In your moral opinion, is it ever good to boil a human baby? Is it ever ok to rape a person?

If you believe these acts are always wrong, then part of your morality is probably founded on Kantianism, which is a type of deontological ethics.

As we explore Kantianism, you may get a bit lost. Just keep in mind that one of the central ideas in Kantianism is that you should never treat a person merely as a means to an end. This is an absolutist principle that should guide all our interactions with other people.


How is Kantianism different from Utilitarianism?

Utilitarians emphasize utility, but Kantians emphasize duty (Deon is Greek for duty). Kantian duty is not cultural duty; it is a deeper form of duty based on pure reason.

Kantians believe some acts and motives are intrinsically wrong. They are not wrong because they produce negative consequences, they are simply wrong. Our conscience intuits some acts are wrong (e.g. rape), and Kant's goal was to explain the principles producing such intuitions. Utilitarians and other consequentialists disagree because they do not believe acts are intrinsically wrong. According to utilitarians, they are only wrong if they lead to bad consequences.

Utilitarians focus solely on consequences, but Kantians believe the moral worth of an act is in the motives. For Kantians, an act is good only if it is caused by a pure motive. As we will see later, a pure motive is one that is done from duty and that arises from the universalizing activity of reason, which includes treating people as ends and not merely as means to ends. Utilitarians and other consequentialists disagree. They may value motive, but only because they believe some motives lead to good cosequences.

Utilitarians use people to promote maximum pleasure and happiness, but Kantians believe each person has intrinsic value and should never be used as a mere means to an end. For example, you should never enslave a person even if enslaving them would maximize happiness. Utilitarians and other cosequentialists usually disagree because they believe there may be situations in which it is good to use a person merely as a means to an end.

Kantians disagree and believe some rights should be respected even if they have no apparent utilitarian justification. There is a moral obligation to protect rights even if violating rights could bring about the best consequences. Kantians believe you should keep promises, respect rights, and follow your real duty all for their own sake, not just for the good consequences that may arise.

Utilitarianians believe morality is based on using reason to maximize our desires for pleasure and happiness, but Kantians believe morality is necessary (not contingently based on desire) and that it often requires us to rise above our pleasures and desires.

In short, utilitarians emphasize consequences, pleasure, happiness, and the use of reason to promote these goods. Kantians emphasize pure motives, duty, being good for goodness sake, and the use of reason to intuit goodness itself.


What do Utilitarianism and Kantianism have in common?

Both theories support impartiality and reject egoism. It is not all about me because other people count in both theories.

Both theories reject cultural and individual forms of relativism. Utilitarians judge individual and cultural beliefs based on whether they promote general welfare. Kantians judge them based on intuition or the “categorical imperative,” a concept introduced later in this chapter.

Both theories are rational and “principle-oriented.” Utilitarians believe we should do the act that promotes the greatest happiness instead of doing what we feel is right. Kantians believe we should avoid acts that violate the categorical imperative. Both demand sometimes overcoming feelings.

Although both theories are based on rational principles, one important difference is utilitarians reason in an instrumental way (i.e. they use reason to maximize other values like happiness) whereas Kant bases morality on pure reason. Pure reason means that determining right and wrong is like determining the area of a square, the formula is immediately and intuitively grasped. I will clarify the concept of pure reason later in the chapter.

Activity: Create a two column chart or Venn diagram comparing and contrasting utilitarianism and Kantianism.


Can you think of examples in which your duty conflicts with promoting the general welfare?

These types of questions reveal the inner tension between the Kantian and utilitarian principles in your conscience. Here are some examples:

When is eminent domain morally acceptable? Notice the common good overrides a person’s right to property in eminent domain cases. Although the government may pay for the property, the owner is forced to sell. Utilitarianism trumps Kantianism.

Another case: consider the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men in Alabama. These men did not know they had syphilis, and U.S. officials told them they were receiving free medical care for other illnesses like “bad blood.” The men did not receive penicillin and remained uninformed even when penicillin was later discovered to cure syphilis (1940s). When the study became public, the law was changed to require “informed consent” in all studies.

According to utilitarianism, it seems the Tuskegee experiments are justifiable if it can be shown they led to medical discoveries that promoted the general welfare or happiness. But most people morally object to the experiments because they violate the rights of the African American test subjects. Even if you believe they could lead to a greater good, there is a deontological voice in you that says they are still wrong. You probably believe everyone deserves to be informed because each person is an autonomous end and should not be treated as a mere means, or tool, for a greater good. That is, you probably object to the Tuskegee experiments because your Kantian intuitions trump your utilitarian intuitions in this case.

Now, utilitarians may object after the fact by arguing the Tuskegee experiments actually decreased overall happiness. For example, they might argue such experiments set a precedent, which then leads to a slippery slope in which people lose rights. The problem is the utilitarian is justifying the act after the fact instead of giving “a means of predicting the morality of the action beforehand” (Gibson, Ch. 7).

