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Kant's Yardstick

Kantcolor How are we to understand what is means to be ethical, especially in a world of relative ethics, where different individuals have extremely divergent beliefs? We need some system by which to interpret how we think and act that moves beyond static laws – something that is as flexible as the very humans that struggle with these issues. The most comprehensive yardstick for ethical behaviour that has been proposed so far is Kant’s categorical imperative, and understanding its principles is crucial to modern moral philosophy.  


A Foundation for Ethics 

Immanuel Kant was an eighteenth century German philosopher from Eastern Prussia (modern Russia), widely considered one of the most influential thinkers of the modern world. Although he contributed significantly to the development of many fields, he is primarily associated with moral philosophy, and in particular for his conception of the categorical imperative.

Kant’s categorical imperative is first described in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, published in 1785). In this piece, the first of three major works on ethics, Kant begins by considering how we think about ethical behaviour in common sense terms, and then develops this into a conception in terms of popular philosophy. From here, he develops his ideas of the metaphysics of morals into a critique of what he calls “pure practical reason”. These would later be expanded into his books Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Metaphysics of Morals (1797).

In understanding Kant’s work today, we face a choice in how to review his formulation of the categorical imperative. Do we start at the same place as Kant, working from common sense ideas? Or do we skip ahead to the end and see what he is talking about before looking at how he gets there? It is helpful to peek ahead and note that Kantianism (moral philosophy in the tradition founded by Kant) is based on the idea that morality begins with freedom – morality as autonomy. It is perhaps this idea which makes Kant’s moral philosophy so valuable, even today. 

Freedom requires an absence of external influences – if a person acts out of desire for something, or for recognition, or for vengeance, then they are not free in Kant’s terms – they are “beholden” (that is, enslaved) by their influence. And crucially, in Kant’s view influence can occur within a person, but still be external to that person’s will: our greed may drive us to steal, for instance, but that greed is a force outside of our will. As a result, Kant’s freedom is not “the freedom to do what you want”, but something subtly different: the freedom to do as you would will. This distinction effectively separates desires from what can be willed – and it is by this means that Kant attaches rationality to morality.

Kant says in the Groundwork:

Autonomy of the will is the property that the will has of being a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition). 

Or to put it another way – if we wish to be autonomous, we must avoid being compelled into action by external influences and instead be certain that those actions we take are those we can rationally will.

Kant’s position is that when we interpret autonomy in this manner, as acting on our rational will, we create a perspective on morality which applies to all rational beings – a categorical imperative (in Kant’s opinion the categorical imperative). In the Groundwork, he composes three principal approaches to this, written in five unique ways, but in his mind, Kant views all such formulations as expressions of the same principle – the categorical imperative. 


The First Formula: The Ethical as the Universal

Beginning by how we look at ethics from a common sense perspective, Kant begins his exposition of his categorical imperative by leading to what is conventionally referred to as the Formula of Universal Law (FUL): 

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. 

There is also a variant on this theme, the Formula of the Law of Nature (FLN):

So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature. 

This talk of ‘maxims’ is one of many distracting terminological issues in the way Kant writes (and is translated); by ‘maxim’, Kant refers to the specific justification for a particular action.

Suppose that you wish to steal a book from a library, because you want the book and you can’t afford it. The maxim of your action in this instance is “I will steal a book, because I want it and cannot afford it.” 

Now this first formula says, in essence, that one is behaving ethically only if the maxims one acts upon could be willingly considered to be universal laws. The argument goes, therefore, that stealing books from the library (or indeed from any place) is unethical because one cannot rationally will this to be a universal law. Indeed, to do so in this case creates an obvious contradiction: if you want the book, but to take it you need a universal law that allows theft of books, then you will not achieve your goal of possessing the book – the universal law that allowed you to steal it allows someone else to steal it from you. Thus, there is a logical contradiction and this maxim cannot be considered ethical.

