Kant on Ethics
There are those who would ascribe the human sense of morality, the sense of right and wrong, on religion; others, such as Immanuel Kant, on reason. The principal basis upon which Kant imputes morality is on good will, which he claims is an intrinsic value universal to all people, independent from external influences. But for good will to be valid, any good action that issues from such good will must be motivated by good will and a sense of duty – not whether one is inclined to do good. The motivation to do good stems from within the individual, and as such is universal, as available to everyone given similar circumstances.
Kant understood that everything acts according to a law of nature, if you will, but only reasoning human beings may choose whether or not to follow a given law, in spite of their own inclinations. Such realization of the laws imposes a duty to perform certain actions, thus the word imperative to explain his moral imperatives. Distinguishing between his hypothetical imperatives, which demand actions on the basis of some ulterior motive and his categorical imperatives which require performance of actions for their own sake, and would not be subject to internal emotional conflict for its performance.
For example, the Moslem is called to prayer and genuflects five times a day as a form of categorical imperative. He does not question the duty to perform; he does not reason; he simply acts. Another example might be the rather simplistic one of paying for goods and services. It is assumed (universally) that if one wants an orange from the market, one must pay for it. One does not have to reason about the validity of having a price tag attached to a product in order to know that it has a price. There would be chaos if people only randomly followed that law.
In every respect, Kant proposed, humans should regard life – their own and others’ – as being valuable in and of themselves, not as a means to an end. In other words, implied is the principle of “don’t use people for your own ends.” Kant proposed respect for human life, our own and others’, in all its manifestations, from fully developing our talents to not committing suicide. He also maintained that such benevolence should issue from the Golden Rule, and from this self-interest we should impute that interest onto others. In essence, empathy.
According to Kant, while there is one categorical imperative, that our actions that represent moral obligations would be universal, the categorical imperative rests upon three maxims: The idea that moral action is universal in that it should not depend on one’s inclinations to act morally; that all life, one’s own as well as others’, is to be treated as an end in itself, and never as a means to an end; and that the laws which the rational being observes are of his own making, accepted as his own, and followed as his own, as opposed to inanimate objects that follow the law of nature without a rational will of their own, such as the rotation of the earth.
A universal law, then, is one which is agreed to by a universal thought of rational human beings, and the actions that issue from it are universally good, according to Kantian theory.