Immanuel Kant, a little fellow with big ideas. Kant changed the way people thought about ethics and the place of reason in a person’s life. (He was for it!)
Happiness as eudaimonia was not exclusively tied to the emotion we think of today as happiness. Socrates thought of the good life, the best life for humans, as one of fulfillment. If we were seeking our true telos (goal, purpose in life) as human beings we’d find fulfillment and happiness. Learning to control our passions and act justly toward others was part of achieving that fulfillment.
For St. Augustine, former playboy, renowned Christian theologian and pastor, leader of the Church in North Africa at Hippo (now Algeria), happiness and the good life came from following God. We are the highest creations of God but we go awry. Morality is found in obedience to God, a joyful acceptance of God’s love and grace that enables us to live as we should as human beings.
Aquinas brought together Augustine’s theology with Aristotle’s metaphysics and rational system of metaphysics, thus creating official Catholic theology. Aquinas taught that the natural law could be found in our innate tendencies if we kept our senses clear and we were dedicated to following God. The good life, said Aquinas, was pursuing the truth as it is found in God’s way. Morality is found in carrying out the natural law that God puts in our hearts and our reason.
John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham worked out a system based on the principle of utility, defined as maximizing happiness for the greatest number of people and minimizing pain for the greatest number. The moral act was the one that fulfilled this goal. One looked to the consequences or results desired (happiness) and then worked to achieve them. Utilitarianism is sometimes called consequentialism because it focus first on the consequences and then on the means to obtain them. This is the ethic that often functions as the default position for leaders as they try to look out for the interests and safety of the mass as opposed to the individual.
Kant said that with our reason we create the laws and morals that we live by. While he certainly did not deny God’s existence and was himself a devout Lutheran, he believed that we could only be free by exercising our rational faculties.
For Kant morality sprang from our motivation, which in turn, arose from our will. We use our ethical reasoning to figure out how and why to act in situations.
The principle of morality, according to Kant, is based on our rational autonomy, our ability to decide for ourselves.
If you can do these things on a regular basis, says Kant, you’ll be able to live a moral life and one that will lead to fulfillment. It’s all about doing the right thing, doing your duty no matter the consequences to yourself or anyone else. Kant was no relativist; he believed there was an objective right and wrong—and we could find the ethical thing to do based on two great imperatives or commands.
Kant provided two kinds of imperatives. The first was the hypothetical imperative, a lesser demand on us that we use to gain a higher goal or end. An example would be “I ought to study for the exam.” It’s hypothetical because it is an ‘ought’ for me (but maybe not for you) that helps me accomplish a greater good (learning what I need to know). I cannot make it into a universal law because it does not apply to all people everywhere. Nevertheless, our hypothetical imperatives are important for us because they help us accomplish higher goals, usually the categorical imperatives.
There are only two categorical imperatives. These are the tests we use to judge whether an act is moral or not and whether our motives are right and true. The first form of the categorical imperative is ‘Act only on that which you would will to be a universal law.’ In other words, is this something that you and everybody else should do or not do? If your actions can pass this test then you’ve accomplished the first part of ethical action. The second form follows. . .
The second form of the categorical imperative is to act always so as to treat people only as ends and not as means. In other words, don’t use people to accomplish your own goals, don’t exploit people. If our actions can pass these two tests at a minimum then we are assured that we are doing the right thing. Kant placed great emphasis on right motivation and on the will. The only true good is the will that is devoted to duty.
For Kant what counts is why we act (right motivation) and what we do when we act (right action). Pretty simple, really! Kant’s ethical system, Mill’s Utilitarian ethic and to a lesser extent Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, constitute the most common approaches to practical morality in the West.
Kant's ethical system
1724 - 1804 Immanuel Kant
Why study Kant’s ethics? New way of thinking Profoundly influential in his time Still important today
Socrates (469 - 399 BC) Ethics as eudaimonia The best life (happiness) control our passions act justly toward others
Christianity Union with God saved from sin Morality is obedience St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.)
God gives us the law Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) Moral good/innate tendencies natural Pursue the truth
John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) Utilitarianism Happiness central to morality Max the good for the many