The problem with utilitarians arguing that the Tuskegee Experiments could not possibly promote the greater good or the general welfare is that they play on the “unknowability” of the future. That is, people can endlessly debate whether Tuskegee-like experiments promote more happiness or suffering, and utilitarianism simply does not give a clear cut answer. However, the Kantian approach does not depend on knowing the uncontrollable future. It avoids the endless speculation and gives clear criteria for why Tuskegee experiments are wrong. In Tuskegee-like cases, a Kantian approach is better than a utilitarian one because Kant clearly explains why it is wrong to experiment on the african american men (i.e. it is wrong to treat them as mere means). Utilitarianism justifies too much.    

Now, the right thing to do is often obvious because your utilitarian and Kantian intuitions agree. For example, both utilitarians and Kantians object to torturing people for fun, though they use different reasons to object.

Of course, the right thing to do is sometimes unclear because your utilitarian and Kantian intuitions sometimes conflict. Both intuitions may also conflict with your intuitions based on emotion, egoism, relativism, virtue theory, or the ethics of care. In such cases, you must carefully examine the context and wisely decide which intuition should “win out.” For example, Kantianism should win out in the Tuskegee case. Utilitarianism should win out in some cases of eminent domain. Perhaps wisdom is precisely this ability to know which intuition should win out in each case.  


Section II: An Overview Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

In this section, I will use a series of mini-lectures and discussion questions to introduce Kant's Moral Philosophy as outlined in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  



Kant begins by explaining that he will describe common morality. He is not creating a new morality, but seeking the governing principles of our common morality. Just as Newton did not seek to make apples fall slower but to discover the principles by which they fall, so Kant was not seeking to change core moral beliefs but to discover their governing principles.

It is helpful to think of the following metaphor often used to explain Kant's metaphysical works. Imagine all humans are born with irremovable green spectacles. Consequently, all the world appears green and it just seems obvious it is green.

However, notice the belief in a green world is not from the world, it is from the spectacles. We can never be sure if the world is really green because we cannot remove the spectacles. So, those who believe all knowledge comes from experience (i.e. empiricists) are mistaken because Kant shows some forms of knowledge come from the spectacles. This knowledge that comes from the spectacles is “a priori” because it comes before or prior to experience, not from experience.


In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant uses epistemology to prove that many of our intuitions and ideas about time, space, cause, substance, etc. come from the spectacles, not experience. He argues we will never be certain of what is real because we can only be certain of what is in our spectacles.

His metaphysics is complex and beyond the scope of this book, but you can review my Youtube videos on Kant for more (Introduction to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason by teachphilosophy). The important point here is that he takes a similar approach in morality. All humans have “moral spectacles” through which they make moral judgments. These spectacles are presupposed in all moral judgments. That is, there is a common morality at a deep level (i.e. human spectacles) that Kant will later identify as the “Categorical Imperative.” So, think of the spectacles analogy whenever Kant mentions “a priori” foundations, and remember that morality does not come from observing the “is” of behavior and experience, rather it comes from the spectacles which bring the “should” of morality to experience.  

Our common morality tells us it is wrong to torture kittens for fun, boil babies, and enslave people. Yes, there are people who practice these acts, but they are either sociopaths or in conflict with their conscience/moral spectacles. At this point, Kant was not writing for the sociopath or the person seeking a good reason to be moral, rather he is simply “uncovering” the grounding principles of the morality most of us share.


Is happiness ever bad? Why is the good will the only thing that is good without qualification?

Kant begins the Groundwork by arguing that only the good will (i.e. motive or intention) is good without qualification. Utilitarians believe happiness is always good, but Kant disagrees. For example, you would probably judge my happiness as bad if I am happy because I cheated my way to the top. Or consider a serial killer who is happy after killing someone. In your opinion, is his happiness good?

And it is not simply happiness. Terrorists display bad forms of courage. Nazis show bad forms of loyalty. Addicts partake in bad pleasures. All values and virtues can be used for good or evil. And, yes, good consequences can be bad if they were obtained in bad ways (e.g. Tuskegee experiments). For Kant, the ends does not justify the means, and the only good without qualification is a good will.

Question: What do people mean when they say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions?” How does this relate to Kant?


Imagine two soldier act heroically in battle to save the lives of twenty orphans. The first soldier attempts to save them, but is killed in the process. The second soldier attempts to save them and succeeds. Is the second soldier's act morally better since he succeeded?

Kant used this example to show that the consideration of consequences is irrelevant in many of your moral judgments. In this case, you probably think both soldiers are moral heroes even though only the second soldier succeeded, only the second achieved good consequences. So, your moral judgment is based on the motives of the soldiers, not the consequences. The proper object of moral judgments are motives, not the consequences that lie beyond our control.

The idea that motives are controllable while consequences are outside of our control is an important concept we will later explore.


Consider Kant's three shopkeepers. In your opinion, who is most moral and why?

Shopkeeper One: She charges fair prices and treats customers well because it is good for business (i.e. prudence).

Shopkeeper Two: She charges fair prices and treats customers well because she feels empathy for them and wants to give them a quality product (i.e. loving character and feelings).

Shopkeeper Three: She charges fair prices and treats customers well because it is the right thing to do (i.e. it is her real duty).

As you think about these shopkeepers, notice all three perform the same acts, but they act from different motives. Also, the third shopkeeper may or may not feel love. We don't know, but we do know she is acting primarily from duty, not from the love that she may feel. So, who is the most moral?

In class discussions, students usually choose shopkeeper two or three. Kant chose shopkeeper three. If you chose shopkeeper two, you may be closer to virtue theory than Kantianism.

