Morality can therefore be said to be relative. What may be accepted by one individual as moral may not be accepted by the other. Similarly what may be accepted as moral in one society may not be accepted by the other. For Kant, what is moral is only justified when it is acted out of duty. To act out of duty means to have given thought to an action before carrying it out and to have considered its consequences. Acting out of inclination for Kant requires no thought. This is because almost any man is bound to do what he has been groomed to do by his culture in order to satisfy his conscience.
Kofi comes from a society where he has been taught to share with and give to the hungry. He has also developed the habit of giving and consequently become inclined to show pity towards the poor. Kofi is walking down a street of Accra eating his favorite bag of biscuits, sees a poor hungry old man and gives out the biscuits( of which he has eaten less than half) to the old man because according to how he has been brought up and how he feels this is the right thing to do. Kobby is a glutton, very mean and selfish. He’s also walking down the same streets of Accra eating his favorite fruit cake (of which he has eaten a little over half) freshly baked from the bakery. Kobby sees this same old man and realizes that if he does not give this old man some food, he’ll probably die in the next few seconds. Kobby hesitates but eventually gives out his cake to the old man.
According to Kant, Kobby’s actions are moral because they were not out of inclination but out of the duty. The intention behind the action is to ensure that a fellow human being who is also entitled to food for sustenance and life is preserved. He is basically acting on the maxim “Share and give to the needy” if this maxim was to be generalized, it would perfectly enhance peace and equity in society.
Secondly the idea is conceivable. Such a maxim treats the old man as an end because Kobby saw him as being entitled to the basic necessities of life and in giving him food helped preserve his humanity. Hence, it is possible to act on such a maxim and for Kant, this is moral.
At the heart of Kant’s argument is that ultimately people act out of self-interest for one reason or the other and that actions based on emotions or inclinations are not moral because there was no reasoning behind them. Considering the scenario above, both Kobby and Kofi are rational beings that are entitled to enjoy their favorite things. They both had the choice to give or not to give. Kobby gave and so did Kofi. Kofi gave because he has been brought up knowing that giving to the needy is the right thing to do and has become naturally inclined to do so out of pity for the old man. Therefore the reason behind his action is embedded in his being. Kant should not dismiss people who act out of emotion or inclination. Instead he should consider them as having reached a higher level of morality. This is because they no longer act because they are bound by culture or to please others or avoid harm. Kofi acted out of a maxim that seemed reasonable and appropriate. Kofi knew that if he gave up his biscuit, he would lose the satisfaction of eating it but he chose to give. His action is as plausible as Kobby’s if not more.
Consider a shrewd German family who has to decide within a split second whether or not to hide a Jew family pleading at their door because they are being chased. The final decision they make is however to hide the Jewish family. This is in the era of Hitler: a time in which the law required the German family to give up any Jew for execution. According to Kant the German family in this situation definitely acted out of reasoning even if it was within a split second. They acted aware of the consequences and had the intention of preserving the human race, on the maxim that the Jews were as much entitled to life as they the Germans were. This when applied generally is conceivable and would help preserve the human race. What if the German family had refused to save the innocent pleading Jews? The question at stake is to whom is the German family responsible: is it to the state, to moral society, to Hitler or to themselves. Kant does not state to whom we are responsible for our duties.
In the first principle of the Categorical Imperative Kant states that ‘Only act on a maxim that you could will should become a universal law’. Our culture, nurturing and experiences inevitably formulate and mould the way we act to situations and circumstances. Morality cannot be universally objective as Kant says. It could however be socially or culturally objective. Society and culture form the basis of moral law. After all whoever will be passing judgment on our actions are the people in our societies because most of these laws are unwritten. Hence to act in such a way that your maxim may become a universal law could be misleading.
The issue of morality is an abstract one and not yet universally definable. However, what is clear and specific is the fact that man is a rational being and usually acts to ensure self preservation or a better well-being for himself directly or indirectly. Therefore, even though most of us believe that we act out of genuine compassion for our fellow man, we do so after thinking of what the actions will yield. As such Kant may be justified to an extent in saying that most of our action are carried out in self –interest.
More so it can be said that there exist a significant minority of people who can be said to have achieved a higher sense of morality and as such do things without reasoning or a sense of duty to moral law but out of what they personally believe to be right or wrong.
Warburton Nigel, Philosophy: The Classics
Leo Strauss, History of Political Philosophy
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Jeremy Bentham (1998) “The Principles of Morals and Legislation”
New York; Prometheus Books
The Wikipedia Encyclopedia