So, I'm trying to tackle Kantian Ethics, and I would like to think that I know the most of it but I have some confusions

So, what I understand of Kants ethical system is that a) We are rational beings, and b) We have free will, and by free will he means that we have the freedom to make choices - even choices disconnected from our personal desires and thrusted by rationality alone. So to Kant, this rationality paired with a complete autonomy is the source of moral truths, and to be moral we must a) Not make choices that would result in a contradiction if that maxim was made universal (Which seems to result in absurd things such as "Keep all of your promises throughout your life except for one") and b) Never merely treat people as a means, but always as an end.

So I may be missing out on something but many things seem convoluted here to me. I do not quite understand why rationality paired with free will entails moral prescription. I'm just not seeing the logical flow there. The way I have always seen it is that rationality is just something employed by the will to pursue our desires more effectively. Another problem I find with this is that if we're making choices that are ENTIRELY detached from our desires, it seems that there is an alien force at work making us do things just for the sake of doing them, because these moral choices are not conditioned by personal values, and therefor I would say it seems as if Kantian ethics collapses free will, effectively making itself untenable. I am a strong believer in psychological egoism. I do not think that it's tenable to say we do things outside of an egoism, otherwise it seems like we're arbitrarily doing things for the sake of doing them.

So in summary I would like for somebody to clear up why Kant believes that rationality + free will = moral prescription, and how anybody could possibly act outside of an egoism without it not really being "them" doing the acting, because in my thoughts if you do something without a self valued reason in mind, it kind of just seems robotic and void of free will. An action performed for the sake of the action - an ought without an if - just seems robotic and void of free will

3 Answers 3


As Isaacson points out, Kant's moral system is very complex and, as such, focusing on a few aspects can lead us to lose sight of some other important aspects of his system. But your questions themselves can be answered straightforwardly.

Your first question is how Kant can be consistent when he says that morality requires free will yet morally worthy act is an act performed out of the sense of duty. Your complaint can be legitimate from a common sense perspective: acting out of duty means acting without choice, that is, acting without free will. But for Kant acting otherwise (out of self-interest) is acting without free will. To Kant, your statement, I do not think that it's tenable to say we do things outside of an egoism actually proves his point that, without free will, we could be the slave of egoism (self-interest, pleasure, personal values and projects). The difference between you and Kant is that to you free will is to promote self-interest, but to Kant free will is to overcome the egoistic compulsion. Once we exercise free will and employ reasoning capacity, we can arrive at the deontic morality, according to Kant. Thus holds the Kantian equation: rationality + free will = moral prescription

Your second question is how an act done out of the sense of duty can be properly moral since such an act sounds rather robotic, merely following a prescribed moral algorithm. Your question (complaint, precisely) is legitimate indeed as Bernard Williams made his career out of criticizing this algorithmic aspect of the Kantian (and utilitarian) morality, and a new paradigm of morality called particularism that rejects any universal moral algorithm was born.


My understanding is that Kant would see the exercise of reason as an end in itself, and he would identify the exercise of reason as proof of one's autonomy - so Kant's morality is built on the idea that the exercise of reason should be protected, and people's capacity for the exercise of reason should be recognised, because in so doing what we are protecting and recognising is people's autonomy. What I am saying is I think Kant does not clearly separate the importance of the exercise of reason and the importance of freedom (freedom understood through the lens of individual autonomy). One of the disadvantages to this approach (if indeed it is a fair representation of Kant's position) is that it could be inherently open to doubting the importance, for Kant, of protecting the autonomy of those people whose "exercise of reason" is necessarily or apparently limited, for example children or people from another culture whose modes of governance and social organisation are unrecognisable to us as demanding "reasonable respect".


It is a common misconception that Kant's ethics are detached from human desires. A better summary, for your investigation, might be that Kant places an extra step between the "will" and the action (that step being the compliance with duty) and that in doing so he believes he has arrived a a small set of actions which must always be avoided regardless of the "will" (his perfect duties). Kant actually argued that the moral virtue was a condition of us deserving happiness. He also accepts that happiness is an end that motivates all our actions (G4:415), the maxims that we are testing for their morality are all essentially mostly aimed at achieving our own happiness.

For Kant, moral worth comes from the satisfaction of some duty rather than some immediate desire and he concludes this broadly for the reasons you've already identified. Where a maxim (or rule), when applied as a universal law would be self-contradictory (i.e. one could not rationally carry it out in any world where all people acted that way and expect it to achieve your objective), then avoiding such a maxim becomes a perfect duty, detached from any will, but these, it turns out, are very few in number and have problems of internal conflict (see Kupperman). What you are left with is imperfect duties. These are duties to avoid maxims which could rationally be carried out in a world in which all people acted this way, but one would not "will" to live in such a world. Here Kant accepts that such a "will" is governed by necessary human desires, which he calls assertoric hypothetical imperatives.

So whilst many critics of Kant agree that you're right to see flaws in the logical process from rational free-will to perfect duties, this does not encompass all of Kant's ethics. I suggest you read W.D. Ross's "Kant's Ethical Theory" for a good exposition of how the majority of Kant's ethics can be rescued from it's rather severe rationalism.

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