So, what is Kant's reasoning? Crudely put, the third shopkeeper is most moral because only the third shopkeeper is acting “from duty.” The first two shopkeepers are acting in “accord with duty,” but not from it. That is, they all perform the same action, but only the third has a proper motive. The first two shopkeepers are acting from self-interest and emotion. Only the third is doing the right thing because it is right. According to Kant, only the third shopkeeper is in the moral sphere.


Is free will essential for morality? Why do we distinguish between first, second, and third degree murder?

Notice that freedom and autonomy are central to the idea of “acting from duty.” That is, Kant believed freedom was essential for morality. This is why we do not believe in punishing two year olds the same way we punish forty year olds. We do not believe the two year old has the fully capacity to reason, choose, and be morally responsible.

Here is another example to illustrate the relationship between free will and morality. If I fell off a building and killed someone below, you probably would judge that act more leniently than if I had purchased a gun and shot him. This is because you believe I acted freely in the second case, but not the first. So, moral responsibility seems to be based on a belief in free will. You hold me morally responsible for what I can control.

Let's return to the shopkeeper case. The second shopkeeper has good feelings and emotions, but what happens when she feels bad the next day? She may feel empathy today, but tomorrow she may feel like knocking the customer's head off. The point is she does not seem to have free will over her emotions and feelings, but morality is based on free will. So, morality cannot be based on these uncontrollable feelings and emotions. That is, we should not praise the second shopkeeper for possessing good feelings because she did not choose those feelings. The third shopkeeper, however, chose to do the right thing. Morality should be based on what we can control and choose, and so only the third shopkeeper is moral.

A common misunderstanding of Kant often arises at this point. People believe Kant preferred the emotionless sociopath over the loving second shopkeeper. That is, people think Kant hated emotions. According to Kant's theory, it seems a shopkeeper who hates the customer but treats them fairly out of duty is better than the shopkeeper who loves the customer and therefore treats them fairly.

But Kant did not believe this. Kant says elsewhere that it is “good and proper to have good inclinations” and that we have a moral duty to cultivate virtuous emotions. Kant's point is that the moral worth of an act is whether it is done “from duty” since acting from duty is where the freedom and moral worth arise. Again, the moral worth of an act is based on what we choose, not on our current feelings or circumstances.

Still, there is a tension between the implications of his moral theory and what Kant said. It seems a sociopathic third shopkeeper following duty is most moral because only she is choosing to act from duty. However, I believe the Kantian has a good reply. In my opinion, the best way to defend Kantianism is to argue the second shopkeeper indirectly chooses her character and emotions. Therefore, she is freely acting from duty even though she may not be acting from duty “in the moment”. The idea is we can, and do, choose our character and emotional dispositions. For example, I can change my disposition to drink soda by abstaining from soda for two months. Anyway, I will argue for this position in the Virtue Theory chapter, and it may be the case that Kantianism is strongest when it is supplemented with Virtue theory.

Summary: Kant believed the only unqualified good is a good will. A good will means acting from duty, not simply in accord with duty. Acting from duty involves doing right because it is right, not because we feel like doing it or want to bring about good consequences. But what exactly is duty?


What is duty?

Kant was talking about a deep form of duty, a form that arises from conscience. This form of duty does not come from culture or upbringing, rather it is that which we use to judge culture or upbringing.

He observed that humans often feel like they “ought” do some act and that there are two types of “oughts” or “imperatives” in human experience.


1) The Hypothetical Imperative/ought is based on changing desires, goals, and feelings. For example, “you ought to take art classes” may be your imperative if you want to be an artist. But let's say you change your mind and now want to be a programmer. You will now experience a different imperative/ought. You may feel you “ought not take art classes,” but “ought to apply for an internship at Cisco.”

In short, your hypothetical imperatives/oughts change as your desires change. People often have different hypothetical imperatives because they have different desires.

  1. B) The Categorical Imperative/ought is the second type of ought that you experience. It is not based on your changing desires, goals, and feelings. Categorical imperatives/oughts are always present regardless of your goals, desires and feelings. Categorical Imperatives/oughts are present even if you are unaware of them. They are like the beating of your heart, always beating though you may not be conscious of its beating. As the heart gives life, so the categorical imperative flows from pure reason and creates your conscience. It gives life to your moral sense.

The categorical imperative tells you not to steal even though you may feel like stealing. It tells you it is wrong to break promises even though it may be in your self-interest to break them. It commands you to not use people as mere tools even though it may sometimes be pleasurable to use them as mere tools. It tells you it is always wrong to rape. Morality, your real conscience, is the categorical imperative.

Again, categorical imperatives are not based on what you want, rather they flow from your ever present rational nature. Let's do an exercise to better understand the two types of imperatives.


Exercise: Identify the following four imperatives as hypothetical or categorical.

  1. I will treat people well because I want to be rewarded in the afterlife.
  2. You should be honest because you have to remember too much if you are dishonest.
  3. You should not lie because lying is wrong.
  4. You should not lie because God said, “Thou shall not lie.”

