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Lesson I II: Kant and Rights Theory

. . d d by many as the most

Immanuel Kant {1724-1804) is a German thinker regar e
. . t ·butions to Ethics can be
significant philosopher in the modern era. His maJor con n
found in his two works: The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and th e Critique
of Practical Reason.

1. Kantian Ethics

Kant categorically rejects that ethical judgments are based on feelings. For him,
feelings even serve as obstructions to our discernment of right and wrong. His ethical
theory instead bases moral judgments on reason alone. Reason, for him, is what
deems an action ethical or otherwise.

1.1 Good Will. Kant believes that when we wish to determine the moral status of
an action; we consult reason. An act either accords with reason or it does not. If
it accords with reason, we must do it, if not, we must avoid it.

Kant believes that one of the functions and capacities of our reason is to
produce a will which is good not as a means to some further end, but good in
itself. For him, it is the good will which is the highest good and the condition
of all other goods.

Kant teaches that only good will is intrinsically good. That is, it is the only
thing which is good without qualification.

Kant does not agree with many ethicists that happiness is the summum
bonum or the highest good. Happiness, for him, can be corrupting and may be
wotthless or even positively evil when not combined with a good will. In the
same way, intellectual eminence, talents, character, self-control, and fortune
cannot be intrinsically good for they can be used to bad ends.

. A ~ood will is one_that ~abitually wills rightly. And it is not what good
will achieves that constitutes ,ts goodness. Even if good w,·ll b f
, ecause o some
hindrances, accomplishes nothing, it remains to be something with full value in
itself. Good will is good in itself.

But who is a good person or a person of good will? F K . .

· or ant, 1t 1s the
person who acts from a sense of duty. Kant thinks that act· f
ing ram a sense of
duty means exhibiting good will even in the face of difficult

_______11_2_.,_, ETHICS: PRt NCIPLes o F ET HICAL BEHAV10R tN MOD ER N So c tETY

For an act to be moral, it is a requisite that it be an act of a free agent. That
is, it must be a voluntary action, not a forced or compelled one. In addition
however, it must be an act done not from 'inclination' but from a 'sense of duty'
dictated by reason .

Inclination refers to the feeling that pushes us to select a particular option

or make a particular decision. It is our liking or tendency to do, favor, or want
something. A duty or obligation, on the other hand, is that which we ought to
do despite our inclination or 'taste' to do otherwise.

Normally, people perform the acts which please them or which they desire
to do in particular circumstances. For Kant, these actions determined by wishes,
passions, appetites, desires, and the like have no moral worth. He believes that
we act morally only when we restrain our feelings and inclinations and do that
which we are obliged to do. Morality, as Kant sees it, is essentially connected
with duties and obligations.

There is however a need to make a distinction between acts done "from

the motive of duty" and those that are "in accordance with duty". The former
are moral acts unlike the latter. Respecting one's parents for expediency or
solely in obedience to custom, paying one's debt for fear of being sued, helping
others because it's pleasing to do so, taking care of one's children because one
i is so fond of doing so, displaying honesty to receive an award, and keeping a
promise by accident are all examples of acts that are in accord with duty, but
not from duty.

Moreover, acting morally entails acting from the motive of duty regardless
of the consequences that doing so or not doing so will bring. To perform an act
for fear of undesirable consequences of not doing it-that is, to act from a sense
of prudence-is only to do a 'prudential act', but not necessarily a moral one.

Therefore, it is only when we recognize that we ought to do an act because

it is our duty, understand the nature of this obligation, and act upon it that we
are said to perform an authentically moral act.

