20 5.2 Normative Theories: Kant’s Deontology

Deontology is the ethical theory that sees morality as doing one’s duty by following rules, without considering the probable consequences of one’s actions. The moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant exemplifies deontological normative ethics.

Recall where we left off in the prior section where we considered Kant’s epistemological position that moral duty must be sought a priori “in the conception of pure reason.” Further, the foundation of practical reason can be found in a single common moral principle that applies universally. (Passages included from Kant’s writing are from Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals.)

…if the critique of a pure practical Reason is to be complete, it must be possible at the same time to show its identity with the speculative reason in a common principle, for it can ultimately be only one and the same reason which has to be distinguished merely in its application.

5.2.1 The Good Will

The Good Will is the only intrinsic good

Before examining Kant’s quest for a common universal principle, we first ask about Kant’s conception of what is intrinsically good, that is, good in-and-of-itself.

For Kant, the only feature of human nature that benefits a good life and confers value under all conditions is a good will. A good will is intrinsically good, independently, of external circumstances, whereas other features of human nature may be used for either good or evil.

Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. It is the same with the gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honour, even health, and the general well-being and contentment with one’s condition which is called happiness, inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of these on the mind, and with this also to rectify the whole principle of acting and adapt it to its end. The sight of a being who is not adorned with a single feature of a pure and good will, enjoying unbroken prosperity, can never give pleasure to an impartial rational spectator. Thus a good will appears to constitute the indispensable condition even of being worthy of happiness.

There are even some qualities which are of service to this good will itself and may facilitate its action, yet which have no intrinsic unconditional value, but always presuppose a good will, and this qualifies the esteem that we justly have for them and does not permit us to regard them as absolutely good. Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

The value of a good will lies in its volition (motive) not its consequences

A good will has value “simply by virtue of the volition” – it is good in itself regardless of the outcome of actions taken. Even if the action motivated by a good will achieved nothing, “..like a jewel. it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself.”

A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favour of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations. Even if it should happen that, owing to special disfavour of fortune, or the niggardly provision of a step-motherly nature, this will should wholly lack power to accomplish its purpose, if with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve nothing, and there should remain only the good will (not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power), then, like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself.

5.2.2 Duty and Moral Law

Duty requires respect for the law

Duty is what we are morally obliged to do. Morally right actions are those that not only override the lure of inclinations and self-interest, but also are motivated by duty.

Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law. I may have inclination for an object as the effect of my proposed action, but I cannot have respect for it, just for this reason, that it is an effect and not an energy of will…..It is only what is connected with my will as a principle, by no means as an effect- what does not subserve my inclination, but overpowers it, or at least in case of choice excludes it from its calculation- in other words, simply the law of itself, which can be an object of respect, and hence a command. Now an action done from duty must wholly exclude the influence of inclination and with it every object of the will, so that nothing remains which can determine the will except objectively the law, , so that nothing remains which can determine the will except objectively the law, and subjectively pure respect for this practical law, and consequently the maxim * that I should follow this law even to the thwarting of all my inclinations.

*A maxim is the subjective principle of volition.

Moral Law is universal, applying at all times to all agents

For Kant, the “law” that guides any action must ultimately be a principle so all-encompassing that it can guide any possible action, under any set of circumstances.

But what sort of law can that be, the conception of which must determine the will, even without paying any regard to the effect expected from it, in order that this will may be called good absolutely and without qualification? As I have deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any law, there remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle, i.e., I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law. Here, now, it is the simple conformity to law in general, without assuming any particular law applicable to certain actions, that serves the will as its principle and must so serve it, if duty is not to be a vain delusion and a chimerical notion.

So the only relevant feature of the moral law is its generality, the fact that it has the formal property of universality, by virtue of which it can be applied at all times to every moral agent. From this chain of reasoning about our ordinary moral concepts, Kant derived as a preliminary statement of moral obligation the notion that right actions are those that practical reason would will as universal law.

Obligation to act in a particular way is imperative

For Kant, human agents have a duty to act in accordance with the objective claims of reason, rather than the subjective impulses (desires, inclinations) that contradict reason. The claim of reason is an obligation, a command that we act in a particular way. It is an imperative.

