Immanuel Kant’s moral theory can be best explained by comparing it to a math equation. Kant’s moral system will always hold true no matter what the circumstance just like how two plus two will always equal four. According to Kant, our lives should be lived according to maxims that can be willed into universal law (Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, p 303). However the action regarding a moral decision is not judged by the consequences of that action, rather by the motive of that action. Kant’s the method of moral reasoning starts off by first realizing the principle the rational agent is acting under.
To fully understand what this means, a rational agent is to be defined as an entity who is capable of making rational decisions regardless of their natural inclinations. This condition excludes such examples as, animals, infants, and people in a coma from being considered to be a rational agent because they do not show the capacity to reason. After realizing the principle the person is acting under, determine if the reason is morally right. In order to determine if the maxim is ethical and able to be willed into universal law, it must pass three tests: autonomy, respect for humanity, and the kingdom of ends.
Autonomy describes the feeling of accomplishment. This can be illustrated as a man who promises his wife that he will take off the weekend from golfing and file their tax reports. By keeping his promise to his wife he not only feels the satisfaction from finishing their tax report but also, more importantly feels good about following through with his promise. Autonomy is important because if the husband breaks his promises and lives his life as a promise breaker then this maxim is clearly self-defeating.
The entire maxim of promising to break promises does not pass the test of autonomy therefore could never be passed as a universal law. However, if after passing the autonomy test, then a principle must also respect everyone else’s autonomy. In order to respect humanity, make decisions that show an overall concern for rational agents. If by treating them as a rational agent, then the principle will not affect another person’s ability rationalize. In order to do this, it is never acceptable to treat a rational being as merely a means (Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, p 307).
That is to say, the act of rape treats the rational agent as a means to sexual gratification. The act of rape does not respect the agent as a rational being and could never be willed into a moral universal law. However if a principle was able to pass the first two conditions, then it is necessary to subject it to the kingdom of ends test. The kingdom of ends is composed of a group of rational agents all with different objectives in life. The importance of having different objectives in life insures that all perspectives and backgrounds have been covered.
These agents have been given the responsibility of creating a free society. A free society entails laws that every rational agent in that society would agree upon. If the principle is not a measure that the kingdom of ends would enact, then the principle, by Kant’s definition, is immoral. Let us analyze the principle of apathy. Living an apathetic life does indeed pass the test of autonomy and by showing indifference to other rational agents it also passes the test of humanity. However, apathy would not pass the kingdom of ends, as no rational being would accept such a maxim.
As a result, an apathetic life could not be passed as universal law. As an example, we will refer back to the persecution of Jews during World War II. Say a man is hiding a Jew in his house and the Gestapo comes knocking on door. However, as the Gestapo questions the man of the whereabouts of the Jew, the man cannot lie and say that no one is hiding within his house, but at the same time, if he were to tell the truth he would be indirectly bringing harm upon himself and the Jew. The man should question the Gestapo about what they plan on doing to the Jew once they have located him.
According to Kant, consequences have no relevance, although if all possible consequences were known, then it would be permissible to lightly take them into account. Since telling the truth by giving the Gestapo the whereabouts of the Jew would bring direct harm, it is permissible to lie. The maxim would be to never lie unless the truth results direct or indirect harm. This maxim respects autonomy and human nature and would be pass the kingdom of ends test and thus can be willed into universal moral law. Now take the case of Harry and Sally, according to Kantian moral reasoning, should Sally seduce Harry?
If Sally were to seduce Harry by taking him back to her place and having sex with him, she would be using him as a means to her ends. By Sally using Harry simply as a means to achieve her ends, that moral decision is breaking a fundamental Kantian principle. Using people as only a means is never acceptable. The difference between Sally seducing Harry into sex and Sally having consensual sex with Harry is the difference of deception and coercion. According to Mappes, deception and coercion are the methods for sexually using someone (Mappes, Sexual Morality, p. 166).
The whole idea is based off the respect for an individual person to voluntarily make their own decisions. By deceiving someone, it is clearly misleading a person to make a decision that they would not have made, had it been on their own regard. However the objection can be made that Sally should do what ultimately brings her pleasure. Using Utilitarian morality, something that results in the greater pleasure, or avoidance of harm, of the populations involved is morally correct. Even though Harry is somewhat apprehensive of the whole casual sex idea, he is not defiant or strongly against it.
It can even be reasoned that Harry might even enjoy himself once him and Sally are having sex. And also, casual sex is perfectly okay if there is no lying, deceiving, or exploiting (Elliston, In Defense of Promiscuity, p. 170). I believe Elliston’s definition of deceiving is different that Kant’s definition. Kant covers all and any type of deception as immoral. Elliston agrees that deception is indeed immoral, but his definition of deception would be a man telling a woman he does not have herpes when indeed he does. As long as sex is consensual, there is no harm.
Sally would only be seducing Harry back to her house under, say, the premise to watch a movie, however when the actual act of intercourse happens, Harry is not being deceived at all. Even with the arguments above, Sally would ultimately be using Harry simply as a means to achieve her ends of sexual pleasure. By using Kantian morality, Sally should not pressure Harry to going home with her nor should she try to seduce him. Kant reasons that human beings have been given this gift of free will to act as the dividing line between humans and animals. Animals are considered animals because they lack the ability to rationalize.
What then, is the ultimate value and purpose of having a free will? If the point of having a free will was to seek pleasure and avoid harm, then we are nothing more than animals and have wasted this ability to reason. Instead, humans have free will so they could follow moral law. Therefore, follow moral law even in situations where social laws or natural inclinations could conflict. By following Kant’s moral reasoning, what we do in our lives is right not only because we ourselves believe it to be right but also since we have willed it to become universal law, it could not possibly be wrong.
The maxims that we base our lives on are intrinsically good because we are able to will it into universal law. Therefore, moral decisions made using Kant’s ideas can be applied universally. Kant’s ideas show respect for humanity and people’s decisions are not made for selfish pleasure seeking reasons by treating people as a means, but rather they are made based on universal morals and by treating everybody as an rational agent. By following Kant’s moral reasoning a rational agent will be able to make the right decision when faced with any type of moral dilemma.