1.2 Categorical Imperative. What we have discussed so far is Kant's emphasis on

the ethical relevance of good will and acting from a sense of duty. But we may
ask Kant, "Can a person know what his duty is in a given situation?" "Is there
a test to find out what one's duty is in a particular set of circumstances?" Kant
believes that there is. First, it is one's duty, as rational being, to act on principle
or maxim, as contrasted to simply acting·on impulse.
, . O
n impulse,' let's provide
To distinguish 'actions on maxim' from actions tain lady who
ially help a cer
some illustrations. Suppose a man wants to fimane .
nd he might not want to
is in need, merely because he likes her persona llY, a . . . .
. exactly s1m1lar s1tuat1on
give the same assistance to another woman m an
. . t· on impulse and not done
because he does not happen to like her. This 1s ac mg
for a reason or on any principle or maxim.

Now, contrast this with another man who gives relief to total st rangers who
are victims of a calamity. Because he accepts it as his duty to provide support to
those in need, he treats in precisely the same manner any other person whose
situation has the same characteristics. This is acting on maxim. The agent has
a reason for his action, and out of this reason, a maxim like this was formulated :
''This situation has such-and-such features, and any situation possessing these
features must be dealt with in such-and-such manner".

Maxim, as we have seen, is a g~neral rule or principle which serves as a

guide to action. "Be honest always"; "Don't always shoot the ball when you get
it"; "Don't wear the wedding gown before. the wedding"; and "When in doubt,
render a salute" are examples of maxim. Evidently, not all maxims are moral
ones. In Ethics, Kant is concerned with maxims that are moral, that is, those
dictated by reason and thus have imperative force.

Now, Kant further divides the maxims of conduct into two classes, t ~e (1)
hypothetical and (2) categorical imperatives. Let's tackle first here the hypothetical

'Imperative' should be understood as a command of ·reason. The term

'hypothetical,' on the other hand, entails being true only under some conditions,
and therefore not universally true or valid. Accordingly, a hypothetical imperative
is how reason orders one to achieve one's specific ends. It directs one to behave
in certain manners on the condition that one seeks speci·t·ied l h 'f
goa s, sue as: ,
you wish to pass, then study hard. So it's like a decree stat·,n th t ·t • h to
. g a , you w,s
accomplish such-and-such an end, you must act in such a d h
- n -sue a way.
There are a lot of hypothetical imperatives for the .
re are several various
ends which people may set themselves. Some hypoth t· l . .
. . . e ica 1mperat1ves are
concerned with mere prudential actions. Simply a r l f
. . . u e or obtaining some
des.red ends, a hypothetical imperative is accepted n0 t .
. on its own merits In
our example, the maxim to study hard is accepted as l ·
on its own merits. a ru e for passing, and not


......--•w-"""""' ERN SOCIETY
Hypothetical imperative is thus both contingent and derivative. It is
contingent or conditional, because circumstances are imaginable where
studying hard would still not result in passing, and in such situations the maxim
may no longer be accepted. It is derivative because acceptance of it depends on
one's wish to pass. If one does not want to pass, the principle may be ignored.

Now, if the hypothetical imperative states, "If you want to attain a certain
end, act in such-and -such a way," the categorical imperative, on the other
hand, pronounces, "No matter what end you desire to attain, act in such-and -
such a way." Clearly, it commands a person to act in particular ways regardless
of what goals one looks for or what one's ends may be.

As suggested by the term 'categorical', this imperative is exceptionless, that

is, binding on all rational agents, in all circumstances, at all times. Categorical
imperative demands action without qualification, without any ifs, and without
regard to the consequence such an act may produce. Unlike hypothetical
imperative, categorical imperative is accepted on its own merits.

For Kant, the categorical imperative ordains a rule that, if followed, will
guarantee that the person behaving in accordance with it is acting morally.
The categorical imperative thus serves as the barometer of reason determining
whether or not an action qualifies as ethical. Therefore, it is Kant's moral
philosophy that an act is morally good if it is done for the sake of a morany
good maxim; and a maxim is morally ·good if it conforms to the categorical

Kant provides various formulations of the categorical imperative. The most

famous is the 'universalizability' formulation which states, "Act only on that
maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a
universal law." In other words, a person ought always to behave as if his course
of conduct were to become a univers~l code of behavior. Hence, in considering
to act in a particular manner, a person must ask himselt "How would this action
appear if it were to become a universal rule?" "Can reason will it to become a
general rule for all rational agents to follow?"

