Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher argued that some forms of actions like lying and murder among others were proscribed regardless of the outcome of the actions. His theory is a deontological moral theory whereby, “the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfill our duty” (Aune 12). Kant held that there existed a sovereign rationale of morality in what he terms as Imperatives.
According to Kant’s imperatives, “an imperative is a command; for instance, ‘pay your taxes!’ is an imperative, as are ‘stop kicking me!’ and ‘Don’t kill animals!’ (Kant 49).
However, these imperatives come in categories, viz. hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical imperatives give conditional commands; for instance, “If you want to go to medical school, study biology in college” (Kant 57). Therefore, if the subject of this command does not want to attend a medical school, this instruction is irrelevant. On the other hand, categorical imperative gives unconditional commands.
For instance, “Don’t cheat on your taxes” (Kant 57). In this context, even if one wants to evade taxes he or she should not do so. Therefore, moral aspects must be defined by the categorical imperatives for the basic reasoning that people are commanded by morality and they cannot choose to take it or leave it; they have to abide to its requirements.
Kant stipulates that categorical imperative will work when people “Act only on that maxim through which they can at the same time will that it should become a universal law [of nature]” (Kant 60). This is a rule of nature whereby people should do unto others how they would love others to do to them. For example, if someone expects others to love him, then he or she should be ready to love them.
Actions can never be morally worthy; they can only be right, or wrong. Morals are not attached to actions but to a person. However, one’s actions determine whether he or she is morally worthy or not. Kant argues that, “a person is good or bad depending on the motivation of their actions and not on the goodness of the consequences of those actions” (78).
Motivation here refers to the drive behind actions. If the drive or motivation is morally upright, then a person is morally worthy. Likewise, if the motivation is not morally right, then a person is not morally worth. Actions are dependent on something else; they sprout from something else; that is motivation, therefore, actions cannot make someone morally worth or unworthy.
To expound the issue of motivation, Kant considers an individual who has won a lottery and decides to give all his fortunes to charity work to feel good about it. Kant posits that, this individual is not morally worthy because the motivation was not out of duty but a selfish quest. “Moral worth only comes when you do something because you know that it is your duty and you would do it regardless of whether you liked it” (Kant 84).
To Kant, consequences are insignificant because without motivation, there would be no consequences. Moreover, one may have the wrong motivation and get right or good results. For instance, if two drunken people drive recklessly and unfortunately, one of them runs over a pedestrian while the other does not, they are both morally unworthy because the motivation behind their actions was wrong.
Unfortunately, people interpret morality wrongly. Supposing the man who won the lottery gives the money with the right motivation of helping destitute children; unfortunately, a gang realizes that the children have food; raid the place killing all the children and making away with all food. In such a case, the man who gave the money is morally worthy because his intentions were right. This argument renders consequences void and they cannot be used as parameters of gauging morality.
In contrast to what many critics think, Kant does not veto felicity. One can do something to be happy as long as it is moral. Kant says, “you ought to do things to make yourself happy as long as you make sure that they are not immoral (i.e., contrary to duty), and that you would refrain from doing them if they were immoral… a good person is someone who always does their duty because it is their duty” (99). To be good one must be or do “good” for the sake of “goodness.”
Nevertheless, Kant’s theory has several loopholes. For instance, Kant posits that, people could lie if “It is permissible to lie” (121) and anything short of this requirement should not be allowed. In the light of this argument, all people would become liars hence robbing people of trust. Therefore, people should never lie, in principle.
Taking Kant to be true, a person would rather let his or her friend die even if lying would save the situation. This maxim becomes inconsequential because even killing would be allowed as long as the motive is right like self-defense. Kant cannot justify this fact.
Kantian ethics are complicated given the maxims that he employs to explain his imperatives. Kant believes that people cannot be morally worthy by their actions. Actions can never justify one’s moral worthiness because actions are a result of motives. Therefore, motives behind any action determine one’s moral worthiness.
To explain this he uses two forms of imperatives viz. conditional and categorical. Conditional imperatives change based on one’s stand concerning the condition in question. On the other hand, categorical imperatives are absolute and universal independent of one’s take on the situation in question. Nevertheless, Kant’s theories have loopholes because by his definition, killing would be justifiable.
Aune, Bruce. “Kant’s Theory of Morals.” New Jersey: Princeton Publishers, 1979.
Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.” Abbot, Thomas & Lara, Denis.
Eds. Ottawa; Library and Archives Canada, 2005.