Being Morally Praiseworthy
Categorical versus Hypothetical Imperatives
Moral Laws: The Categorical Imperative
Kant’s Respect for Persons
Problems with Kantian Morality
    How Should we Universalize?
    Kant’s Theory as Overly Narrow
Concluding Remark                                                        Return to contents


    Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, centering on the production of a good, happiness. Most of its problems center around the use of a nonmoral good, happiness, to dominate moral deliberation. Many philosophers who reject consequential moral theories believe that moral requirements are often valid whether or not they produce more nonmoral good. They propose a deontological moral theory. The most influential deontology was developed by the eighteenth-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, who many believe to be the greatest philosopher ever. Kant's greatness as a philosopher comes because of his originality, the depth of his thinking, and the influence he has had. This is true of his basic theories of knowledge and reality, and also of his influential moral theory. In each aspect of his thought, Kant moved to a position centering on human contribution. We contribute, he believed, to the "reality" of the world around us by our mental activities; likewise, morality does not come from outside us, by divine command or by cultural conditioning, but from human freedom and reasoning. Students of philosophy also know that Kant is sometimes as difficult to understand as he is great. So we will approach his moral view slowly and carefully, seeing how well it accords with some of our basic beliefs about moral experience.   Top

Being Morally Praiseworthy

    We have all read reports about people who act heroically. We typically believe that such people deserve moral praise. But if we find out that they did the deed for a reward, or for praise, or by accident, or were somehow forced to do it, our sense of admiration diminishes. Some acts that look morally praiseworthy may turn out to be self-interested or even vicious in intention. We do not want to give people moral praise when they act out of improper motives; we feel more comfortable in assigning praise when they act from a morally correct motive.
    Kant's moral deontology is developed around a notion of a good will (acting from the morally proper motive) as the basis for considering an action morally correct. From basic questions about a good will, Kant quickly moves to a fascinating set of principles. These principles delineate a realm of moral obligation. Thus, his theory moves from his reasoning about what a good will is, what makes us deserving of moral praise, to a specification of moral requirements.
    Kant begins his speculation on ethics by considering whether a person deserves moral praise for a given action. This depends on the person's intentions. If the person is acting from some ulterior motive, for personal gain, out of embarrassment, under coercion, and so on, that person does not deserve moral praise, even for an action that otherwise appears morally good.
    When a person acts for some personal gain, that person does not deserve moral praise because the action is a self-interested action, not a moral action. It was not done to do the morally proper thing; it was done for some sort of gain. Kant argues that no actions done for personal gain deserve moral praise. They are not morally good actions, although they might be good from some other point of view and might be morally permitted. So, according to Kant, only actions done from a morally proper motive deserve moral praise.
    One by one Kant considers motivations for actions and decides that they are not moral motivations. If an action is simply done to make money, it is not a morally inspired action. But what if a person does an action out of care for a family member? Kant believes that caring, as the motive for actions, is not a moral motive. In this case actions based on care do not derive from moral motivation -- that is, based on a sense that it is the right thing to do -- but are done because we care, because we are involved with another person. Kant would go further by claiming that even acting from a sense of care extended to those with whom we are not emotionally involved is not a moral motivation. When we act because of such care, we are not acting under a moral motivation, because it is the morally right thing to do, but are acting because, in some sense, we care. Kant insists that any external motivation -- from a desire for general happiness to a caring attitude -- is not a moral motivation. All of these motivations are in a way like the desire for money. They are external to a moral concern.
    Imagine a college student turning in a poor logic test. At the bottom of the test the student writes:  "At least I didn't cheat." What might be the intention behind the remark? Perhaps it is an attempt to impress the instructor with the student's honesty. Perhaps it is an attempt to make himself or herself feel better after failing. Perhaps it is a stab at humor in a painful situation. Perhaps he or she couldn't cheat, knowing the instructor was watching, and thought he or she would make the most of that fact. Perhaps his or her friends were watching and would have thought badly of cheating. To avoid their scorn he or she may have taken the "F." None of these motivations would fill us with moral admiration for the student. But suppose the student believed he or she could have passed by cheating and needed the passing grade badly. Suppose the student didn't cheat because he or she believed it is morally wrong to cheat.
    One still wonders why he or she bothered telling the professor. So perhaps some other unannounced student in the class did poorly but didn't cheat out of a sense of moral obligation. Now we start to feel that this person deserves moral praise, more than the person who announced the action. We might inquire into this person's motivation. He or she may have avoided cheating for utilitarian reasons: cheating leads to a sense of guilt and creates bad habits. This is fine, but Kant would say it is still an external nonmoral motivation. The only proper moral motivation is that it is wrong to cheat. If the student did not cheat because it was morally wrong, then that student deserves moral praise. Any other motivation is not a moral motivation, is not acting from a good will, and does not deserve moral praise.
    When someone does not cheat simply because it is morally wrong to cheat, we may say that the person acted solely out of respect for the moral law. Kant contends that a will is good only when actions are done of respect for the moral law. Morality is not about happiness, personal gain, care, general advantage, and the like. Kant has stripped morality of every motivating factor except that something is the right thing to do.   Top

