Laws in modern time dictate what should or shouldn’t be done by attaching penalties to the actions labeled as wrong or bad. These laws are determined through proposal and discussion by elected officials. In short, morality is legislated. In historical eras morality was left to religion and philosophy. One influential philosopher in regards to ethical morality, or what’s right and wrong, is Immanuel Kant an 18th century German professor and author. Kantian ethics follow the theories of Kant. Using maxims, or rules of behavior, Kant provided a rational approach to determining morality. This short introduction to Kantian ethics will explain Kant’s approach.
Kant’s categorical imperative declares that reason and rationality set apart the individual as the ultimate decision maker on what is right. It doesn’t matter what the context of a situation is, right is right and wrong is wrong. It is up to the individual to use rational thinking to determine what is right and then to do it. For example, stealing is always wrong. Whether food is being stolen to feed starving children or a car is being stolen to feed a corrupt ego, stealing is wrong. Kant claimed there is universality in ethical morality which doesn’t yield to situation or circumstance. In answering the question of “what ought I to do?” the individual must know before the situation arises what is to be done, and this is accomplished through basic reasoning, and will yield the same answer to a question every time it is encountered.
In personal relationships it is wrong for one individual to manipulate another individual as a means to an end; this is called the practical imperative. Kant believed that every person should be treated as an end, thereby maintaining their humanity and autonomy. The categorical imperative would say murder is always wrong, so would the practical imperative because it finds one person using another to reach an end, whatever that end may be. Critics of Kant doubt the general rational ability for people to adhere to this level of morality. It may have been unrealistic of Kant to expect that all people would be able to behave in accordance with these imperatives, but philosophy doesn’t necessarily deal with what people do, only what they may or should do.
Autonomy and will were important to Kant’s philosophy of ethics. He conceptualized duty as the ultimate responsibility. Acting in accordance with duty was the morally right thing to do. Kant was not of the utilitarian school of thought where the most important thing was to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, nor was he hedonistic in thinking that the ultimate individual goal was happiness. Rather, Kant saw fulfillment of duty, relating to following the individual code of universal morality, as the highest drive and most likely to result in happiness. Any violation of duty was thereby a matter of immorality. In Kantian ethics there are none immoral save those who deny their duty and do not embrace rational thinking.