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Explain Kants Theory of Ethics Essay

Kant was born in 1724-1804, he was a German thinker from East Prussia (now Russia), and he spent his whole life in his hometown. Kant wanted to create a logical, stand-alone theory that wasn’t just based on assumptions, he believed in an objective right or wrong that is decided on reason and that we shouldn’t do the right thing just because it’s right and not to fulfil our desires. Can we lead a life following his ideals are there not some situations where a perfect moral decision cannot be made, are all our choices fuelled by personal gain and desire?

He has a deontological and absolute approach to ethics, to Kant what makes an action good is when you do your ‘duty’ and that one’s duty is to always flow the moral law. We should not act out of love or compassion. The motive is what makes an action good –nothing else! The consequences to Kant are meaningless it’s the act itself that needs to be right an example of his thinking would be its immoral to kill 1 man in order to save 10. For Kant the fact that we ‘ought’ to do something implies that it is possible to do it.

Thus moral statements are prescriptive: they prescribe an action. Ought implies can, ‘if I ought to do X’, it means ‘I can do X’. Kant also believed that moral statements are a priori (knowable prior to experience) and synthetic, that they can be verified by our empirical evidence so are either true or false. Kant put forward the idea of two imperatives the hypothetical imperative, these are not moral commands and they don’t apply to everyone. In Kant’s eyes you only need to obey them if you want to achieve a certain goal.

An example of this would be that Kant observed that the word ‘ought’ is often used none morally, for example ‘if you want to become a better artist or guitarist, you ought to practice’. On the other hand Kant also proposed the Categorical Imperative, these are moral commands that can be universalised and do not depend on anything else. Whereas the hypothetical imperative requires you to go from ‘a’ to ‘b’ then categorical imperative only requires you to just do ‘a’. “Duties for duties sake” this related to the categorical imperative.

Kant then goes on to the 3 maxims, first off to test a moral maxim as it’s a universal law either everyone should follow it or everyone should reject it. The first maxim is ‘Your action should be able to be universalised’ before you act in a certain way, would you like everyone in the same situation to act in the same way. If not, then you are involved in a contradiction it goes against reason, “ so at that principle of action might safely be made of law for the whole world” if you were to take lying through the first maxim its clear it would fail as that would mean everyone would be lying to one another and trust is completely destroyed.

The second maxim is ‘Don’t treat people as a means to an end’ Kant strongly believed that you can never use human beings as a means to an end, to exploit or enslave them. Humans to Kant are all the highest point of creation and so demand a unique treatment. This guarantees that all individuals are afforded the moral principles; therefore no humans can be used for the sake of others, he also explained that we have a duty to develop our own perfection, developing our moral, intellectual and physical capabilities.

We also have a duty to seek the happiness of others as long as that is within the law and allows the freedom of others. “Always recognise that human individually are ends and do not use them as a means to your end” therefore you can’t lie for example to further your own needs at the cost of using someone. Kant’s final and third maxim ‘ work towards a kingdom of ends’ this is an overall culmination of the first two, everyone should act as if every person was a ‘end’ and that moral choices be based on any empirical consideration about human nature, human flourishing or human destiny.

However it needs to be clear that despite this autonomy this does not mean that everyone can just decide their own morality but rather that each individual has the ability to understand the principles of pure practical reason and follow them. It is impartial and must apply to everyone. If one maxim is disproved then the law becomes immoral and can’t be universalised. Kant also talked about good will and duty, to Kant the ‘greatest good or summon bonum’ is what Kant terms as good will. Someone of good will is not good because of what they achieve (the consequence) but because he/she acts out of duty.

Good will to Kant is the only thing that is truly pure, as we can get our reasoning wrong or it can be manipulated, but to have the good will to perform your duty cannot be manipulated or got wrong. Kant contrasted ‘doing your duty’ with ‘giving into your emotions’ or doing what you feel like. The main two meanings of duty come into conflict as the first thought meaning of duty is to obey your superior, this is what the Nazi soldiers claimed innocence about when they were trialled for war crimes they were just following orders but is that moral?

To obey the moral law do the right thing and think a situation through is Kant’s meaning of duty “Good will shines forth like a precious jewel” –Kant. Kant’s theory of ethics seems to grant freedom to do anything that can be universalised. This sets the limits but does not give guidance; therefore in order for it to make sense Kant proposed the three postulates, the existence of god, freedom and immorality. We know that morality can exist because we can observe it. However we must be free to perform it as otherwise the act wouldn’t be truly moral. Morality and freedom must come from somewhere to Kant this is God. Kant argues that there must be a God and an afterlife as there has to be some sort of reward.

As we cannot be perfect in this life. This is known as reaching the summon bonum that I mentioned earlier, as this cannot be achieved in this life, there must be an afterlife where this can be achieved. For Kant, morality leads to God. Part B: Assess the view that it is always right to keep one’s promises. In Kant’s view immorality occurs when the categorical imperative is not followed: when a person attempts to set a different standard for themselves then for the rest of humanity. In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, once Kant has derived his categorical imperative he applies it to a number of examples.

The second example and probably the most analysed is that of an unfaithful promise. Kant applies his imperative to a person who is short of money who intends to ask for a loan, promising to repay it, but with no intention of doing so. When Kant applies the categorical imperative to this situation he discovers that it leads to a contradiction, for if breaking promises were to become universal then no person would ever agree to a promise and promises would disappear. Kant connects rationality with morality, and sees contradictory behaviour as immoral.

Some critics have argued that Kant never asserts the connection between rationality and morality, but most dismiss this and point out that Kant clearly explains how morality must be based upon reason and not upon desires. Another weakness is that what if your friend told you a secret that he was planning to murder someone, it would be your obligation to keep it but is that morally right? Could that surpass the 3 maxims, in the second maxim there can be no use of one individual for the sake of another, are you forsaking the person that is planned to be murdered just to keep a promise.

However on the other hand there are strengths to Kant’s way of thinking as it means everyone single human has intrinsic value, actions are based on reason and logic and there are 3 straightforward maxims that need to be followed so it cuts out many grey areas as if it simply doesn’t follow the maxims it can’t be universalised. Other theories, utilitarianism for example would say it would be wrong to keep a promise of a secret of planned bomb attack that would kill hundreds as you would be saving hundreds of lives by informing the police.

Utilitarian’s believe that the outcome outweighs the action. In my opinion I agree with Kant theory as I believe there needs to be trust between people, as relationships with people would mean nothing also it’s a matter of honour if you gave your word to someone I will promise you this etc. then it has to be in the best of your ability to fulfil it if it’s a good cause and not unjust. However in extreme cases such as say the promise of keeping a secret of a planned terrorist attack I would have to side with the utilitarian approach.


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