Morality As Overcoming Self-Interest

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant and His Ethics
 Kant was a philosopher during the enlightenment
 He was a Christian
 His ethical theory is known as Deontological – this
means it is bound in our duty and so an action is only
genuinely moral if it is prompted by a recognition of
our duty.
Absolute and Objective
 Kant’s theory is also absolute – this means that once a
rule has been made it applies absolutely – it cannot be
broken and circumstances cannot be taken into
 So for Kant actions are RIGHT OR WRONG IN
 Moral judgements are also objective – they apply
equally to all people
 Obviously self-interested motives are subjective. They are
particular to the individual, and so often in conflict with
the interests of others
 Those who follow the idea that ‘the end justifies the means’
(followers of teleological ethics) is fine when you’re the
only one adhering to those guidelines, but very annoying
when others start doing so too
 For Kant, genuinely moral motives are objective and
universal insofar as they apply to all individuals no matter
what differences in personal circumstances, character,
desires, preferences etc.
 What do you think of Kant’s ideas so far?
 Can morals ever be truly objective?
 Do you think moral rules, or some moral rules, should
be absolute and never take into account circumstances?
 What would be the advantages of having a system like
 If we act for any reason other than duty and the fact
that the action is right in itself, for example, out of
emotion, we are not acting morally
 Kant argues that because people have different
emotional reactions, these reactions cannot be
significant in evaluating the moral worth of an act. For
a rational determination of our duties will be impartial
and so will determine the same duties for everyone
What Effect This Analysis Has
 What this implies is that if I behave in a way which we
would normally recognise as morally praiseworthy – e.g.
regularly donating to charity – and if I do so simply because
it has become habit, or because I feel like it, or because I
hope that of I’m ever in trouble someone will be similarly
generous, then this action is not properly speaking a moral
 Kant is also saying that someone who, through the use of
reason, recognises their duty to help others in distress even
though they have no compassion for their fellow human
beings, is more praiseworthy than someone who would
have helped others whether it were their duty or not
because of compassion for others
Is This Possible?
 Do you think it’s possible to act without emotion?
 Do you agree that an act that has emotion as a motive
is not genuinely moral?
The Two Can Go Together
 Kant does accept that there are occasions when self-
interest and duty coincide. He gives the example of a
shopkeeper who has a fixed price for each of the goods
in his shop, even when he could get away with ripping
off naive customers by overcharging them
Thus people are served honestly; but this
is not nearly enough to justify us
believing that the shopkeeper has acted
in this way form duty or principles of fair
dealing; his interest required him to do
so. The action was done neither from
duty nor from immediate inclination, but
solely from purposes of self-interest
 For Hobbes this would be an example of how being
moral is in our self-interest (customers keep coming
 Kant would claim that this is not really moral at all – it
is the mere appearance of morality: it is not what we
do that makes our action a moral one but the grounds
on which to do it. In other words...
 What do you think about this claim?
Good Will
 So as far as Kant is concerned, it is our motive which
determines the moral worth of an act
 The genuinely moral motive for action (recognition of
our duty) is what Kant terms the ‘good will’
 A good will is the only motive for what is intrinsically
or unconditionally good. That is to say, an act which
proceeds from the good will is good itself and not good
because of its consequences
 Our duties, or the judgements of the good will, are
determined by reason alone
 Kant’s goal is to show that we should act morally to the
extent that we are rational i.e. according to reason
alone and not on the basis of feelings

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