Chapter 9 Kant and the ethics of duty

Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

—Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

So far our discussion of ethical theory has examined many different approaches to ethics. Each of the theories we have considered is, we might say, partly right and partly wrong about the nature of ethics. Each is partly right, since it captures some important feature of ethics, but partly wrong in that it chooses the wrong feature as the foundation for the rest. According to relativism, for example, the defining feature of ethics is its connection with culturally transmitted rules organizing our social lives. Resting the whole weight of ethics on this aspect of ethics, however, leads to all of the problems we encountered in our investigation of relativism. The same holds for all of the other views we have considered, as can be seen in the following table.


theory what it emphasizes
Relativism ethical rules as cultural norms
Divine Command Theory authoritative character of ethical rules
Natural Law Theory connection of ethics to human well-being
Egoism individuals always make their own decisions
Social Contract Theory legitimate rules grounded in rational choice
Utilitarianism ethics requires impartial consideration of interests


So each theory we have considered implies a judgment about what is really important about ethical decision-making. The final theory we shall consider, Kantian ethics, also makes such a judgment. For Kant, what is distinctive about ethics is contained in the concept of duty. Kantian ethics uses this concept as the foundation of ethics. As we shall see, there are some compelling reasons behind this approach to ethics, although, as we might suspect, some challenging consequences as well.

We are all familiar with the word “duty.” A duty is something we simply ought to do, whether we want to or not. For example, if we have a duty to pay taxes, it really makes no difference if we can think of better things to do with the money, we simply have to get our tax forms in by the due date. (In fact the word “due” comes from the same root as the word “duty” both of which refer to what we owe, to our obligations.) Duty is an inherently normative concept and is thus likely to have some connection with ethics. But what exactly is the nature of that connection? Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher who developed his approach to ethics as an attempt to answer this question. A more generic term for the ethics he developed is “deontological ethics” which literally means “the ethics of duty,” but since that is an awkward term, we’ll stick with calling it Kantian ethics in honor of its founder.

Kant’s big question is this: what is the basis of the duties we may feel towards each other, ourselves and society? Are they based on the feelings of commitment we may have towards each other – feelings of solidarity, sympathy, or affection? Or is there a rational basis for our duties – can we become convinced that we have them and then act on them just by thinking things through carefully? Or are our perceived duties based merely on fear of authority, the desire for self-preservation and getting what we need and want in a hostile and competitive world? Are we “pushed” to do certain things and avoid others by culture, God, human nature? Or are we “pulled” by what we want as individuals and groups? Or is there something else that can get us to do what it is that ethics claims we should or shouldn’t do? Kant’s answer, as we will see is that duties result from our ability to push ourselves by recognizing the binding and non-negotiable character of moral law. We are not moved by external forces, nor encouraged by inner desires when we act morally, instead we act autonomously. We’ll see what this means in more detail in a moment.