A Word from Kant

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Kantianism is a deontological normative ethical theory. The theory derives its name from Immanuel Kant, an 18th century philosopher, who has had a prolific impact on the course of philosophical thought. He has written on a wide range of subjects including education, ethics, politics, religion, epistemology and metaphysics. His best known works are, of course, Critique of Pue Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, Critique of the Power of Judgment, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Metaphysics of Morals. This overview of Kantianism makes use of both the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Metaphysics of Morals.

Recall that deontological normative ethical theories claim that consequences are morally irrelevant. It’s not that Kant, or any other deontologist, is indifferent to the impact actions have on others, nor still are they uncaring and insensitive to human suffering. It’s only that matters pertaining to human suffering, or happiness, is morally irrelevant. It is a subject to be taken up by psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and the like within the framework of analysis particular to their field and set of questions and methodology.

Morality, as far as Kant was concerned, is fundamentally about intentions. By this his meaning was not why people act and choose the way they do. Why people behave the way they do and choose as they do is the kind of study taken up by aforementioned disciplines focused on acquiring an understanding of such behaviours and decision making processes via adopting a defensible explanatory framework. You may recall from the chapter What is Ethics? that three distinct forms of moral inquiry were addressed: descriptive, normative and meta-ethical. The first, descriptive inquiry, are of the first-order variety taking up questions pertaining to the “here and now”, or the actual concrete manifestations of human behaviour and their judgments. While such an inquiry provides insight into human understanding and behaviour, this does not at the same time commit one to adopting any particular form of decision making processess or behaviors as guidelines for how one should act and decide matters pertaining to ethics.

Engagment in moral inquiry presupposes more than just a world organised in a manner that can be called moral. The behaviour of animals is sometimes called moral, dogs in particular, are often described by their “owners” as loyal, caring, generous, devoted and good. And perhaps this is astute. I won’t take sides on this issue. Still, even if dogs and other animals, can be described as exhibiting (what we humans call) moral behaviour, that no more makes them moral than a robot programmed to behave in the same way. To test this hypothesis consider your reaction to a robot that adopted vicious or immoral behaviour, say throwing your dog off the balcony (don’t worry it’s just a short drop to the ground and he’s okay!). Would you punish the robot or find fault with the computer designer/programmer? My guess is you’d find fault with the latter; i.e. it was the result of her shortcomings that the robot adoped the action in question. Assigning moral blame occurs only in a context where the expectation is that actions are the “direct” expression of choice. Choice in turn involves two inherently related parts: reason and autonomy.

Let’s back up a bit to make the point more clear. Moral discourse is addressed by beings preoccupied with negotiating their engagement, place or orientation in the world amongst others. Beings, like our lovely adorable canine companions, are not arrested by a concern with their orientation in the world, nor do they become perplexed over the conditions of their engagment in the world, even if or when they endure physiological and “emotional” trauma. Those perplexed over their orientation in the world are first and foremost aware of themselves “set off against a cosmic backdrop”. Self-awareness does this: awareness of self is that inward experience of self as a being set a part from all that encompasses it within the range of conditions comprising her habitat. This conjures the need to “find” one’s place in the world in a meaningful way. Set on a course to define one’s place, one abstracts herself from the actuality of the concrete conditions of one’s life to consider how to best live the most fulfilling life which comes to figuring out how one should live.

Self-awareness births the realisation that we are agents who do not simply inhabit the world, but who must comport themselves to the world. We are therefore responsible for our comportment to the world; we are responsible for defining the standards according to which we should live. This is what Kant calls autonomy.

Autonomy is also etymologically Greek in origin – εαυτός translates self and νόμος translates law or rule – meaning self-ruled or self-governed. It is, in fact, and was by Kant, seen in counterdistinction to the term hetermony. Heteronomy from the Greek έτερο meaning other, comes to mean other-ruled or other-governed. The fundamental difference between these distinct states of being is the source from which moral decision springs: autonomy springs from self, whereas heteronomy springs from anything/one other than self.

Other-governed decisions include (i) allowing others to decide for you (for instance, when parents make decisions for their children or when husbands do so for their wives), (ii) making decisions to fit in (for instance, when succumbing to peer pressure), (iii) making a decision because of the way others affect you (for instance, when adopting actions and decision making practises that have been inculcated in you through social [or more specifically familial or filial] conditioning), (iv) making decisions from interest (for instance, when cheating on your taxes or lying in general to get ahead – notice that even though one could describe this as pusuing one’s self-interest it is from an understanding of interest pertaining to contigent circumstances within an equally ephemeral set of social conditions that interests are defined, so that it is ultimately these that define your intentions), (v) making decisions from emotional duress (for instance, siding with someone out of pity, love or compassion). For none of these scenarios are you autonomous.

So when are you autonomous? You may have now realised that decisions are not heteronomous when they are simply extrinsically sourced. That is, even when decisions are not informed by extrinsic factors – factors that lie outside of self – decisions sometimes are still heteronomous. The last example illustrates this point: emotions are inherent to self, or they spring from self. However, emotions are contingent and subject to a variety of conditions both personal to the subject of experience and extrinsic to him or her. Recall that moral inquiry may sometimes be descriptive. Inquiries of this kind are interested in explaining human behaviour which rests in an understanding of the self which Kant referred to as the phenonemal self, as opposed to the noumal self.

