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Kant Moral Law Theory Essay

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” – Kant (1788), pp, 193, 259 Immanuel Kant introduced and initiated his ‘moral law theory’ in the late 18th century. The doctrine in question sought to establish and constitute a supreme or absolute principle of morality. Kant disputes the existence of an ‘ethical system’, whereby moral obligations are obligations of ‘purpose’ or ‘reason’. The accuracy of actions [i.e. the rightness or wrongness of an individual deed] is determined by its configuration and conformity with regard to ‘moral law’. Evidently, according to Kant, an immoral transaction is invariably contemplated as an illogical or unreasonable occurrence or action.

The supreme moral principle is a consistent “working criterion” that proves to be “practically helpful and theoretically enlightening” when used by rational agents as a guide for making personal choices (Kant VI). A supreme guiding moral principle must carry with it an absolute necessity and be done out of duty to the moral law in order to be free from corruption. Kant believed in a fair and impartial law. He accredited and affirmed the presence of an objective moral law that we, as humans, were/are able to identify with through the process of reasoning. Kant argued that we are able to recognise and distinguish moral law, without making reference to the possible consequence or outcome. Immanuel Kant declared a differentiation between statements [i.e. posteriori and priori] that he believed to coincide with moral law. A posteriori statement is one that is based on experience of the material world. In opposition, a priori statement requires no such knowledge; it is known independent of the phenomenal world. Furthermore, Kant continued to make additional distinctions with regard to analytic and synthetic statements.

An analytic statement, he claims, is one that by its very nature is necessarily true, as the predicate is included within the definition of the subject. Example: – [“all squares have four sides”]. The previous statement is of an analytic nature, as the predicate, i.e. the square having four sides, is implicit and is part of the definition of the subject – [“square”]. An analytic statement is necessarily true – true by its own authority, and is purely explicative, as it tells us nothing new about the subject. In contrast, a synthetic statement is one in which the predicate is not included in the definition of the subject, and thus is not necessarily true. A synthetic statement also tells us something new about the subject. Prior to Kant, it was widely accepted that there were only two types of statement: a priori analytic and a posteriori synthetic.

Kant accepted these two statements although believed there to be a third: a priori synthetic statement. These are statements that are known independent of experience that may or may not be true. Kant claimed that these priori synthetic principles are inherent within us and therefore subsequently form the basis of all moral decision making. Kant’s theory is based on and is primarily concerned with the aspect of ‘duty’. Kant believed and promoted the notion that to act morally is one’s ‘duty’, and one’s ‘duty’ is to act and proceed in accordance to the principles of moral law. Due to this, Kant’s theory is categorised and distinguished as a ‘deontological argument’. A deontological theory is one that maintains the moral rightness or wrongness of an action and depends on its fundamental qualities, and is independent of the nature of its consequence – “Duty for duty’s sake”.

This perspective can be viewed in contrast to the beliefs and ‘rules’ associated and belonging to teleological arguments, i.e. utilitarianism. Immanuel Kant argued that moral requirements are based on a standard of rationality he dubbed the “Categorical Imperative. The categorical imperative has derived from the initial belief and notion that humans base their moral judgment on pure reason alone. This view can be viewed in contrast to a ‘morality theory’, which assumed/s that human’s actions are guided by emotions or desires.

Example: When deciding what I ought to say to a friend who is distraught. Rationale would dictate that I give sensible advice, whereas my emotions may impulsively tell me to give comfort and sympathy. The categorical imperative declares and differentiates between obligatory and forbidden actions, and places further emphasis on the notion of ‘duty’. This statement can be strengthened through the following quotation – [“All in imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically… If the action would be good simply as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical; but if the action is represented as a good in itself… then the imperative is categorical.”].

Example: If someone tells me that they will buy me dinner if I give them a lift into town, then this is a conditional action and would fall into the hypothetical imperative category. Conversely, if I think that I should give my friend a lift into town with no other agenda (i.e. she will not buy me dinner because of it), then this is a categorical imperative because it is independent of my interest and could apply to other people as well as myself. There are three principles of the categorical imperative:

* Universal law;
* Treat humans as ends in themselves;
* Act as if you live in a kingdom of ends.

1. The categorical imperative is [“Do not act on any principle that cannot be universalised”]. In other words, moral laws must be applied in all situations and all rational beings universally, without exception.

2. [“Act that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in the person of every other human being, never merely as a means, but always at the time as an end.”] – The previous statement declares that we must never treat people as means to an end. You can never use human beings for another purpose, to exploit or enslave them. Humans are rational and the highest point of creation, and so demand unique treatment.

3. The quotation [“So act as if you were through your maxim a law-making member of a Kingdom of ends”] states Kant’s belief in the fact that humans should behave as though every other individual was an ‘end’.

In conclusion, it is arguable that the categorical imperative possesses a sense of authority with regard to what actions are permitted and forbidden under Kant’s moral law theory.


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