Kantian Ethics: Good Will, It’s Your Duty!

Ethics accounts for a huge category of philosophy. It’s related to the most contemporary of today’s dilemma’s: Politics, Morals, Rights, Religion; you name it and ethics probably has some role in it. Today, I’m going to overview a famous ethical theory by Immanuel Kant. So let’s take a look at (un)Enlightened Philosophy’s first post on ethics and see what we can learn!

Kantian Ethics, Means and Ends

Kantian Ethics is named so because of the man who proposed it. It is also known as Deontological Ethics which basically translates into Duty Ethics. An important thing to note is that Kant makes very certain that everyone on Earth should be treated as an ends and never as a means. What does this mean? Well, Kant is basically saying that you always want to treat someone else as a person who has dignity and intrinsic worth. Always treat others as if they were as much of a man/woman as you are.

Categorical Imperatives

Kant’s ethics runs on something called Categorical Imperatives — unconditional commands. For example, if I were to say “Lying is wrong,” then under no circumstances is it all right to lie.

In addition, there is something Kant explains which we call The Big Categorical Imperative. This term is one that dictates all of the rules you will live by. It has several formulations but to suffice our needs let us use this one:

Act only upon that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that your maxim should become a universal law.

All this means is that when you are choosing your rules to live by, you must make certain these are rules you would want the rest of the world to live by.

Good Will and Inclination

Kant explains that the only thing good in itself is the “Good will.” Therefore, doing something because you think is good doesn’t make the act good. It all matters on the attitude you have towards it. This brings up the issue Kant has with inclination. Let’s take an example…

Let’s say you’re at your mother’s house and she asks you to wash her car for her. you either:

  • A) Wash your mother’s car because it makes her happy and you care about her so you do it with no complaints.
  • B) Wash your mother’s car simply because you like washing cars.
  • C) Reluctantly wash your mother’s car even though you have a ton of things to do.

Which one of these, according to Kant, are morally correct and are done out of sheer good will?

If you said A, sorry but you are wrong. B? I don’t think so. C? You bet! I’m sure you’re asking yourself, Why? Well, simple questions deserve simple answers. Inclination my dear friend!

The Inclination Problem

According to Kant doing something out of good will means doing it strictly for the sake of duty. Meaning, you do the right thing because it is your “job” to do so. As soon as you are doing an act out of the fact that you are inclined to do so because of some reward, or pleasure that is involved then that act will not account for your Good Will. Kantian Ethics is straight to the point duty inspired. There is no other emotion that should be felt other then “I must do this because it is my duty.”

That is why in our example above C is the only right answer — for Kant that is. Even though A seems to look good on the outside, if you get joy our of helping your mother then you are also inclined to do so. If B, then you are also inclined to do so out of the pleasure you will get from washing the car.

Conclusion

Kant has been looked at as one of the greats in philosophy. He has contributed to a lot of fields and his work in ethics is no joke. Many people today consider it one of the better ethic systems to ever be devised. There are a few key concepts that I hope you got from this post. Allow me to bullet point some important things to keep in mind when dealing with Kant’s Ethics.

  • Treat everyone as an ends and never as a means.
  • Good Will is the only thing good in itself.
  • Only Act upon that maxim which you can, at the same time, will that it should be a universal law.
  • Actions that fuel the good will are done for the the sake of duty.
  • If you are inclined to do something your actions have no moral worth.

These five concepts outline the major ideas within Kantian ethics. This system is one of the easier one’s to learn. With rigid lines between what should and shouldn’t be done, it’s not that hard to understand (If you do have any questions, be sure to add a comment with your question attached). Of course this is only one of many types of ethical frameworks I hope to convey to you all. Until then, my friends, keep thinking!

Posted in Philosophy.

6 Comments

  1. This helped me understand Kant 🙂 I had to write a paper on this exact thing and i did not understand it till i read this thanks

  2. Why should we all live by the same rules? and even more so, why should i want everybody to live by my rules?

    If i choose to perform a certain duty or maybe not, then my rules will be the moral excuse to do so. Yet to someone who has no objectivity beyond their own rules, these excuses will sound like excuses and i will have no ethical value in their perspective. Even if im being loyal to the duty of my rules.

    I think that i should not choose rules for me so that everyone can live by them, no indeed. If i ever reach the will power required to choose my own rules then i shall choose them according to what my belief dictates.

  3. Kant like some philosophers is an absolutist. Everyone and everything under the sun is fallible. From what I gather Kant had the luxury of living a life where he never had to confront someone or something that threatened his health or life. Of course I would wish that lets say if someone was about to kill my loved ones i would try and stop that person and risk life and limb. However the instinct at self preservation is very strong. It seems the more you tire of life the more willing you are to die for something. Also from what I gather is that a soldier that is so weary he goes into a stoic or something different like a tragic mode but does the best work in keeping his fellow soldiers alive. So i would throw out this Good Will and Inclination. Its facts or the doing that counts not your intentions or why you did a good deed.

    One philosophy teacher told us that what the great philosophers make a mountain out of mo-hill out of, are things we have all thought of anyway.

    Yes, in a social contract we do need rules to live by. And I think they are based on basic golden rule stuff, in other words facts that are salutary rather than “what I believe”

    What i personally have come to conclude that it is far better thing to lie or not lie(lying is good when the gestapo is at the door and there is an innocent person you are hiding), or to be or not be in the context of being part of a group who have contracted to stick together through thick and thin. This risking your health or life for your beliefs or your own honor is silly and dangerous to the mind set of society, especially younger people…and so on and so forth…sigh

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