Last updated: February 27, 2019
Topic: SocietyHistory
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Kant and Morality

Morality is a difficult concept to pin down, appearing to us as a concrete term which is underscored by certain rational assumptions about the universe.  However, it is also true that that which one considers to be vice may, to another, be seen not as such.  The reverse may also apply, for where one sees himself as performing in virtue, others might perceive some ulterior drive.  Thus, it is rather difficult to reconcile that which does in fact define our cause for moral behavior, though all figures of importance to the historical discourse on philosophy have ventured a framework.  The 18th century in particular would witness a flurry of activity, with the latter generation of the Enlightenment Era providing a spirited exchange across decades of literature on that which constitutes moral behavior.  In our investigation here of the notion of Universal Law as one possible lens through which to understand morality, consideration of German theologian Immanuel Kant’s 1785 Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals provides an endorsement which is rather strict in its prescription of proper ethical behavior.  His perspective being derived in no small part due to his religious piety, we recognize that there is, at the very least, a consistency between his moral foundation and the same Judeo-Christian ethic which forms the base of western society.

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This stated, let us consider Kant’s deontological underpinnings, as these compose the concept of morality as we are intended to understand it.  Accordingly, the human experience of negotiating the universe as it seems to be presented to us is one governed by a great many assumptions.  Our education of this process, and in particular our capacity to become adept or even talented in various faculties thereto, is created by experience.  In experience, we gain the evolving abilities to relate to objects which we can perceive in our world.  However, in order to accomplish this, there are any number of beliefs which must be possessed in us that will create a framework wherein such relating can occur.  These beliefs–and the practical, ideological and physiological experiences which are dependent upon them–are somehow instinctually incorporated into human thought as knowledge.  Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is concerned both with the process by which we have assumed such ‘knowledge’ and with the implications that such assumptions have on our approach to morality.  In his discourse, he approaches rationality and morality as two principles which occupy such a disposition in our shared consciousness and herein offers insight into the societal implications affecting morality under an idea which he refers to as Universal Law.  Accordingly, Kant prescribes a logic that helps to center the whole of our discussion, serving as one logical basis for the rigid nature of his approach.  Kant contends that “I ought never to act in such a way that I couldn’t also will that the maxim on which I act should be a universal law.” (11)  It is his estimation that any degree to which behaviors, if adopted on the whole, would produce an undesirable or untenable social condition must be considered an indication that their execution even on the individual level is morally incorrect.

Though Kant’s view on what is morally right may seem overly rigid, he does offer an interesting point of consideration which allows for the relationship between rationality and moral absolutism.  This justifies a further examination of Kant’s basic premise, which we may define a rationalist for its return to this premise of moral inherency as a justification for a rejection of immoral behavior.  He employs, in his formula for humanity, an extrapolation of the same logic which comprises his understanding of that which makes a universal law.  Such is to say that the application of a universal law takes on a form rhetorically common to the form occupying its definition.  Kant denotes that if we are to justify our behavior, “we must be able to will that a maxim of our action become a universal law; this is the general formula for the moral evaluation of our action.  Some actions are so constituted that their maxim can’t even be thought as a universal law of nature without contradiction, let alone being willed to be such.” (Kant, 25)  Again, here, Kant’s intent is to make the case that we as human beings share certain assumptions about that which is rational, and that our moral interests are, generally speaking, therefore also rational.  Rationality allows us to understand that we benefit collectively and equally from the preservation of certain shared assumptions, such as the inherent wrongness of murder, stealing or lying.  Though it is certainly the case that in some rhetorical fashion, each of these vices would hereafter in history’s philosophical discourse be defended for some practical or pragmatic purpose with the simple intention of rejecting any normative approach to comprehending morals, within the framework of Kantian rational philosophy, it is understood that we are preserved collectively by our individual preservation and vice versa.  The deontological view espoused here is that the ethical attention to one’s duty is the fulfillment of that which is ‘right,’ forces one to acknowledge that the full range of possibilities in the concession to moral impropriety.  Also to this end, Kant finds a potential danger in moral pragmatism.  He points out that the pursuit of the greatest possible degree and pervasion of happiness is an approach which could be susceptible to deviations in standards:

We therefore find that while moral absolutes may often have the effect of inciting close and warranted scrutiny, Kant makes a compelling case that it is not necessarily permissible to abandon certain unchangeable parameters to ethical decision-making.  Kant defends effectively that the subject of truth is too important to be left to the chance of subjectivity.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel.  1785.  Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.  Jonathan Bennett