Week 7: Kant

Duty, Goodwill & Obligation:

Immanuel Kant: The Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals & The Critique of Practical Judgment

  1. Resources
  2. Terms to Learn
  3. Concepts
  4. Guide Questions

Here are some web sites that will enhance your understanding of this week’s reading:

Kant’s Deontological Ethics

Here are some web sites that will enhance your understanding of this week’s reading:

Kant in Three Minutes:

A Short Introduction to Kant’s Categorical Imperative:

Concepts & Terms to Know:

The following questions are designed to fine tune your understanding of the reading. The subject matter and answers to these questions form the basis of what you will be required to know for exams.

Objectives for this week: These are the learning objectives you should have mastered after attending the lectures and completing the questions below

  1. Explain Kant’s notion of the good will and its connection with duty and obligation
  2. Distinguish between a categorical versus hypothetical imperative
  3. Describe the concepts of universality, consistency and reversibility as they apply to the categorial imperative
  4. Generate categorical imperatives for any situation

Terms you should know:

  1. Deontological Ethics: “rule or duty-based morality; …emphasizes right action over good consequences”(101)
  2. Ethical relativist: one who regards morality as a matter of personal opinion, subjective preference, or cultural/social influences(105)
  3. a priori: “not in any way derived from experience or dependent upon it”(105); concepts derived a priori are universal rules that determine, in advance, the conditions for knowledge in a particular domain
  4. maxim: rule of conduct (107)
  5. hypothetical imperative: an action that is good only as a means to something else(118)
  6. categorical imperative: an action that is good in itself and conforms to reason(118); categorical imperatives act as universal rules governing a situation regardless of circumstance


Kant explicitly acknowledges that moral philosophy will contain an empirical component. However, the laws associated with moral philosophy are “laws according to which everything ought to happen, but allow for conditions under which what ought to happen often does not.” For this reason Kant’s ethics has often been framed as an ethics of the “ought” and critics ignore the latter “flexibility” clause because of Kant’s emphasis on a priori postulates.

  • Kant is not an ethical relativist. Reason serves as the basis for all of morality.
  • The ultimate basis for is a priori and never dependent upon circumstances. What people actually do is irrelevant for Kant.
  • The good will is “the motive to do the right thing for the right reason”; it is unconditionally good (meaning it does not depend on personal talent, disposition, or good fortune). Any action that is undertaken without this motive is not a moral action according to Kant.
  • One must be willing to do one’s duty (the right thing) for the sake of duty alone. When we are motivated to act morally because it makes us feel good or a payoff may result, Kant argues that we are not practicing real moral action, but rather acting based on possible consequences. Note that there is a huge difference in always acting according to a rule (imperative) and acting based on what we think might happen (consequentialist ethics).
  • Moral duties exist for both oneself and others. Personal duty requires that we avoid degrading or dishonoring our person; Kant’s “harmless drunk” serves as an example of someone who dishonors the self.
    • Our personal duties are: self-respect, self-mastery, bodily preservation (health maintenance), vocational integrity (it is morally good to work hard) and dignity in leisure activities (i.e., we should not pursue self-degrading activities for leisure).
    • Social duties consist of showing respect for others and honoring the worth and dignity of others (treating everyone as an end rather than as a means).
  • Maxims are rules for action that guide us in making decisions.
  • Categorical Imperative: “So act so that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing the universal law.”(Critique of Practical Reason, 31)
    • In other words, each moral choice should be able to serve as a guide for conduct in all situations.
    • Everyone would be compelled to follow such a maxim.
  • Formal criteria for an imperative: universality, consistency, and reversibility.
  • Actions “must be acceptable objectively regardless of whether the individual is at the giving or the receiving end of an action.”
  • The concept of prescriptivity also applies. In short, this means that “you cannot make yourself the exception to the rule.”
  • Two main types of imperatives:
    1. hypothetical: action commanded is good only as a means to something else; conditional and particular (applying to specific cases)
    2. categorical: action which is good in itself and “conforms to reason as the principle of this will”
  • Autonomy of the will: the process of basing “our actions on universally valid laws that we have laid down for ourselves”
  • Heteronomy of the will: “when the will obeys laws, rules or injunctions from any other source besides reason.”
  • Finally, the most important concept to employ in dealing with others is to “never treat people solely as a means to our ends, but as ends in themselves”

Guide Questions:

  1. Kant begins by defining the good will.  What characterizes the good will? Is it related to circumstance?
  2. What is the relationship between duty and obligation and how are they related to the good will in Kant’s ethics?
  3. Do the results achieved under the direction of the good will matter when we review the moral worth of our actions?
  4. What is the categorical imperative and how ought it to be applied?
  5. Distinguish between a hypothetical and categorical imperative?
  6. How is the concept of reciprocity built into the categorical imperative?
  7. Kant covers four cases in which a categorical imperative must be applied. List the maxim generated in each case.
  8. How should we treat others?
  9. Explain the difference between autonomy and heteronomy of the will in your own words.