Sarah Johnson

Give an account of Kant’s ethical theory

Immanuel Kant was an eighteenth century German philosopher whose moral views continue to be influential. His ethical theory is based on a deontological point of view, where the act itself has moral value regardless of the consequences. Kant dismisses emotions such as pity and compassion as irrelevant to morality and thought that making a choice based on feelings or fulfilling our desires is irrelevant when making a morally correct decision. His beliefs oppose that of moral relativism, in which a morally good act is entirely dependant on the circumstances or culture in which it takes place, instead believing in the necessity of a perfectly universalisable moral law.

  A significant area of ethical study for Kant was the investigation into human reasoning. His views were in response to that of the empiricists and rationalists. The rationalists attempted to prove that we can understand the world purely be using our reasoning, on the other hand empiricists argued that all of our knowledge originates from experience. Although he thought that neither approach was entirely successful, his beliefs were more closely linked with those of the rationalists. He explained that we only have knowledge of the world as it appears to us through our senses, and that humans never know the true reality of the world as we experience it through our own minds, of which various categories of thought have been built into. Therefore our scientific knowledge is only of our own experiences and perceptions. However the categories of our mind are objective therefore we can trust in our reasoning to differentiate between right and wrong. Thus moral statements are a priori synthetic; they are independent of experience so we are able to judge all moral statements as either right or wrong.

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  Kant’s understanding of good will and duty forms the basis for his moral theory. According to Kant it is only the ‘good will’ which is relevant in moral decisions, regardless of what is desirable. The will is in our control and can exercise pure practical reason to tell us what ‘ought’ to be done. Duty is what the good will aims to fulfil. It is important that duty is done for its own sake and not to bring pleasure of happiness to yourself of others. For example, it is your duty to help those less fortunate than yourself by ...

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