“Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals,” Immanuel Kant developed a
philosophy of morality that was considered “pure” philosophy, a philosophy that
was completely independent of subjective personal experience or perception. In
that work, Kant presents the idea that ethical decisions should be based on a
priori reasoning which is a type of reasoning that is based on logical
observations, not experiences. Kant breaks these actions into the categories of
good will and categorical imperatives, which he further analyzes through the
lens of the formulas for universal law and humanity. Through the development of
these concepts, Kant creates a way to understand moral values and arrive at a
universal set of maxims through use of reason.
Kant says, “There is no
possibility of thinking of anything at all in the world, or even out of it,
which can be regarded as good without qualification, except good will,” (Kant,
7). To paraphrase, the good will is the only thing that is good on its own and
in itself. If a person is acting in accordance with good will, then that act is
done in accordance with duty, not merely from consequences or a self-serving
inclination. A person should not do something because of what s/he receives as
a result of that action. For example, if a person saves a child from a burning
building, or helps someone bring in their groceries, that action should done
through the motivation of duty through good will, not because of the gratitude,
money, or fame.
Kant further defines good as
something that is not just good in the moment, but something that is universally
good, and good in every iteration. In that an action is universally good, and
has moral worth, one can, through a priori reasoning, design what Kant terms a Categorical
Imperative on which the action is based. Kant considers the Categorical Imperative
to be the “pure” example of a moral obligation derived from pure reason. He further defines it as a rule that one must
follow regardless of personal desire. In short, the categorical imperative is
designed to be a law that can be applied to all things in all situations.
These categorical imperatives
are divided into two separate formulations: Formula of Universal Law and
Formula of Humanity.
The first formulation is the Formula
of Universal Law which, according to Kant, is that one should “Act only on that
maxim by which at the same time, you can will it should become a universal
law,” (Kant, 30). For example, a person
can form the maxim of “Lying is universally wrong”. If everyone assumes that
lying in immoral, and one should always tell the truth even in the worst of
situations, then Kant believes that this maxim helps maintain a moral society.
The maxim assumes that everyone is telling the truth and from that foundation
an acceptable moral behavior is created.
urges the application of the categorical imperatives to everyday decisions. By
doing so, each person can think through what could happen if any personal maxim
is applied universally. For example, we can take a scenario involving a person
named Random Joe. Random Joe is approached by a neighbor who asks if he can
help him move. Random Joe is tired and
doesn’t want to help. Random Joe doesn’t know the neighbor very well and thinks
that it won’t really matter if he helps or not, so he decides to lie and say
that he is incredibly busy and can’t possibly help.
Kant says, “Wait a minute, Joe!
Let’s think about this for a minute.”
Kant and the Formula of Universal Law urge Joe to imagine a situation in
which the desire to lie is a universal law or maxim. Through that imagined
scenario, Joe can test if the desire to lie to his neighbor is moral or not.
Joe thinks about it for a minute and comes up with this maxim: Everyone should
lie if they want out of an obligation. Initially, the maxim seems benign and it
helps Joe out when he needs it. If Joe applies this maxim universally, though,
then the entire world begins to lie in order to get out of any and all annoying
situations. A potential outcome might be that people could no longer trust each
other, and language could eventually become meaningless. With the Formula of
Universal Law, we can see that even though it is easier for Joe to lie to get
out of an obligation, in the long run, it would be better for him to simply
tell the truth without worrying about the consequences.
The second formulation is the
Formula of Humanity which holds that a person should “Act in such a way that
you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in any other person, always
at the same time as an end, never merely as a means, but always as an end,”
(Kant, 36). To put this another way, rational human beings are valuable as ends
in themselves and should never be used as means to accomplish some personal
goal. When one person uses another for their own good, then that used person is
being denied their own free will and personal dignity. To return to Random Joe,
per Kant’s urging, he has decided not to lie to his neighbor, but he thinks
that if he helps his neighbor, then his neighbor will owe him a favor. Joe
needs a ride to the airport at four a.m. this weekend and doesn’t want to pay
for a taxi. He can help his neighbor now and use that to negotiate the early
morning airport ride. Kant sighs a deep sigh of disapproval. Joe is not using
good will, or acting from duty, when he agrees to help his neighbor. Joe needs
to help his neighbor out of duty because “an action has moral worth only when the
action comes from a motivation of duty and out of good will,” (Kant, 13). One
shouldn’t exploit or use another person to achieve a goal and Joe shouldn’t use
his neighbor just so that his neighbor will owe him a favor.
two formulations are applied to Kant’s idea of pure philosophy in that only if
an action is consistent with all aspects of the categorical imperatives, can
the action be considered moral and in accordance with duty and be a shining
example of the much-lauded good will. In this work, Kant seeks to illustrate
the connection between morality and reason and show how the actions that emerge
from these two ideas are connected through a sense of duty and moral reasoning.
He puts forth the idea that it is not only a person’s desire to conform to a
moral law that drives moral decision making, but also the end goal of the
action. Kant believes that doing the right thing is not enough, a person must
be acting for the right reason and acting freely without any consideration of personal
benefit and without considering the consequences.