Who Cares About Kant?
My wife took her first philosophy class at her southern California high school. Along with many other historical figures in philosophy, her teacher lectured on Kant. Unfortunately, the only thing that she can remember about Kant is the phrase, “Kant was a real pisant.” To be honest, I have found that this sort of reaction to Kant’s philosophy is pretty common.
Michael Slote in his book Essays on the History of Ethics has a chapter entitled, “Kant for Anti-Kantians.” In this chapter he gives three important contributions that Kant made to ethics that every moral theory should adopt. In this blog I will briefly try to give three uniquenesses of Kant’s moral philosophy that ethicists need to consider strongly based upon Slote’s chapter.
(1) Kant was the first moral philosopher to make a distinction between a categorical imperative and a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative informs a person to do something, or refrain from doing something, if they have a certain end. The hypothetical imperatives start from the end of being happy, which is an end that all humans have. Making friends is an example of a hypothetical imperative of prudence. It says, “Insofar as you want to be happy, you must do so and so,” in this case make friends. There are hypothetical imperatives that start from ends that some individuals may have but that others may not. Pragmatic rules (e.g. make friends) are ones own choice, but moral rules are those “by which my action holds good universally, and these are derived from the universal ends of mankind.”
Slote believes that no one prior to Kant made this distinction and that it needs to find its way into all other moral philosophies. On the Kantian view, not having certain “desires, motives, or intentions relevant to the fulfillment of a categorical imperative does not leave the person to whom it is addressed outside the scope of that imperative.” Moral impositions can be seen as categorical imperatives in ways that a recommendation about how to achieve an end is not.
(2) The distinction between the notion of a good state of affairs and of “well-being or what is good for someone” has “certainly gone beyond anything to be found in previous philosophy.” This less “self-conscious distinction-making” is “relatively rare in the history of ethics before Kant.” In the Groundwork, Kant says that no impartial spectator could be pleased by the happiness of a vicious person. When Kant is discussing the conditional goodness of every good other than the good will, he states that the prosperity and happiness of a vicious person is not a good thing. “But Kant isn’t disputing that the prosperity is good for the vicious individual, so he really seems to be distinguishing between the goodness of a state of affairs involving some individual and what is good, makes for a better life, for that individual.”
According to Slote there are a few other instances of philosophers coming close this distinction. He mentions Aristotle’s proportionality of merit, virtue and benefit; the “Stoics idea of the perfect goodness of the cosmos and its structure.” He also mentions “Plato’s discussion of the Form of the Good and the other Forms” being good in itself, “as a metaphysical entity, rather than in relation to anything else, and Plato’s description of the blinding goodness of the Form of the Good.”
Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism has remnants of this Kantian distinction, but Kant is “clearly on the side of common sense.” Those holding to Utilitarianism will have to admit that there is potential for the good to be found in the vicious person flourishing if better results for all could be produced by means of his not being punished. As referred to above, it is a prima facie case that no one could be pleased with the flourishing of a vicious person. For Kant, the prosperity of a vicious individual shouldn’t exist. This distinction that Kant makes between the good state of affairs and flourishing and happiness of the individual is of “enormous importance for contemporary and ongoing ethical theory.”
(3) Thirdly, Slote believes that Kant’s internalism is more useful than ethicists have typically thought. This idea is not original with Kant, but his specific emphasis on motive is an important factor that was often overlooked till Kant. Kant’s highlighting internal factors rather than particular aspects of the inner life is the basis of morality. Slote says that moral “rightness and/or goodness depends on internal/psychological factors.” Our natural intuitions about actual and hypothetical moral cases are explained very well in Kant’s thinking.
Without question Kant is an important figure in the history of philosophy and specifically in the realm of ethics. I appreciate that Slote, not being a Kantian, sees that Kant has something to contribute to contemporary debates outside of the deontological ethics that he is typically associated. This is a good reminder to me to read my opponents charitably.
Nathaniel Warne is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Durham University U.K. where he is studying theological ethics and political philosophy. He is currently studying under Christopher J. Insole and Alec Ryrie. Nathaniel received a B.S. in Art (painting and drawing) and minored in Biblical Studies at Biola University. After receiving his undergraduate degree, Nathaniel spent three years as a professional session drummer. He then received an M.A. from Talbot School of Theology in moral and historical theology. He wrote his masters thesis on 16th century Geneva and its political influence on John Locke. Nathaniel was also a minister at Grace Evangelical Free Church, La Mirada before moving to Durham. He has been married to his beautiful wife Charissa for five years. Nathaniel’s primary academic interests are: theological ethics, political philosophy, intersection of metaphysics with ethics, especially with regard to haecceity and modality, Puritan’s doctrine of calling, theology of work, history of natural law, Aristotle, and Søren Kierkegaard. He also enjoys reading: John Locke, Karl Barth, Philosophy of Aesthetics, and Literature of all sorts. Some hobbies of Nathaniel’s are playing and listening to music (jazz, folk, rock, hip-hop), cooking, enjoying foreign and domestic beers, and watching Fringe, 30 Rock, Big Bang Theory, and The Cosby Show with his wife.
Nathaniel can be reached at: n.a.warne at durham.ac.uk
 Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, ed. by Peter Heath and J.B. Schneewind trans by Peter Heath, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 27:258.
 Michael Slote, Essays on the History of Ethics, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010), 102.
 Slote, Essays, 102.
 Slote, Essays, 107.
 Slote, Essays, 106.
 Slote, Essays, 106.
 Slote, Essays, 107-108.
 Slote, Essays, 112.
 Slote, Essays, 112.
 Slote, Essays, 114.