Here two specimen essays are reproduced. the first is a part a. question from AS level, "Explain Kant's categorical imperative". The second is a more advanced essay, "How does Kant answer the question, 'why should I be moral'?". After the first essay detailed notes are provided on improving the quality of an answer on Kant.
Model answer (1) : Explain Kant's Categorical Imperative
This part a. of an OCR question at AS scored 17/25 (B grade). Be aware that AS part a. questions are often more challenging than this. For example "How might Kantian ethics approach issues surrounding the right to a child", this brings together theory and application.
Emmanuel Kant lays down his theory of the ‘Categorical Imperative' in his book Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. The book deals with his theory that morality is a priori synthetic this phrase is never explained, but understanding the link between a priori synthetic and Kant's categoricals is a key point and that morals decisions should be taken with a universal view to ones duty to mankind as a whole. The Categorical Imperative is split into three it's really one principle with three formulations principles, each building on the last to explain how Kant believed a human should make moral decisions through reason rather than emotion.
The first of these three principles: "Act Only According to that maxim...which should be a universal law". Kant argues that for the imperative to be categorical and deontological it must consist of principles that can be applied in any situation. Taking lying as an example, Kant posits the theory that one should never lie; if you lie, he states, you break the first principle. Clearly, if lying was universalised everyone would be able to lie, Kant argues that a lie always hurts someone even if it gets the liar out of trouble bring out the point that this makes it hypothetical ie dependent on cirumstances or consequences. If lying is universalised this harm caused by the lie would ‘erode' society and would eventually make society intolerable. Kant woudl argue that lying is a contradiction in nature - it's self-contradictory in the sense that universalising makes the idea of truth impossible - see the handout on this site for a fuller explanation of what this means.
Following on from universalisation Kant's second principle in the Categorical Imperative is the idea of treating everyone as a means to an end this is typical of the confused way people talk about the second principle. The analysis below discusses it correctly, but here you should have said "treats people not just as a means to an end but always also an end in themselves". Best illustrated with an example. Kant argues that all humans are searching for the summam bonum (a state in which human virtue and happiness are united). Kant believes that, as it is clearly impossible to achieve this state in one human lifetime we must have immortal souls to be able to succeed. Because of these immortal souls Kant argues that humans deserve special treatment. Because of Kant's strong belief in duty, he argues that to develop our own perfection, moral, intellectual and physical selves (and reach summam bonnum) we should seek that happiness (the ‘end') of others as long as seeking this happiness does not infringe on other humans ability to seek happiness. Therefore every human is an end in and of themselves and not a means for our own personal gain. This belief also supports his reasons for the principle of universality universalisiability is the right word here.
Closely linked to his second principle, the third and final principle of the categorical imperative states: "Act as if you were , through your maxim, a law making member in a kingdom of ends. " Kant says that if one is obeying the first and second principles - making moral decisions that can be universalised, and treating people as ends in themselves - the decisions you make should be centred around the idea that these decisions are law which can be applied to every other end: people. In essence this puts the first two principles into action. For example if you are trying to decide if it would be justified to kill someone who was threatening your family - using Kantian principles - you should not kill them . Acting according to the third principle (and taking the first and second into account) murder can obviously not be universalised or humanity would be wiped out, and killing the man threatening your family is treating him as a means (to saving your family) rather than an end: a human seeking summum bonum. This paragraph is a clearer explanation and uses examples - this principle is sometimes called the principle of autonomy because it imagines we are all autonomous (free, unhindered or not influenced by another) legislators. What laws would we pass?
Overall the Catagorical Impertive seeks to allow humans to make moral decisions which do not infringe the happiness of others but also allow us to progress to perfection.
Points arising from assessment essay (KANT) "Explain Kant's categorical imperative".
1. Cover the key technical vocabulary: a priori, synthetic, categorical, hypothetical, universalisability etc. A priori reason is a key idea when deriving Kant's idea of goodness.
