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Reason, Autonomy, and Kant's Ethics

by Dan Garro about a year ago in Humanity
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Self-worth and rationality

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) has been one of the most influential figures in philosophy. Kant’s ethical theory places special emphasis on rationality. He believes all persons have equal worth because all human beings are rational beings. For Kant, then, human dignity and worth is tied to our rational nature.

Kant argued that the moral worth or rightness of an action should not be determined by the action’s consequences, nor by the agent’s character, but rather by the maxim or rule.

Kant conceives of the moral law as rules any rational being can accept and act upon. As he saw it, there is a clear connection between morality and acting as a rational person. In fact, for Kant, autonomy (or freedom), rational agency, and morality are closely connected.

Imagine, for example, you are applying to college (or something similar) and want to improve your application. You decide that you could improve your application and chances of getting into your top schools by doing more charity work. You find a local charity that builds houses for those in need, and you sign up to work for them.

On your first day, you meet two other people, A and B, who are volunteering at the charity. Person A is volunteering because he was court ordered to do so to fulfill x number of hours of community service. Person B is volunteering because she believes she ought to help others when and to the extent that she is able to.

If we review the reasons you, A, and B have for acting, they look something like this: you are motivated by self-interest or personal benefit; Person A’s motivation is influenced by a legal obligation and, perhaps, a sense of self-preservation/interest; Person B is motivated by duty or moral obligation.

While you, person A, and person B each have different reasons for acting, your actions nonetheless produce similar (positive) consequences. If we were utilitarians, we might argue that you, A, and B are each doing the right thing.

Kant, however, would evaluate the moral worth of the actions differently. As Kant sees it, only person B does an action with moral worth, because only B does the right action for the right reason. Kant thought morality is all about doing something for the right reason(s), it is all about acting rationally. He would argue that you and person A act only in accordance with duty, whereas person B acts from duty. This means that you and person A do the action that morality would otherwise demand of you, but you do it for the wrong reason(s).

Ostensibly, you and person A act to help others in need—at least, that is what an outsider might see. Upon closer examination, however, we see that you do not consider those you help as ends-in-themselves, but instead perform a charitable act and help others simply as a means to some other end (personal benefit or the fulfillment of a legal obligation). This example highlights why, in Kant’s view, consequences are not sufficient to determine what morality demands of us.

Why does Kant make the above determination?

The Categorical Imperative

Kant sought to establish the supreme principle of morality, what he calls the categorical imperative. He thought reason provides a rule for acting and always presents that rule in the form of an imperative or command.

Imperatives are of two types: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical imperatives provide us with subjective rules for acting; Categorical imperatives provide us with objective rules of morality.

Basically, a hypothetical imperative (what Kant calls the “imperative of skill”) is a maxim or rule for acting that reason creates so that we can achieve some (proposed) end. For instance, in the above example, your charitable work is the means to realize your end of improving your application and getting into the college of your choice.

These subjective rules for acting are employed regularly by us as we use reason to navigate the world, solve problems, and pursue various ends. In these cases, the content of the rule reason provides is determined by some outside factor (e.g., a proposed end), and so these rules are not moral rules.

Kant believed the categorical imperative is the moral imperative. Two of the most important variations or iterations of the categorical imperative are the universal law formulation and the humanity formulation.

The universal law formulation states: “act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant). The humanity formulation states: “[so] act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Kant).

The first version focuses on the universal, absolute status of moral laws. A moral law, in other words, is a law that is always binding, that always applies, and that any rational being can and should will.

The second focuses on the connection Kant makes between reason and human self-worth, dignity, and value. We are each of us rational beings and valuable-in-ourselves. As such, we should only ever treat each other and ourselves as ends, as beings possessing value and moral worth. When we don’t treat others or ourselves as ends, we strip away the moral status and moral value of others and ourselves and thus reduce persons (moral beings) to the status of mere objects in the world (that is, as valuable only as a means to an end rather than as valuable as an end-in-itself).

Kant thought of morality as a set of rules (e.g., always tell the truth; it is always wrong to kill) that any rational being can and should will. We can discern particular moral rules using the categorical imperative (the supreme principle of morality).

Kant’s moral philosophy attempts to establish and affirm the value of persons, of rational beings, the need to act rationally, and the important connection between morality and autonomy (or freedom). In Kant’s mind, when we act morally, we act from rules legislated by reason alone, and in doing so we affirm our value, our dignity, and the value and dignity of all persons (rational beings).

Thanks for reading.

Please share and check out my other related work: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”, What is Multiple Causation?, Curiosity, Perplexity, and the Wisdom of Socrates, Perspective: In pursuit of truth, and Living Underground.


About the author

Dan Garro

Philosopher/Educator/Writer/Podcast Host & Producer

I'm a philosophy professor, avid reader, I love writing, and I co-host/produce The Existential Stoic Podcast.

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