Part I History of Ethics
Life of Socrates
Part II Concepts and Problems
Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Part III Applied Ethics
Field of Applied Ethics
Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) stands as a milestone in the history of Western philosophy. Epitomizing the Enlightenment's faith in reason, he also demonstrated both the scope and limits of reason in his famous Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In this work Kant sought to answer the skepticism of empiricists like Hume and admonish the excesses of rationalists like Leibniz and Wolff. The Law of Causality, for example, is justified because we contribute universality and necessity to the sequential representations that constitute experience and the possibility of knowledge. But reason, unaided by experience, cannot attain knowledge of that which is beyond the possibility of knowledge -- like the existence of a God unconditioned by space and time.
Yet Kant saw that when reason turned 'practical' (toward action), it was capable of achieving insight into the nature of human freedom and the regulative usefulness of ideas such as the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. Kant explored this in his equally famous Critique of Practical Reason (1788).
Kant's writings on ethics should be seen in the context of his larger projects, though he was apparenly quite adept at discussing many aspects of moral philosophy in the courses he taught in his Prussian town of Konigsberg. Thematically, Kant's ethical theory represents the classical formulation of deonotlogical ethics. For deontologists, right action consists solely in the conformity of an action to a justified rule or principle. For Kant, this becomes equivalent to the rational and autonomous conformity of one's will to maxims that abide by the Categorical Imperative (aka Moral Law).
In the Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant tries to demonstrate how his position provides a philosophical foundation for what is already commonly understood by 'morality' and 'moral action.' Three concepts will be analyzed: The Good Will, The Notion of Duty and the Nature of Imperatives (both Hypothetical and Categorical).
The Good Will
A "Good Will" is the only thing that is "good without qualification." Other "goods," such as intelligence and health, can be qualified. The Good Will is good by virtue of the fact that it is "the will to follow the Moral Law."
The Notion of Duty
There is a DISTINCTION between the "I want" (self-interest) and the "I ought" (ethics). Moral actions are not 'spontaneous' actions. That is, if I see someone in need of help, I may be inclined to 'look the other way' and attend to my own busy day, but I would recognize that I should assist in some way. For example, an elderly woman falls and is bleeding badly ... I may be on my way to work, but I recognize that I should at least seek assistance and call 911.
Considering only those actions that are seemingly good (as opposed to actions that we ordinarily recognize as wrong), there is a DISTINCTION that can still be made within Duty itself: Actions IN mere ACCORDANCE (conformity) WITH duty and actions done FROM A SENSE OF duty.
The Nature of Imperatives
Imperatives are commands. Of commands, there are those that command hypothetically and those that command categorically.
Hypothetical Imperatives have the general form: IF YOU WANT 'A,' THEN YOU OUGHT TO DO 'B.' For example, If you want to be an Olympic swimmer, you ought to go swimming every day. The 'ought' in these hypothetical imperatives is CONDITIONED by our desires & wants -- our 'goals.' Thus, if you don't want to be an Olympic swimmer, then you don't have to go swimming every day. Ultimately, our goals are grounded in SELF-INTEREST.
A Categorical Imperative has the general form: DO 'A' (i.e., it is UNCONDITIONED). For Kant, there is only one imperative that commands us unconditionally and that is the Moral Law: "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
This single categorical imperative, however, has three formulations (the first two of which are): First Formulation: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to secure through your will a universal law of nature" Second Formulation: "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never as a means only"
The examples that Kant offers as a way to demonstrate the use of these formulations in actual situations follows the categories of duties that were used at his time. These breakdown into four Kinds of Duties: Duties Toward Oneself (Perfect: Self-Preservation, Imperfect: Self-Cultivation) and Duties Toward Others (Perfect: Strict Obligation, Imperfect: Beneficence).
Following these kinds of duties, Kant's examples are (1) Suicide, (2) Promise-breaking, (3) Squandering Talents, (4) Helping Others.
Critique of Kant's Theory
Some feel that Kant's categorical imperative transgresses the distinction between Universal Principles (e.g., "Don't Lie") and Absolute Principles (e.g., "Never Lie"). And, indeed, Kant seemed to follow the latter in his comment on a famous case analysis: The Murderer at the Inn.
What is needed is a way to resolve conflicts of duties (see Ross's analysis of prima facie duties).