Kant Political Leader

Kant held that nothing was good in itself except good will. In other words, no action, in and of itself, was either wrong or right. Only the motive of the actor lent the action its morality. If a person acted out of a vested interest (because of a possible consequence) then the act was non-moralit had no moral implications whatsoever. But, if a person acted because she thought she was doing the right thing, then she was acting out of good will and the act was a moral act.

In Kants view, actions have true moral worth only when they spring from a recognition of a duty and a choice to discharge it. For example, using Kantian logic, an advertiser who avoided untruthful advertising because he was afraid of getting caught and fined would not necessarily be acting morally. However, if the advertiser recognized a duty to his constituents to tell the truth, and that is the reason he didn’t lie, then the act would be a moral act.

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Kant defined good will as the uniquely human capacity to act according to one’s principles, not out of an expectation of potential consequences. In fact, Kant had learned through the writings of the Italian philosopher and royal counselor, Niccolo Machiavelli, that basing decisions solely on likely consequences could excuse any action, even the most abhorrent. In his famous treatise, The Prince, Machiavelli had proposed that any action taken by a monarch should be based on an assessment of the best outcome for the monarch himself. Under this guideline (which is also known as egoism), actions such as murder could be excused if they are in the best interest of the person making the decision.

Like other Enlightenment theorists, Kant believed that human beings were endowed with the ability to reason, and reasoning would logically lead to an understanding of how to construct moral rules to live by. Rational beings would, then, logically abide by the rules they set for themselves. In this, he was in accord with the social contractarians. Rules arrived at in this manner would also become morally obligatory, and Kant saw obligation (or duty) as the overriding determinant of morality. He believed that we would recognize our duty when we saw it because we could reason, and reason would lead us logically to recognition.

For Kant, there were two obvious types of duties: perfect duties and imperfect duties. Perfect duties were those that we must always observe; however, he framed these as proscriptions, or negative obligations. For example, “Never lie,” or “Never kill.” We must always refrain from these actions, no matter what. Imperfect duties were those that we must observe only on some occasions. These were framed as positive obligations, or prescriptionssuch as: “Give to charity.” He realized that some duties, such as “give to charity,” could only be observed by those capable of doing so, while others, such as “don’t kill,” should, and could, be observed by everyone. Of course, he knew that rational beings would recognize when a duty was completely binding and when it was not. In this, Kant was an intuitionist, believing that human beings naturally knew right from wrong. The question remains, however, as to exactly how we should come up with the rules by which to live a moral life.

The Categorical Imperative
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