German Philosopher Immanuel Kants Philosophy

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The Formula of the Law of Nature: Act as if the maxim of your actions were to become, through your will, a universal law of nature. In English: An action must be universally applicable in order to be ethical. For example, stealing, under any circumstances, is wrong because if everyone stole, the world would be in chaos and society would probably break down.

The Formula of the End Itself: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person on any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end." Simply this means that everyone has human worth and that you cannot, ethically speaking, manipulate and use someone with no regard to his or her intrinsic worth. This formula follows from the first, since everyone would otherwise be manipulated and used by others, thus causing social chaos. This formula states that you, for example, cannot ever ethically own a slave to do manual labor for you because, in this situation, you are using this person as a means to an end (not doing your own manual labor) while ignoring his intrinsic human worth.

The Formula of Autonomy: "So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims." This means that our actions, in order to be ethical, must be able to abide by universally applicable laws, such as the aforementioned "Thou shall not steal."

The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: "So act as if you were, through your maxims, a law-making member of a kingdom of ends." Simply stated, this formula means that the only ethical laws are those that would benefit mankind as a whole while treating all people, including yourself, as ends and not means. For example, suicide could not ever be deemed to be the ethical thing to do, according to Kantian ethics, otherwise it should actually be a law that everyone commits suicide. Now, wouldn't that be a silly law?

Influenced by Kantian ethicsJürgen Habermas

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has proposed a theory of discourse ethics that he claims is a descendant of Kantian ethics. He proposes that action should be based on communication between those involved, in which their interests and intentions are discussed so they can be understood by all. Rejecting any form of coercion of manipulation, Habermas believes that agreement between the parties is crucial for a moral decision to be reached.  Like Kantian ethics, discourse ethics is a cognitive ethical theory, in that it supposes that truth and falsity can be attributed to ethical propositions. It also formulates a rule by which ethical actions can be determined, in a similar way to Kantian ethics. The theory also proposes that ethical actions should be universalisable, as Kant's did. Habermas argues that his ethical theory is an improvement on Kant's ethics. He rejects the dualism which provides the framework for Kant's ethics. Kant distinguished between the phenomena, the world which can be sensed and experienced by humans, and the noumena, the spiritual world, inaccessible to humans. This dichotomy was necessary for Kant because it could explain the autonomy of a human agent (although a human is bound in the phenomenal world, their actions are free in the intelligible world). For Habermas, morality arises from discourse, which is made necessary by their rationality and needs, rather than their freedom.

Critics of Kantian ethics

G.W.F. Hegel presented two main criticisms of Kantian ethics. He first argued that Kantian ethics provide no specific information about what people should do because Kant's moral law is solely a principle of non-contradiction. He argued that Kant's ethics lack any content and so cannot constitute a supreme principle of morality. To illustrate this point, Hegel and his followers have presented a number of cases in which the Formula of Universal Law either provides no meaningful answer or gives an answer which is obviously mistaken. Hegel used Kant's example of being trusted with another man's money to argue that Kant's Formula of Universal Law cannot determine whether a social system of property is a morally good thing, because either answer can entail contradictions. He also used the example of helping the poor: if everyone helped the poor, there would be no poor left to help, so beneficence would be impossible if universalised, making it immoral according to Kant's model. Hegel's second criticism was that Kant's ethics forces humans into an internal conflict between reason and desire. For Hegel, it is unnatural for humans to suppress their desire and subordinate it to reason. This means that, by not addressing the tension between self-interest and morality, Kant's ethics cannot give humans any reason to be moral.

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