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Kant and Contemporary Ethics

  • Philip Stratton-Lake (a1)


It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which Kant has influenced contemporary ethics. Whether or not one is sympathetic to his moral theory, one cannot ignore it, or the various ethical theories which draw their inspiration from it. Debates which have centred on Kantian themes include debates about whether moral requirements are categorical imperatives, whether they have an overriding authority, whether the various moral judgements we make can be codified, the role of duty in moral motivation, whether there are moral actions which are beyond the call of duty, the relation of morality to autonomy, and the very nature of moral judgement. The pervasiveness of Kant's influence makes it very difficult to write anything comprehensive on his relation to contemporary ethics, and I do not intend to attempt such an ambitious task here. Rather, in what follows I shall focus mainly on three distinctive features of Kant's ethics, which correspond roughly to the three chapters of the Groundwork.



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References in the notes to Kant's text are to the Akademie Ausgabe (Ak.) (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1902– ) by volume and page number.

1 Luck, Moral: Philosophical Papers 1973–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 119. See also Stocker, Michael, ‘The schizophrenia of modern ethical theories’, Journal of Philosophy (1976), 453–66.

2 This argument was not explicitly directed at the Kantian theory of motivation, but those sympathetic to Kant's view realized that if this critique was valid against the thought of permissibility as a motive, it will a fortiori be valid against the motive of duty.

3 Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure.

Hence I am plagued with doubt that I am not a virtuous person.

To this the answer is given:

Surely, your only resource is to try to despise them entirely,

And then with aversion do what your duty enjoins you

(cited in Paton, H. J., The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy (London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1947), p. 249.)

4 Kant may be criticized on the ground that it does not make sense to talk of an inclination being present whilst being motivationally inert. For one might think that such inclinations always constitute motives, and it is very difficult to understand what it could be for a motive to fail to motivate. But I do not think this is as odd as it may at first appear. It is common enough to talk of someone having a motive to commit a crime without assuming that they were motivated by this.

5 See Herman, B., ‘On the value of acting from the motive of duty’, in Philosophical Review (1981), 359–82, and Baron, M., Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995).

6 See, for example, Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Indianapolis, Hackett, 1930), p. 164.

7 Ak. 4: 398/Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper, 1964), p. 66.

8 Herman sometimes gives the impression that it is, but this is not, I think, the best way to understand Kant.

9 Freedom and Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 123.

10 ‘Kantian constructivism in moral theory’, Journal of Philosophy, 77 (1980), 519.

11 A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 302–3.

12 Ak. 4: 401n/Groundwork, trans. H. J. Paton, p. 69n.

13 See O'Neill, O., Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), ch. 11.

14 R. M. Hare, amongst others, was quick to notice this. See his ‘Rawls' theory of justice’, in Daniels, N. (ed.), Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), ch. 4.

15 See, for example, Dworkin, R., Taking Rights Seriously (London: Duck worth, 1977), and Kymlieka, Will, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 60. Ié Rawls thought that he was doing something very different from the intuitionists because he thought that they simply listed our intuitions, and that they did not rank them. This is, however, quite mistaken: see McNaughton, D., ‘An unconnected heap?’, Philosophical Quarterly (1996), 433–47).

17 O'Neill, O., ‘Constructivism in ethics’ in Constructions of Reason, ch.11.

18 See Korsgaard, , ‘Kant's analysis of obligation: the argument of Ground work I’, in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 4376.

13 Williams's, B. internalism is relativistic (’Internal and external reasons’, in Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 101–13).

20 Korsgaard, , ‘Skepticism about practical reason’, Journal of Philosophy, 83 (1986), 525.

21 Velleman's version of this argument is designed to undermine the distinction between internal and external reasons. See his ‘The possibility of practical reason’, Ethics, 106 (1996), 694726.

22 'Kantian constructivism in moral theory’, Journal of Philosophy, 77 (1980), 519.

23 See, for example, Charvet, John, The Idea of an Ethical Community (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 1.

24 Mind and World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

25 Savile, Anthony argues for this interpretation in his Kantian Aesthetics Pursued (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), pp. 116.

Kant and Contemporary Ethics

  • Philip Stratton-Lake (a1)


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