The conception and the development of a particular moral standpoint or point of view is a crucial part of Kantian ethics. The particular view adopted by Kant forms the basis of his understanding of the moral subject as it exists in the actual world, alongside the duties and responsibilities which this subject must be taken to bear. As such, it simultaneously a standpoint which radically equalizes all subjects into a position of being equal moral agents and that holds them to the same universalizable moral and ethical responsibilities. As a result, in order to understand and elaborate the importance and wider philosophical implications of the Kantian moral perspective, it is necessary to consider both its relationship to the will and its subsequently extrapolated relationship to duty. It is only once one has done that one can consider the efficacy of this idea of a wider understanding of moral agency and ethical responsibility, together with the seeming contradiction of subject that is simultaneously free and determined.
The first point to be noted about Kant’s own moral perspective is that it is one which almost entirely deindividuates historical people and which removes the influence of historical circumstances on a particular decision. Rather, Kant posits the individual, regardless of their environment or circumstances, as being possessed of a will, and insists that this a-historical faculty of possessing a will should become the focus for philosophical investigation. Kant makes this clear when he writes in the opening passages of the “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” that the only truly good thing in the world is a good will, and that it is therefore from the perspective of the will that one must begin to understand practical philosophy. All other conceptions of a good event or action which may be brought about in the world would necessarily be relative or at least qualified. A consequence of the material existence of something “good” is that it can only be good for particular individuals or circumstances. As such, its status as an existent is the very thing which disqualifies it from being purely “good.”
It is from this perspective of a purely good will that Kant moves to consider the particular individual that can be said to apply to such an individual. In order to do this and attain a perspective that can be argued to be actually prescriptive, Kant argues that it is necessary to understand a formal difference between the concepts of will and duty. The primary difference between these two can be first be understood according to the overall project of Kantian morality. With regard to this, Kant himself writes that the primary aim of his work is to investigate “the source of the practical basic principles that lie apriori in our reason” While the will is posited as being a universal category for all agents, it is not described as being necessarily related to such a-priori principles which themselves constitute the framework of the moral law which Kant imagines as underlying moral decisions. With regard to this, Kant argues that an individual will cannot be understood to provide necessary access to the good or to the right and that one must complement this 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.
Crucial to this stand point is the conception of human freedom, and of the capacity to bring a will under the domain of reason and to either deny of gratify it based on a rational understanding of the moral law. Without this freedom, then the very notion of a distinction between will and duty becomes impossible to maintain and ceases to hold. When determining the concept of freedom, Kant argues that it can be qualified via a reference to a necessary contradiction between determinism and free will. According to Kant, both of these are potentially adequate ways of understanding the nature of a moral agent and, as such, neither one may be argued to effectively solve the philosophical problems posed by the other. As such, the necessarily argues that a human being must be conceived of as a rational agent who is determined by nature and by history, and who is possessed of a capacity for cognition and reason which is over and above a system of natural and historical determination. It is this central contradiction which lies at the heart of Kant’s conception of a moral agent.
This perspective on the moral subject has clear consequences for the ethics in general. To begin with, it posits every individual who is capable of what Kant would consider to be either rational thought or intuitive knowledge of the moral law as beholden to a moral law and to duty. As such, it relies on an abstract, transcendental subject which can be taken as a universal category through which to understand all moral agents. The moral agent in question, therefore, is any particular historical individual. This has the consequence of ensuring that all individuals are taken to be responsible for their actions and for their own adherence to duty. Despite this, however, the actual position which Kant develops is itself predicated on the suggestion that human beings themselves exist in a situation in which all experience, and with it nature, can be understood as being causally determined. Despite effectively arguing this, Kant disavows it by claiming that only that which is not a part of the world can be understood as being relevant to ethics.
It is this contradiction which constitutes both Kant’s largest contribution to the field of ethics and also his most serious challenge to it. Most importantly, it speaks of a logic of responsibility in which a person may be understood as being legally responsible for an action over which they can also be argued to have had little control. As such, the idea of a moral agent as it emerges from Kant’s philosophy must be consistently qualified with the suggestion that this agent is itself a fundamentally contradictory thing which is simultaneously free and determined.
In conclusion, therefore, Kant’s practical philosophy can be shown to take a standpoint which focuses exclusively on will and motivation; to the exclusion of moral consequences and material actuality. Such a philosophy develops a universal moral subject based on the categories of will and duty, and on the capacity for the one to be subsumed under the other. This moral subject can be taken to refers to any individual and to generate an ethics of responsibility in which each person is held to be equal before the moral law. This usefulness should be qualified, however, with the fact that Kant simultaneously understands the moral subject as physically determined and as free in their use of transcendental reason, or capacity to observe duty. His philosophy can therefore be seen to identify a central contradiction with regard to ideas of both legal and ethical responsibility and the conception of a subject who exists as a part of a causal chain.
- Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.” Practical Philosophy. Trans by Mary J. Gregor Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- –The Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer. Cambridge University Press: