I have had an interest in philosophy since my late teens. Periodically it grips me like an affliction and during our two lockdowns has been such a time. I have such an intense admiration for Kant that I feel he should feature on far more syllabuses than in fact he does. I have been wondering how I could convey that enthusiasm briefly, but at the moment it seems beyond me. However I wrote a short piece which touches a corner of his mighty work, and I thought I would reproduce it here.
Kant was such a powerful and systematic thinker that there are interconnections between many areas of his thought. The Metaphysics of Morals is divided into two parts: The Doctrine of Right and The Doctrine of Virtue. The former part was published alone in 1797, and is concerned with rights and duties. The latter is concerned with the ethical behaviour of the individual. Kant said there is only one innate right, the right to freedom (independence from constraint by another’s choice) insofar as that freedom can co-exist with the freedom of every other person in accordance with universal law. This he saw as an enlightenment and republican ideal. We can see it today as an ideal of modern liberal democracies. However, there are in all societies individuals who will abuse the right to freedom and self- expression in anti-social and unlawful acts. Why is it that Kant prefers the right to freedom to a more hierarchical arrangement in which the law is imposed despotically? Because Kant held that every rational adult has an inborn right to freedom and a duty to enter into a civil arrangement governed by social contract so as to realise and protect freedom for all. Furthermore, as a republican, Kant believed in the separation of the executive power of the Government from the legislative power, to prevent one individual or group from having both the power to create and enforce the laws of the state.
Kant’s statement about the only thing that is good in itself is a good will, is a statement at the heart of Kant’s deontological* account of ethics. To act out of a good will is to act out of a sense of moral duty. This places motivation, not the consequences of acts, as the basis of for judging the rightness or wrongness of particular actions. ( In the criminal law the distinction between the actus reus and mens rea fits well with Kant’s view. Actus reus is the external element, the guilty act, mens rea the guilty mind which motivates the act. For example a verdict of manslaughter is brought when the intention to kill is absent.
The rights of a citizen in a republic do mesh with the duties of an individual as a private person. The desired end is to maximise the amount of civic freedom through the virtuous conduct of its individuals.
*Deontology – the theory in which the rightness and wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfil our duty.