The phenomenal self is like any other phenomena subject to the causal laws of nature. So just like the law of gravity explains why and how a boulder rolls down hill, it also explains why people jumping off a roof top don’t fly but crash to the ground (again don’t worry, like the dog, the fall was short and he landed on his feet!) These are laws that all matter is subject to. But we are not subject only to these external laws of nature, we are also subject to biological, chemical and neurological laws of nature that explain the inner workings of body functions and psychological experiences. These include our demise when our body temperature remains over 40 for days at a time, hunger pains when we haven’t eaten for days, post-menstrual syndrom when our hormones are out of whack, and so on. Indeed, our phenomenal selves are moved around, take form, shift courses, decay, die as a result of forces that act on us (eg. The law of gravity) and through us (eg. DNA).

Of course, it is important to note that according to Kant the relationship of cause and effect which we employ to make sense of the world is a product, and hence imposition of the mind on the world. Inspired by Hume, Kant agreed that there is nothing in our perceptions that tell us that one thing causes another. Indeed, all we actually experience is that one event follows another, perhaps even with a certain regularity. From this Kant concluded that the mind is hardwired with certain ideas, causality and time & space, for instance, which constitute human understanding and frame the manner in which perceptual experience is understood. The implication is, of course, that we never actually experience the world as it is independently of the manner in which it is shaped. Hence, we speak of the world according to human understanding. The judgments one makes within this realm therefore must be taken to reflect not the things in themselves (these can never be known), but perceptions of the world organised according to the structure of human understanding.

The noumenal self  addresses that aspect of self that is not subject to these contingencies, whether externally or internally located. This is, that aspect of self that one becomes aware of and addresses when engaged in acts of self-reflectivity as when one realises that he is set a part from mere phenomenal objects that are wholly constituted by the network of causal relations. Set a part thusly he is imparted with that knowledge that he is both a phenomenon (see above) but also responsible for his comportment to the world. What does this come to and how precisely does one comport oneself to the world? In the Kantian sense it must be that the noumenal self is somehow uncaused (at least by such causal laws of nature). So the manner in which one understands experience (always pertaining to the objects of perception) is unlike the kind of understanding adopted in the case of this uncaused aspect (I adopt this term – aspect – as oppossed to “true” self which involves the view that the phenomenal self is untrue or unreal somehow which would involve accepting the implication that the phenomenal self is also not morally culpable or blamesworthy for moral digressions) of self. Not subject to the laws of nature, the noumenal self is subject to the laws which occupy the mind, namely the laws of reason. These both define the rules (or duties) according to which one should live  – these are therefore self-legislative commands, if you will (these are a priori not a posteriori) – as well as provide the very dictates that (should) motivate human behaviour.

Kant works out these complex philosophical arguments in his Groundwork which need not concern us here. Presently, the intuitive idea seems best expressed along the aforementioned lines.  As you reflect inwardly in an acknowledged state of selfhood impervious to the contingenies that affect that phenomenal aspect of yourself, you aim to engineer a set of rules also not subject to contingenies whether of the variety illustrated as externally or internally sourced. Moral autonomy or volunariness then, resides in engineering such rules or duties which therefore do not define or direct the outcome of one’s actions and decisions. Actions or decisions spring from Reason and reason alone. Reason then is the seat of personal moral autonomy.

The name Kant gives to the duties or rules that are to legislate moral decisions is the Categorical Imperative. This is distinguished from what Kant calls the hypothetical imperative. The Greek etymology is again useful. Categorical – in Greek κατηγορηματικό – meaning absolute, and hypothetical – in Greek υποθετικό meaning conditional, connotes Kant’s meaning well: a categorical imperative is something that is absolutely imperative or an Absolute Duty, whereas a hypothetical imperative is something that is a (only) conditional(ly) imperative or a Conditional Duty.

To best understand these distinct imperatives it is helpful to engage aforementioned Kantian distinctions picked up along the way. The phenomenal self is the physical or materially constituted aspect of self that is subject to the causal laws of the empirical world of experience. Imperatives that arise in this context concern decision making processes informed by desire which are realised in practice. So, for instance, the success of losing weight will be drawn from empirical knowledge regarding human biology, nurtrition facts and the like. Whether one should or must adopt the dietary imperative would be conditional, however, on possesing the relevant desire: “I want to lose weight”. If I want to lose weight, then I must adopt the dietary plan, but if I do not desire to lose weight, the imperative does not follow. These Kant says inform action of a nonmoral variety imposed on oneself conditionally upon possessing the appropriate desires.

As for the Categorical Imperative, these are absolutely binding. Unlike the hypothetical imperatives these are not couched in desire but spring from reason. To understand Kant’s point recall that the noumenal self is that aspect of self which is self-reflectively aware of oneself as the author of one’s life, the agent who decides how to meaningfully respond to the challenges and dilemmas of life. This aspect of self is timeless, it escapes the confines of the empirical world governed by the laws of nature. It is the phenomenal aspect of self that is plunged into this world, but it is the noumenal aspect of self that is called upon to transcend these contingencies both of self and circumstance.


