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Kant in Theory, Thesis Paper Example

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Thesis Paper

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and intellectual, who lived during the major part of the eighteenth century (1724-1804), brought forth some revolutionary concepts of life which were much discussed and explored in the subsequent years. His contributions include innovative concepts in understanding various mathematical, scientific, theological, epistemological, ethical and metaphysical theories. He correlated the attainment of human knowledge through an active participation of the human mind (www.philosophypages.com). Kant believed that human knowledge is confined to what is available through the empirical rationality of mathematical and scientific appropriateness and as such this comprehension cannot be extended to a more metaphysical level. Kant was critical of his predecessors as he believed that the empiricism and rationality were unable to influence the mind as it was not a blank slate, as well as incapable of comprehending knowledge in a mind-independent manner. Kant gave a new meaning to ethical issues by associating them with duty. According to him, the motive behind an action was responsible for imparting moral worth to it and not the outcome which results due to that particular action (www.iep.utm.edu). It was the universal principles based upon reason that were capable of providing a basis for associating that motive with moral value.

Prior to Kant’s philosophical expositions, the preceding philosophers had postulated their theories on the bases of empiricism and rationality. The empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume believed that human knowledge originated from our senses. The properties of empirical objects as they appeared to our senses informed us about their true nature. The mind, which was considered a blank slate was gradually influenced by the knowledge and experiences it gathered from nature through the senses. Berkeley was of the view that our mental representations of objects only imparted a limited knowledge which was not actually the whole truth about that particular object. Rationalists like Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, on the other hand believed in the formation of concepts within the mind through the processes of logic and reasoning (www.iep.utm.edu). Kant disagreed with both schools of thought as he believed that the human mind was not a blank slate as it was capable of bringing forth concepts from within. He believed that the human mind is also capable of making judgments based upon independent experience and therefore refuted the material idealist theory attributed to Berkeley. Kant believed that the mind must provide a systematic structuring of its representations (www.iep.utm.edu).

According to Kant, intentional goodwill is necessary for a rational being with the right motive which is based on the principle of ‘doing right’ by performing one’s duty (Lafave, 2006). A rational being with goodwill therefore automatically performs its duty. If duty is performed without goodwill, it becomes inconsequential as it translates into simple satisfaction of natural inclinations such as in animals that act more according to instinct just to satisfy the natural urge. Moral decisions for an act of duty are therefore made without any consideration of their effects, whether beneficial or detrimental in nature. Consequences, either good or bad become immaterial in such decisions. If one acts in a consequential manner, then one relegates self to a lower level, such as that of animals as it means that one is seeking only the best consequences of an act. A morally appropriate act, on the other hand, is one in which contemplation and reason are used as a basis for performing and alternate course of action which is different from the spontaneous one. For a rational being with goodwill, there will be no influence at all of the consequences on the morality/immorality of the action. Kant explained the moral commands from within as ‘categorical imperatives’ i.e. they are absolutely binding in nature regardless of personal desire or interest (Lafave, 2006). A duty has to be absolutely performed according to categorical imperative regardless of the fact that one wishes to do it or not do it. In contrast to this is the hypothetical imperative is the command which lays emphasis on ‘if’ a particular outcome is desired. In such a case the decision is made based upon the desire associated with the accomplishment of the consequence. Moral imperatives, according to Kant, are therefore absolutely unconditional. Goodwill is therefore associated with the power of reasoning without any emphasis on the consequences. The resultant actions accomplished by goodwill and reason therefore result in universalizable principles of action which are recognized by all rational beings. Categorical imperatives are therefore unconditional commands that are binding on everyone at all times. The central principle of Kant’s ethical theory, what he labeled as the categorical imperative, offers several formulations which according to him led to the same conclusion (www.trinity.edu). According to his formula of the universal law, while testing for the morality of an action, one must go through certain steps before deciding about the validity of that action. The first step was to formulate the maxim for that particular action i.e. identification of the general principle which one would follow while performing that action. For example, if one is faced with the demands of the basic necessities of life such as food, the general principle would be- ‘if there is food available, I will eat it’, or in a situation if one is caught while stealing, he will offer an excuse for it in order to save one’s skin. The next step would be to universalize that maxim i.e. the decision one has generalized is applicable for everyone. It is not a personal policy but a principle which could be applied to everybody (www.trinity.edu). The universalized maxim would then suggest that in a similar situation encountered by everyone, they are expected to respond in likely fashion. The third step would be to determine the validity whether the maxim which one has universalized can be interpreted as a universal law or not. The first situation in which one is hungry and will eat food if available can be justified as a universal law, but in the second situation, if on stealing everybody will offer an excuse cannot be accepted as a universal law because certain individuals may not harbor a tendency to do so. If everybody thought that an excuse was enough for getting away with an act as despicable as stealing cannot be accepted as a universal law as some might be morally obliged to repent and not actually be inclined to escape from the situation. If such a maxim can not be a universal law and one wasn’t able to will it to be a universal law, then one has an imperfect duty not to indulge in such an action. If one was able to rationally will a preconceived maxim, then the action might be morally permissible. A maxim necessarily has to pass all four steps in order for it to be morally the right course of action.