2. Don't just drop terms in: explain them and relate them to the argument. (See first paragraph where a priori synthetic is dropped in, but not explained).
3. Spell out the applications of a principle to the real world. For example, Kant is arguing that a failure to universalise is a failure of consistency or rational logic. To explain this you need to explain a contradiction in nature and a contradiction in will (key word here is contradiction). The first, a contradiction in nature is something like breaking a promise - if everyone breaks promises the idea of a promise ( a binding commitment) ceases to exist, so it cannot be willed as a universal. Ground these in practical examples (film, experience, novels etc). The above essay could do with some more examples to ground the points, and the second formulation is not correctly explained at the outset (a common mistake).
4. Use quotes. Not just quotes from Kant himself which would be a good idea), but from authors like Korsgaard or Rachels (see workbook). Short quotes are fine. Quotes should be integrated into the argument and not just pasted in (as it were!). There are no quotes at all in the above answer.
5. Historical context is important and could be mentioned. But instead of saying "Kant was a leading philosopher of the Enlightenment", write this, "Kant adopted the Enlightenment motto "dare to think", which illustrates his belief in the primacy of reason.
6. You must explain clearly the formulations of the Categorical Imperative (preferably all three) - don't just state them, explain what they imply for ethics.
7. Don't repeat yourself - it wastes time. If asked to explain, do not evaluate by going on about strengths and weaknesses - irrelevant! The above essay is a good attempt partly because it sticks rigidly to the question.
Model answer (2):
Note: this essay is provided for guidance only as to how a good essay might read. The author comes to his own conclusion at the end which you may or may not agree with. It should be stressed, too, that the essay is longer than an exam answer, and that the discussion on Utilitarianism, Hegel and Hume is not directly relevant. In omitting this, the essay could be half the length it is. PMB
It has always been debatable if some actions, such as lying for some advantage, are moral. With different criteria how to judge what is moral, what is genuinely moral and what is not are not so clear. Moreover, the reason or benefit why we should be moral at all can sometimes be obscure. This essay will discuss two theories, Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism, in order to try to assess, in the contrast between them, how Kantian ethics helps answer the question: why should I be moral?
This opening paragraph sets the scene well and you must always try to discuss the question. I'm not sure it's really relevant to this question to do a contrast between Kant and Utilitarianism, as there's plenty to say about Kant alone!
Immanuel Kant’s idea of ethics may give an answer to the question we are interested in. However, before the answer can be derived, some of his basic ideas have to be considered. Kant worked on his theory of ethics by first distinguishing things that are good as merely a means and things that are intrinsically good or good in itself. He conceived a good will as the only thing that is good in itself since its value is unconditional and does not depend on what results it will give. Other good deeds such as courage, intelligence or judgement on the other hand are desirable in many respects but they can be extremely bad when used by the will that is not good.
You mean good deeds resulting from virtue by this last comment. It's a fair comment as we shall see when studying virtue ethics at A2, as there is a debate whether courage for example can be considered a virtue if you can be a courageous Nazi. I think the point Kant makes is slightly different: that courage, intelligence, judgement can yield good results, but it's only truly a moral act if done from the motive of a good will. So Kant makes intention crucial to his theory of goodness (unlike Utiltarian ethics).
Reason is viewed by Kant to have a true function of producing a will which is good, not as a means to some further end, but in itself. The role of reason is not to make human beings happy because any other instincts would have served that end more effectively, but is intended for the supreme condition which Kant calls duty. As human beings are rational, they are therefore capable of true freedom. When human freely acts in accordance to the law of reason, out of love for the moral law, he is performing his duty.
Might have been better to have placed this paragraph in the context of Kant's noumenal/phenomenal worldview, as discussed by my handout or the Advanced Article 1. The point is, Kant sees a certain type of practical reason applying the a priori deductive method to create an idea of goodness: there are other forms of reasoning (such as the a posteriori method) which is suited to the world of empirical observation, again see my handout if you don't understand this point.
