The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant's Contribution to the Enlightenment Period

Essay, 2018

16 Pages, Grade: 60




The critique of pure reason

Immanuel Kant on ethics

Categorical imperative

Counter arguments and critiques

Kant on individual rights and the state

Critique of individual freedom

On social contract

On perpetual peace

Counter arguments Critique of perpetual peace




The enlightenment period otherwise known as the age of reason was an era or rather an academic movement where political thinkers started to question traditional authority. The era of enlightenment dominated European countries from the 18th century. The primary idea of the enlightenment period was human reasoning as the source of authority and legitimacy. This led to the state of individuals being free from oppressive restrictions imposed by the state, the separation of the state from the church as well as the idea of individual freedom and ethical behaviour. The period of enlightenment was about questioning human rationality and the general belief in human progress, as a result the French and American revolution were born of the enlightenment period. This essay is aimed at looking into the ideas of one of the early enlightenment philosophers Immanuel Kant.

Kant was a German philosopher who became a vital part of modern philosophy. The first part of this essay will look at Kant’s Critique of pure reason and how Kant contributed to our understanding of the nature of knowledge, it will also look at a Kantian explanation of how we gain knowledge and how that shapes our perception of the world and our experiences. It also aims to look at the relationship between knowledge and human rationality. The second section of this essay aims to look at the Kantian view of moral judgement and how it shapes our perceptions of what is just. This section will especially focus on ethics, free will and the categorical imperative. It will be followed by counter arguments from different philosophers and general criticism on Kant’s philosophy of ethics. This paper will then proceed to look at Kant’s view on individual rights and the role of the state in ensuring the rights for all. The part that follows will examine Kant’s contribution to the social contract theory. The last part of this paper will look at Kant’s perpetual peace and his views of international relations.

The critique of pure reason

Philosophers that came before Kant believed that there are two ways of gaining knowledge, either empirically or rationally. David Hume for example believed that knowledge only comes in two forms: synthetic and analytical form. Analytical knowledge is knowledge that is a priori knowledge, meaning it is gained without experience. A common example is “all bachelors are single”. Single in this context meaning unmarred, one does not need to conduct a research study to prove that all bachelors really are unmarried because the word “bachelor” is the subject that contains the idea of the ‘singleness’ of the bachelors. Synthetic knowledge is a pisteriori knowledge meaning it requires experience, for example “the sky is blue” one cannot simply figure out that the sky is blue with first seeing that the sky is indeed blue. One needs to come into contact with the sky first.

Rationalist philosophers believed that we can gain substantial knowledge a priori, that is through reasoning without consulting experience. Rationalists believed in the idea of substantial knowledge being knowledge that is independent of our beliefs. Most rationalist philosophers believed that our knowledge of substantive a priori truths have been implanted directly by God or that God designed our minds in such a way that it contains the capacity of reasoning with the right structures needed to generate the truths in question. Empiricist philosophers on the other hand believed that all substantial knowledge must me grounded on experience. Empiricist denied the existence of a priori and believed that knowledge requires observation and experiments and not just our thoughts alone (Curruther 2004:111-113). Kant stands in between these views, he believed that there is knowledge we cannot acquire through our own reasoning or experience but we are naturally born with, he called this the synthetic a priori proposition. In his book The critique of pure reasoning (1781) Immanuel Kant uses the green glasses metaphor. The general idea of the green glasses metaphor is that we all have green glasses on, and they are part of our brains and how we view the world that lead us to believe that everything is green. One may believe that the green comes from empirical experience when the green actually comes from the glasses. Kant believed that our experience of concepts such as space, time, logic and mathematics come from the ‘green glasses’ and not the physical world. Our knowledge of such concepts may rise with experience but it does not come from experience. In his book Kant uses epistemology to prove his theory. Epistemology refers to the philosophical study of nature and the scope of knowledge as well as accepted belief analyses the nature of knowledge and look at how knowledge is produced (Zagzebski, 2009). Kant uses his book to prove that space, time and logic are a concept that is grounded on the ‘green glasses’, not to say that these concepts are not real but we cannot know reality in itself outside of our glasses, Kant calls this the noumenal world. The idea of the green glasses creating our reality to be green is called the phenomenal world. The noumenal world is the world itself and the phenomenal world is our world or rather the world as experienced by us. Kant believed that the mind organises our experiences into the way the world appears to us and the way we think about the world. The mind can have knowledge of things we have never experienced, not to say that the mind creates objects or concepts but the way in which they are perceived and understood. In essence Kant is saying that the human mind creates the structures and capacity of human experience. And that the world in itself is independent of humanity’s concept and understanding of it.

