Immanuel Kant

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What does Kant mean by "doing the right thing for the right reason"?

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For Kant, he devised a strict moral code. In his mind, it is useless to act morally if you are seeking some other external gain, because that negates the morality of your actions. Therefore, the correct reason for acting morally is to live with a sense of morality. It is somewhat circular logically, but it makes sense—the reason to be moral is only to be moral, and nothing else.

Kant reasoned that many actions may seem rational, but in the end, only moral actions are truly rational. If these acts were extrapolated to humanity as a whole, or any group of people, the consequences would be disastrous. Therefore, we must strive to act reasonably and, more importantly, to uphold morality above all else, because that is the only way to be truly moral.

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For Kant, to act morally is to act out of a sense of moral duty alone. Other reasons for actions are not purely moral or right reasons. This leads Kant to the seemingly paradoxical point that naturally benevolent people have great difficultly acting morally.

Imagine person X is kind-hearted, empathetic, and generous and enjoys helping other people. What Kant would suggest is that the benevolent actions of person X, although admirable in some ways, are not actually moral, as person X may be motivated by pleasure or positive feelings derived from those actions.

The case of the benevolent person is a specific example of the general principle that for an act to be moral, it must be intended and motivated as a moral act. Kant is often described as a deontologist, one for whom the moral quality of an action lies not in its consequences but in its inherent qualities and especially its intentions.

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Kant believes that moral actions are rational actions. To act morally is to act rationally. We can perform all sorts of actions that may seem moral on the face of it, but if they're not carried out on the basis of reason, then according to Kant they're not really moral. Whenever we act, we have to think of what we do as being a universal principle, one that would apply to everyone else, whatever their individual circumstances. When we come to judge our moral actions, Kant thinks we have to ask ourselves the following question:

Can I rationally will that everyone act as I propose to act? If the answer is yes, then it is a moral action; if not, then it isn't.

Take lying, for instance. Kant argues that lying can never be rational, and therefore moral, because it can't be a universal principle. Whenever we lie, we should imagine what it would be like if everyone else did the same thing. We'd soon come to realize that it would be impossible to have a society if everybody lied whenever they felt like it. We'd never be able to trust anyone; contracts would mean nothing; true friendship would be impossible; and the whole structure of society would surely collapse.

What is moral is good in itself, irrespective of its consequences. In acting morally, we are obeying the dictates of our capacity to reason, something we as humans all share. Reason commands us to act in a certain way; it is an imperative. But reason is also autonomous. This means that we are essentially acting according to a law we've given to ourselves; and we do this after a process of rational thought and deliberation. We don't depend on anyone else to give it to us; we discover it by looking inside ourselves.

Now this doesn't mean we can be a law unto ourselves, doing whatever we like. Remember what we said earlier: only those actions are moral that can be applied to everyone. Clearly, if we went round doing whatever we wanted—say, getting drunk, breaking the law, hurting other people—then those actions couldn't be universalized for the exact same reason as the act of lying.

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