Immanuel Kant’s theory of ethics is deontological. Kant relies heavily on duty and principles. Kant ignores consequences and decides if an action is good or bad by it’s intention. For example, if a person sets out to do something good; but fails and it turns into be something bad, they are not to blame. Their intention is all that matters. Kant focuses on what should be done, rather than doing things for their outcome. This means that even if something terrible happens as the result of a morally good action, it is still morally right.
Kant had an absolute view that the right moral action must always be done. Kant tried to make moral ethics scientific through universalisation. Just as the law of gravity is universal, Kant believed so should the ‘law’ of ethics. To Kant, doing the right moral action is a categorical imperative. Ethics should be without exceptions. For example, if it is morally wrong to lie, then everyone should never lie. Even if the consequences of a lie are great, it must not be done. Kant’s theory is cold and unemotional.
However, Kant viewed this as the best way to make ethical decisions. Kant’s view uses a categorical imperative, in which ethics is based upon an absolute, objective, deontologcial theory, in which intentions are more important than consequences. Kant believed that an ethics should be based around something entirely good. He decided that the only thing entirely good in the whole universe is ‘good will’. Everybody must decide ethical decisions in a way in which they put themselves last, fulfill their duty, and commit only selfless acts.
This may be psychologically impossible, as many believe there is always a selfish reason for any good deed, however Kant only proposed a theory, and not all theories are directly accessible. Kant may have proposed his theory as something to strive towards, rather than something to simply do. In order to do a morally good act, Kant believed there must be a pure motive. For example, giving to charity is immoral if it is done for the feeling of doing good, but is moral when done out of duty.
Kant sought after an objective device to know our duty, and found that it is our practical reason which gives us imperatives. These imperatives can be either hypothetical or categorical. It is only categorical imperatives which are moral, as hypothetical imperatives aren’t universal and are of an impure motive. For this reason, hypothetical imperatives are linked with our heteronomous will, and categorical with our autonomous will. The categorical imperatives are always moral, because they a based on an a priori, objective law of reason.
A priori means we can know it without any source of experience. Reason is an innate sense in which most humans seem to have. To make sure our categorical imperative is truly moral, they must also fit the 3 formulations. The imperative must be universal. This means that it would be okay if everyone acted in the same way when in the same situation. Everybody should act on the same maxim. Kant used the example of never breaking a promise, which he described as universal. He also described a man who borrowed money with no intention of repayment.
This would make promises impossible, and so is it always wrong to break a promise and lie. Kant also believed that we should do unto others as we would like done to us. This means that we must agree with our imperative enough to be okay with it being reversed and used on ourselves. In other words, “Always recognise that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end” (Immanuel Kant). This is regarding yourself as superior. Lastly, Kant thought each imperative should comply with the kingdom of ends. This means we should act although every person was a free moral agent.
We should assume that everybody can understand principles of pure practical reason, and follow them. The idea of categorical imperatives puts duty above feeling. This is often viewed as cold and unemotional. Many think that consequences are a vital part of making decisions and so they shouldn’t be outcasted to easily. Bringing in the result of out actions can help make Kant’s theory less cold and more emotional. The categorical imperative is also unequipped for a moral dilemma. If there are two moral duties to be done, but only one can be acted upon, it is unclear what should be done.
It seems unsurprising that Kant’s theory is often called cold and unemotional. Many absolute, objective views are unemotional, because they must be applied to situations no matter what. If every consequence were to be taken into account, knowing what is moral can become cloudy and difficult to follow. Kant’s theory is clear and easily understood. Having rules allows many to follow and all to agree. This is why we have laws, and breaking those laws is punished. WD Ross made exceptions to Kant’s theories, and that duties should have exceptions.
He called these prima facie duties, which are conditional. Duties can be outweighed by more riveting duties, such as ‘never kill’ could be outweighed by ‘never kill except in self defence’. Ross adapted Kant’s theory to take the situation, consequences and relationships into account. Many prefer this adaptation, as it is much more emotional and practical. Kant’s theory is much easier to practice inside the mind that in the real world. It seems a good idea until it is applied to sensitive situations which require delicacy.
If an outcome between the categorical imperative and hypothetical imperative is the same, is it important which will is followed? Kant said, “Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness”. This suggests that it is important to follow the categorical imperative, not because of the outcome, but more because it’s out duty to do so. Many would, however, disagree and argue that all actions revolve around their consequences. As seen in nature, everything has a purpose, and so should our actions.