Conversely, consider a destitute person who wishes to steal a loaf of bread in order to eat. The maxim of action in this case is: “I will steal bread, because I must eat and cannot afford to buy bread.” Here, it is not so clear whether one can will this as a universal law, and a matter of choice perhaps enters the question. I believe I could will this as a universal law, but a baker may be less willing to agree! This demonstrates that Kant’s first formula of the categorical imperative cannot produce absolute answers to ethical questions – but it provides a framework for evaluating the ethics of a particular action, based upon the premise upon which one acts. 

This first formula express the Kantian concept of universalisation; the idea that for behaviour to be ethical, it must be possible to universalise it. John Rawls does much to clarify Kant’s position in this respect by considering that this process of universalisation must remove all specific referents if it is to be valid – Rawls imagines a situation in which our laws are agreed to from what he calls the Original Position, where the individuals are rational but lack knowledge of the specifics of their own life circumstances. So in the previous example, the baker could not object, because in the Original Position the person does not know that they are a baker. This idea did much to revitalise interest in Kantian ethics in the twentieth century.

From a common sense perspective, then, Kant asserts that the ethical and the universal are equivalent. Whatever we can accept as a universal standard of behaviour can be considered ethical. This is a simple an intuitive idea which has merit, but it is only the beginning of Kant’s exploration of the matter at hand. 


The Second Formula: Mutual Respect

Working towards a metaphysics of morals, Kant’s second formulation of his categorical imperative is what is referred to as the Formula of Humanity as End in Itself (FH): 

Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means. 

Here we can see the idea of the universal developed towards a specific rational conclusion in the context of other people. If we are to see ethics as universalisable principles, we cannot allow for people to be used solely as a means to an end without taking into account what they want (their ends). Such behaviour could not be considered universal, for we cannot will that we shall be used to achieve a goal that we do not share.

A modern example would be employers which take advantage of their employees by paying low wages, providing no benefits, and insisting on long hours. This is unethical by Kant’s second formula. Such a company is pursuing its end – of making as much money as possible – without taking into account the ends of the employees. The goals of the company are not the goals of the employee, and it is unethical to use people in this way (at least in Kant’s view). 

It may be objected that if all the employee wants is money, there is a confluence of ends, but even here one must consider the discrepancy between what the company makes, and what the employee is paid. Paying minimum wage may be acceptable in a job with low turnover, but in a highly profitable company (such as Wal-Mart) which pays generous wages and bonuses to its management and executives, low employee wages is a clear case of using the workers solely as means, and not respecting their ends.

This second formula expresses the idea of mutual respect; that the goals of all individuals must be taken into consideration, and that using people solely as a means to an end is unethical. Although often overlooked in the history of human rights, Kant’s moral philosophy is acknowledged by most philosophers as utterly crucial to this field. If Kant had not created an ethical system which stressed the dignity of humanity on the basis of its rational nature, it would not have been possible to formulate human rights in the manner we currently understand them. 


The Third Formula: Communal Autonomy

Finally, Kant draws together the themes of the first two formulae into his final statement of his categorical imperative: the Formula of Autonomy (FA): 

the idea of the will of every rational being as a will giving universal law 


Not to choose otherwise than so that the maxims of one’s choice are at the same time comprehended with it in the same volition as universal law. 

In this formulation we see Kant drawing together the earlier themes of universalisation and mutual respect. What results is an ethical perspective whereby a person’s capacity for self-determination – their autonomy – is seen as central to morality. If there is no freedom to choose, there can be no morality, for ethical deliberations require the possibility of meaningful decisions. In Kant’s view, if there is no freedom of the will – no autonomy – there can be no morality.

This was a remarkable step forward in moral philosophy, and all the more so because it did not require God as its justification for moral behaviour. Kant was a Lutheran, but he found much of the empty rhetoric of the Christian church in his day to be vacuous, and saw its self-serving corruption as the mark of “radical evil”. In his view, the moral law was not dictated by God, it was inherent in man’s God-given rational nature.