Kant suggests that the knowledge of God and freedom are not proved or disproven through reason nor can we use scientific methods to prove or disprove their existence. He believed that faith in God and freedom are rational because they help us create order and a moral world.

Immanuel Kant on ethics

Ethics refer to the philosophical study of moral actions. Actions are seen to be driven by two core theories, consequentialism and the deontology moral theory. Consequentialist philosophers like Jeremy Bentham believed that the end results of an actions were what is more important than the action itself. Bentham spoke of the greatest good for the greater number. This means that the moral judgement of actions lies in their ability to benefit the majority. Consequential moralism is the idea that right and wrong is defined by the consequences. The end justifies the means. Kant believed in the deontology moral theory (Kant 2012), he believed that the consequences of an action do not really matter because moral judgement is contained in the action alone. If for example there was a child drowning and two people attempt to help the child, one person drowns and dies and the other person succeeds we still consider both people heroes even though the consequences were different thus morality should be about good motives not good consequences. He believed that the only thing good without qualification is the will to do good. Consequences, happiness, courage and pleasure are not qualified as good because they can be both good or bad. One can find pleasure or happiness from doing bad things. A person can only be considered as good or bad depending on the motivation of their ethic. Motivation being the reason to actually do something.

Moral worth therefore can only be motivated by morality and nothing else. If emotions or desire cause us to do something than the action or act does not give moral wealth. For example, if a person decided to donate to charity because they enjoy the feeling that comes with helping people or because they sleep better at night then they do not gain moral worth from the act because the motivation is not morality itself. Therefore, moral law heavily depends on free will.

Doing what someone tells you to do even if its God, is not good because in that case you are not doing good for the good will but just following instructions for the fear of being punished or aiming to receive a reward. The good will has to come from within. Moral progress and moral limitations are self-induced according to Kant. The idea of freedom and autonomy is central to the concept of morality because we act out free will. In applying Kant’s concept of morality in the modern world one could look at the way sanctions are issues by the justice system. If we believe that a person who breaks the law had no intentions of doing so then the person is more likely walk away with a lenient or no verdict thus not held morally accountable for their actions. However, if we believe that another person committed the same crime intentionally then the system is more likely to hold them morally accountable thus receiving a harsher penalty even if the consequences were the same. Our beliefs and perceptions of morality shape our understanding of justice. Kant suggested that morality guides our action and he called this categorical imperative.

Categorical imperative

Immanuel Kant believed that morality is acquired from rationality, all moral judgements are morally supported. Kant argued that it is rational thoughts that lead us to an objective morality. There are three maxims to Kant’s categorical imperative: firstly, all actions must have universality, this means that we should only do something if we truly believed that it would be ok if everyone did that same. If it is not desirable that we lived in a world where everyone performing this action that we are doing than it is not morally justifiable. For example, if there is a married couple and the husband thinks it is acceptable that he has a mistress on the side, this will only be morally justified if he truly believed that his wife having a side mister and the mistress having a husband is a desirable state of living. Secondly, we need to treat all humanity as an end never as means. Kant believed that everyone should be allowed independent thinking and no one should be manipulated. If one thinks again of Jeremy Bentham’s greater good theory, the Kantians argue that the greater good is irrelevant as no person should be manipulated to achieve the goal of another because each person Is their own moral agent. Lastly, when we want to principal morality Kant believed that we should always behave as though we are the absolute authority of the entire world or rather legislature of universal law (Sullivan: 1995).