Only the third is a categorical imperative. The first is not moral/categorical because it is based on maximizing self-interest. It is based on what you want to do for yourself. The second is not moral because it is based on a fear of embarrassment and the desire to maximize happiness for oneself. The fourth depends on authority or the desire to please God. Although Kant believed in God, he did not believe morality depended on theistic belief... he was not a divine command theorist. Only the third imperative is moral/categorical for only it is based on doing good for goodness sake. These examples should help you see how similar his ethic is to Stoicism: you should do right because it is right, not because it might be in your self-interest or bring about good consequences.


So, what exactly is the categorical imperative?

Up to this point, Kant has merely described the categorical imperative. It is the small voice of conscience encouraging you to do right because it is right. It is an imperative because it tells you what you ought to do no matter how you feel. It is not emotion, desire, or culture, rather it is that which you use to judge emotion, desire, and culture. It is the voice that challenges you with questions like, “What if everyone did that? Are you making exceptions for yourself?”

Nor is it based on self-interest, for it is that which you use to judge any particular self-interested activity.. It is not based on your changing desires or current goals for it is the unchanging background in which all changes occur. Kant has described the categorical imperative, but he now needs to reduce it to a principle.

Kant believed there are three ways to reduce it to a principle. Let’s start with the second way because it is easiest to understand. We will then consider the first way, which is about universalizing and a bit harder to understand.


What is the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative?

As we can describe gravity with different math equations, so Kant believed we can describe the categorical imperative in different ways. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is:

“Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.”

As with the first formulation, we identify a maxim and test it with this formulation. Consider any action. If you are treating the person merely as a means, then the action is wrong. If you are not treating them merely as a means to an end, then the action is morally permissible.

Now, this formulation is often misunderstood because we frequently treat people as means to ends. For example, I went to the grocery store today and treated the clerk as a means (or tool) to check out. I went to the barber yesterday and treated him as a means (or tool) to get a haircut. So, we often treat people as means.

But Kant's point is that we should not treat them merely as a means. For example, I would be treating the clerk merely as a means if I cursed and slapped her on the way out of the store. I would be treating the barber merely as a means if I attempted to enslave him to get free haircuts for life. According to Kant, these acts are wrong not because I am treating them as a means to an end, but because I am treating them merely as a means to an end.

According to Kant, there is something about rational creatures that deserve respect. All things have value only because humans give them value. For example, things like paintings and rocks would simply exist with no valuation if there were no valuers. So, a things value depends on the valuer, but a valuer has unconditional worth. In short, there is something about human consciousness that deserves respect.

Now, other people may see you as a thing and give you conditional value alone, but they are mistaken because they forget that you are a valuer, not simply a valued thing. When you deeply reflect on the nature of a valuer's consciousness, you realize all valuers have unconditional worth and should be treated as ends, not merely as means.

As a rational valuer, you are free and can choose to abide by the categorical imperative. You are self-legislating. You deserve to be treated with dignity because the heart of morality, the heart of value, lies in you.


Apply the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative to the example of lying to obtain a loan that you do not intend to pay back.

In the lying case, you should not lie because you would be treating the person merely as a means to obtain money. You are not respecting them or their intelligence. So, the act of lying about the loan is wrong.

As we shall see, Kant believed the two formulations of the Categorical Imperative are equivalent because they lead to the same duties (e.g. don't lie to get the loan).

As a side note, Kant also wrote against standing armies because he thought they were a way to use soldiers as mere instruments. He was a leading light of the enlightenment and was serious about treating people with dignity, as ends.


Apply the second formulation to the cheating case. Should you cheat on your test?

Cheating is bad because you would be using your teacher as a mere means to an end. It also seems you are using yourself as a mere means to an end.


Test “Always kill Jews” with the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative.

It is wrong to kill Jews because you would be treating them merely as means to an end.

By the way, some critics argue that “Always kill Jews” seems to pass the first formulation, but not the second. This is a problem because Kant believed all formulations of the Categorical Imperative led to the same duties.

In short, the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative seems to be an excellent supplement to the first formulation because it prohibits actions the first allows (e.g. kill Jews). So, Kant seems mistaken in believing the two formulations led to the same duties. His main argument here is that voice you hear in your head (e.g. your conscience or your categorical imperative)… that voice is based on the principle that you should never treat another person merely as a means to an end.

Now, let’s say you don’t have a conscience. Well, you can still choose this morality by choosing to follow one rule throughout your life: never treat a person merely as a means to an end.


What is the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative?

Now, let’s consider the more complex and interesting first formulation of the Categorical Imperative.

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

This means that to test whether an action is wrong, simply ask, “What if everyone were doing the action at all times and all places?” Note that I have “universalized” the action because I am asking what would happen if everyone did the act. If the answer to this question leads to a contradiction, then it is a bad act.

It is important to see that the act is bad because it is contradictory, not because it leads to bad consequences. To clarify, consider this example.

Let's say I ask you for a loan and promise to repay you in one month. However, I do not intend to repay. I intend to leave the country with your money and never see you again. Let's test this act with the categorical imperative.

Step 1: State the Maxim or rule

Kant uses “maxim” to name the rule I follow in this situation. In this case, the maxim is:

“I should lie or make false promises about loans when it is in my interest to do so.”

Step 2: Universalize the Maxim

To universalize, let's change the “I” to “everyone.”

