Kantian Ethics: The Importance of Moral Perspective, Will, Duty, and Freedom

Kantian ethics emphasizes the conception and development of a moral standpoint, which is crucial to understanding the moral subject and its duties and responsibilities. Kant posits a perspective that equalizes all subjects into equal moral agents and holds them to universalizable moral and ethical responsibilities. This article explores the importance of Kantian moral perspective and its wider philosophical implications by examining its relationship to the will and duty and the seeming contradiction of being simultaneously free and determined.

Deindividuation of Historical People

Kant’s moral perspective deindividuates historical people and removes the influence of historical circumstances on a particular decision. Rather, Kant posits the individual, regardless of their environment or circumstances, as possessing a will, which should become the focus for philosophical investigation. According to Kant, the only truly good thing in the world is a good will. Therefore, one must understand practical philosophy from the perspective of the will. All other conceptions of a good event or action that may be brought about in the world would necessarily be relative or, at least, qualified.

Formal Difference Between Will and Duty

In order to understand a prescriptive perspective that can apply to an individual with a purely good will, Kant argues that it is necessary to understand a formal difference between the concepts of will and duty. While the will is posited as being a universal category for all agents, it is not necessarily related to a priori principles that constitute the framework of the moral law. Therefore, one must complement the will with a conception of duty, which, when acting in accordance with rigorously deduced moral strictures or categorical imperatives, is able to rationally deduce the correct action in any particular situation.

Human Freedom and the Capacity to Bring Will under Reason

Crucial to this standpoint is the conception of human freedom and the capacity to bring a will under the domain of reason and to either deny or gratify it based on a rational understanding of the moral law. Without this freedom, the distinction between will and duty becomes impossible to maintain. Kant argues that human beings must be conceived of as rational agents who are determined by nature and history, and who possess a capacity for cognition and reason that is over and above a system of natural and historical determination. This central contradiction lies at the heart of Kant’s conception of a moral agent.

Consequences for Ethics

Kant’s perspective on the moral subject has clear consequences for ethics. It posits that every individual capable of rational thought or intuitive knowledge of the moral law is beholden to a moral law and duty. The moral agent is any particular historical individual, and all individuals are responsible for their actions and their adherence to duty. Despite this, Kant develops a position predicated on the suggestion that human beings exist in a situation in which all experience and nature can be understood as causally determined. This contradiction constitutes both Kant’s largest contribution to the field of ethics and his most serious challenge to it.

New References:

Timmons, M. (2018). Kant’s Moral Theory. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Wood, A. (2020). Kantian Ethics. In The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory.
Korsgaard, C. M. (2021). Kantian Ethics. In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Ethics.
Hill, T. E. (2022). Kantian Ethics: Value, Agency, and Obligation. In The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory.

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