Kant’s God is the ideal of reason, which he acknowledges cannot be objectively (measurably) real, and so (in Critique of Pure Reason) he holds that “God does not exist”, in the sense that God does not belong in the sphere of ontology (being) at all. Kant thus rejects the notion of the “existence of God” as misleading (now a common theme in modern Christian theology), but still emphatically asserts that the idea of God is meaningful. He claims that morality cannot exist without God, because God to Kant is the ideal of reason, and Kantian ethics derive their force from rationality. But those who do not make this connection can still usefully employ Kantian ethics, as their formulation is entirely independent of Kant’s theology (something most earlier ethicists cannot claim). 

As a variant of the Formula of Autonomy, Kant presents what is known as the Formula of the Realm of Ends (FRE):

Act in accordance with maxims of a universally legislative member for a merely possible realm of ends. 

The term ‘realm of ends’ is another confusing piece of Kantian jargon, but it is easy to understand what it means when it is seen as the extension of the notion of autonomy to society as a whole. The ‘realm of ends’ is the confluence of the goals of all people, where everyone is systematically united and offering mutual support towards their various ends. Kant does not believe that this is wholly achievable – he says it is “merely possible” – but he asserts strongly the value of this ideal as a guiding principle in ethics.

The third formula therefore expresses the idea of communal autonomy; that we must as rational beings with free will co-operate towards our mutual goals, and that this is the ultimate statement of the ethical. Kant’s ‘realm of ends’ is a near-impossible ideal of all humanity co-operating towards a united community. This final formula best expresses what Kant means by the categorical imperative, and thus what Kant understands as ethical. 


Criticisms of the Categorical Imperative

There are many ways in which one can wriggle out of Kant’s strict position, but it is worth noting that for the most part Kantianism remains a dominant force in ethics. One of the strengths of Kant’s position was its flexibility – it does not state comprehensibly what moral behaviour entails, it merely provides tools to explore morality and to consider what should be considered unethical behaviour. 

A great many modern ethicists incorporate Kant to some degree in their moral philosophy, although the range of approaches is vast – which is in itself a testament to the versatility of the Kantian position. Shelley Kagan even manages to take Kant’s strictly deontological (rules or rights-focussed) ethics and apply them to consequentialism (outcome-focussed ethics)! This highlights my point that one system of ethics can be transformed into another by changing which part of the “ethical sentence” we wish to pay attention to.

Minor criticism of Kant is so voluminous as to defy any attempt to summarise, but much of it is based upon analysing the first formula (universalisation), and attempting to show how it fails to express the ethical. Allen W. Wood soundly dismisses attempts to refute Kant’s position on this basis by noting that this is merely the stepping point for the underlying concept, and that Kant himself clearly believed the final formula (communal autonomy) was key, as this was the only formulation he refers to in his later works. Allen is thus scathing of those who attempt to use Kant’s first formula as “an ethical sausage machine”, used mechanically to crank out rules of action, and calls for a deeper understanding of Kant’s underlying principles.

A common way to dispute Kant is to take task on the issue of free will, and claim that free will is incompatible with a world of cause and effect. However, as already noted in discussion of the concept of fate, this issue is a metaphysical distraction. Onora O’Neil provides the closest to a coherent attempt on this ground, but her criticism relates to Kant’s metaphysics – his separation of our existence as phenomenal (natural and casually determined) beings and as noumenal (non-natural and self-determined) beings. This distinction is tangential to Kant’s case; all that is required is for free will to have meaning – which is comparatively easy to defend – how one then incorporates this into a grander scheme is tangential, and the alleged incoherence of Kant’s dual version of humanity is thus a largely irrelevant metaphysical tangent. 

