Kant Summary Sheet

Below is a sample summary sheet showing the key subdivisions you need in order to produce a good A grade answer. Similar summary sheets can usefully be produced for every moral theory we study – and this one could be added to or modified as your understanding develops. Summary sheets are particularly useful for last minute revision eg the night before an exam. Here  is also a very detailed summary sheet which is excellent.

Summary Sheet: Kant

Historical Context

The Enlightenment (17th -18th Century) – age of reason. Motto “dare to think”. So think about morality and where it comes from and how to apply it – don’t just “do what you’re told” or “because God says so” (heteronomy) but be autonomous or self-ruled. Humans are rational and should use reason to override the animal emotions. Kant believed he produced a “Copernican revolution” similar to Newton’s in science and Rousseau’s in politics.

Key terms (in logical order)

Autonomy (self-rule through reason) uses a priori (abstract, ideas) reason applied synthetically to the real world.

Kant believes in categories in the realm of ideas (noumenal realm) which arrange/filter experience eg idea of room-ness comes before a room or time before a clock can be read, so the category of moral thinking generates categorical imperatives (absolute/unconditional, no “ifs”) not hypothetical imperatives which contain an “if” eg If you have to save your friend, then you should lie.

Kant argued you should never lie under any circumstances – hypotheticals depend on circumstances/feelings, whereas Kant wants to rely on our shared a priori reason alone. The categorical generates two types of wrong act: a contradiction in nature (eg suicide, which can’t be universalised as we will be wiped out) or a contradiction in will (something you could never want such as a world where everyone is unkind). Kant is thus against Hume who stressed feelings and the feeling of sympathy in particular as the grounds of morality. He argues that our motive is the key – only actions done out of duty have moral worth.

Key idea

Universalisability is the rational grounds for moral thinking – it implies looking at an action from a particular logical point of view “if I was to do X to you, you wouldn’t like it” – this means consistency is the key. Three formulations:

  • Formula of law – universalise your action.
  • Formula of ends – universalise your common humanity.
  • Formula of autonomy – universalise your idea of society. As a free legislator what laws would you pass.

Issues

  1. How absolute are we required to be? Kant argued that we should tell the truth even to a crazy knifeman – yet we could universalise a statement with exceptions “never lie, except to save a friend”. Does Kantian ethics fail because he cannot allow exceptions eg when two moral “goods” conflict?
  2. He divides emotions off from reason. It is therefore dualistic. Is this valid? Or was Hume right – the feeling of sympathy is the grounds of morality, not reason.
  3. WD Ross argues Kant is unrealistic because he fails to recognise we have “primary duties” which override other duties when there is a conflict. For example, when given the choice to save a clever professor or our child who is drowning, we always prefer our child – it’s a primary duty to do so (not wrong). To Kant “the only good thing is the good will”.

Quotes

“Ought implies can”. “Two things fill me with wonder – the starry sky above and the moral law within”. “The only good thing is the good will”. “So act that the maxim of your action can be willed as a universal law”.

Examples

  1. If I help and old lady across the road because I enjoy it this has no moral worth. It only has moral worth if I do it because it’s my duty as it is a universal principle of reason to help people in need.
  2. If a crazy knifeman (Kant’s own example) comes up to me when my mate is hiding in the house and asks “is your mate in there?” I am supposed to say “yes!” Why? Because the rightness of telling the truth has absolutely nothing to do with circumstances or consequences (Kant was opposed to utilitarian ethics).
  3. Duty can seem dry and passionless. So in the final scene of the film The Queen Her Majesty explains to Blair why she felt she was doing the right thing keeping her mouth closed and staying in Balmoral when Diana died – she was “doing her duty” which is difficult- her duty to protect her grandchildren. Her popularity plummeted and she was pressurised to come to London.

Strengths

  • Reasonable absolute basis for morality.
  • Autonomy means we own what we believe and are responsible.
  • It’s democratic as everyone is equally a rational legislator in the kingdom of ends – we all have a say in the great debate.

Weaknesses

  • Self-contradictory to say we are autonomous and then not allow us to think through the morality of acting in a difficult circumstance – when an absolute may be foolish.
  • Inflexible – and unnatural to always obey a maxim.
  • Unrealistic – the world is full of moral dilemmas eg Valkyrie – should the good Nazis plot to kill Hitler?

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