Wednesday, May 07, 2014


Sabari Girisan

        Humans most often justify their actions based on the consequences the actions provoke. In other words, we constantly weigh the intensity and duration of pain and pleasure an action would inflict upon us to justify our action. In the same way, we base our morality on consequences. Let us take the virtue of altruism. Why are we altruistic? A religious explanation of being altruistic would evoke the principles of punya and karma. If we help others, someday we would be helped. A rational explanation says that if the virtue of altruism, which involves the sacrifice of an individual’s pleasure, is upheld, it would benefit the society as a whole in the long run. In other words, the pain or discomfort that an act of altruism inflicts upon individuals will increase the pleasure of the society as a whole, in the long run when it is emulated by others. An emotional explanation stresses the happiness of a ‘high’ quality one attains in helping others, that makes the act of altruism morally defensible. All these explanations involve a utilitarian logic that pain and pleasure are the sovereign masters of human beings, as with the case of all lives on earth. Thus, altruism enjoys moral sanction as long as it is useful to the individual or society as a whole, in the long-run or short-run. Feeding a cow is a more useful, both spiritually and materially, than feeding a pig, thus the former attains a greater moral acceptance than the latter.  One may argue that acts of altruism among primary groups and close acquaintances need not be utilitarian in their motive and are not necessarily be conditioned by reciprocal obligations and indirect benefits. But such altruism, though need not be conditioned by the consequences, is certainly conditioned by the persons involved, thus becoming the most subjective form of altruism.

        Why should not we help others, not because doing so benefits us or makes us happy or just because the person is known to us, but for the sake of helping others? In other words, why should we always view our actions as means to some other goal, rather than viewing it as a duty and end in itself?
Immanuel Kant, regarded as one of the greatest modern philosophers, gives an innovative definition of morality through his equally innovative notion of freedom. Kant says that all human beings are sacred and have dignity, neither because they are ‘useful’ in some way nor because they possess themselves, but for they are autonomous and rational beings. We are beings capable of reason and of acting and choosing freely. By making this statement, he clearly deviates both from utilitarian and libertarian explanations of human freedom. While the utilitarian logic subjects individual’s freedom to the pain or pleasure it produces to the society, the libertarian logic views every individual as a separate being with a separate life worthy of respect, thus not to be used as an instrument for the benefit of the society. The libertarians’ argument is based on the principle of self-possession and they believe that we have the right to choose freely, to live our lives as we please, provided that we allow other individuals to pursue their rights in the same way. Though Immanuel Kant seems to endorse the libertarian line of reasoning, he makes a distinction from the libertarians by giving a more demanding notion of freedom.

        Kant admits that we act according to the pain and pleasure choosing the latter over the former. But he asserts that the two are not the sovereign masters of us, as the utilitarian’s claim, because the rational capacity inherent in us sets us apart from and above mere animal existence.  Kant places the source of human freedom not in the idea of self-possession, as the libertarians claim, but in the fact that we are rational and autonomous beings.

        Kant says that freedom is not about doing whatever we want or the absence of obstacles in doing whatever we want, as we normally interpret. Doing whatever we want means acting according to nature’s appetite, preferring pleasure and avoiding pain. Thus, by doing so, we become slaves of pain and pleasure, reducing ourselves to mere animal existence. We start obeying the wants and preferences that we have never chosen. For example, choosing jeans over other varieties of pants not necessarily means that we are free enough to choose jeans, but it means that we obey our desire to wear jeans. The desire does not purely arise out of our own free will and pure reason but arises out of our attraction toward jeans and our perceived necessity to be fashionable. For Kant, necessity is the opposite of freedom and so an action which is done out of necessity can never be an act of freedom.
Then what constitutes a free act? According to Kant, to act freely and to become autonomous is to act according to a law that one gives to oneself based on pure reason, independent of the external physical laws and the laws of cause and effect. Kant derives his definition of morality through his definition of freedom by explaining three contrasts.

