Immanuel Kant was a ethicist who developed an influential deontological ethical framework known as Kantian ethics. Central to Kantian ethics is the “categorical imperative”.
The categorical imperative is based on three main formulations:
- Universality: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. An action is moral if it can be applied equally to everyone. For example, if everyone stole, there would be no such thing as personal property. If there is no personal property, it would be no need for stealing. This contradiction means stealing cannot be ethical. Prioritising this maxim leads to duty-based ethics (e.g. I have a duty not to steal). Kant distinguishes between perfect duties which are basic requirements for all situations (e.g. telling the truth) and imperfect duties which can only apply in some situations (e.g. unlike telling the truth, you cannot perform charitable deeds all the time).
- Humanity: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end in itself and never simply a means to an end”. Others should be respected (as ends), instead of being used (as a means) to achieve something else. Focus of this formulation leads rights-based ethics (e.g. an individual has a right to be told the truth), although Kant proposes that the first two formulations should be considered equally.
- Autonomy (see Autonomy): The idea of “the will of every rational being as a universally legislating will“. All moral rules must be self-determined and self-governed instead of following the rules laid down by others. This allows moral rules to be applied universally while preventing rules espoused by one individual from infringing on another’s freedoms. Following the Kantian perspective, Peters (1972) argued that autonomy is a feature of the final stages of moral development and requires an individual being conscious about their obedience to rules. He explains that children gain autonomy when they understand that rules can be criticised or altered, and should be accepted or rejected based on the individual’s own moral standpoint.