“Everyone should lie or make false promises about loans when it is in their interest to do so.”

Step 3: Evaluate the universalized form of the maxim

If it leads to a contradiction then it is not a good act.

If it does not lead to a contradiction then it is permissible.

The first consequence of universalizing is nobody would believe in promises if everyone made false promises when it was in their interest. However, my individual maxim assumes beliefs in promises since I need you to believe my promise to get your money. So, I am both willing a belief in promises (i.e. I want you to believe) and willing nobody believe in promises (i.e. my rational will universalizes and wants nobody to believe in promises), and this is a contradiction in my will. Therefore, lying to you about the loan is wrong because I am both willing and not willing a belief in promises. You could oversimplify it by saying my ego wants you to believe my promise but my universalizing reason wants nobody to believe in promises.


It may also be wrong because it is a conceptual contradiction, not just a contradiction in will. This is because a “promise” may be incoherent if lying is universalized. When universalized maxims lead to contradictions of either sort, we have a “perfect duty” to avoid these acts (e.g. lying).

Notice it is not wrong because breaking promise leads to negative consequences like the collapse of society. No, that is utilitarian thinking. Rather, it is wrong because it leads to a contradiction.

This is a very unusual and subtle approach to ethics that most people do not understand much less consider. Kant believed that morality comes from the universalizing nature of reason, not from emotions, feelings, culture, upbringing, consequences, self-interest, biology, or belief in God. According to Kant, the source of morality is deeper and more logical than anyone imagines.


Use Kant’s categorical imperative to consider whether you should cheat on a test.

Step 1: State the maxim/rule

“I should cheat on tests when it is in my self-interest.”

Step 2: Universalize the maxim

“Everyone should cheat on tests when it is in their self-interest.”

Step 3: Evaluate the universalized form of the maxim. If it leads to a contradiction, it is not good.

There would be no purpose in giving tests if everyone cheated. Teachers would no longer believe the tests measure anything meaningful. So, the contradiction in your will is that you want the teacher to take the test seriously, but you also want the teacher not to take the test seriously since universalizing your maxim results in not taking tests seriously.

It is also contradictory because it is self-defeating. If everyone cheated, grades would become meaningless and colleges would collapse. “The whole purpose of cheating would be meaningless” (Pojman, Ch. 7). Therefore, cheating is wrong.

Some of my cheating students counter that they will simply keep it secret. Secretly cheating is not contradictory because teachers will still trust the tests since they do not know of the cheating. Since teachers will still trust the test, the cheating student is not willing that nobody believe in tests. There is no contradiction.

However, universalizing an act implies making it public, and so you have not universalized it if you secretly cheat. Second, there is a part of your psyche that will universalize the act whether you want it to or not. This part of your psyche produces your conscience, which says, “It is wrong to cheat even if you can get away with it.” The next section explores this idea.  


Why can't one simply refuse to universalize the maxim? After all, the contradiction only arises when one universalizes, when one wills that everyone make false promises.

The answer is you cannot help but universalize your maxims because you are a rational creature and the nature of reason is to universalize. When you are thinking, you are thinking in language. When I say the “tree is in the garden,” you think of trees and what all trees have in common. You understand words like “tree” because your mind is constantly universalizing and creating meaning.

Universalizing is like your heartbeat. You may be unaware of the process of universalizing maxims, but you always are because it flows from your rational nature. You then experience inner moral conflict when your universalizing will contradict your individual will. Your conscience is the voice of your universalizing will and it says “it is wrong to cheat.”

Another example: my self-interested psyche wills you believe in promises whereas my universalizing psyche wills nobody believe in promises. This is a conflict between ego and universal mind, and it creates conscience. According to Kant, such acts are wrong because they lead to a contradiction between our little will and our universal will. And the universal will is the source of morality because it considers universal interests, not just my individual interests.

This brings up an interesting connection between Kantianism and Buddhism. Just as Kant recommended following the universalizing categorical imperative, so Buddha recommended an extinguishing of self and an embrace of universal self. I briefly mention this because most people think Kantianism and Buddhism are distant philosophies, but they are similar at a deep level in that both seek to transcend the prison of self. One does it by universalizing and one does it by dissolving the self and melting into the universal. Other approaches do it with the highest of loves. If you are confused, hang in there. Remind yourself that you can also understand the Categorical Imperative with the first formulation about never treating people merely as means.

In short, Kant captured the idea that morality has something universal about it. I should not selfishly make exceptions for myself. If it is wrong for you to lie, then it is wrong for me. Furthermore, we cannot escape this universalizing activity because it is a priori, in our human spectacles. We cannot escape our conscience, which commands us to rise above self-interest whenever it clashes with the universality of moral reason.

Question: Let's assume the universalizing reason causes Conscience. Why should I follow this conscience? Why not simply ignore it and do what I want? See the chapter on Plato's Soul for an interesting answer to this question.


People often present the following examples as criticisms of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. I present them and give replies in defense of Kant. So, the next five minutes may get a bit abstract and boring to some people, but the point is a simple one. We are applying the first formulation of the categorical imperative to see if it is a good moral guide.



Use Kant's categorical imperative to test a law requiring everyone to put their left pant leg on before their right pant leg.

