Kantian ethics A* grade summary notes


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Kantian ethics AO1

  • Basing morality on reason. Kant rejects hypothetical imperatives as not true genuine morality. Hypothetical imperatives are claims about what you should do if you have a certain desire. E.g. you should not lie if you want to appear honest. Kant thinks this is not genuine morality, since morality shouldn’t depend on personal desires.
  • Kant thinks that human reason has the ability to discover the ‘categorical imperative’. 
  • Categorical = in all cases
  • Imperative = a moral statement
  • So the categorical imperative is something you should do in all cases/situations. Kant says there is only one categorical imperative, with three formulations. 
  • 1st formulation: universalizability. You should only do an action if it is logically possible for everyone to do it. E.g. stealing. If everyone stole, there would be no such thing as property – but then no one could steal. This means it is actually not possible for everyone to steal, so stealing is not universalizable and therefore it is our duty to never steal.
  • 2nd formulation: humanity. Always treat persons, whether others or yourself, never merely as a means but always at the same time as an end. Don’t use people. Everyone has their own end (goals) in life so if you treat them as if they are only a means to your end then you are failing to acknowledge that they have their own end, which would be irrational. 
  • 3rd formulation: kingdom of ends – act as if you are a member of a kingdom of ends where everyone is following Kant’s ethics.
  • An action must pass these formulations to be good, but it must also be done with the right moral intention. These formulations allow you to figure out what your duty is but you must then do it out of a sense of duty – “duty for duty’s sake” – out of respect for the moral law. Doing your duty because of your personal feelings is not morality, according to Kant. That would be engaging in a hypothetical imperative – doing your duty if you feel like it.
  • The three postulates (unlikely to need this)
  • Kant argues that reason can figure out this basis for ethics. However, he doesn’t think that ethics makes sense without three postulates. A postulate is something you have to assume to be true in order to have a basis for reasoning about something. Kant thought that there were three postulates we have to assume to be true if ethics is to be based on reason.
  • God.
  • Immortality (of the soul in an afterlife).
  • Free will. Kant thought that without free will, we could not be responsible for our actions and thus surely ethics would be pointless.
  • Kant pointed out that good people are not always rewarded in life, and some times bad people do seem to be rewarded. This was unjust. For ethics to work, there needs to be justice. So, Kant thought that there must be a God who lets us in to an afterlife where good people are rewarded with happiness. Kant called this the ‘summum bonum’, meaning the highest good.