
the motive of duty ii
The Motive of Duty II

When is the motive of duty easiest to see?

  • When the dutiful action is not to your advantage; that is, causes you pain or loss.
    • Kant argues that taking pleasure in giving others happiness has no moral worth.

Duty resides with the will, not with feeling. Why? [related to the problems with inclinations as a basis for ethics]

3 propositions and the formal principle of duty
3 Propositions and the Formal Principle of Duty
  • 1st PROPOSITION: This proposition concerns the nature of duty.
    • We are to act FROM the motive of duty, rather than from conformity with duty. [We just finished discussing this!]
  • 2nd PROPOSITION is the Formal Principle of Duty itself.
  • The 3rd PROPOSITION: "Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.
2nd proposition the formal principle of duty
2nd Proposition: The Formal Principle of Duty

The moral worth of an action done from duty is not in the "purpose to be attained,” [i.e. consequences] but in the maxim (or law) on which the action is decided.

  • Moral worth does not come from the consequences of the action or from achieving the purpose of the action
  • The moral worth lies in the "principle of the will" -- with "every material principle taken away” [such as inclinations, consequences, advantages.]
3rd proposition reverence for the law
3rd Proposition:Reverence for the Law

3rd PROPOSTION: "Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.

  • If we act for the sake of the OBJECT of our actions we can only act in terms of inclination. [examples?]
    • Kant is moving towards the notion of the moral law as COMMANDED

We must act from the IDEA OF THE LAW ITSELF

    • This is only possible for a rational being
    • And this doesn't wait for a "result."
the categorical imperative
The "Categorical Imperative"

The Categorical Imperative is the means by which we determine what the moral law is.

It states:

"I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

It means:

  • that we have to be willing for others to use the same moral law that we are using.
the discussion i is it prudent or is it right to make a false promise
The Discussion-I:Is it prudent, or is it right to make a false promise?
  • Kant is making the argument that looking at the consequences of an action won't help us decide between
    • prudence [consequences]and
    • duty as the justification for a “false promise”.
the discussion ii is it prudent or is it right to make a false promise
The Discussion - II:Is it prudent, or is it right to make a false promise?
  • If we try to justify a lying promise on the basis of being prudent, we aren’t always able to see the consequences.
  • It is also possible that if people lose confidence in us, what will happen will be more disadvantageous than what will happen now. [magistrate & mob]
discussion iii does a lying promise accord with duty
Discussion- III: Does a "lying promise" accord with duty?
  • Kant argues that truth for the sake of duty contains the moral law:
    • (In the case of prudence you must look to see what the effects will be and doing this does not contain the moral law.)
discussion iv does a lying promise accord with duty
Discussion- IV: Does a "lying promise" accord with duty?
  • You must ask whether you can universalize your maxim. Can you?
    • You can will to lie, but you cannot will a universal law of lying. Why not?
    • So we reject the "lying promise", not because of the consequences, but because it cannot be enacted as a universal law.
universalizability the categorical imperative
Universalizability & the “Categorical Imperative”

The example of Lying: If we will it to be a universal law -- we lose the advantage from our lying. Consider the matter of Consistency - lying loses 2 ways here

1. If we imagine the consequences of everyone lying we cannot consistently will that everyone adopt this maxim.

2. OR: I cannot consistently will that I lie and you don’t!

The requirement of Impartiality & Fairness means that we cannot make an exception of ourselves.

formulating maxims
Formulating maxims

To formulate a maxim correctly you must:

  • Be sure the act description is formulated carefully so it is relevant. Get the right description.
  • Be sure that the maxim has sufficient generality.
  • Be sure it can pass the “categorical imperative” test.

The maxim needs to be related to the

1. motivating reasons of the agent,

2. to the act itself and

3. to a universal system of reasons.

the second formulation of the categorical imperative
The Second Formulation of the “Categorical Imperative”

We should respect all human beings impartially.

  • Because human beings exist as “ends in themselves” we should never use them as “mere means.”
    • Kant’s argument is based on our rationality. [This is what sets us aside from those things that are what he calls “objects of inclination.”]
    • The 2 formulations of the “Categorical Imperative” are basically the same according to Kant. How so?

Think: What is the connection between acting on a universal moral maxim and respecting all human beings impartially?

using others as mere means what does it mean
Using others as “mere means” : What does it mean?

Whether we are using a person as a “mere means” can be hard to determine as our motives are often mixed, but a “mere means” situation may involve the following characteristics:

  • deception about true motives
  • profiting at another person’s expense
  • undermining a person’s chance to make an informed choice [tied to deception]
  • violating certain other maxims we have
a brief summary
A Brief Summary
  • The moral law is commanded by reason.
  • What makes an action morally right is that you have a moral maxim that you can universalize.
  • It is also wrong to treat people as “mere means”
    • Kant focuses on universality and impartiality
    • And these are conditions that are necessary for people to be treated “freely & equally” -- i.e. with RESPECT
kant pro con
Kant: Pro & Con


  • It is admirable to act from duty
  • Morality should be evenhanded
  • The Importance of respect for other persons


  • Maintains the split between duty and inclination
  • Ignores the role of the emotions in morality
  • Ignores the place for consequences in morality
what ways are available to resolve moral problems
What ways are available to resolve moral problems?
  • Evaluate the consequences of the alternatives. [UTILITARIANISM]
  • Believe that the right action will flow from our having formed good moral habits [ARISTOTLE]
  • Act from the correct motive [KANT]
    • MOTIVES: can be based in feeling or reason
    • Kant believes that REASON makes more stable, universal &impartial decisions possible
kant summary
KANT Summary
  • We are to act on the basis of duty [what reason commands]
  • It is the good will that reason creates that enables us to do this.
  • Our reverence for the moral law will help us find what our duty is.
  • Instead of looking at consequences use the following principles.
    • Can you universalize your moral maxim?
    • Are you using a person as a “mere means”?
ask yourself
Ask yourself …

What do Kant’s 2 principles ensure about the decision we make ? That it is --

  • STABLE [reason not emotion; also not consequences]
  • UNIVERSAL [everyone could use your maxim]
  • IMPARTIAL [reason & universalizability]
  • OBJECTIVE [reason & no emotion]