Explain Kantian Ethics. (25 Marks)

Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg, Germany in 1724, and it is he who is the namesake of Kantian Ethics. In his early years Kant was a scientist, but later he became more of a philosopher when in 1770 he published the revolutionary Critique of Pure Reason, it showed Kant’s belief that we could have both sure and certain knowledge, but this said more about the way we think than the world itself. His most famous work however was published by him in 1785, called the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, it also looked at the presuppositions we make. For example, he said if there is morality there must also be free will, given to us by God, and as a result of this there must also be an afterlife, for without it morality wouldn’t make any sense. Kantian Ethics are then Kant’s own ethical theories and observations. This theory is synthetic a priori according to Kant, and this means that the substantive rules can be applied prior to experience.

The first key part of Kantian Ethics are Good Will and Duty, as in the search for an intrinsic good Kant came to believe that no outcome was itself inherently good, his reasoning, both pleasure and happiness can result out of the most evil and heinous of acts, murder or rape for example could potentially cause the person committing the acts to become the recipient of some form of pleasure. Furthermore, Kant would also go on to say that there are also no good character specific traits, intelligence he would give as an example, or perhaps courage, these could also be used for evil purposes. For this reason when Kant used the term ‘good’ he redefined it to mean good will, and by this he meant that one should act for one’s duty, and for no other reason. The way which Kant said we could find out what our duty is would to use reason, this of course makes Kant a Rationalist.

The next parts of Kantian Ethics are as follows, Free Will, God and an Afterlife, these are called the Three Postulates of Pure Practical Reason by Kant. Kant said if we did not have free will, meaning all of our actions are predetermined then it would be impossible for us to be described as having morality, it simply wouldn’t apply to us. Kant himself knew he couldn’t prove that we do actually have free will, but he thought we could act morally, and as you can’t act morally if all of your actions are predetermined he presumed that we are in fact free. Leading on from this Kant also formed his belief on God and an afterlife because of this, believing that morality would have no place in the world if there wasn’t an afterlife, as we would have literally no reason to be moral according to Kant, also Kant talked about the Summum Bonum, this is the place where our happiness and our virtue come together. This furthered his belief in the afterlife as this according to Kant doesn’t happen on Earth because he observed that good people can often live bad lives.

For all of this to work Kant invented the following term; the Categorical Imperative. Categorical in this case means something true at all times, and in all situations. Imperative means it is something a person has to do. These of course would also have to fit in with both good will and with duty, but as well as this he split the Categorical Imperative into three maxims, and these are as follows. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” What Kant means by this first maxim is that it must be universal, meaning it should able to applied to literally every situation, circumstance and scenario, furthermore being universal also means it shouldn’t be changing with time. Secondly, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” And the third and final one “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.”

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