It seems we can universalize this law without contradiction because there is a logically possible world in which everyone puts their left pant leg on first. This is just as universalizable as a law that requires driving on the right side of the road (Pojman, Ch.8).

This is a criticism of Kant's categorical imperative because the pant law passes the categorical test, but it is trivial law. Perhaps Kant's Categorical test is too broad, it allows too much?

However, a Kantian has a simple response. The greatest value of the categorical imperative is identifying wrong acts and motives. It is like Socrates' voice that “told him what not to do, but never exactly what to do” (Republic). So, yes, we can universalize the “left pant leg first rule,” but we can also universalize the “right pant leg first rule,” and so on. Kant's categorical imperative shows that such laws are not morally wrong, just as it is not morally wrong to require driving on the left side of the road. The Categorical Imperative may permit imprudent laws, but it does not permit immoral laws. It does not tell us whether the left or right pant law is best, but it does tell us that both are morally permissible. More importantly, it tells us lying is wrong.


Use Kant's Categorical Imperative to test your desire to “flush the toilet at 3 P.M. today.”

The universalized form of this maxim is “everyone should flush the toilet at 3 P.M today.” But the nation's plumbing system would be destroyed if everyone flushed at the same time, so you cannot universalize flushing the toilet. You cannot universalize it because you want the toilet work when you flush, but you want the toilet not work when everyone flushes.

So, the criticism is that the Categorical Imperative seems to prohibit actions that are obviously acceptable.

To reply to this criticism, a Kantian need only modify the maxim being universalized:

Modified Maxim: “Whenever a person needs to flush the toilet and does not believe everyone else will be flushing at the same time thereby destroying the plumbing system, then one may flush.”

This modified maxim is universalizable without contradiction. You may flush the toilet.


Use Kant's Categorical Imperative to test your desire to “sell roses on the street corner.”

The universalized form is “everyone will sell roses on the street corner.”

So, you want to sell roses to make a profit. If everyone did it, you would not make a profit. Therefore, you are willing a profit, but the universalized form wills no profit. Therefore, this is contradictory and so you should not sell roses on the corner.

Like the last criticism, this one is based on the idea that the Categorical Imperative prohibits actions that are obviously acceptable. Again, a Kantian may reply by modifying the maxim.

Modified Maxim: “I will sell roses on the street corner as long as everyone else is not doing the same... and I can make a fair profit.”

The modified maxim can be universalized without contradiction and so it is permissible to sell roses.

However, it seems this pattern of modifying maxims could be continued endlessly. For example, we saw earlier that it was wrong to lie or break promises. However, consider the following maxims:

“It is wrong to lie except when you can save many lives by lying.”

“It is wrong to lie, unless Nazis are asking whether you are hiding Jews.”

“It is wrong to lie unless telling the truth will impede a child's moral development.”

It seems these three maxims can be universalized without contradiction. The problem is maxims can describe very specific situations, and this specificity diminishes the universality of the universalized maxim. For example, I am not contradictory in the Nazi case because I will the Nazis to believe my lie, but I also will that everyone lie to the Nazis in such cases. That is, veracity is no longer a universal value because each situation determines whether veracity should “win out.” The universality has shifted from the act to how everyone should act in each specific situation.  

The criticism is that Kant's theory seems to imply that lying is always/absolutely wrong, and Kant was personally an absolutist against lying. But if we only need modify the maxims to make it acceptable, then lying is not always wrong. Now, some modern Kantians simply reject Kant's absolutism, and they interpret the universality as a way to consider what EVERY rational person would do in each SPECIFIC situation.

So, there seems to be something fishy going on here. Morality is supposed to be based on universalizing, but we can sometimes only determine what is right by knowing the specific circumstances of each situation (e.g. Nazis). This sort of insight undercuts Kant's absolutism, which seems to be based on the universalizing action of reason.

Universality is still important since we ask, “what would any moral person do in the Nazi case?” But it is not the strict, logical, and absolutist morality of Kant. Our moral intuitions in the Nazi case have something universal about them, but they do not seem to be the type of logical universalism that produced Kant's absolutism.

Some philosophers argue that Kant overemphasized the universal elements of morality (e.g. justice, rights, impartiality) and thereby neglected the more particular aspects of morality (e.g. mercy, loving character, relationships, preference for one's own children). I will introduce these ideas in later chapters.

This part of the discussion is rather abstract and perhaps boring to many. Perhaps Kantianism is part of your moral story, but not the whole of it?


End Skip for Video


What is the third formulation of the Categorical Imperative?

The third formulation is that we should “always act as both subjects and sovereigns in the kingdom of ends.” It is also expressed as “every rational being should act as if his action were to become a universal law” (paraphrased).

This means we should act as if we live in a kingdom of rational and moral beings. More, we should “sovereignly” choose to do right. For example, an authority may tell us murder is wrong, but we should see it is wrong for ourselves and not choose to murder. That is, think for yourself instead of trusting moral authorities.

External moral authorities may be in the form of God, parents, society, science, or your peers. We do not need these external authorities to discern the moral law. Indeed, one flees the moral sphere when following external commands without understanding the reasoning behind these commands.

Kant calls actions heteronomous when they are done because an external authority commands them. Autonomous acts, on the other hand, are self-imposed laws. That is, autonomous acts arise when we choose to follow the Categorical Imperative. When we are autonomous, we intuit and choose the moral law. We then sometimes obey and sometimes disobey external commands.

