From different considerations, Immanuel Kant criticized previous ethical theories. Kantian ethics was stipulated by a doctrine of independence, or ‘autonomy’ of morality. At the same time, Kant’s predecessors (such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle) and his contemporaries considered that ethics should be based on religion, as far as the moral law (the moral duty) is given or imparted to people by God. Reasoning from this knowledge, the moralists (both Christian and non-Christian) recalled Holy Scriptures and religious teachings. By this means Holy Bible presented the myth of divine moral law (for example the Ten Commandments provided to Moses by God).
According to Kant, morality depends on no religion, because the religious commandments cannot impose the moral duties. Kant also doubts the Material Idealism and the Rationalists’ claims because of Antinomies.
According to Kant, something that comes about not from morality and freedom cannot be the substitute for the absence of morality. Therefore, morality itself needs no religion, but rather by the practical reason weighs upon itself. Kant refutes the relationship between the morality and religion by the following reasoning:
First, to have moral worth the action should be done from duty. Second, its moral worth is stipulated by the principle of will by which this action is performed. Finally, the duty is the force that binds a person to his obligations, where the action should be performed in deference to the law. Thus, the morality is autonomous. Also, Kant considers that religion depends on the morality rather than the morality depends on religion, because the person cannot behave morally simply because of the fact that God commanded him to be moral. On contrary, the person believes in God’s existence because, as it is claimed by Kant, the morality itself calls for belief. The practical reason predominates over the theoretical reason. In such a way, Kant derives the idea of autonomy from the moral law.
According to Kant, autonomy and heteronomy are two opposite ways of choosing how to act. Autonomy is a way of action based on self-evident moral law, which is stipulated by the categorical imperative. It depends on no natural or social laws (the property the will has of being a law unto itself). Autonomous agents (those who act) act in such a way that the will is both a lawgiver and a subject to the law. It means that their way of action is stipulated by the internal wishes, drives and values. Autonomous agents enjoy individual freedom of action. Their self-being is determined by their own reason and conscience.
In contrast to autonomy, heteronomous way of choosing how to act is determined by the external drives and duties (for example the laws that are imposed on a person from without). Heteronomous way of action is based not on moral principles, but on the other spheres (for example social life). To put it differently, the autonomous will is the ability to make universal decisions and to act both as a lawgiver and a subject to the law. Contrariwise, when the person appeals to the society, nature, or divine forces, he acts heteronomously.
In his “Critique of Practical Reason” Kant identifies autonomy with the help of the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is the fundamental principle of Kantian ethics, as far as it stipulates a valid moral requisition in the ability of an absolute principle of human behavior.
Kant tried to discover the laws able to control human behavior. Therefore, he tried to understand whether these laws may exist as applied to the practical reason. According to Kant, the morality should be valid, absolute, unconditional and universal. It means that the morality should take the form of the universal law, or imperative. This reasoning leads to the first formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1993, p.30).
This maxim expresses the objective necessity to do something (to act) under compulsion (to perform one’s duty). Under this formulation, Kant divides the duties into two categories: perfect and imperfect. According to him, the first perfect duty is not to follow the maxims that may cause logical contradictions when we try to make them a universal law (for example it is permissible to lie). Then, our imperfect duty is to follow the maxims, whereby we can will that it should be the universal law.
Next, the rational action implies both a principle and an end. Most of the ends are subjective, because there is a need to pursue them if they are conforming to some hypothetical imperatives. Logically, the end is objective, in case it implies the necessity to be pursued by the person. Next, the free will cannot be interpreted as a subjective end, because this assumption calls into question the existence of freedom. Considering the autonomous will is the only prerequisite for the moral action, Kant continues his reasoning by the second formulation: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (Kant, 1993, p.36). Therefore, the person’s perfect duty is not to treat himself or the other people as a means. The imperfect duty is to assist other people in pursuing their ends.
Finally, his third formulation of a self-legislating will (“Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends” (Kant, 1993, p.43)) explains that the source of the moral law springs from the person’s will.
Using his reasoning as the base, Kant expects us to apply the categorical imperative and the universal law in our everyday lives. We can make a sort of test for the moral value of the action. For example, the person is depressed and wants to kill himself. He should act according to the maxim whereby he can “at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1993, p.30). However, in case the person kills himself, he will universalize the maxim “I should commit a suicide to improve the situation”. This logical contradiction leads to the conclusion that this particular action cannot be moral.
According to Kant, the moral law reflects the autonomy of the pure practical reason, thus being the law of freedom. The unity of dependence and independence displays itself in this concord of law and freedom. The autonomy is in close interdependence between the morality, freedom and rationality, where the categorical imperative is based on reason, freedom is the moral law, and reason alone allows a person to be free.
In my opinion, Kant`s theory on ethical decision making is correct. First, it is necessary to remember that the categorical imperative implies that a person, as a rational being, acts as he does because of his understanding of laws. Therefore, he has both moral laws and moral rights. In what follows, the action can be justified morally subject to several conditions. The motive of action should correspond to the assumption that the person wills all other people act in the same way. This formulation implies two criteria of correctness in respect to morality. Firstly, it implies universality (“act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1993, p.30) – What if all people would act in the same way?). Secondly, it implies reciprocity and reversibility (the person should act as if he may wish the motives of his actions may be used by other people).
Thus, Kantian ethics places emphasis on intrinsic motives of actions. For example, outrageous lie is impermissible, because in case everybody start lying, the relationships between people will be ruined; people will lose confidence in one another, and society will collapse.
The importance of Kantian ethics to people is difficult to overestimate. He linked the process of ethical decision-making with the universalization of the law and grounded ethics on the principle of rationality. Declaration of the value of autonomy furthered the development of democracy and human rights. The only problematical aspect of his theory (at least as applied to the process of communication and/or business) is that his ethics may face difficulties when different moral laws superimpose on one another (for example the problem of social responsibility towards society).
Kant, I. (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Hackett Publishing Co.