Counter arguments and critiques

The first counter argument comes from Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill’s concept of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill. In his book Utilitarianism (1879) J.S Mill argued that an action is right if it promotes happiness and wrong if it reverses happiness. The action need not to only bring happiness for the person performing it but also for the majority of the people that are affected by it hence the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilitarians believe that the consequences of action determine its moral value. Utilitarians believe that we do not murder because of our understanding that murder is bad, then it is our moral duty to try and minimise or limit the number of murders that are taking place. Murder is only justified if it will put an end to mass murder thus the greater good. In this case what makes a will good is that it wills good ends. Kant believed that everyone is their own moral agent, that means we are not responsible for the moral practices of others no matter the end. Utilitarians argue that happiness is always the desirable end. Kant maintains that happiness is not always good (Lacewing 2014). Kant believed that moral duty is absolute, that nothing can override moral duty but does not say much about cases where two moral duties can conflict “should I betray a close friend or save a life?”

Another different outlook on the issue of ethics and morality was philosopher Thomas Hobbes. While Kant believed that morality or rather moral duty is motivated by good will. Thomas Hobbes (2003) argued that humans use morality to avoid the state of nature. According to Thomas Hobbes human judgement is self-interested and naturally self-serving. Human beings are programmed animals that only pursue self-interested ends without consideration for anything else but try to avoid pain and the incentive is pleasure. Therefore, human beings would only consider the morality or moral practices only if they stand to gain from a morally just environment. Hobbes opposes the idea of morality being motivated by the good will but instead believed that morality is motivated by self-interests.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche dismissed the whole debate on morality completely. Nietzsche believed that there is no such thing as a moral act. Moral judgements agree with religious beliefs thus morality is the instinct in the individual that subscribes to religious norms and the idea of morality in order to fit in (Nietzsche 1990).

Kant’s philosophy of ethics and morality has been critiqued on cultural relativism or lack thereof. The more globalised the world becomes the more scholars are become aware of cultural diversity in the world. Different societies have different standards of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not, for example in some societies is it acceptable for a man to have more than one wife. Values and standards differ for different societies. The presence of cultural relativism means that there can be no absolute and universal morals.

Kant on individual rights and the state

Kant believed that every sensible human being has an innate right to freedom and the duty to enter into a condition governed by social contract. In his book Metaphysics of morals (2015) Kant talks about the “doctrine of rights” and “doctrine of virtue”. The idea of is separate political rights from morals. He suggested three conditions that need to be considered before acts can be considered rights. Firstly, rights concern only with actions that have potential to influence others directly or indirectly. Secondly, rights should concern with not only the wish of others but their choices, not mere desire but decisions that can lead to actions. Lastly rights do not concern the matter of others acts but only in forms (Elizabeth 2012: 176). Kant believed that both political rights and morals relate to freedom in different ways. Political rights relate to outer freedom and morals relate to inner freedom.

Kant defined freedom as “independence from being constrained by others”. In this account Kant is not showing interest in the possibilities of the law of nature limiting or rather restricting human freedom instead he is more concerned with the idea of the action and choices of others limiting human freedoms, he is concerned with individual freedom. Kant believed that the inalienable nature of political rights is linked to natural freedom. According to Kant’s understanding, the human beings use of choice as guided by reason is free in the natural sense. Every human being enjoys natural freedoms by virtue of being a rational human being, freedom of choice is a universal human characteristic. Kant believed that freedom of choice should be respected and promoted even when it is not exercised rationally hence he called it “innate”.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant's Contribution to the Enlightenment Period
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
BA Politics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Immanuel Kant, Political philosophy
Quote paper
Anele Mngadi (Author), 2018, The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant's Contribution to the Enlightenment Period, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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