Immanuel Kant was an influential German philosopher of the 18th century. He has authored several famous books related to philosophy. In his book, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of the Morals, he introduced the principles of Categorical Imperatives (CI). They are moral laws that must be obeyed unconditionally under all circumstances. They are not like commandments. But they are used to measure if a deed is according to morality or not. CI is not like hypothetical imperatives that must be followed if certain goals are to be achieved.

Kant’s ethics is based on deontology. The most important concept of deontology is that moral duties should always be done by human beings. Acts are performed because they are good in themselves. Doing one’s duty without thinking about consequences is very important even if the duty is against one’s personal desire.

Moral laws are the result of human beings’ a priori knowledge and are applicable universally. They are derived out of the reason of rational individuals.

There are mainly four formulations to CI. The first one states that “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” and “Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” Maxims can be considered as guiding principles. Human beings should act only according to those maxims which can be universalized. For example – one should never murder anyone or should never lie.

Kant categorizes duties. People have internal duties to themselves and external duties towards others. Perfect duties are the ones that should be done under all situations. Imperfect duties also should be done, but the doer can decide when and where those should be performed. Not cheating anyone is a perfect external duty. Helping others in distress is an imperfect external duty. Not committing suicide is an internal perfect duty. Not being lazy is an internal imperfect duty.

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The second formulation states that “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Human beings are rational agents. They are ends in themselves. They cannot be merely considered as a means. Free rational individuals should be given the option to make decisions based on complete information. Kant opposes slavery, prostitution, etc. as per this formulation. Every person should be treated with respect and dignity.

The third formulation states that “The third practical principle follows [from the first two] as the ultimate condition of their harmony with practical reason: the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislating will.” Human beings are rational and have autonomy. Moral laws need not be imposed on them externally. They are the result of the reason of rational agents. They act as legislators making up the laws and at the same time as subjects obeying those laws. Thus everyone demands the right conduct from themselves and others.

There is another important formulation called the Kingdom of Ends formulation. It states that “Act according to maxims of a universally legislating member of a merely possible kingdom of ends.”All rational agents are ends in themselves. All these agents acting according to the universal moral laws can possibly create an ideal Kingdom of Ends. Only those actions that result in harmony in the Kingdom of Ends should be performed.

There are many applications to the CI. Marxism, positivism, political philosophy, some aspects of psychology, etc. have been influenced by Kantian ethics. Kant cites some examples in his book. A person lying should think about what would happen if that was universalized. There would be no value for truth itself and people would stop believing in each other. As this contradicts itself, that is not according to the universal moral law. Theft and deception are also discussed in the same manner.

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A person committing suicide wishes to end his suffering. He resorts to suicide out of self-love. But that same self-love makes him do things to prolong his life. As this is contradictory, this is not moral.

People have imperfect duties to help others in distress and to cultivate their talents. Being not brutal to animals is also an imperfect duty. According to Kant medical ethics and sexual ethics are very important if one wishes to follow morality.

Many philosophers were deeply influenced by the works of Kant. Some among them are Arthur Schopenhauer, John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas, Apel and Onora O’Neill.

Kantian ethics had faced several criticisms. One common question posed is whether lying to a murderer about the hiding place of an innocent person is moral. Similarly, the question of murdering another person to save one’s life is moral or not.

Another criticism was related to rationality. According to Kant, human beings have moral obligations towards rational agents. So this would imply that mentally retarded people and small kids who can’t be considered as rational need not be considered. Kant’s stand on issues like abortion was questioned. His stand that animal beings are just meant also faced a lot of criticisms.

Another criticism was related to the autonomy of people. In a self-legislating society, people have absolute autonomy and they make and obey moral laws. This may result in people bending the laws for themselves and being stricter towards others. A chaotic, lawless situation arises.

Kant doesn’t provide any guidance for resolving conflicts when it comes to performing perfect and imperfect duties.

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His attitude toward religion was also criticized. Even though he seems to oppose many teachings of Christianity, many people claim that his doctrine is very similar to Christianity. Many of his principles can be found in various religious teachings. Many have pointed out that CI is nothing but the golden rule There were many famous philosophers who criticized Kant’s ethics. Hegel was the most famous among them.

Even with all the criticisms, several schools of philosophy were influenced by Kantianism. He has even influenced scientists and leaders. His categorical imperatives and formulations still continue to be an important part of western philosophical studies.

Would you like to read more about this topic? This book might interest you: Kant’s Categorical Imperative.