Kant On Morality: What Is The ‘Morally Right’ Thing To Do?
Updated: Feb 3
By Tanisha Saini
German philosopher Immanuel Kant put forward a demanding concept of morality in his notable work called Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals (1785) (The Groundwork). Morality, for Kant, is to be addressed a priori (based on deductions, not experience) rather than a posteriori (based on prior experience).
Kant argued that a morally worthy action is based on reason and autonomous will of a rational being who acts out of duty. He asserts that human beings are rational beings capable of special capacity to reason, ergo, they are the authors of their own law rather than instruments of particular inclinations. It is Kant’s purpose to show that all human beings as rational beings, comply with, and are bound by, the moral law which they give to themselves, and they do so while acting autonomously on the categorical imperative of morality. What lies at the bottom of all this is the will of a rational being which is absolutely morally worthy in itself, without achieving any allied effect. Thus, in this paper, Kant’s philosophy of the ‘Supreme Principle of Morality’ as laid down in The Groundwork has been analysed.
1. What Is Freedom?
Some would say that freedom is to do whatever they want to, or to do whatever they desire to, or to not do what they do not want to. However, for Kant, freedom is to act autonomously on one’s own free will (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 47). It is to act according to a law that one would give to oneself by exercising one’s own free will. Hence, the law which binds people would be the one that they give to themselves. Accordingly, it becomes important to value and respect the autonomy of oneself and that of others (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 43). For Kant freedom is acting autonomously because he did not believe that inclinations, desires, or happiness, for that matter, were the sovereigns of human beings. He believed that human beings were free to choose and free to act because they were rational beings capable of reason and could not simply be governed by inclinations (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 47).
The opposite of acting autonomously is acting heteronomously. Heteronomy is when one does not act upon one’s own free will, but seeks it in external desires, inclinations or objects (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 47). Thus, when a person acts upon happiness, they are acting heteronomously as they are not acting on their own free will, but on an inclination.
For example, Anne is hungry and she eats a sandwich. Here, Anne did not act autonomously on her own free will, but heteronomously on hunger and the desire to satisfy her appetite. She did not choose to eat on her own free will, nor did she create the will freely detached from her desire to eat, but acted upon promptings of nature.
At a quick glance, Kant’s idea of autonomy appears to be quite demanding, but it is conceived in such a manner because it facilitates his concept of morality.
2. What Makes A ‘Good Will’?
Kant considers a good will as good in itself without any strings attached to it. He posits that a will does not become good merely because of its effect, or what it accomplishes; it becomes good because it is befitting, in itself, to achieve an end (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 8). A good will is morally worthy in itself as it is naturally governed by reason (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 8). Reason is what makes humans special and distinguishes them from animals. By having both i.e., the capacity to reason and autonomous will, the ultimate purpose of nature for humans is not to attain happiness, but to create such a will that is good in itself. For this purpose, reason is fundamental in producing a good will because insofar as humans act on reason, they all do the same thing (Fletcher, 1987, p. 543).
Kant furthers this proposition by adding that the concept of duty contains the concept of a good will (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 10). Now, an action can be done out of inclination for self-interest or desires, or it can be from duty out of respect for the law; and Kant says that an action done from duty would have moral worth only when it is done for the sake of duty and not for achieving any inclination or self-seeking purpose (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 11).
Hence, the moral worth of an action comes from the principle as per which it is carried out and from duty which generates reverence for the moral law, not from the effects which it achieves, nor from any inclination (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 12). This is so because while trying to achieve a particular effect one might act on an inclination. Insofar as one acts on inclination, they act on means as a realisation to an end which is external to them, act as instruments for achieving that end, that is, act heteronomously, and a person is only free as long as they act autonomously. Effects like happiness can be brought about by causes other than the will of a rational being. But for a good will, one will always have respect even though they do not act upon it, but always acknowledge it (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 14). Hence, as long as the unconditional good will of a rational being is the determining ground of action, it will be morally worthy in character and fit to become the moral law.
Accordingly, Kant gives a principle of good will which he deems as the fundamental principle of morality: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”(Kant, 1785/1997, p. 15). This principle would ensure that the capacity to reason and respect for the moral law lead the rational being to a good will and that such a will is in conformity with the universal law of morality; thereby rising above inclination and acting out of duty.
For example, when Anne gives a maxim which goes as, ‘lie to mother whenever you do something wrong’, she should consider, whether she would will that her maxim become a universal law? Should everyone lie when they are in a troublesome situation? Would it be in conformity with duty and respect for moral law to lie when a wrong is committed? Anne would soon realise that she can have the will to lie, but not a universal law to lie. Such a will would still be based on fear and the effect of being punished by telling the truth. It would not be in conformity with duty and it would not be prudent to give such a law as it would become self-defeating because the mother would be cognizant of the lie, since every time a wrong is committed, Anne lies.
Thus, this necessity of will to conform with the universal law is what makes the will morally good in itself. Yet, thereby hangs a tale, Kant’s objective of establishing a ‘Supreme Principle of Morality’ is not yet complete, there is one last link that connects autonomy, good will and duty and completes Kant’s metaphysics of morals.
3. The Link Between Kant’s Demanding Freedom and Strict Morality
While acting autonomously, one acts on one’s own free will which is determined by reason and gives the law to themselves. Thus, if reason determines will, then actions emanating from it can be objective as well as subjective. Accordingly, Kant proposes that there are two commands of reason. The formula of the command is called an imperative which is an ought and indicates the relation of reason to will (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 24).
