Explain Kantian Ethics — Part A (25 marks)

Kantian ethics is a normative and deontological theory. This tells what we ought to do as well as acting upon our duty. This duty is the motivation for good will, which is the only thing that is good without exception. Motivation through self-interest, sympathy or happiness is not duty and therefore doesn’t count as motivation for good will. These also make Kant’s ethical argument a priori as it requires knowledge prior to experience to be able to distinguish and help choose between right and wrong. To be able to do this we must also be autonomous (or self-legislators in accordance to Kant’s third formulation of his categorical imperative) moral agents. This means that our reason can’t be controlled by peers, the church or God.

Immanuel Kant uses a categorical imperative to show people how to approach ethics. His first formulation of this is the formula of law. This states that we must ‘act so that the maxim of your action may be willed as a universal law’. In this, Kant used the idea of promise keeping. People don’t always keep promises making promise keeping impossible. This in turn makes promise keeping meaningless. It is a contradiction in nature. For this moral maxim to work, we must imply absolute necessity. It can’t be universalised if there is a contradiction within it.

Kant then uses his second formulation which is the formula of ends. This formulation tells us to ‘never treat people solely as a means to an end but always as only an end’. In other words we must always treat people as rational, autonomous and equal, or as an end. The autonomy of a person makes them free. This freedom is Kant’s first postulate (the freedom to make moral decisions). For example a slave owner would be violating the formulation as they are taking away a person’s autonomy, rationality and equality as well as using them as a means to an end (the end in this case being the wealth to be earned from slave labour). Whilst this would be wrong, adoption is allowed with this as none of the above attributes of humans are taken away and the adopted child is the end that is to be achieved.

His third formulation of the categorical imperative is the formula of authority. This formulation of the categorical imperative tells us that we should ‘act as if a self-legislating member of the kingdom of ends’. This formulation says that every person is a rational agent with the ability to self-legislate (decide for themselves) and subjectively follow laws in ‘the kingdom of ends’. It is the first two formulations combined making it a formulation in itself which tells us we must act as if everyone is deciding upon and following the laws. It would therefore be wrong to legislate hypocritically by saying ‘I will lie once but no one else can’. Also we can’t use people as a means to an end such as by saying ‘I can lie because others do’ this uses people as a means to an end (lying). If this was to happen then it would be acceptable for others to do the same making life disordered.

After explaining his categorical imperative, Kant talks about the ‘summum bonum’ this is the ultimate good that can be achieved. This is done by following ones duty, not for personal pleasure or sympathy for someone else but simply because it is your duty. An example of duty is helping an old woman to cross the road. If you were to do this to impress your peers or to get a reward that you hope for after this act then you are following your desires. If you were to just help for the sake of doing the right thing then you have correctly done your duty. The duty that is done is a virtue of good will. Whilst some people argue that the summum bonum can’t be achieved due to bad people leading good lives, the summum bonum is achieved in the afterlife in the form of heaven. This is covered in Kant’s second and third postulates. The second is based on immorality. It says there must be an afterlife for the summum bonum to be reached. According to the third postulate, God is necessary for fair judgement to reward or punish people so as to send them to heaven or hell which in turn decides whether or not they ever achieve the ultimate good.

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