Kantian Ethics

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(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The term “Kantian ethics” is commonly used to refer to the ethics of Kant, as set forth in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and other moral writings of the 1780’s and 1790’s. The term is also frequently used to refer to later moral theories that are similar to Kant’s ethics but contain modifications in response to its perceived shortcomings. Three important examples are the moral theories of Hermann Cohen, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas.

Immanuel Kant

The ultimate purpose of moral rules, Kant argued, is to make possible his ideal society, the “realm of ends,” which has two main aspects: All its members respect one another as self-determining agents who pursue different individual ends, and they seek to promote one another’s ends. Kant believed that this moral ideal would evolve if everyone followed the fundamental principle of his ethics: the “categorical imperative.” This imperative demands that one act only on those personal policies of conduct (“maxims”) that one can rationally will to become universal laws or principles that guide everyone’s conduct. According to Kant, obedience to the categorical imperative implies respect for others as self-determining beings with different individual ends; in acting only on maxims that can become universal laws, one acts only on principles to which others can rationally consent, and thus one upholds their right to legislate their own moral rules and pursue their own individual ends. Moreover, Kant argued that general obedience to the categorical imperative would bring about universal mutual promotion of individual ends (as the other aspect of the realm of ends) because the imperative prohibits refusing to assist others. The reason for this prohibition is that one cannot rationally will that everyone adopt a maxim of not assisting others in the pursuit of their individual ends, for in such a world one would lack the assistance of others as a means for realizing one’s own happiness.

Attempts to overcome the shortcomings of Kant’s ethics, while preserving its strengths, have led to such influential examples of Kantian ethics as the moral theories of Hermann Cohen, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas. The most significant shortcomings are the following: The categorical imperative, does not offer a sufficient criterion for determining universal laws, Kant failed to provide an adequate justification of the categorical imperative, he described moral agents as isolated legislators of universal laws, and he failed to address satisfactorily how the realm of ends can be institutionalized.

Hermann Cohen

During the later part of the nineteenth century, Kant’s philosophy regained in Germany the great influence it had had during his own lifetime. This resurgence is known as neo-Kantianism, and one of its most important representatives is Hermann Cohen, who transformed Kant’s ideal of the realm of ends into a democratic socialist ideal. Cohen held that human agents can only arrive at universal laws, or approximations thereof, if all people become decision makers or colegislators in their institutions. Thus, Cohen argued that the realm of ends requires for its realization not only political democracy, as Kant himself claimed, but also democracy in the workplace. Moreover, Cohen held that workplace democracy, in order to be effective, requires workers’ ownership of productive property. Cohen also maintained that these democratic socialist proposals were necessary for realizing the aspect of the realm of ends that all of its members promote one another’s individual ends.

John Rawls

A second main philosophical movement of renewed interest in Kant’s ethics and corresponding attempts to improve his ethics occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The American philosopher John Rawls and the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas are the two major figures of this movement. Rawls’s primary concern is to argue for principles of justice that create a political society in...

(The entire section is 985 words.)