Manual Kant and the Limits of Autonomy

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  1. Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804)
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Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804)

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Kant, Immanuel (–) - Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Sign in with your library card. Search within In This Article 1. Kant's moral theory is, therefore, deontological : actions are morally right in virtue of their motives, which must derive more from duty than from inclination. The clearest examples of morally right action are precisely those in which an individual agent's determination to act in accordance with duty overcomes her evident self-interest and obvious desire to do otherwise.

But in such a case, Kant argues, the moral value of the action can only reside in a formal principle or "maxim," the general commitment to act in this way because it is one's duty. So he concludes that "Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law. So the only relevant feature of the moral law is its generality, the fact that it has the formal property of universalizability , by virtue of which it can be applied at all times to every moral agent.

From this chain of reasoning about our ordinary moral concepts, Kant derived as a preliminary statement of moral obligation the notion that right actions are those that practical reason would will as universal law. More accurate comprehension of morality, of course, requires the introduction of a more precise philosophical vocabulary. Although everything naturally acts in accordance with law, Kant supposed, only rational beings do so consciously, in obedience to the objective principles determined by practical reason.

So we experience the claim of reason as an obligation , a command that we act in a particular way, or an imperative. Such imperatives may occur in either of two distinct forms, hypothetical or categorical.

A hypothetical imperative conditionally demands performance of an action for the sake of some other end or purpose; it has the form "Do A in order to achieve X. For a perfectly rational being, all of this would be analytic, but given the general limitations of human knowledge, the joint conditions may rarely be satisfied.

A categorical imperative, on the other hand, unconditionally demands performance of an action for its own sake; it has the form "Do A. The supreme principle of morality must be a synthetic a priori proposition. Leaving its justification for the third section of the Grounding and the Second Critique , Kant proceeded to a discussion of the content and application of the categorical impetative. Constrained only by the principle of universalizability, the practical reason of any rational being understands the categorical imperative to be: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

This expression of the moral law, Kant maintained, provides a concrete, practical method for evaluating particular human actions of several distinct varieties.


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Consider, for example, the case 2 in the text of someone who contemplates relieving a financial crisis by borrowing money from someone else, promising to repay it in the future while in fact having no intention of doing so. Notice that this is not the case of finding yourself incapable of keeping a promise originally made in good faith, which would require a different analysis. The maxim of this action would be that it is permissible to borrow money under false pretenses if you really need it.

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But as Kant pointed out, making this maxim into a universal law would be clearly self-defeating. The entire practice of lending money on promise presupposes at least the honest intention to repay; if this condition were universally ignored, the universally false promises would never be effective as methods of borrowing.

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Since the universalized maxim is contradictory in and of itself, no one could will it to be law, and Kant concluded that we have a perfect duty to which there can never be any exceptions whatsoever not to act in this manner. On the other hand, consider the less obvious case 4 in the text of someone who lives comfortably but contemplates refusing any assistance to people who are struggling under great hardships. The maxim here would be that it is permissible never to help those who are less well-off than ourselves. Although Kant conceded that no direct contradiction would result from the universalization of such a rule of conduct, he argued that no one could consistently will that it become the universal law, since even the most fortunate among us rightly allow for the possibility that we may at some future time find ourselves in need of the benevolence of others.

Here we have only an imperfect duty not act so selfishly, since particular instances may require exceptions to the rule when it conflicts either with another imperfect duty e. Kant also supposed that moral obligations arise even when other people are not involved. Since it would be contradictory to universalize the maxim of taking one's own life if it promises more misery than satisfaction 1 , he argued, we have a perfect duty to ourselves not to commit suicide. And since no one would will a universalized maxim of neglecting to develop the discipline required for fulfilling one's natural abilities 3 , we have an imperfect duty to ourselves not to waste our talents.

These are only examples of what a detailed application of the moral law would entail, but they illustrate the general drift of Kant's moral theory. The essence of immorality, then, is to make an exception of myself by acting on maxims that I cannot willfully universalize.

Kant & Categorical Imperatives: Crash Course Philosophy #35

It is always wrong to act in one way while wishing that everyone else would act otherwise. The perfect world for a thief would be one in which everyone else always respected private property. Thus, the purely formal expression of the categorical imperative is shown to yield significant practical application to moral decisions.

Although he held that there is only one categorical imperative of morality, Kant found it helpful to express it in several ways. Some of the alternative statements can be regarded as minor variations on his major themes, but two differ from the "formula of universal law" sufficiently to warrant a brief independent discussion. Kant offered the "formula of the end in itself" as: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.

In application to particular cases, of course, it yields the same results: violating a perfect duty by making a false promise or killing myself would be to treat another person or myself merely as a means for getting money or avoiding pain , and violating an imperfect duty by refusing to offer benevolence or neglecting my talents would be a failure to treat another person or myself as an end in itself.

Thus, the Kantian imperative agrees with the Christian expression of "The Golden Rule" by demanding that we derive from our own self-interest a generalized concern for all human beings. Drawing everything together, Kant arrived at the "formula of autonomy," under which the decision to act according to a maxim is actually regarded as having made it a universal law. Here the concern with human dignity is combined with the principle of universalizability to produce a conception of the moral law as self-legislated by each for all. As Kant puts it, A rational being belongs to the kingdom of ends as a member when he legislates in it universal laws while also being himself subject to these laws.

He belongs to it as sovereign, when as legislator he is himslf subject to the will of no other. A rational being must always regard himself as legislator in a kingdom of ends rendered possible by freedom of the will, whether as member or as sovereign.