An action which is done out of natural inclination, for example because of desire or affection is not morally praiseworthy according to Kant. Only if someone acts without any inclination but out of duty alone, does his action have genuine moral worth. For example, if a grocer did not overcharge inexperienced customers because it would be bad for his business then he is acting out of his own interest and does not worth a moral praise. Only if he did it because it was a duty then he became morally praiseworthy. Kant tells us that preserving one’s life is a duty. If a wretched man being hopeless and wanting to die still preserves his life without loving it, not because of inclination or fear, then his act has a moral content.
This is a fair explanation of Kant's position, and is a principle criticism made of his ethics, that he seems to imply that if I actually enjoy helping an old lady across the road it's morally inferior to the same action done grudgingly out of a sense of duty!
Similarly, helping others is only genuinely moral when the person who acts is not moved by any inclination, for example when his own mind is already full of sorrow. To ensure one’s own happiness is also a duty according to Kant, not because we want to be happy but because it is necessary for us to do other duties. Almost always, all men have already the strong inclination towards happiness. It then only has moral worth if one only has a will for good health as a duty, as a law of furthering his happiness in order to do other duties and not from other inclinations.
I'll need to think a bit more about this paragraph and comment again! The relation between actions and happiness is interesting in Kant, for after all, he did argue that the ultimate end was the summum bonum, a mixture of virtue and happiness which results from obeying the moral law and applies to all society.
However, the question what determines what is duty arises. Kant gave an answer to this question by asserting that “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law”. Even though reverence is a feeling, he said that it is the self-produced one and hence it is different from feelings received from outside which can always be reduced to inclinations and fear, hence the statement is still valid without any inclination involved. This law must be absolutely good, regardless of what is expected from it. Kant then asserted what is known as Kant’s Categorial Imperative: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. It refers to a demand which is not conditioned as opposed to Hypothetical Imperative which is a conditioned demand e.g. study law (if you want to be a lawyer). This suggests that breaking promises for some personal advantages are forbidden since although one may wish to break the promise but one cannot rationally wish that such action should become a universal law otherwise the whole institutions of promising will collapse. This should give one of the answers why we should be moral. If we were not moral in the sense that Kant suggested, the civilisation and societies might not have been able to form and human might have better lived individually with only an egoistic view which tells us to act out of our own interest to ensure survival.
This is a good, clear treatment of the difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, which students often get muddled about.
We might as well say that the universal laws in Kant’s notion is an a priori principle which can be known before or independently of experience. The problem then might be how to know what action conforms to this universal law since Kant’s Categorical is too general to help us decide what to do in a particular circumstance and practically, at the end of the day, experience and convention are needed to judge the morality of a particular action. So Kant’s idea is one of an absolute moralist, in that a standard or absolute knowledge, in this case, the so called universal law, exists.
I would have brought the a priori in earlier, and explained it more clearly than this, perhaps in the context of the two worlds, the phenomenal and noumenal, which formed a central part of Kant's theory.
For the question of whether to lie and hurt nobody’s feeling or not to lie according to Kant’s Categorial Imperative, Kantian answer is not to lie but this is your comment, not Kant's, because his example of the mad knifeman indicated that Kant thought you should never lie and he didn't seem to notice that you could indeed say "it's none of your business"! one does not necessarily have to say the truth but can avoid by saying “no comment”, for example. Also if one steals from the rich and gives to the poor, Kant will say that his acts are still wrong but he does not deserve to be punished.
Kant also gave us an alternative version of Categorial Imperative: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, not only as a means but at the same time as an end in itself”. This is derived from the idea that “persons” are not only valuable but are the source of value. Their values are unconditioned whereas objects of inclination which we call “things” only have conditioned values. Without inclinations, they have no value. Therefore human, or in general a rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely a means, regardless of nationality, races or where he was born. Persons are objective ends(things whose existence is in itself an end) which cannot be replaced by any other end, not a subjective end whose value of existence is only as an object of our actions like “things” in general. Actions which use other people for our own benefit without any regard to their interest are hence forbidden. This is not because we want others to do the same to us in return but simply because they deserve respects and have values as such in themselves. This version of Categorial Imperative maybe viewed as still an unconditioned obligation which also gives a guideline of conducts with respect to others.