        The first contrast he explains deals with the imperative of our desires. To be moral, our desires should arise from a categorical imperative rather than a hypothetical one. While hypothetical imperative uses cause and effect relationships for explaining the desire, the categorical imperative makes the action not as a means to some other end but an end in itself and is based on a pure reason. For example, if I help others so that I feel good, then the motive of the action is hypothetical. If I help others considering it as a duty with no further purpose, then the motive is categorical.
The second contrast Kant explains deals with the freedom. If the motive of our desire is categorical, then it implies that we are truly autonomous in the determination of the will. If our motives are ulterior, having multiple ends, then our determination of will cannot be autonomous, but is “heteronomous”, a term coined by Kant specially to explain this concept.

        Kant defines what morality is, through his third contrast. Our actions are moral, only insofar as they are done with duty as its motive rather than an inclination towards something else. Here, duty refers to an action derived from the categorical imperative with an autonomous determination of will.

“A good will isn’t good because of what it effects or accomplishes, it’s good in itself. Even if by utmost effort the good will accomplishes nothing it would still shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself.”
-          Immanuel Kant

        Kant furthers his explanation by saying that when we do our actions out of pure reason, with a free determination of will, without using it for satisfying our external necessities, we will not end up using fellow human beings as instruments for furthering our own ends and desires. This is because when Kant says our actions should be performed as an end in itself, he means that, we should not use even ourselves as an instrument for satisfying external necessities. Kant, hereby, lays the groundwork for universal human rights, within the framework of his own theory of morality. In Kant’s words,

“ I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will. “

        Kant also says that the concept of morality cannot be explained by science. Morality, for Kant, is independent of natural laws and forces and hence, it is not empirical. Science can explain what humans do but it cannot explain what humans want to do. This explanation of Kant is well illustrated by the recent researches on altruism in the fields of neurobiology and genetics. Though they try to explain the evolution and the mechanism behind altruism, they can never explain how it should be. This might be the reason why Kant named his book “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” rather than something like “Science of Morality”.

        Kant’s definition of morality gives rise to three important questions which help in better understanding of his ideas.

Question 1: The actions which are done out of pure reason, drawn by a categorical imperative, would be useful to us in many ways. Does that make the actions lose its moral worth?

Kant addresses this question by explaining that while the moral worth of an action is determined by its pure reason, it does not lose its moral worth as long as it possesses the pure reason, irrespective of it serving other purposes. The action may have both categorical and hypothetical imperatives, but it is of moral worth as long as it possesses the categorical imperative.

Question 2: If we perform an action in such a way that it fits in to Kant’s definition of morality, isn’t it self-defeating that it is done not for the sake of it but for the purpose of being moral?

Kant responds to this objection by saying that there is only one incentive for a person who performs actions in accordance with morality, which is nothing but the reverence for morality. Thus Kant claims that an action remains moral insofar it is not done for any other incentive but for the reverence for the moral law itself.

Question 3: If every human has his/her own law for doing things, won’t the morality become highly subjective? Is it impossible to have a universal law of morality?

Kant says that morality becomes subjective only when an action is done out of hypothetical imperative and inclinations. When an action is done out of pure reason, without corresponding to the external laws, every human will arrive at a same definition for a moral action. This is because of the fact that the pure reason, which is the driving force of a moral action, is one and the same for every human being. Thus, morality though seems to be subjective, is universal and same for every rational being.

        While Kant’s account of morality extends beyond the above principles to the more complicated “Formula of Universal Law”, “Formula of Humanity as an End” and many more, they are beyond the scope of this essay.

        I feel that Kant’s idea gains greater significance when applied to the act of acquiring knowledge. The act of acquiring knowledge, in any form through any means, should be treated as an end in itself. Though gaining knowledge will sure lead to various benefits, those benefits should not be the prime motive behind the act.

        Thus, I conclude by confessing that I started reading about Kant’s works as a part of my preparations for entrance exams. Admired by the idea and convinced by the arguments, I ended up writing about them unmindful of the fact that doing so will be of trivial or no use to anyone!

References & Bibliography:

Kant, Immanuel (2005). Moral law: The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (2nd ed), London: Routledge.

Sandel, Michael J.(2010), Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, London: Penguin UK

Harvard University's JUSTICE with Michael Sandel (2011). Retreived from :