Rebirth of Reason


On Kant's Ethical Theory
by Merlin Jetton

There are plenty of overviews of Kant's ethics, for example, in W. T. Jones' A History of Western Philosophy. The purpose of this essay is to give a very brief overview, including some comparisons to Ayn Rand's ethical theory and references she made to Kant.

Like W.T. Jones says, ethical theories before Kant focused on what is good, but Kant's focus was on what is right. The distinction may not seem so sharp, but I will not elaborate. Arguably it is a shift of focus from on an individual to between individuals.

Kant's supreme moral principle, his categorical imperative, is: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means." That was his second formulation. His first and third were:
- Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
- Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.

How did he get there? Personal interests vary from one person to the next and thus could not be "universal", even contradictory. The same applies to happiness. So he decided, using "pure reason", that moral principles must be devoid of any personal interest or happiness. I offer an analogy. It was though he saw that 2+3=5 , 12-7=5, etc. However, these expressions contain particular numbers, and are inadequate to encompass the whole of arithmetic. So his principle(s) should contain no such particulars. He wanted an "algebraic" principle, one that would encompass every moral action, and one that every human being should find rational. Instead of settling for a set of compatible principles that retained self-interest (and happiness), he decided they should be drained of self interest (and happiness) entirely. He says the only thing good without qualification is a ‘good will’. He says remarkably little or nothing about what constitutes 'good' fundamentally. By the time he was done abstracting, all that was left was a floating abstraction, only barely applicable to flesh and blood humans. One important principle Kant posits is that we should treat others as ends-in-themselves (ourselves, too). 

Kant said we should take a given action because it is the rational thing to do, not because it will benefit us or someone else. Kant believed only actions performed from duty have moral worth. There is an obvious similarity to Christian ethics, but "duty" does not mean duty to God or a political authority, but rather to the moral law grounded in the rational nature of humanity. He seems to say that the greater one is reluctant to act from duty, the greater the moral worth of the action. "It is just then that the worth of character comes out, which is moral and incomparably the highest, namely that he is beneficent not from inclination but from duty" (Groundwork).  If one performs an action by inclination alone or even a desire to do good, then Kant implies the action lacks moral worth.

Ayn Rand's main focus is on what is good for a human. Kant "was outraged by the thought that morality should depend on human nature" (Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong by Pojman and Fieser) as known a posteriori. He believed moral principles had to be a priori. Ayn Rand rejected his a priori - a posteriori dichotomy entirely. His ethical theory was also incompatible with her trader principle, pertaining to good in the presence of other people. Trading is for mutual benefit, i.e. the self-interest of each party to the trade. Each treats the other as an end in himself. But each also treats the other as a means -- a means to acquire what is obtained in the trade. Sometimes treating the other as means is all that is readily apparent. For example, traveling in a foreign country, I buy something in a pharmacy that I will never visit again. Then I treat the clerk or pharmacist "merely as means." I treat the clerk or pharmacist as an end-in-themselves by respecting his or her rights, but largely "merely as means."  If you believe this undercuts Kant's categorical imperative, you are not alone.

Kant did not regard natural inclination or self-interest as immoral, but rather amoral. (Natural inclinations and desires, which may have subconscious origins, are also arational.) It was part of prudence, but prudence wasn't part of ethics, either. He was not an altruist in the manner of Comte, for anybody's interest, not only self interest, was pushed out of his ethical theory. Rand on one occasion called Kant a "theoretician of altruism", but mostly she condemned the concept of duty. "The meaning of the term "duty" is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest" (Causality vs. Duty). That is accurate, but the "higher authority" is not God or government, but the moral law as Kant construed it. On the other hand, "duty" could be used as a rationalization by self-proclaimed "authorities" to exercise power over others. Ayn Rand saw the obvious danger in that, so her criticism of Kant's ethical theory is understandable, even if she did make a straw man.

Note: Fred Seddon covered some of this in Ayn Rand, Objectivists, and the History of Philosophy.
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