Categorical versus Hypothetical Imperatives

    For Kant, the morally right thing to do is categorical, not hypothetical. A hypothetical requirement involves an "if." If I want to be good at logic, I should practice and study regularly. There is no general, or categorical, demand that I be good at logic. Instead, my sense of obligation about logic stems from my desire to succeed. A categorical imperative is a simple demand, like "You must not cheat." Kantians insist that the moral rule against cheating is not hypothetical. It does not say that if you don't want to be embarrassed, don't cheat. That would a hypothetical imperative, or hypothetical command, one that involves some external motivation. Since Kant has taken all externals from morality, moral commands must be categorical.  Top

Moral Laws: The Categorical Imperative

    A good will is not oriented to externals; morality is not about externals. Morality is about categorical commands that we ought to follow simply because doing so is the right thing. Here comes Kant's genius, and the part of his theory that many people find difficult to follow. He seems to have robbed morality of all content. Morality is not about happiness, pride, self-fulfillment, care, devotion, etc. What is it about? Nothing but following moral laws expressed in categorical imperatives. But his moral laws seem to have no content. What are the correct moral laws, and how are they established? Kant gets the answer, and brings content into his theory, by examining the nature of a moral law.
    A proper law is universally binding: it applies to everyone or everything. A morally good action is done out of respect for the moral law, solely because it is a moral law and not for any other reason. This provides Kant the needed clue. All actions ought to be done that are required by a moral law, while all those actions forbidden by a moral law should not be done. The one thing we know about laws is that they lay down universal requirements. Some actions cannot be thought of as required by a moral law because they cannot be universally required. Others can. This is the clue to the content of moral law. We know something about the requirements of a moral rule. It must be universally binding.
   Thus, the test of a moral obligation is simple. Ask whether your action can be made into a universal moral law. If it can, the action is permitted. If it cannot, you must not do it. The law must be universal because all features about you or me are external to moral rules. The only proper moral question is whether an act is permitted by the moral law. Since a law must be universal, if something is permitted by the moral law, then everyone can, or ought to, perform that action. So the test of whether something is morally permitted involves universalizing an action, getting rid of all specifics about our situation, to determine whether the moral law permits it. This test ends up being surprising powerful
    Kant argues that the test of morality, and its main principle, is the categorical imperative:

Can I consistently will that my action be made into a universal law?
The question is not whether I want such a law. The question is about whether a universal law about the action is consistent. Suppose I find myself in a circumstance where a lie saves considerable trouble and makes all parties, especially me, happier. Morally speaking, am I permitted to lie? Kant proposes that we answer this question by applying his test; this means we consider turning our action into a universal law: All people should lie. Is this a consistent law? The law tells people to lie. If any of you are acquainted with a person who chronically or pathologically lies, you know that you no longer believe anything that person says. Lies become ineffective. A lie works when people expect the truth. If everyone followed the law and lied, no one would be able to tell a believable lie. A liar makes an exception of himself or herself. For a Kantian, willingness to make oneself an exception is the mark of immorality. We conclude that telling a lie cannot be made into a universal law and so is always morally forbidden. Kant's moral theory explores this sense of morality, which may be read as an interpretation of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    Kant accounts for two widespread moral beliefs:
  • A person who does something because it is the morally right thing to do is especially commendable, more than a person who does something for some sort of gain.
  • A moral person is willing to live by the same rules he or she believes all others ought to follow.
Kant derives this moral theory by freeing morality from everything but the moral law. Kant, the revolutionary thinker, has even freed morality from the laws of God. If we act because God commands, that itself is an externality; it is not an action done out of respect for the moral law, but out of respect for God's commands. So an action done out of respect for God's commands is not entitled to moral praise. Only the intention to follow the demands of a universal moral law makes an action worthy of moral praise.  Top

