What I Learned from Studying Emanuel Kant

I knew little about Kant about except that he was important. I was introduced to his writings in a university philosophy class I audited in my 60s. There is a reason I knew little about him. His ideas are complicated, and his writing is hard to understand. After reading several of his important books and then reading books about Kant and his philosophy I began to understand what he was talking about. His ideas are important, and his reputation well deserved.

My understanding of Kant is perhaps simplistic. Some of his finer points and nuances may eluded me. But several of his basic ideas stuck with me and influenced my thinking and behavior.

Good will and duty

I learned from Kant the importance of will, particularly good will, and duty in guiding my behavior. Will is the mechanism by which we choose among courses of action. It is how we guide and control our actions.

Good will, in Kant’s view, is when the will is based on a commitment, or duty, to act following reasoned moral principles, or moral laws, regardless of the consequences. The moral principles we commit to follow are developed a priori, or before, the action taken. People of “good will” act out of a duty to follow moral principles. They act because it is the right thing to do according to their moral principles even when it is not in their best interest.

Will governed by other mechanisms is common and normal. People frequently decide to act based on emotions or the expected consequences. Self-preservation, desire for happiness, empathy for others, and fear of punishment are examples of common and often good decision-making criteria. We apply these often innately and on instinct. We do not have to think much before acting.

Will governed by emotions and desired outcomes has limitations. Our emotions can lead us to poor decisions depending upon the circumstances. For example, our empathy is often strong for people we know and weak for those we don’t, leading to misjudgments about who needs our help the most. Decisions based in anger are rarely good ones. Emotional decision-making processes are often fast, leaving little time to gather important information.

Deciding based on consequences requires determining how different options will produce the results desired. That is hard in a complex world. We frequently encounter the law of unintended consequences. It can be difficult to determine if the outcome we desire is a good one. It is easy to have self-interest override what is good for society. Also, there is the perennial problem of whether the ends justify the means if our primary criteria is the desired outcomes of our actions.

A principled or rules-based approach based on Kant definition of good will and duty avoids some of these problems. With reasoned and wise rules – always tell the truth (or at least don’t lie) – decision-making is simplified. Decisions are likely to be better because more thought has gone into them up front. Principles can dampen our natural inclination to act out of self-interest or uncontrolled emotion.

The ideas about good will and duty caused me to think more deeply about how I make choices and my motives for acting. Am I choosing based on the outcome I want or the emotion I feel? Or am I following a moral principle formulated prior to the specific circumstance? Am I applying the best decision-making process for the situation?

I have long felt somewhat uneasy about “good” actions that seemed to be self-serving. It is a low moral bar to clear if we are helping ourselves. My donation to the local nature preserve helps others but is partly for my own benefit since I birdwatch there. Similarly, I don’t deserve praise for doing something good because I fear the negative consequences if I don’t. Kant’s ideas helped me see my decision-making mechanisms and their potential flaws.

The idea that the moral action is best governed by a commitment to reasoned moral principles raised the bar for my actions. It encouraged me to work toward well-reasoned guiding principles. It gave a better touchstone to test my process for choosing. I still have a will that listens to emotions and considers consequences, but more often I can set those decision methods aside when appropriate and apply well-reasoned moral principles.

Moral principles and the categorical imperative

Duty to follow principles only works well if your principles are reasoned and wise. Actions will be flawed if the moral principles guiding them are poorly conceived. Kant believed reason is essential to developing principles worthy of following. There are limits on reason and Kant writes about those. But reason is preferred to the alternatives.

What Kant means by reason is not easily understood. There are different types of reason and different applications. It is practical reason that is relevant here. It is reasoning about values and actions rather than reasoning about facts. It involves our understanding of people and the environment within which we live. There seems to be similarities between Kant’s practical reason and the practical wisdom described by Aristotle. Good principles require more that logic, they require wisdom as well.

Kant is famous for his categorical imperative which is his rule (he called them maxims) to follow all the time and without conditions. “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” This means that we should only act in ways that we would compel everyone to act in the same situation. There are similarities with the golden rule to treat others and we would want to be treated.

He also stated a similar version of this imperative which is to never treat others solely as a means to an end. We should always treat people as an end in themselves. By this he means we should respect their humanity and not treat them in ways they would not knowingly agree to. We use people to achieve ends all the time and that is not in itself a problem. But we should be sure it is not a one-way street where only we get what we want. We use the grocer to get our food, but we pay the grocer. It is mutually beneficial.  

I found the categorical imperative in its various formulations a good general rule to follow. It is a default moral law that rarely will lead you astray. It is not perfect, and it may not be best in all circumstances, but the exceptions are rare.

It is not the only way to make decisions. It does not preclude self-interested actions. It does not mean we should not consider the desired consequences of our actions. It does provide a high-level test for the correctness of our actions. It would be hard to find fault with the actions of someone who followed the categorical imperative.

Kant said that our goal should not be happiness but to be worthy of happiness. Duty to follow moral principles is primary, individual happiness is secondary. When I think about the people I admire for their ethics or virtues, it is often people who act on principle, even if the results were detrimental to them or if there are bad unintended consequences. Kant’s ideas of good will, duty, and the categorical imperative is as good a foundation for making good moral decisions as I have found.