Arthur Schopenhauer, writing in 1840, provides the most comprehensive (and pedantic!) criticism of Kant’s Groundwork, concluding that the true basis of morality is compassion or sympathy. Although this tied morality closer to the Golden Rule, his influence was not Christian, but in fact the Upanishads of Hinduism, and the teachings of Buddhism. Schopenhauer affords to Kant the distinction of having identified the criterion of morality – but considers it to be contained solely in the second formulation of the categorical imperative, that is, in treating other people as ends and not merely as means. I am sympathetic to Schopenhauer’s position, but believe it overlooks the value of communal autonomy implied by Kant’s final formulation. 

Kierkegaard also took task with Kant’s position, believing that autonomy was insufficient for morality, as individuals were not up to the challenge being asked of them. This is perhaps the most biting criticism, as it asks whether we are able to fulfil the high ethical ideals Kant proposed. However, it does not dispute the basis of Kant’s argument – and indeed, Kierkegaard consistently assumes that the ethical and the universal are equivalent terms. It merely questions the practical force of the categorical imperative in a world of self-determination on account of the general inability of individuals to assert their will over their desires.



In formulating his categorical imperative, Kant created a yardstick that was robust enough to provide a perspective for analysing ethical behaviour, yet flexible enough to be applicable to any society – provided it was based on free will. His three key ideas of the ethical as universal, mutual respect, and communal autonomy were major influences in the development of human rights, and provide a cornerstone to modern moral philosophy that is independent to (but compatible with) the idea of God.

Kant’s conception that we must co-operate towards our mutual goals, and in doing so form an ethical community based on individual freedom, is a powerful ideal that can inspire and enrich our modern societies. That it is difficult to overcome the differences in our belief systems such that we can find ways for the ends that we will to harmonise does not reduce the inspirational value of this utopian vision, nor detract from the categorical imperative’s power to provide a viable foundation to the idea of the ethical.


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Well that was a pretty dizzying but refreshing summary of Kant, whom I haven't read since college (if really ever, consciously :). Not much to comment on other than to underscore just how critical such a flexible framework continues to be in a modern context, as you rightfully point out.
Other than that, I must confess that whenever I read philosophical style "laws" or "maxims", my mind float backs to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. (Though the true believers know there's really four.) Asimov had a great analytical mind, which I know helped him write such stimulating work... and hey, speaking of big thinkers and the novels they write, where the heck can I get a hold of that novel -you- wrote that you nonchalantly mentioned a long while back?

[Email contact details deleted for privacy - thanks Jack! - Chris].


Jack: I'm debating whether or not I need to post an abridgment of this abridgment to Kant's Groundwork... :) I'm going to refer to this a lot from now on, so it's worth considering whether or not a "short version" would be useful. What do you think?

And thanks for the email address!

I think this version is great. Yeah it's a lot to chew on, but with your gift for this sort of thing, I don't really know if it can be condensed any further without losing either some clarity or the progression of Kant's thought, both of which are important. And ethics campaign players didn't sign on for rookie level missions after all! :)

I have a (rather foggy, granted) impression that it is in fact the issue of "Kantian autonomy" that is a bit tricky here. I wonder how Confucianist and Buddhist ethics (which both emphasize rationality!) with their rather different positions on individual autonomy compare to Kant?

(As an aside, since the "general inability of individuals to assert their will over their desires" plays such an important role it becomes clear how much the idea of an virtue-based ethics can actually do to complement the rights-based apporach - here the question of self-discipline enters the scene.)


Well you "old hands" might be up to the challenge, but I don't want to scare away the newbs. :D


Schopenhauer comes at Kant from a Hindu/Buddhist perspective, and basically strips away everything except the second formula, which is then interpreted as The Golden Rule, i.e., as a call for compassion. I don't know how viable this interpretation might be.

But Buddhist metaphysics are actually very close to Kant's; the point has been raised that Kant's noumena (which I skipped over in this piece for clarity) compares to Buddhist shunyata. I'm not sure how much this holds in practice, however.

As for Kant for Confucians; well someone at Stanford claims that Kant was unknowingly influenced by Taoist and Confucian philosophy which had filtered into the West via various Jesuit writers!