As illustration, Kant takes the case of a lying promise. A person, having run
out of money, may be tempted to borrow from someone though knowing for
sure that he will be incapable td pay it back. He is thus acting on the maxim,
"When in need of money, borrow from someone by making a lying promise."


Rfa$0n cannot wltt that
· I imperative.
Evt'dently, this does not pass. the categonca ,--tions bas~d upon
. ti human re10
everyone should act on this maxim, otherwise, a
trust and honoring one's promises would dras
ticalfy coll.apse.
. . 1 1·mperatJve is the 'end-In.
Another famou s formulation of the categonca • wn person and
. b0 th ,n your o
itself' which states, ''So act as to use humanity, d never simply
time as an en ,
in the person of every other, always at the same _ t .
things to respec persons
as a means." This rendition teaches, among oth er ' f rth tf
, struments to u er se -
as ends in themselves and not only as means or ,n . ·th
rational being w, goa 1s
interest. This involves acknowledging the person as a
and treating him with dignity.
. .de. He contends that to take one's
Kant uses this formulation in ruling out suic,
. bnngtn
own life is to use one's own person as a too l 1n • · g to an end one's suffering
and grief. Furthermore, the lying promise does not pass this formulation as well.
Without a plan to repay the borrowed money, the promisor does not treat the
promisee with honor, but rather as a mere instrument to attain the promisor's aim
to gain the wanted amount.

2. An Analysis of Kantian Ethics

Many who have read and understood Kant's ethical system find it sensible and
plausible. In fact, when we try to prove that one's particular action is unethical and
ask him, "What if everybody behaved as you do?", we are actually advocating Kant's
'universalizability' formula_tion of the categorical imperative.

However, we may argue that the reason Kant's ethics is appealing is that it's
just another way of stating the highly accepted golden rule, "Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you" and its proscriptive counterpart. Notice that the most
famous formulations of Kant's categorical imperative, especially the end-in-itself
version, instruct us to respect others because that is how we treat ourselves.

From his doctrine of categorical imperative, Kant develops uncompromising

proscriptions against some actions. He submits that some actions, like lying, are
wrong regardless of the circumstances and the outcomes they generate. This notion
is prone to many criticisms. Critics argue that if lying is the only way to safeguard
from sure danger another person, then lying is what one must do. For instance, if a
murderer, armed with a shotgun, comes looking for a family member or friend to kill
her, should we reveal her whereabouts merely because we ought to tell the truth?

116 J ETHICS: Pnmc1PLES er ETHICAL BEHA'/IOR 1N Mooerm Soc,n y

_ _ .,.....,..._z,.
In proposing that we must olwoys do our duties no matter whet a r ~
are, Kant's view is deemed by some as a rule-bound morat p h ~ that puts o
premrum on rutes rather than on humaos. We may suggest that human obligations,
say keeping promises, telting the truth, and repaying debts, should be really ~
but provided that no other overriding factofs exist. Ettua t n.des, some J)(oposE, are
better construed as generalizations rather than as cotegoricol commands Without any

Another shortcoming of Kant 's ethks rs rt.s I.ad of sotution to instances when
there ;s conflict of duties. Suppose a person promises to keep a secret and then
another person asks him about rt. He cannot teU the truth without breaking his
promise. But Kantian ethics inftexibty demands that he ought to do both always and
in all d rcumstancesl which, in this case, is logic.ally impossible.

As regards motive and consequences, Kant definitely favors the former as

having moral worth. Regardless of the consequences, an act 1s moral if the motiv€
was to act from the good will and out of respect for duty. With good intentions, 3
medical doctor who operated on a sick person and accidentally kilted rnm in the
process is not considered immoral. We may call him inrompetent. careless,. lousy,
and the like but not unethical.

