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Kantianism is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher born in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The term "Kantianism" or "Kantian" is sometimes also used to describe contemporary positions in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.
Kantian ethics are deontological, revolving entirely around duty rather than emotions or end goals. All actions are performed in accordance with some underlying maxim or principle, which are deeply different from each other; it is according to this that the moral worth of any action is judged. Kant's ethics are founded on his view of rationality as the ultimate good and his belief that all people are fundamentally rational beings. This led to the most important part of Kant's ethics, the formulation of the categorical imperative, which is the criterion for whether a maxim is good or bad.
Simply put, this criterion amounts to a thought experiment: to attempt to universalize the maxim (by imagining a world where all people necessarily acted in this way in the relevant circumstances) and then see if the maxim and its associated action would still be conceivable in such a world. For instance, holding the maxim kill anyone who annoys you and applying it universally would result in a world which would soon be devoid of people and without anyone left to kill. Thus holding this maxim is irrational as it ends up being impossible to hold it.
Universalizing a maxim (statement) leads to it being valid, or to one of two contradictions — a contradiction in conception (where the maxim, when universalized, is no longer a viable means to the end) or a contradiction in will (where the will of a person contradicts what the universalization of the maxim implies). The first type leads to a "perfect duty", and the second leads to an "imperfect duty."
Kant's ethics focus then only on the maxim that underlies actions and judges these to be good or bad solely on how they conform to reason. Kant showed that many of our common sense views of what is good or bad conform to his system but denied that any action performed for reasons other than rational actions can be good (saving someone who is drowning simply out of a great pity for them is not a morally good act). Kant also denied that the consequences of an act in any way contribute to the moral worth of that act, his reasoning being (highly simplified for brevity) that the physical world is outside our full control and thus we cannot be held accountable for the events that occur in it.
The Formulations of the Categorical Imperative:
- Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
- Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
- Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.
In political philosophy, Kant has had wide and increasing influence with the major political philosopher of the late twentieth century, John Rawls, drawing heavily on his inspiration in setting out the basis for a liberal view of political institutions. [clarification needed] The nature of Rawls' use of Kant has engendered serious controversy[how?] but has demonstrated the vitality of Kantian considerations across a wider range of questions than was once thought plausible.
- Kant, Immanuel; translated by James W. Ellington  (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed. Hackett. p. 30. ISBN 0-87220-166-X. Cite error: Invalid
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- John Rawls (2000) Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (Harvard University Press)