Hypothetical Imperative – nonmoral decisions – conditional – springs from desire – informed by understanding of the empirical natural world


Categorical Imperative – moral decisions – unconditional (absolute) – springs from reason – informed by an understanding of duty.


Applying the Categorical Imperative involves the phenomenal and noumenal aspects of self in conversation, if you will, in the following way:

Amidts my life circumstances I am confronted by situations that call for a decision to be made, and hence the understanding that I possess the will to affect how to live my life. This is when the noumenal aspect of self steps in to negotiate her understanding of the moral situation. Rather than pose the question “what can I do?” or “what is in my self-interest to do?”, she asks “What should I do?” The first set of questions invite an assessment of the actual situation, whereas the latter steps outside of the situation, as it were, to address the agent as a self-legislating being whose intentions determine the affectability of her choice. Reason, basically understanding the basic concepts of reason, provides the framework in which to develop a system of ethics.

A point sometimes missed in introductory courses to Kant’s ethics is an idea that echos Socratic and Platonic ethics: the only thing that is valuable without qualification is a good will. His point is that anything else called good is good because of something-or-other. We all seem to share this intutive understanding according to Kant that our sense of moral goodness is above all else; sacrificing our sense of moral goodness is tantamount to the lack of moral integrity. So as tempting as certain ends are, as hard as living a morally dignified life can be in dire circumstance, as emotionally burdensome as doing the right thing can be, it is never really morally justified to sucuumb. Indeed, one might say that nothing else is really worth having short of a good will. That is, not all the riches in the world, popularity, beauty, none of these is valuable if one must also contend with (a self-reflective awareness of) an indignant moral status. If nothing that stands outside of a good will defines it, it must be intrisically valuable, and must then be pursued and practiced out of a love for the moral law or duty itself. The moral law or duty then is grounded in our self-aware understanding of ourselves as rational and autonomous beings, so that the laws or duties that follow are universally binding; i.e. for all people, at all times, in all places. Note also that acting contrary to the duties which ensue would both be contradictory and self-effacing since these duties are issued from our self-acknowledged sense of moral autonomy which is couched in our ability to make our own decisions when they spring from our own understanding.

Kant formulated the Categorical Imperative in the following way (there is some debate over this because Kant offers what appear to be three alternative ways of formulating the categorical imperative in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals):

Act according to that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law

The categorical imperative is a maxim or a rule that the moral agent formulates (proximity) according to her reason for adopting the said rule. This is then framed unconditionally or without qualification as a universal law or duty. So consider the following example:

Agnes is 5’3” and 180 lbs. You’ve gone shopping together and she spots this adorable little mini skirt. Agnes manages to push her way into the largest size, but just! Enthusiastically she asks you “how do I look?” Now Agnes is your friend and you worry about hurting her feelings. But the truth is you’re surprised Agnes even needs to ask since it’s so obviously, well, awful! Should I lie or tell Agnes the truth?

According to Kant, I can’t just lie because Agnes’ feelings are going to be hurt; I can’t just lie because I foresee it may cost me my friendship; I can’t just lie because others upon learning of my behaviour may berate me for being meanspirited; and I can’t just lie because I want to make Agnes feel good. Kant can’t recommend lying and I can’t ignore Kant!  I can’t just lie because from a moral point of view this decision is not made within or for a set of conditions. Instead, one must put desires, consequences and expectations aside and consider whether lying  could as a general rule be univeralized for all people, at all times and in all places. Recall that if an act is to be morally justified it must spring from reason. Though it is not altogether clear what it means to appeal to reason as if somehow liberated from a set of conditions, Kant’s point is that lying cannot be universalised because it would thereby be self-defeating.

Respect for Persons is the name that is sometimes given to the third formulation or version of the Categorical Imperative. Here Kant says:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or any other person, as an end, and never only as a means to an end only.

To treat people as an end is to respect them as rational beings who have the right to self-determination. In other words, just like we acknowledge in ourselves that we are self-legislating beings, so too must we acknowledge this amongst fellow agents. Not to, would be a contradiction in terms. Doing so requires therefore that others are not treated like any other (mere) phenomena that are subject to the causal laws of nature – in this case the wills of moral agents – with no will of their own. Fellow rational and autonomous beings are not mere objects (though they are that also – recall that aspect of self that is phenomenal) but are subjects of a life. As such how interaction is to be morally respectful presupposes eliciting voluntary choice. Strictly speaking we use each other all the time, indeed it is an indispensable aspect of community life. For instance, students are using their professors as a means to advance their studies and acquire knowledge. Indeed professors are using students as a means of financial subsistence. However, both parties willfully engage in these forms of exchange and hence are not merely treated as a means to the other’s ends, but as beings who legislate their own ends.

Thinking About Ethics, Elly Pirocacos, https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-About-Ethics-Elly-Pirocacos/dp/1505369592?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0



7 thoughts on “A Word from Kant

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: