Kant 101


I see that this bb is a bit over my levl, but hope someone will take the time to explain some basics about Kant.

I’m writing a report using Kant’s categorical imperative. The setting is that a woman at your workplace is performing badly as of late and you ‘know’ she is going through a hard time at the moment.
You hear a rumour from he neighbour that she does drugs.
The question is what does with that rumour, and the alternative I will look at is to tell the boss. Is it a moral action according to Kants CI. Seemed easey enough at the time, but looking into this seemingly easy formula is very hard to understand.

• The first (Universal Law formulation): “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
• The second (Humanity or End in Itself formulation): “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
• The third (Kingdom of Ends formulation) combines the two: “All maxims as proceeding from our own [hypothetical] making of law ought to harmonise with a possible kingdom of ends.”

The first is ok.

The second I’m not sure I understand.

Should I tell the boss? I can not use a person as simply a means, but also an end. Humanity refers to ability to self-government (autonomy?) Does that mean that we can not go to the boss as it would infringe on her right to decide for her self, or is it a case where we want the best for the woman (end) so she is not _ just_ a means?

The third I know I do not understand. What is the difference between that and the two first?

the second is motive… if you tell the boss so she can get help you have acted morally according to kant (she herself is the end)… if you tell the boss so you can take her job, you have acted immorally (you use her for your end)…

the third is a simply combination of the first two, not necessarily different from them…


Thanks. I leaned toward thinking that not leaving the choice to the woman (autonomy) we were using her for ‘my’ end, even if I did it ‘for’ her benefit. Knowing it is the motive helps.

Are you sure about that btw, as I seem to remember reading that Kant did not care about the motive, he cared about the rule in it self only. I compare Kant to virtue ethics, and at a website the main difference between Kant and virtue ethics were that for virtue ethics intent matter.

As for number one, I concluded that ‘if I go to the boss with gossip, everyone should go to the boss with gossip’, and as that is not desirable it would be wrong.


yes I am sure:

"The will, Kant says, is the faculty of acting according to a conception of law. When we act, whether or not we achieve what we intend with our actions is often beyond our control, so the morality of our actions does not depend upon their outcome. What we can control, however, is the will behind the action. That is, we can will to act according to one law rather than another. The morality of an action, therefore, must be assessed in terms of the motivation behind it. If two people, Smith and Jones, perform the same act, from the same conception of the law, but events beyond Smith’s control prevent her from achieving her goal, Smith is not less praiseworthy for not succeeding. We must consider them on equal moral ground in terms of the will behind their actions.

The only thing that is good without qualification is the good will, Kant says. All other candidates for an intrinsic good have problems, Kant argues. Courage, health, and wealth can all be used for ill purposes, Kant argues, and therefore cannot be intrinsically good. Happiness is not intrinsically good because even being worthy of happiness, Kant says, requires that one possess a good will. The good will is the only unconditional good despite all encroachments. Misfortune may render someone incapable of achieving her goals, for instance, but the goodness of her will remains.

Goodness cannot arise from acting on impulse or natural inclination, even if impulse coincides with duty. It can only arise from conceiving of one’s actions in a certain way. A shopkeeper, Kant says, might do what is in accord with duty and not overcharge a child. Kant argues, “it is not sufficient to do that which should be morally good that it conform to the law; it must be done for the sake of the law.” (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Akademie pagination 390) There is a clear moral difference between the shopkeeper that does it for his own advantage to keep from offending other customers and the shopkeeper who does it from duty and the principle of honesty.(Ibid., 398) Likewise, in another of Kant’s carefully studied examples, the kind act of the person who overcomes a natural lack of sympathy for other people out of respect for duty has moral worth, whereas the same kind act of the person who naturally takes pleasure in spreading joy does not. A person’s moral worth cannot be dependent upon what nature endowed them with accidentally. The selfishly motivated shopkeeper and the naturally kind person both act on equally subjective and accidental grounds. What matters to morality is that the actor think about their actions in the right manner.

We might be tempted to think that the motivation that makes an action good is having a positive goal–to make people happy, or to provide some benefit. But that is not the right sort of motive, Kant says. No outcome, should we achieve it, can be unconditionally good. Fortune can be misused, what we thought would induce benefit might actually bring harm, and happiness might be undeserved. Hoping to achieve some particular end, no matter how beneficial it may seem, is not purely and unconditionally good. It is not the effect or even the intended effect that bestows moral character on an action. All intended effects “could be brought about through other causes and would not require the will of a rational being, while the highest and unconditional good can be found only in such a will.” (Ibid., 401) It is the possession of a rationally guided will that adds a moral dimension to one’s acts. So it is the recognition and appreciation of duty itself that must drive our actions."


Ok, I see. What you say is that the intent to ‘follow a rule’ is what matters, and not the intent to do ‘good’ as a general term.

If we then go back to ‘the second is motive… if you tell the boss so she can get help you have acted morally according to kant (she herself is the end)… if you tell the boss so you can take her job, you have acted immorally (you use her for your end)…’

The intent here then becomes to follow the rule of helping other. However what if the woman does not want you to help her? Are you not using her as a means to and end, even if it is to help her? She would ‘perhaps’ object, so before doing so you have to consult with her?

Am I right in my answer to the first part of the imperative, that you could not make ‘going to the boss with a rumour’ an universal rule?

even if the woman doesn’t want the help, kant thinks there is a duty to help the woman… I think your objection is right, she becomes an end for the do-gooder but kant doesn’t think so (on this I think kant is wrong- duty doesn’t work)

yes you are correct with the first example… one wouldn’t want taking rumors to the boss to become a universal rule…



“However what if the woman does not want you to help her? Are you not using her as a means to and end, even if it is to help her?”

This for me is the fundamental contradiction in Kant’s imperatives. The 2nd contradicts the 1st. The 1st makes of men the means by which the Law is fulfilled. The 2nd does not allow means to be the ends. What happens is that the “ends” of man are to be the “means” of the Law. The product is an inhuman circulation of pure Law, which the 2nd imperative is meant to alleviate and humanize. A Kingdom of Ends is a frozen realm where each person fits into the gearworks of the Law, and a world which can just as easily reflect Ultimate Evil (Nazism as seen from the outside perhaps), as it may reflect Ultimate Good (Nazism as seen from the inside).


In one lecture I were told that people had autonomy so if someone decided to walk close to a river and fell in, you should in principle not help. Their choice. However as Kant saw that it was wrong he said you should help, but then refer to the one in need as the ‘carrier of morality’, and that override the autonomy rule. The same goes for suicide. In essence he seems to put ‘respect for life’ under a ‘carrier of morality’ justification. Is this the justification for requiring people to help on other less life threatening matters as well?

So now that we deal with a contradiction, what would Kant conclude?

Surly Nazism (if you refer to genocide) would violate ‘respect for the carrier of morality’ and could never be accepted by Kant? I do no doubt that people could use anything to justify their action, but that does not mean it is ‘right’.


Since the first part tells you that it’s wrong to make ‘telling’ a universal rule, and the seccond tells you that you have to help, Kant would conclude that you ought to help?

I can not make sense of that man …

yes, kant would say do your duty and help… if that meant telling for purely altruistic reasons, then your duty to tell takes precedence…

his ethics are especially contradictory and difficult… very few can make sense of kant and those that do accept him accept some basic contradictions as facts…


Ok, Thanks for all the help. I have written my assignment and will get feedback by the ethics proff. tomorrow. Using Kant is difficult at best an in 800 words all but impossible, but as it’s 101 I guess the demands are not that great.

I have another assignment due for July on 2500 words, but will choose ethical theory closer to my heart. Human rights, empathy, ‘care theory’ (sorry not able to translate that to English)