So, even if a following a rule leads to good consequences, it is not moral unless you acted autonomously.


What are some strengths of Kant’s moral theory?

He recognized the important role of reason and universality in morality.

He recognized the difference between stating a preference (e.g. I like green beans) and a moral belief (e.g. I shouldn't lie in this case).

He believes each person deserves respect and is intrinsically valuable. Most of you probably believe that even if you aren't sure why.

He believes in God, but does not base morality on belief in God.

He emphasized rights and justice whereas utilitarians seem to neglect them when it is expedient to do so.

He believed you should be good for goodness sake, not simply because it is in your self-interest or because it maximizes happiness.

He believed some acts were absolutely/always wrong (e.g. it is always wrong to rape).

His theory is an interesting alternative to relativism, egoism, consequentialism, social contract theory, and virtue theory.


What are some weaknesses of Kant's Moral Theory?

He believed some acts were absolutely/always wrong (e.g. it is always wrong to lie). For example, he defended the idea that it is wrong to lie to the axe-murderer knocking on your door asking where Bob is hiding.

The first and second formulations of the categorical imperative seem to lead to different answers (e.g. always kill Jews). The first formulation seems to say it is ok to follow this maxim: “Always kill Jews.” It is ok because it seems universalizable without contradiction. The second formulation says it is not ok because you would be treating Jews as a mere means to an end.

His theory seems to imply that the unloving person who acts “from duty” seems more moral than the loving person who spontaneously acts from love (e.g. second and third shopkeeper).

He does not explain how to decide when absolute rules conflict.

If perfect duties always override imperfect duties, it seems to follow that it is always wrong to lie or steal... even if one is lying to the Nazis or stealing bread to survive.

As with utilitarianism, people have been discussing and modifying Kantianism (and other forms of deontological ethics) for a long time. Each strength and criticism listed above has many counters and replies. Let's explore one major development in this dialogue.


The Deontological System of William D. Ross

William D. Ross is an objectivist, not an absolutist. Many philosophers believe he created a stronger form of deontological ethics than Kantianism.

Ross begins with intuitionism, which is the position that people immediately grasp right and wrong. An intuition is a truth you apprehend directly; no reasoning or evidence is necessary. For example, you   intuit that you are currently conscious or that the firetruck is red. No reasoning is necessary to know these claims.

Ross believed moral intuitions were like sense perceptions. For example, we see a round object, then notice it is red, and so on. Roundness and redness are immediate intuitions. Another example: we immediately intuit that parallel lines never meet on a planar surface. These are self-evident and cannot be proved. More importantly, they are not absolute. For example, redness does not always override roundness or blueness.

According to Ross, as we become educated and more experienced, we become better at intuiting the morally correct act in each situation. Notice this is very similar to Kantianism because Kant believed people intuited morality through the categorical imperative.

So, what are these moral intuitions? Ross divided intuitions into two types of duties: prima facie duties (Latin for “at first glance”) and actual duties. The prima facie duties are


  1. Promise-keeping
  2. Fidelity
  3. Gratitude for favors
  4. Beneficence
  5. Justice
  6. Self-Improvement
  7. Nonmaleficence


Before continuing, use the Oxford Dictionary to paraphrase the meaning of these seven values/duties.


We immediately intuit these seven principles as good. For example, we have an intuitive duty to keep promises and improve ourselves. If you lack these intuitions, it’s because you aren’t morally developed yet much like most eight year olds are not cognitively developed yet.

So, Ross believed we have an immediate duty to keep promises (#1), be faithful (#2), and so on. For example, you should presume to keep promises unless a conflicting duty overrides it. So, you should keep your promise to meet your friend for coffee, but this obligation is overridden when you encounter the car accident. Your primary moral obligation is now to help them, not to keep the promise. In this case, beneficence overrides promise keeping.

So, Ross is not an absolutist, but he is an objectivist, and it seems his system better captures how moral people actually reason. Both promise-keeping and beneficence are objectively valid, but neither is absolutely decisive. Promise-keeping overrides beneficience in some cases, beneficience overrides promise-keeping in other cases, and so on. In a similar way, both earth's gravity and the laws that propel a rocket engine are objective, but the rocket engine wins out when it escapes Earth.

Now, actual duties are what we should do in each case. For example, your actual duty is to help the victims of the car accident, while your conflicting prima facie duties are to keep promises and be benevolent. In this case, benevolence overrides promise keeping and becomes your actual duty. Again, Ross' system is not absolutist because every objective value is sometimes overridden by other objective values.

His system also captures the idea that intelligent, wise, and experienced people intuit the morally best action in each situation. The wise and good action is not a matter of applying the categorical imperative or calculating consequences. Nor it is a matter of blindly following your culture or atomistically and exclusively pursuing your own self-interest exclusively. Rather, it is a matter of intuiting the right action based on many irreducible principles, emotions, a priori categories, and experiences. The wise person is Yoda, not Spock.  

One criticism of Ross' Deontological and Intuitionist system is it does not seem people can argue for those seven intuitions. You either see they are true or you don't. You either see that justice is good or you don't. No reasoning is necessary, and this seems to be a weakness of all forms of intuitionism.