There is in fact lively discussion on the relationship of the Western meta-ethical tradition - of which Kant is the chief figure - and Eastern meta-ethical traditions. I'm no expert on this, but Mou Sung San, the leading Hong Kong scholar of Kant, claims that the Neo-Confucian tradition can plug the gaps in Kant's metaphysics by providing an alternative view of moral intuition, based on the Chinese concept of liang-chi (conscience).

I found an essay on the subject. Apparently, Kant ties in quite strongly with the Confucian tradition.

It's an issue I'd like to look into further, but it's difficult to know where to start!

As for self-discipline, this is one of the areas where I assert that religion serves a valuable social purpose. To blindly presume that every individual can successfully assert will over desire is probably to condemn societies to a practical failure of ethics. But communities of individuals with common values support each other in a shared ethical framework, making this task infinitely easier. That is one of the key social roles of religion.

Or to put it another way, while it is true that we don't *need* religion to be good people, that doesn't mean that religion doesn't make the task considerably easier! :)

Best wishes!

Amazing post. I help out with Sinistre and Destre's blog and finally you have a post we can admire.

Kant is an interesting ethicist. I'm in not real position to have a position on Kant (I'm still reading his ethics and commentators), what I have found, however, is that Kant's writings are not as good as the 'Kantianism' he proposes.

Chris: thanks for the additional pointers. I almost forgot that Kant's unknowable "Ding-an-sich" (thing-in-itself) forms the starting point of this. The comparison to shunyata is just too tempting for any westerner interested in navigating between western and eastern teachings - regardles whether it "holds" or not :)

Michael: thanks for the kind words! I've been working up to this post in "The Ethics Campaign"; until now, I've just been warming up. :)

Like you, I find that the nature of what Kant's is proposing far exceeds the quality of his writings - although one must allow for the difference in time and language, I suppose - I will never read Kant in his native German, I expect, so I may miss out on the poetry of his phrasing.

I very much enjoy the Noumenal Realm, and admire its ability to produce short posts, which is something I find terribly difficult. :)

Best wishes!

I feel terrible doing this, Chris, but I have to tell you that Kant's writing in German is pretty much unreadable - no poetry there :(

Ah, the illusion is shattered. :o Perhaps a mind capable of such great ideas is alas incapable of rendering them elegantly. ;)

Kant's writings are amazing. I think he is a brilliant philosophical writer. If he were lucid and clear his writing would be MUCH longer.

It takes a certain reader to read Kant. My lecturer told us 'if you understood this, there is something wrong with you!'

Michael: like you I am greatly impressed by Kant's writings and insight, and I'm looking forward to reading more in the future. Perhaps you and I are the "certain readers" to whom your lecturer refers - if enjoying Kant means there is something wrong with me, then I shall celebrate my defectiveness! :D

Take care!

You say re: Kant's SeconFormulation: "If we are to see ethics as universalisable principles, we cannot allow for people to be used solely as a means to an end without taking into account what they want (their ends)."

I believe what Kant intended by "end" is that a human being is to be regarded as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. I am pretty sure "end" has nothing to do with "taking into account what they want" but rather the intrinsic value of a human being. The value of someone *being* which is quite separate from "wanting."

Swiss: interesting point you raise here...

While I can see where your reading comes from, and it certainly has some validity, when Kant talks in his third formula of a "Realm of Ends" it seems to me that he is not referring to a "Realm of people with intrinsic value" (as would follow on your reading) but rather a "Realm where all our desired outcomes can be aligned".

Since Kant insists that all his formulas are really restatements of the same idea (although to the bystander this is far from obvious!) it follows that my reading of the second formula is justified by my interpretation of the third formula.

It's certainly not the only way to read Kant, but nonetheless I stand by my interpretation as valid without wishing to claim sole validity, if you see what I mean. :)

Thanks for commenting!

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