A categorical imperative has as its principle, a will which is good in itself and as objectively necessary as conforming to reason without any regard to any ends which it might or might not achieve (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 25). It is a moral ought of a rational and autonomous will and is unconditional as it is not based on one’s previously adopted goals.
On the other hand, a hypothetical imperative is a command of a rational will, but a will that is good as a means to achieving an end (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 25). It is an ought, based on a person’s previously willed (not simply desired) ends and is hence a conditional command (Johnson, 2021). I ought to do X, to attain Y or because I will Y; would be a hypothetical imperative. Contrastingly, a categorical imperative is one that would command the will immediately irrespective of any means or ends and is good solely in its character without being based on any effect to be attained. Hence, I ought to do X (even though I do not will anything else), would be a categorical imperative (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 47). Therefore, the categorical imperative may be the imperative of morality and the same can be determined by a few formulations of the categorical imperative.
Formula of Universalisation
Since the categorical imperative encompasses a maxim (a will operating on basis of subjective volitional principles (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 14) without any condition limiting it, only that it conform with the universal law, then its formulation could go as, “Act only in accordance with that maxim of your action through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law of nature” (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 31). By universalising the law which one would give to oneself, one can check whether it is morally sound.
For example, Anne is in urgent need of money. She knows she would not be able to repay the money borrowed, but without promising to repay it within time, no one will lend her money. So, she would give herself a maxim which would go as, ‘When in need of money, I shall borrow it and promise to repay it without any intention of repaying it’. Here, though Anne would make such a promise, she would still ask herself, whether such a maxim could become a universal law of nature where everyone else would act like her in the given circumstances? Whether her maxim would be conceivable in a world governed by the law of nature? Whether in such a world she could rationally will to act on the maxim herself? Even if such a law is willed, one would soon realise that it would not hold as a universal law since no one would believe such a promise because everyone makes false promises when in need of money in that world and the very concept of promise-keeping in those particular circumstances would cease to exist.
Thus, a maxim which one wills should also have, at the same time, the ability to become a universal law of nature and on which one is willing to act in such a world. Only then would a person’s maxim be deemed the categorical imperative of morality.
Formula of Humanity as An End
The second formulation of the categorical imperative goes as, “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as means” (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 38).
Every rational being and every human being, in general, has an existence worthy in itself as an end. Kant says that a human being must be regarded as an end in itself and never merely as means to achieving an end (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 37). Humans should not be used as a means because they have dignity and are worthy of respect. Using them as means, would be akin to giving them a conditional worth, and humanity is capable of having unconditional worth as an end in itself. Humanity is a collection of features that makes humans valuable (Johnson, 2021). Therefore, humanity should be respected as capable of existing as an end in itself. This dignity of being an end in itself must be accorded to it.
Hence, Anne should not use another human as means of borrowing money by making a promise of repaying it which she knows she would not keep, since she would be using the person who lends her money merely as a means to an end, thereby not respecting the person as an end in itself, nor respecting their dignity. Therefore, Anne’s actions would not be worthy of being the categorical imperative.
Thus, the idea of humanity as an end in itself would ensure that the law which one gives is consistent with morality, thereby constituting a categorical imperative that is not based on any interest, and is unconditional and suitable.
Formula of Autonomy
As free rational beings, humans exercise autonomy of will and give the law to themselves. Thus, the third formulation of the categorical imperative goes as, “Every human will as a will giving universal law through all its maxims provided it is otherwise correct” (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 40). This formulation is similar to the first formulation, but here the focus is on the rational being as a universal lawgiver. When acting as a follower of law one might be influenced by inclinations, but while acting as a lawgiver one would have to set aside the conditional inclinations and act on pure reason unconditionally. Thus, one would have to conform to the maxim of one’s own autonomous will as a will which could at the same time be a universal law.
Formula of Kingdom of Ends
From the third formulation, Kant creates an ideal Kingdom of Ends which he calls “a systematic union of different rational beings under common laws” (Kant, 1785/1997, p. 41). Thus, the fourth formulation goes as, “Act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a merely possible Kingdom of Ends.” (Kant, 1785/1997, pp. 45-46). As rational beings autonomously giving the law to themselves, which could at the same time be the universal law to which oneself and others are subject, human beings should see themselves as a member of an ideal Kingdom of Ends.
Humanity, inasmuch as capable of morality, commands dignity as an end in itself. Hence, in the Kingdom of Ends, people would conform to the laws of an ideal moral legislature which lays down universal laws binding on all and that such moral laws are only possible in the Kingdom whose members are equally lawgivers and command dignity as an end in itself. Thus, only those maxims which are accepted by all rational members of the Kingdom, who are themselves capable of giving laws, would be the categorical imperative of morality.
Therefore, an autonomous rational being gives law to themself and does so in accordance with the universal law to which at the same time they themself and all others are bound. Hence, an autonomous will and will under the moral law are one and the same.
What it takes to act on the categorical imperative is to act on a good will itself, without considering the ends and purposes to be achieved. So, as long as one acts on the categorical imperative, they would be doing that which is morally right. This completes Kant’s purpose of giving human beings a law that is based on morality and is thus fit to become a universal law.
Tanisha is a second year law student at Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.
Fletcher, G. P. (1987). Law and Morality: A Kantian Perspective. Columbia Law Review, 87, 533–558.
Johnson, R., Cureton, A. (2021, March 21). Kant’s Moral Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/kant-moral/
Kant, I. (1997). Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals (M. Gregor, Trans.). Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1785)