Good, clear explanation of the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative.
In conclusion, Kant’s answer to why should we be moral should be it is because there are absolute laws which everyone ought to be abide, this includes the idea that each person has his own ends and hence ought to be respected. This is a deontological view which has a central concept on duty and is solely based on reason.
This is a sound attempt to answer the question, and covers the key points you need to make to produce a good answer on Kant. I would like to see:
1. More evaluation, see strengths and weaknesses part of this topic on this site.
2. More quotes from Kant himself.
3. If you want to quote some critics of Kantian ethics, Bernard Williams is certainly one, and it's worth dropping some academic names into your answers. See Extract: Bernard Williams on Kant on this site.
The rest of this essay is well worth reading and rather good! The approach taken is very similar to Bernard Williams' critique of both Kantian ethcis and Utiltarianism, see, for example, his contribution in "Utilitarianism For and Against".
PMB October 2008
However, the question why we should obey this law may arise and cannot be answered by the deontological approach. Kant argues we are motivated by love of the moral law within us, so he would dispute this claim.
Another important idea on ethics and morality which may give an answer to the question is Utilitarianism. It gives a stark contrast to Kant’s deontological argument. Some philosophers dispute this and claim that Kantian ethics collapses into some form of rule utilitarianism. As you don't distinguish between act and rule utilitarianism, you can't really explore this point. Utilitarianism is one of the consequentialist ideas which emphasises the moral value of actions based on their consequences and the Greatest Happiness Principle, rather than the standard absolute laws as in the deontological approach. I don't understand what you mean by "standard absolute laws" here.
One of the leading figure in Utilitarianism is Bentham who argued for the principle of utility which is the principle that approves or disapproves of every action according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question. However, Bentham’s idea seems to incline to the side of egoism and hence was taken up and refined by John Stuart Mill. Absolutely right, although Vardy maintains that it is an over-simplification to call Bantham an egoistic act utilitarian, as his whole life was devoted to trying to improve social welfare, and he even designed a special prison called the Panopticon. Mill still sticks to the utilitarian framework that actions are right as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness. Happiness according to Mill is a pleasure and absence of pain. He was not satisfied with Bentham’s hedonism which states that pleasure is the sole ultimate value and to Bentham, this pleasure seems to be only physical. This is a point well made here.To Mill, it cannot satisfy human conception of happiness since humans have a distinctive capacity to enjoy the exercise of capacities for intelligent activity in contrast to other animals. He then goes on to make a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. This implies that Mill thinks that pleasures differ from one another not only in quantity but also quality. However, the higher pleasures can be said to be superior only because of human preferences which must be of those who have properly experienced the alternatives e.g. experiencing the process of education or a commitment over a period of time. Correct!
The answer to why we should be moral regarding the view of Utilitarianism might then be to maximise the collective happiness of the group as a whole, considering pleasures differ both quantitatively and qualitatively. Alternatively, we might look at his idea on the basis of the psychological connection between human nature and human happiness, and say that we should act morally because it is in our nature to do so and enjoy the exercise of our capacities for intelligent activity.Good!