Kant’s Respect for Persons

    Human beings often act out of self-interest. Many thinkers say that we are programmed, or determined, to act that way. They claim that we are not really free to respond to the moral law; instead, we follow the path that we are psychologically conditioned to follow. This is a form of determinism. Many philosophers believe that if we are determined, if we have no real choice in our actions, then morality is a sham. Kant believes that moral experience, for example, the fact that the a person taking a logic text could say "no" to cheating despite his or her interest in cheating, shows that determinism is false. People are not like animals; we are free to follow the moral law even against all our fondest desires.
    This makes human beings special. As followers of the moral law, human beings stand apart from other species. People are, first of all, moral-law makers; the moral law flows from our ability to reason about whether a moral law is consistent. The moral law originates in our ability to universalize and to follow universal maxims. When we act out of respect for the moral law, we stand apart from all external circumstances, we overcome the conditioning power of environmental influence. By acting morally, we perform a special action, one that comes from our free response to moral laws, one that is unconditioned by external factors. In following the moral law we become ends-in-ourselves. We are not being used by something or someone else. We are acting freely, as autonomous, moral agents. We are following the moral law we created out of our own ability to reason about the universalizability of an action. We make the moral law for ourselves, divorced from the conditioning power of the emotions, external rewards, or selfish gain.
    Because people are special -- as free ends-in-themselves -- Kant supports a moral command in addition to the categorical imperative. People should be treated as special, as the source of morality and free action, as ends-in-themselves. This is Kant's principle of respect:

Never treat a person merely as a means, but always as an end.
    This moral command does not mean that we cannot "use" people. We rely on each other, socially and personally, all the time. It means that we should not merely use each other. We must treat one another with respect even if we rely on each other. Those of you who have worked as waiters or waitresses know the difference. Some people do not recognize the humanity in others; they are rude or else ignore the person offering a service. Others are considerate and polite. In this way they recognize the humanity of the other.
    The respect principle rejects as immoral the kinds of circumstances offered as couterexamples to utilitarianism. We cannot use part of the population as slaves: this treats them merely as means. We cannot exploit a part of the population for the gain of the rest, and we cannot merely exploit a single individual.
    The categorical imperative and the respect principle are the two principles in Kant's moral theory. Both have had tremendous influence. Today, many believe that immoral behavior is precisely the behavior that involves making an exception of oneself, one's family, one's group, one's religion, one's nation. Moral behavior involves the willingness to allow others to do what we permit ourselves to do. And a moral position that does not respect the humanity in others hardly seems capable of claiming status as a moral theory.  Top

Problems with Kantian Morality

    How Should we Universalize?