Notice though that in completely disregarding the consequences in moral

evaluation of actions, Kant appears inconsistent Remember that his complete ban
on lying is based on the possible effect should lying become a universal law, that tS,

there would be no promises at all. Clearly, Kant here is referring to the consequences
of lying.

Concerning enjoyment in doing virtuous acts, Kant's theory differs from that
of Aristotle. For Aristotle, the genuinely virtuous person totally enjoys carrying out
moral acts. But for Kant, a moral act involves being contrary to somebody's feelings,
natural inclinations, and wishes. In fact, the distress of well-doing is even considered
by Kant as a sign of virtue.

Indeed, Kant completely removes one's taste, emotion, liking and the like
in the sphere of morality. Concerning this, we may argue nonetheless that there
are srtuations in which our feelings and likings are relevant to the rightness of our

ETHICS: Po.•f'J(IPtE.3 OF ElH•C,t,L BEH.tV!OR JN Mooe~,-4 Soc,m

decisions and actions. In selecting a course to take, a job to assume, and ~spe_cially a
person to marry, we wonder how one's decision can be right without considering our
taste and preference. Moreover, Kant's theory would go against Christian philosophy's
emphasis on love, for love is basically a strong liking or desire. Applied religiouSly,
Kant's stance seems to go against the biblical decree to worship and serve God with
a joyful heart.

In general however, Kant contributes much to the study of morality. It affirms

our consciousness of the moral law inherent to our practical reason. Kant defines
human dignity as resting on the attainment of moral character, and thus not on
things like progress in scientific advances. His categorical imperative supports the
democratic notion that all people are created equal, from which we can derive
that discrimination is not good especially before the law. Moreover, his categorical
imperative forbids us to behave in an inconsistent and hypocritical manner.

3. Rights Theory

In law, Immanuel Kant proposed the principle of rights. He saw a distinctive

correlation, yet difference, between the intent of the law and the enforcement of law.
For Kant, governments were entrusted with the capacity to create laws by the citizens
they governed in exchange for protection. Thus, governments have no right to disrupt
that trust by making laws with cruel intent against the freedom that citizens had been

The principle of rights theory is the notion that in order for a society to be
efficacious, "government must approach the making and enforcement of laws with
the right intentions in respect to the end goals of the society that it governs. Members
of society agree to give up some freedoms for the protection enjoyed by organized
society, but governments cannot infringe upon the rights that citizens have been
promised." ("Rights Theory," n.d.).

When applied to war, rights theory states that in order for a war to be deemed
morally justifiable, the intention of entering into war ought to be right in relation to
human rights. Kant's principle of rights theory thus teaches that it is not merely the
outcome of actions that is significant but also the reasoning behind them, because if
the intent is evil, then the outcome, in all likelihood, is bad as well.

Rights Based Ethics is a broad moral theory in which Kant's principle of rights
theory is included. The concept of rights based ethics is that "there are some rights,
both positive and negative, that all humans have based only on the fact that they are
human. These rights can be natural or conventional. That is, natural rights are those
that are moral while conventional are those created by humans and reflect society's
values" ("Rights Based Ethics," n.d.).

Examples of Rights Based Ethics System include the following ("Rights Based
Ethics," n.d.):

a. The right to life

b. The right to liberty

c. The right to pursue happiness

d. The right to a jury trial

e. The right to a lawyer

f. The right to freely practice a religion of choice

g. The right to express ideas or opinions with freedom as an individual

h. The right of individuals or organizations to express opinions or share information

freely in written medium

i. The right to come together and meet in order to achieve goals

j. The right to be informed of what law has been broken if arrested

k. The right to call witnesses to speak on one's behalf if accused of a crime

l. The right of a person to be treated with respect and dignity even after beign
found guilty of a crime