However Mill’s idea is still subject to many criticisms, an obvious one being ,how can happiness be measured? Mill’s qualitative approach on happiness seems to be a simple summation of all happiness and subtraction of all unhappiness. He adds that equal amount of happiness are equally desirable to everyone. This can hardly be justified. Some criticise Utilitarianism that it does not attach any significance to the person who gets the benefits, assuming everyone is counted equal. Usually, this should not be the case, for one might get upset more than another if their promises have been broken, maybe because of different and unique relationship of one to another.This last sentence does not make the point clearly that you want to make. The problem is, Utilitarianism cannot easily compare the one person who has a big need versus the number who have smaller needs, because trying to quantify needs by some happiness measure, such as utils or hedons doesn't work. The NHS is still trying to find a way round this one in the way it allocates scarce resources to health care. The problem of having no time to calculate and weigh the effects of a conduct prior to the action is also a barrier to adopting Utilitarianism as a guideline to moral conducts. Mill answers this by suggesting that mankind have been learning all the time by experience the tendencies of actions. Hence rule utilitarianism, which you don't appear to have heard of! Mill also incorporates some deontological view of ethics into Utilitarianism in order to answer the objection. This version of utilitarianism is called rule-utilitarianism as distinct from act-utilitarianism as we have seen before. Ah! At last! He says that to act rightly, we need to be guided by traditional rules. We cannot calculate the consequences of actions from scratch. We should then be moral by following the general rules so that it would produce the best consequences. Yes, this comes in the final part of his essay when he discusses the idea of justice. Question is, does Mill contradict his earlier account of Utilitarianism in this essay? As mentioned above, rule utilitarianism is very close to Kantian ethics.
Some view Kant’s and Mill’s philosophy of ethics as two extreme poles. Kant emphasises the universal whereas Mill emphasises the particular. The philosophy that combines the two is Hegelian morality which stresses the social relations of an individual. This is claimed to be what Mill’s and Kant’s philosophy fail to grasp and take into account. Bradley, one of the Hegelians, identifies “self-realisation” as the central concept of ethics and the self here refers to social self, self through the relations to other selves. In the problem of breaking a promise, the utilitarian only forbids breaking a promise because it harms the other person and creates unhappiness but it fails to see the unique nature of the harm. The answer from the relational theory of Bradley is that breaking a promise harms the relationship of trust and reliance between us and the other person. Being loyal to a friend and standing by him are also actions which ought to be done just because they are what it is to be friends. This may be called emotional commitment or underlying relationship which demands a certain kind of concern in each case. This commitment to others is internal to self-realisation because it is internal to the self. These explanations bridge the moral gap between self and others with self as a social self whereas the claim by the utilitarian to bridge individual happiness to general happiness cannot be justified. You mean established, I think, rather than justified. In the light of social relation theory, Kantian ethics is merely a principle of consistency backed up with impersonal reasons. The relational theory may be seen to agree with naturalism well. A naturalist such as David Hume says that human beings are essentially social creatures and they go through the process of emotional development through relationships with others, by learning the needs of others and take them into account. However, there is a difference between the naturalism and the relational theory in the way that the former tells us to be moral because our natural feelings tell us so. It will give us the peace of mind and happiness, being fulfilled by the deepest need. The latter says that we should be moral just because it is always the case to do so, considering the importance of social self and the relationships with others in committing such actions. Last sentence is not very clear. I think you mean, the positive social consequences eg of promise keeping greatly outweigh the individual, selfish happiness of breaking the odd promise.
I personally agree with the view of social relations and naturalism in the way that we ought to act morally because that is what it takes to be ourselves in a society where we take different roles and status and because we have “feelings” towards others. As a human being, we are highly dependent on others both physically and mentally. To make a civilised society a happy place to live in, all of its members should be moral. However, the tender natural feelings which will lead to morality may only exist in modern societies as a contrast to the society in stone age era, say, when the harsh condition of environments may force human to rather adopt the egoistical view in order to ensure the survival, as David Hume remarked. Kantian ethics seem to give a reasonable and clear-cut proposition that what is right, is right and what is wrong, is always wrong. This, I think, should always be used, along with the feelings towards others and our roles in the society, as a director and an additional guideline to decide how to act morally. His second version of the Categorial Imperative that tells us to treat others as they also have their own ends is also compatible to some extent with the view of social relation on why we should be moral although with different intentions. What is moral is still to be discussed further. To me, the answer to the question “why should we be moral” lies dominantly in the realm of social relationships and natural feelings which is Hume's argument - Hume saw the natural feeling of sympathy as the key - echoed to some extent by Mill and partly in the realm of the deontological view.