    Kant proposes a stern morality. When we universalize we do it in the most general way. Suppose I'm faced with an unreasonable request for information, say about something personal. I might be forced to answer, so I lie, believing that the person asking the question has overstepped his or her rights. Although I may believe it is generally wrong to lie, I may also believe that some circumstances are exceptional. And I may be willing to make this into a universal law: "Everyone facing coercion can lie." From a Kantian perspective, such a law may fail because if all follow the law, it ceases to be possible to lie under coercion. Kant would claim that I cannot lie. No matter how serious the situation, since lying is generally wrong, no exceptions can be made. But this seems a form of rule worship -- an overly strict morality allowing no exceptions.
    To solve this problem we may try to generalize differently, and more precisely. Suppose your landlord in Shaker Heights wants information about you that is intrusive. You consider lying, but do not want to violate the categorical imperative. Should people in a mid-sized suburban city who are asked by a landlord for intrusive information be allowed to lie? It may not be inconsistent to require such lies, but it does seem as though our "universality" is a sham. We have not really generalized but instead offer a rule tailored to fit people in exactly our own situation. Kantians believe, instead, that we must generalize at a broad level.
    Suppose a handicapped person wants to go to the head of a lunch line, and generalizes that all those with physical problems should go to the head of a line. This makes an exception of handicapped people, but seems perfectly acceptable. If a Kantian rejects such a generalization, we may argue that he or she is wrong. This seems to be a permissible generalization while the lie to the landlord seems not to be. How do we determine an acceptable generalization from an unacceptable one? How do we answer such questions without becoming overly subjective? If we generalize in the broadest way, without including special features, Kant's morality looks like a rule-worshipping morality, one supporting immoral treatment of people with special needs or in special circumstances. If we allow special conditions to be included in the generalization, we have no guidance about what is permitted in an acceptable generalization.
    The problem that we are discussing with Kantian morality arises because there are many ways to generalize. When we generalize, we attribute something to all in a class. We may make a general statement about all seniors in your college. This is a generalization, but it is not about all seniors in the nation, or the world, or about all students at your college. It is about a restricted class of people. We may restrict our generalization by taking special circumstances into account, like being a senior. But which circumstances are morally relevant? We cannot merely look to universalization to answer this question because the question concerns how we may properly universalize. Kant does not provide the answer, but in moral experience we find many clues to which factors are morally relevant. Conventions, give guidance, as do a virtuous character and accepted moral rules.
    Suppose I want to universalize about doing some writing on my computer. I ask, "Can I consistently will that everyone spend five hours a day writing with a computer word-processor?" This is probably not consistent because with so many writers we would have no computers produced. It takes resources to build computers. Resources come from human beings who need to eat, who need health care, and so on. If everyone writes, no one would be an adequate producer. Should we generalize that all people who have the skill, support, equipment, and desire should be allowed to write five hours a day? This seems acceptable because there is little in our moral experience to suggest such a generalization is immoral. We accept the fact as morally proper that different people have different responsibilities, and we have established practices, norms, rules, and principles to regulate and guide those activities. We do need to make exceptions, but Kant's theory does not help us decide on morally valid exceptions.
    On the other hand, some apparently acceptable broad universalizations seem to involve immoral behavior. It might be consistent to have all parents beat their children for telling lies. But is this morally right? We might believe that beating a child does not show respect for the child. But the respect principle is not precise. It says not to merely treat a person as a means. By acting brutally, I may respect the child's freedom because I may believe that the child could have chosen not to lie. In this way I am perhaps minimally respecting the child. Or I may use appropriate words of respect, even indicating sorrow at being forced to act brutally. Kant did believe that failure to punish a criminal, even failure to execute a person, represented a lack of respect for the criminal. Such failure treats the criminal as a child who was not free to do otherwise, and this indicates disrespect for the criminal as a responsible agent.
    Unfortunately, we often don't know what respect requires, so we need more guidance on the meaning of 'respect'. Perhaps failing to act to gain happiness for the other, or failure to act in a caring way, treats the other as a means. Kant would reject these as outside the bounds of morality. Yet merely acting to recognize the humanity in another, perhaps by some sort of polite behavior, is consistent with all sorts of disrespectful behavior.  Top

    Kant’s Theory as Overly Narrow

    Kant's morality leaves us without guidance on too many issues. What social institutions do we require? How can we avoid exploitation and discrimination? What punishment is acceptable? How do we know when to give moral praise? How can we distinguish the moral saint from the person who follows the proper moral rules?
    While utilitarians narrow the moral range, the Kantian narrows both the range and domain. For Kant all actions are morally obligatory or morally permitted. This gives a larger range than does the utilitarian, but it still excludes judgments about which actions are morally recommended but not required, and it does not allow us to compare the moral value of different actions. Kant also restricts the moral domain. We cannot readily use Kantian principles to determine which institutions are morally superior, and we face difficulty in using Kant's theory to support virtues. His theory contains one virtue, to follow the moral law, and only supports other virtues, like courage, when these help us to act out of respect for moral principles. Some virtues, like care, seem out of place in a Kantian perspective.  Top

Concluding Remark

    Kant's view is overly strict in not permitting exceptions and too vague in not specifying more clearly how to generalize and how to act with respect. Kant unacceptably limits the moral range and the moral domain. Although his theory reflects part of moral experience, and although it firmly insists on the creative human dimension of morality, it appears, to many philosophers, to be too restricted to offer a fully comprehensive moral perspective.  Top