Kantian Ethics Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 27 December 2016

Kantian Ethics

Kant’s thought induced in philosophy what he himself christened ‘a Copernican revolution’, central to which was his ethical theory. Previous ethical theories had attempted to ground ethics in metaphysical or theological conceptions of “the good” or to base morality on human happiness as the final goal. For Kant, not only were conceptions of “the good” inaccessible to human thought, but any definition of human happiness could not be established and therefore used as a moral foundation. Instead he turned his moral thought to human nature as based within practical reason, and the moral principle he names the categorical imperative.

This he defines according to the mottos ‘Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law’ (Kant, [1785] 1948, p. 421) as well as ‘treat humanity…never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an ends’ (Kant, [1785] 1948, p. 429). With respect to the former, for example, the act of telling a lie would not be considered morally appropriate insofar as the individual telling the lie would not be able to will that all individuals in similar situations act in the same way.

In order to function properly, society must operate within a contract of trust in which persons are able to assume a relative amount of truth and trustworthiness in their fellow citizens; otherwise human communication would inevitably collapse and civil society would prove unsustainable. Central to the categorical imperative is Kant’s notion of autonomy. Autonomy is defined as the individual’s freedom from external influences in his or her dutiful choice of the morally right. This is contrasted to heteronomy, in which the individual desires to do what is good for other reasons than simply the good itself.

The connection between these concepts and the categorical imperative is clear: the imperative provides a deontological framework in relation to which and through which an autonomous individual may act ethically. If the moral agent follows the imperative for its own sake (i. e. in order to do his or her duty) and not for external reasons, then he or she, per definition, is acting freely and autonomously. Although Kant offers an insightful framework for morality, the picture of ethics he paints with respect to duty and autonomy is unfortunately inadequate to describe the human experience of morality.

In the Groundwork in the Metaphysics of Morals, duty is given such great privilege over other human faculties that it is possible to think that Kant sees value in little else: ‘an action done out of duty has its moral worth, not from any purpose it may subserve, but from the maxim according to which it is determined on; it depends not on the effecting any given end, but on the principle of volition singly’ (Kant, [1785] 1836, p. 9). Of course, duty plays a crucial role in any moral act.

For example, I may refrain from telling a lie to my wife because I have a duty—grounded in our wedding vows—to be honest with her. However, duty becomes a problem in our relationship if it serves the sole or most important reason for moral action: if I only act ethically toward my wife because I feel the need to grin and bear my duty, then our relationship will likely lack life and that which would make it a thriving partnership. Ethics incorporates more than duty, such that I do not simply do my duty to my wife for duty’s sake alone, but I also act ethically out of love, joy or perhaps even spontaneity.

To restrict ethical behaviors to such a strict deontology unfairly limits the manifold and complicated ways in which humans practice ethics and relate to others individuals in a human moral framework.


Kant, Immanuel (1948). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. (H. J. Paton, Trans. ). London: Hutchinson. (Original work published 1785, and published in a collection in 1903; page references to this edition). Kant, Immanuel (1836). The Metaphysics of Ethics. (John William Semple, Trans. ). Edinburgh: Thomas Clark. (Original work published 1785).

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