According to the humanity formulation of the categorical imperative, one should act in a way so that one treats humanity in self as well as others as an end in itself and not as a means. One should inculcate the sense of respect for humanity in one’s psyche instead of considering others as mere instruments to achieve one’s ends.

Goodwill is an essential component of a subsequent action and is subject to ‘autonomy as well as ‘heteronomy’. Heteronomous will is one which submits itself to another end which will involve hypothetical imperatives urging an action resulting in derivation of pleasure, appeasement of moral senses or search of personal perfection (www.philosophypages.com). In contrast, the autonomous will is self legislating, where the moral obligations are imposed by it upon itself which are binding on everyone due to its common nature. An autonomous will is responsible for all genuine moral actions which prove the existence of free will in human nature (www.philosophypages.com). The autonomy formulation of the categorical imperative states that the ‘Idea of the will of every rational being should be accepted as a will that legislates universal law’ (plato.stanford.edu). One should perform one’ actions if the maxims set up by him or her are actually legislator of universal laws. However, in this situation, one is the ‘giver’ rather than the follower of a universal law. One’s behavior must conform to principles that express autonomy of a rational will for the benefit of humanity.

Kant’s assertion that a morally appropriate act is one in which contemplation and reason are used as a basis for performing an alternate course of action which is different from the spontaneous one may hold true in many of the ethical decisions one has to take in the course of life. However, his opinion that for a rational being with goodwill, there will be no influence at all of the consequences on the morality or immorality of the action is controversial. For example if a universal law is established that telling a lie is ethically wrong, one must not be bound to tell the truth if such an action has a detrimental and grievous consequence. This is contrary to Kantian principles of ethics. A rational human being might choose to tell a lie in order to save the life of a person whose whereabouts he knows and is being asked by a potential killer to reveal the truth to him. The Kantian universal law will suggest that telling the truth is the right course of action but it does not hold true in this situation. Thus a moral action cannot just be taken on the basis of what one is ought to do while confronted by an ethical dilemma, which according to Kantian philosophy is the right course of action. Using motive as the sole criterion for an ethical decision may therefore not be exclusively true as such an action might have negative consequences in spite of being morally correct.

References

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), online article accessed Jan. 7, 2009 at: http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/kant.htm

Kant’s Ethics, online article accessed Jan.18, 2010 at: http://www.trinity.edu/cbrown/intro/Kant_ethics.html

Kant’s Moral Philosophy, online article accessed Jan. 17, 2010 at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/

Kant: Metaphysics, online article accessed Jan. 8, 2009 at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantmeta/

Kant: The Moral Order, online article accessed Jan. 8, 2009 at: http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/5i.htm

Lafave, S. (2006). Kant’s Ethics, online article accessed Jan. 7, 2009 at: http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/Kant_eth.htm

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