Kantian Ethics Analysis

At Issue

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...

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Habermas, Jürgen. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Translated by Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990.

Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Lewis White Beck. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1959.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Van der Linden, Harry. Kantian Ethics and Socialism. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988.

Willey, Thomas E. Back to Kant: The Revival of Kantianism in German Social and Historical Thought, 1860-1914. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1978.