But is this really a problem? After all, every field of knowledge begins with intuitions. You either see the yellow or you don't. You either immediately intuit the existence of a tree (i.e. the external world) or you don't. There is no sound proof for the existence of the external world, it is intuited and assumed. Another example: you either see foundational mathematical truths or you don't. There are no mathematical proofs unless you first intuit some foundational claims. In short, there are starting intuitions in all fields of study.


So, perhaps relying on intuitions in ethics should be no more problematic than relying on them in other fields. Notice too that intuitionists like Ross do not claim intuitions are infallible. Just as our sensory intuitions can be mistaken, so can our moral intuitions.

Perhaps one could synthesize the systems of Ross and Kant. From Kant, we learn that universalizing reason leads to intuitions. From Ross, we learn they are not absolute.

Perhaps one could synthesize Mill and Ross. From Mill's Utilitarianism, we learn that the purpose of morality is to promote the general good and reduce suffering. From deontologists like Ross, we learn that our moral thinking is rightly guided by intuitions, not simply measurable consequences. In such a synthesis, both the intuitions of justice and the calculation of consequences have a place. William Frankena is a good example of someone who has pursued this strategy.


An evaluation of Intuitionism

Intuitionists believe we can immediately intuit the right thing to do in every situation. Now, a two year old child may be incapable of intuiting moral truths, but this is not surprising since the child cannot intuit the truth that 2+2=4 or that parallel lines will never meet. Intuitions develop with time, and the wise and experienced person slowly learns to intuit right from wrong.

Consider Joseph Butler's (1692-1752) expression of intuitionism:

“If any plain honest man, before he engages in any course of action, ask himself, Is this I am going about right, or is it wrong?. . . I do not in the least doubt but that this question would be answered agreeably to truth and virtue, by almost any fair man in almost any circumstance.”

So Butler believed we immediately intuit right from wrong. Your conscience, the good angel on your shoulder, tells you the difference. And Kant has shown that this conscience is not simply a product of your upbringing, it is rooted in rational human nature.

But some criticize intuitionism for precisely this reason. People in different cultures have different intuitions, and intuitionism gives no way for deciding which is best. It is just a matter of seeing it or not. There is no point in arguing.

But is this correct? Do people in different cultures really have fundamentally different moral intuitions? Do they differ in their prima facie duties, or merely their actual duties? Also, does the fact that people have different intuitions logically imply that all intuitions are equally good?

These questions should help one see that intutionism is not so easily defeated.

But the critics of intuitionism continue.

First, it does cut off reasoning at a fundamental level. If I intuit revenge is good and you intuit it is bad, there is no room for argument since our disagreement is intuitive. It seems we should test our intuitions with reason (e.g. utilitarianism, kantianism, egoism, etc), not simply accept them at face value. Morality involves reason giving and intuitionism rejects this at some level.

But don't all moral theories cut off reasoning at some level? For example, can the utilitarian prove that I should maximize happiness? Can the relativist prove that I should trust my feelings or my culture? Doesn't every ethical theory have fundamental and unproven intuitions? Perhaps Ross is simply identifying the intuitions of human nature in more detail?

A second criticism is it is impossible to judge some intuitions as better than others unless we give reasons, in which case we are no longer intuitionists. For example, I may give you reasons for why your intuition that you should help the accident victims is morally better than the intuition to keep your promise to meet your friend. I will most likely prefer the first intuition for utilitarian, Kantian, egoist, or religious reasons, in which case I am no longer an intuitionist because I am appealing to these types of reasons instead of immediate intuitions.

But is this a caricature of Ross' Theory? Does Ross argue all of morality is intuited or only that fundamental morality is intuited?  

Third, it is true that the wise person immediately intuits the best act in each situation, but it is also true that the master swimmer gracefully moves through the water. We cannot conclude the swimmer just intuitively knows how to swim. On the contrary, he was probably a child when someone taught him the rules of swimming well, rules such as making your body longer and keeping your legs close to the surface. The swimmer then internalized the rules through practice. So, his motion can be reduced to rules even though he is unaware of these rules. So, the fact that wise people intuit goodness does not mean this goodness is not reducible to rules. Indeed, how can we teach swimming or morality unless there are some fundamental rules?

Again, does this criticism address Ross' theory, or is it a straw man? Can we teach morality in the same way we teach swimming?

A final criticism is that intuitions are simply “gut reactions.” For example, some people intuit that interracial marriage is wrong. Furthermore, we saw in the evolution chapter that there may be evolutionary explanations for many of our intuitions and gut reactions. This, in turn, implies that we should not blindly trust these intuitions. Rather we should use reason, perhaps utilitarian reason, to judge our intuitions as good or bad.



The problem with intuitionism is it cuts off reasoning at some level. This is because there is no formula for determining which intuitive value should win out in each situation. On the other hand, some moral decisions may simply arise from the experienced intuitions of the wise, much as our belief in an external world arises from intuitions. The study of ethics can clarify where reasoning ends and these intuitions begin.

In the end, there is something deep and correct about a deontological approach to ethics. It may need to be modified and supplemented, but it outlines the blood, if not the heart, of conscience. Perhaps too it is the form, if not the content, of morality.