The Application Of The Supreme Principle of Morality (of Immanuel Kant) In The Decisions We Take In Everyday Life

This article was written by Shweta Rath of Symbiosis Law School as a part of her internship application for interning at iPleaders.

In the realm of philosophy researchers have always tried to find the absolute motivation of our acts and judgments which is why scholars like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant find a place in the discussion. Their theories are considered to be the foundation of the human behaviour in today’s world. To elaborate on Immanuel Kant’s theory of “Categorical Imperative” it is necessary to comment on John Stuart Mill and Bentham’s theory of “Consequentialism”. These theories merely say that our actions should be performed keeping in mind the consequences in the future. The consequence of one’s conduct is the ultimate basis for any judgement about the rightness in that conduct1. This is where Immanuel Kant presented theories which are completely in contrast with the above.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who wrote on philosophy and anthropology during the 18th century.

All his works gave rise to his most fundamental notion of “Categorical Imperative”.

He said “nothing can be regarded as good without qualification except goodwill.”3 The things that cannot be regarded as good without qualification are talents of the mind, courage, perseverance, power, riches etc. Ancient virtues of moderation and self control also cannot be considered as good. This is because being intelligent, rich and bold will help one to achieve the goals which don’t determine what the goals are. They magnify the effectiveness, but they don’t determine one’s value. For example: A rich, moderate, intelligent thief would be an outstanding thief, but that doesn’t make his work best. Each act gains value as far as goodwill is a part of it. Good is not about what it accomplishes. Good is good in itself.

As far as his contrasting views go, he has always been a critique of Consequentialism.

He doesn’t seem to give much importance to the outcome. Kant says that goodwill remains good, even if the goal lacked the power to accomplish its purpose. Even if a person with goodwill is frustrated with his goals, the actions still have worth. Even if the goal is not achieved, it will shine by itself with full value. His theories have raised various questions regarding how morality doesn’t depend on the outcome of the act. This was justified well by the two points he laid down

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Action must be done from duty in order to have moral worth.

Its not about the outcome, but under what characterization did one perform the act. He said that duty is the necessity of modern deontological theory

Duty is a necessary action done out of respect for law.

It is only when one subjects oneself to the law that you make for yourself, it is only then that you are free and autonomous.
To justify the first point he said that there are three kinds of motivation to do an act: a. Duty b. Self interest c. Inclination. He said that only pure cases of the first kind have the moral worth. If you obey the law out of self interest, your obedience doesn’t have moral worth. For example: if one rescues drowning children because of a sign that says “rescuer shall get a reward”, he has no moral worth. The same conclusion can be derived for stealing, murdering, lying etc. Actions performed from self interest keeping with the duty without inclination at that point also lacked moral worth. For instance, we all pay taxes, but only because if we don’t pay taxes, in the future we will have to pay more taxes. If Mill says these actions have moral worth, Kant denies the fact. Duties performed with inclination also do not find moral place in Kant’s theories. He says that there is no moral worth in being kind to gain sympathy. Even though these acts are moral, they are not done because they are the right thing to do. They are done because the inclination matches with morality. Duties without self interest or inclination are the supreme acts or morality. For example: Acting with kindness without any expectation in return. Inclination matched with duty helps in not doing the wrong thing, but doesn’t let you test your character. We should act because that is what morality demands out of us, not what self interest or inclination demands out of us.

To justify the second point he said that you should work according to the laws you set for yourself and not because of contingent forces.

There should be no heteronomity in our decisions. And we should not use other people’s notions as a means to our end. This raises the biggest question in the community. What is MORALITY? Because setting laws for one is very subjective in nature. What is right for me may not be right for the other person. Kant justifies it by giving the ultimate definition of Categorical Imperative i.e. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”4. In other words, never do the act that you couldn’t will everybody to do at the same time. Certain examples to explain the theory are:

If I say “I will never keep my promises”, this would be considered to be immoral because it cannot be applied to all people, for if it were, no-one would keep their promises and promises would lose all meaning.

Do we have a duty to cultivate talents?

Suppose nobody did that, then world in which we lived in would be the one in which nobody with creativity will be there.

If the duty is to not give money to someone in need and nobody did that, then it would lead to breakdown of an orderly world.

To determine morality we should will that a maxim of our action becomes a universal law. When we infringe, we do not will that our action should become a universal law, but rather the opposite. For example: Stealing depends on the fact that other people respect property. When you make an exception to yourself, you violate morality.

Kant’s theories were definitely a breakthrough, but they seem to be too wide and too unqualified.

It is purely formal and leaves out any understanding about the content or material aspect of morality. In our practical lives, since we live in a society, it becomes very hard to ignore the external influences and act purely without self interest or inclination. The categorical imperative constitutes a necessary condition for being a valid moral principle, but it does not provide us with a sufficiency criterion. It doesn’t help us to choose between two absolutely universal laws. That decision has to do with the material content of morality, and we must use other considerations to help us decide about that.5 Nevertheless, Kant presented a deontological moral system, based on the demands of the categorical imperative, as an alternative.



2 Crane Brinton. “Enlightenment”. Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Vol. 2, p. 519. Macmillan, 1967

3 quotations from Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

4 Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed. Hackett. pp. 30

5 Ethics Discovering Right and Wrong by Louis P Pojman

Ethics Discovering Right and Wrong by Louis P Pojman
Critique of pure reason by Immanuel Kant
Yale Lectures on YouTube by Professor Grendel on “Deontological Theories”
I would also like to thank my professor Mr. Arun Krishnan for his lectures on this topic and my senior Rupali Bansal for helping me compile this report.


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