Kant's Ethics: Some Key Ideas
Intrinsic Goodness and Moral Worth
Kant begins the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by claiming that "nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will" (Bailey 647). He also says that "a good will is good not because of what it accomplishes or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition -- that is, it is good in itself" (Bailey 648).
Although Kant is writing before Bentham or Mill, this is a clear statement of a fundamental disagreement with utilitarian accounts of ethics. Mill thinks that the only thing that is intrinsically good is happiness or pleasure; Kant thinks that the only thing that is intrinsically good is a good will. And Kant makes it clear that what makes a will good has nothing to do with "what it accomplishes or effects," thus distinguishing his view sharply from consequentialist views of any type, including utilitarianism.
Classification of Imperatives
The table below summarizes Kant's discussion at Bailey, pp. 658-660.
The central principle of Kant's ethical theory is what he calls the Categorical Imperative. He offers several formulations of this principle, which he regards as all saying the same thing. (In fact, contrary to what Kant thinks, they seem to say different things.) Two of these formulations are especially important for our purposes.
The Formula of the Universal Law
First, there is the formulation Kant regards as most basic (Bailey 662): "act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." The test for the morality of an action that Kant expresses here is something like the following. Suppose that I am trying to decide whether or not to perform a particular action, say A. Then I must go through the following steps:
1. Formulate the maxim of the action. That is, figure out what general principle you would be acting on if you were to perform the action. The maxim will have something like this form: "when I am in a situation of sort S, I will do A." (For example: "in situations in which I am thirsty and there is water available, I will drink it," or "in situations in which I need money and know I can't pay it back, I will falsely promise to pay it back.")
2. Universalize the maxim. That is, formulate it not as a personal policy but as a principle for everyone. A universalized maxim will look something like this: "when anyone is in a situation of sort S, they will do A." (For example: "in situations in which anyone is thirsty and water is available, that person will drink it," or "in situations in which anyone needs money and knows he or she cannot pay it back, he or she will falsely promise to pay it back."
3. Determine whether the universalized maxim could be a universal law, that is, whether it is possible for everyone to act as the universalized maxim requires. (Our first example seems harmless, but Kant argues that the second maxim could not be a universal law: if everyone started making false promises, the institution of promising would disappear, so no one would be able to make a false promises, since there would be no such thing as a promise to falsely make. See example 2 at Bailey 663.) If the universalized maxim could not be a universal law, you have a perfect obligation not to perform the action.
4. But perhaps the maxim could be a universal law. Then we need to ask a further question: could we will that the maxim be a universal law? (For example, Kant thinks that it could be the case that everyone refused to ever help others in distress, but that we could not will that this be the case because that would mean no one would help us when we were in distress. See his fourth example.) If the maxim could be a universal law, but you could not will that it be a universal law, you have an imperfect duty not to perform the action.
The Formula of the End in Itself
The second formulation that is important for us is the formula of the end in itself: roughly, "act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means" (see Bailey, p. 666). The idea here is that everyone, insofar as he or she is a rational being, is intrinsically valuable; we ought therefore to treat people as having a value all their own rather than merely as useful tools or devices by means of which we can satisfy our own goals or purposes. Other people are valuable not merely insofar as they can serve our purposes; they are also valuable in themselves.
Note that the formula does not rule out all cases of using someone else to satisfy my own desires or projects. That would seem to eliminate a very large number of human interactions!
Treating others as mere means, treating them only as devices we can use to help us satisfy our desires, seems a clear enough notion; certain kinds of corporate and sexual relationships seem like clear examples of it. But what would it be to treat someone as an end in him or herself? Kant's idea seems to be that we treat someone as an end only insofar as we act toward him or her in a way that he or she can understand as appropriate or justified: we should be able to explain our reasons in such a way that the person will see the reasonableness of acting in the way we propose. Thus, for example, Kant writes: "he who is thinking of making a lying promise to others will see at once that he would be using another human being merely as a means, without the latter at the same time containing in himself the end. For he whom I propose by such a promise to use for my own purposes cannot possibly assent to my mode of acting toward him, and therefore cannot himself contain the end of this action" (Bailey 666-667).
What is ruled out by this formulation, therefore, appears to be actions which treat others in such a way that they do not have the opportunity to consent to what we are doing. So we treat others as mere means when we force them to do something, or when we obtain their consent through coercion or dishonesty.