The conception of an objective principle, in so far as it is obligatory for a will, is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an imperative.

Imperatives , as described by Kant occur in either of two distinct forms, hypothetical or categorical.

Hypothetical imperatives

Recall from our unit on Logic that a hypothetical statement is an “if-then” statement. The “if” portion is the precipitating factor, and the “then” portion is the resulting condition. A moral command in hypothetical form look like this:

Do action A, if you wish to achieve result X”

Such a command demands performance of an action for the sake of some other end or purpose, not because it is good in itself. For example:

Conserve natural resources if you wish to preserve the planet for your grandchildren.

Categorical imperatives

To unconditionally demand performance of an action for its own sake requires a categorical imperative. Such a command expresses necessary moral obligation, it describes how all rational human beings are expected to act.

Finally, there is an imperative which commands a certain conduct immediately, without having as its condition any other purpose to be attained by it. This imperative is categorical. It concerns not the matter of the action, or its intended result, but its form and the principle of which it is itself a result; and what is essentially good in it consists in the mental disposition, let the consequence be what it may. This imperative may be called that of morality.

The form of such a command is simply: Do A.

5.2.3 The Categorical Imperative

One common principle distinguished merely in its application

The practical problem Kant sets out to settle with his categorical imperative is this: how does a rational being come to understand which actions/commands are necessary and universal? In a particular situation, how does one making subjective judgments know if a specific action conforms to objective law? Kant resolves this problem by devising a single, general, overriding categorical imperative that embodies the standard for evaluating subjective principles of action.

When I conceive a hypothetical imperative, in general I do not know beforehand what it will contain until I am given the condition. But when I conceive a categorical imperative, I know at once what it contains. For as the imperative contains besides the law only the necessity that the maxims * shall conform to this law, while the law contains no conditions restricting it, there remains nothing but the general statement that the maxim of the action should conform to a universal law, and it is this conformity alone that the imperative properly represents as necessary.

There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

*A maxim is a subjective principle of action, and must be distinguished from the objective principle, namely, practical law. The former contains the practical rule set by reason according to the conditions of the subject (often its ignorance or its inclinations), so that it is the principle on which the subject acts; but the law is the objective principle valid for every rational being, and is the principle on which it ought to act that is an imperative.

This, then, is Kant’s first formulation the categorical imperative:

Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.

This first formulation of the categorical imperative leads a rational person to understand what could be a universal rule. Such a rule requires logical consistency when everyone follows it. For example, a rational person would not universalize a rule that supported lying by making false promises. If everyone made false promises, then no one would believe promises. As a result, no one could make a promise because part of being able to make a promise is to have it believed. Thus, such a universal moral practice of making false promises could not exist.

Kant offers some specific examples to show what is entailed in applying this overriding moral imperative in several types of situations. His first example demonstrates that it would be contradictory to universalize the maxim for taking ones own life if it offered more despair than satisfaction. Kant argues that we have a perfect duty to ourselves not to commit suicide.

1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels wearied of life, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life. His maxim is: “From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction.” It is asked then simply whether this principle founded on self-love can become a universal law of nature.….Now we see at once that a system of nature of which it should be a law to destroy life by means of the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life would contradict itself and, therefore, could not exist as a system of nature; hence that maxim cannot possibly exist as a universal law of nature and, consequently, would be wholly inconsistent with the supreme principle of all duty.

Another example considers someone in financial crisis considering the possibility of borrowing money, and promising to repay, with no intention to do so. The maxim of this action would be that it is permissible to borrow money under false pretenses if you really need it. As Kant points out, making this maxim into a universal law would be self-defeating. The practice of lending money on promise presupposes honest intention to repay; if this condition were universally ignored, the (universally) false promises would never be effective as methods of borrowing.

2. Another finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a definite time. He desires to make this promise, but he has still so much conscience as to ask himself: “Is it not unlawful and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way?” Suppose however that he resolves to do so: then the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: “When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I never can do so.” Now this principle of self-love or of one’s own advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare; but the question now is, “Is it right?” I change then the suggestion of self-love into a universal law, and state the question thus: “How would it be if my maxim were a universal law?” Then I see at once that it could never hold as a universal law of nature, but would necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it to be a universal law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping his promise, the promise itself would become impossible, as well as the end that one might have in view in it, since no one would consider that anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all such statements as vain pretenses.

Kant argues that we have a duty to ourselves not to waste our talents. No one would will a universalized maxim of neglecting to develop the discipline required for fulfilling one’s natural abilities.

3. A third finds in himself a talent which with the help of some culture might make him a useful man in many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural capacities. He asks, however, whether his maxim of neglect of his natural gifts, besides agreeing with his inclination to indulgence, agrees also with what is called duty. He sees then that a system of nature could indeed subsist with such a universal law although men (like the South Sea islanders) should let their talents rest and resolve to devote their lives merely to idleness, amusement, and propagation of their species- in a word, to enjoyment; but he cannot possibly will that this should be a universal law of nature, or be implanted in us as such by a natural instinct. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him and have been given him, for all sorts of possible purposes.

Kant considers the more subtle case of someone who lives comfortably and contemplates denying assistance to people struggling with hardship. The maxim here would be that it is permissible not to help those who are less well-off than ourselves. Kant conceded that no logical contradiction would result from universalizing of such a rule of conduct. But he also argued that no one could consistently will that it be universal law because even the most well off must allow for the future possibility of needing the benevolence of others.

4. A fourth, who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness and that he could help them, thinks: “What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven pleases, or as he can make himself; I will take nothing from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in distress!” Now no doubt if such a mode of thinking were a universal law, the human race might very well subsist and doubtless even better than in a state in which everyone talks of sympathy and good-will, or even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but, on the other side, also cheats when he can, betrays the rights of men, or otherwise violates them. But although it is possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which, by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires.

Kant’s second and fourth examples demonstrate regard for sympathy and benevolence towards others and the importance of not using others as means to our own ends. Similarly, examples one and three show Kant’s support for the same benevolence and moral respect towards ones self. These ideas go hand-in-hand, for if we were to promote uncaring treatment of others, we might expect the same treatment from others if the tables turned.

This regard for the value of human life and the moral respect that it deserves led to Kant’s second formulation of his categorical imperative:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.

This formulation proposes a more personal view of morality. In applying it to particular cases, it yields the same results. Violating an obligation by making a false promise (or by killing myself) would be treating another person (or myself) as a means for getting money (or avoiding pain). Breaching a duty by withholding benevolence (or neglecting my own talents) would be failing to treat another person (or myself) as an end in itself.


Consider the following scenario: Suppose that instead of doing last evening’s homework, your usually compliant 12-year-old stayed up late playing video games. The next morning the child is distraught because the homework is not finished and asks you to call school and report that she (or he) is ill.

Suspend your personal values (how you might respond to this request,) and provide a Kantian response. Use the first formulation of the categorical imperative to explain your reasons. (100 – 150 words)

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

5.2.4 Kantian Deontology: Objections and Criticisms

Before leaving this topic on deontology, it is important to understand a few of the criticisms of and objections to Kant’s moral theory:

  1. If acting on moral principle will lead to knowingly wrongful results, there is inherent moral compromise in not considering consequences. Lying is often used as a example of this problem; for example, lying to the Nazis about hidden Jews would clearly increase the possibility of their survival.
  2. The problem with never telling lies suggests another issue which involves the dilemmas that can arise when two principles, or rules, conflict with each other. In the example above, there are two moral principles in conflict: “do not lie” and “do not allow harm to innocent people.” Another example: if one’s children are starving, which principle has precedence: “do not steal” or “do not allow harm to innocent people”? Kant’s theory is not helpful in making such choices.
  3. Critical readers of Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative thought it to be nothing more than a restatement of the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Kant argued that they were incorrect, because the Golden Rule:
    • includes no duties towards ourselves.
    • does not require us to treat others as ends (rather than means.)
    • is not rationally based, it merely depends on how an individual wants to be treated.
  4. Some critics of Kant’s moral theory believe that deontology is conceptual, rational-based, and cold, allowing no room for feelings of empathy and “gut” emotion. Deontology is seen to be impractical as a common-sense guide for acting morally.
  5. Utilitarians, who we meet in our next section, disagree completely that motives or intentions have any intrinsic moral value: they argue that only consequences of actions can be morally valued.


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