m. The right to freely live and travel within the country

n. The right to work

o. The rig~t to marry

p. The right to bear children

q. The right to free education

r. The right to join any peaceful parties or groups of choice

s. The right to be free from slavery

t. The right to not be tortured


u Th·E' tiRht tt, hv t,'f'\lt~d .1~ oq,i,il to other"'
v, Th e 1 •~ht to bt' con sldt.,1~d
to b<' innocl'1,t un tll , .,
.,_u1lt y

w The right to p(.lrsont\l privacy

x The right tll own property

The United Statf's I~ said to h(!' tounded upon ,, Rlght!ii Base<l Efbt C\ SySlern
in which citizens arc ht'ld to h"ve certain unalienable 'l~hts. The phllo~ophcr Johr
- . h t ke • thE' viewpoint of wh ot
Locke 1s one of th e m ain supporters of this system 1 1 8 s w, '
the ideal world looks ltke ~nd generates t1. rights system based upon th0st9 ide-0s.

Th e Bill o f Rights of the United st.,tes of Arn ericl, is .., document that charact.el'izes
the t ype of ri ghts that are embraced by Rights Based Ethicl, I System s. The Universa l
Declaration of Human Rights also upholds ,md manifests the values of a Rights Ba sed
Ethi cal System.

Som e ethical theorists define the term 'right' as "justified claim that individuals
and groups can make upon other individuals or upon society; to have d right is to be
in a position to determine by one's choices, what others should do or need not do''
("Rights Based Ethics/' n.d.). Rights can be legal in nature, or pertain to human rights
or moral rights.

4 . Legal vs. l\,toml Rights

What is legal is not always moral. And sometimes, what is moral is not necessarily
legal in a particular country. These principles prove, among other things, that being
moral and being legal may be practically related but not one and the same.

Some explain the difference between legal and moral to the difference between
is and ought. That is, moral rights refer to what ought to be, whereas legal rights are
the rights that are 'on the books.' Moral rights represent the natural law while legal
rights embody the conventional positive law.

4.1 Legal rights. Legal rights denote all the rights found within existing legal codes.
As such, they enjoy the recognition and protection of the law. Questions as to
their existence can be resolved by just locating the pertinent legal instrument
or piece of legislation.

_ _ _ _1_20__,_,J ETHICS: Pntl'fOl)U $ OF Ei-tttCAt BtH.t\VIOR. IN Moot RN Soc1Frv

Technically, a legal right does not exist prior to its passing into law and
e limits of its validity are set by the jurisdiction of the body which passed its
legislation. An example of a legal right would be the right of an Englishman's
daughter to receive an adequate education, as enshr1ned within the United
Kingdom's Education Act of 1944. The exercise of this right is limited to the
United Kingdom that she has no legal right to receive an adequate education,
say, from a school board in Southern California.

4.2 Moral rights. Moral rights, in plain contrast, are rights that ..exist prior to and
independently from their legal counterparts. The existence and validity of a
moral right is not deemed to be dependent upon the actions of jurists and
legislators• (·Human Rights,• n.d.). For instance, many people argued that
the black majority in apartheid South Africa had a moral right to full political
participation in that country's political system, although there existed no such
legal right.

What many found so ethically objectionable about apartheid South Africa

was its denial to the majority of that country's inhabitants of many fundamental
moral rights, such as the rights not to be discriminated against on grounds of
color and rights to political participation. This specific line of opposition and
protest could only be pursued because of a belief in the existence and validity
of moral rights, with or without recognition of a legal system.

It must be dear, therefore, that human rights cannot be reduced to, or

exclusively identified with ·1egal rights. In fact, some human rights are best
identified as moral rights. Human rights are meant to apply to all human beings
universally, regardless of whether or not they have attained legal recognition by
all countries everywhere.

Human rights are best thought of as being both moral and legal rights. The
legitimacy claims of human rights are connected to their status as moral rights.
Nonetheless, the practical efficacy of human rights is essentially dependent
upon their developing into legal rights.