Immanuel Kant’s theory of ethics is one of the several possible formulations for theories of ethics. All of the ethical formulations proposed by different people can be used to evaluate a situation to analyze possible courses of actions. There are two different ways to evaluate whether an action is ethical correct: intentions, or results. Both have challenges when it comes to evaluating them in other people. Kant’s theory evaluates moral action based on intentions.

Kant’s theory is that there is one rational requirement that forms the foundation of any correct action. He called this fundamental requirement the Categorical Imperative: imperative because it is required, and categorical because it is required unconditionally. He formulated five different axioms in different papers. Some of the axioms are methods of determining what is an ethical law to hold, some of them are axioms that Kant believed were fundamental ethical laws. One of the most well-known formulations is Kant’s Formula of Rational Beings as Ends in Themselves, which states that you should always treat people as ends in themselves and never as means to an end only.

Every action has an “end,” a goal. To say that each individual person is an end in him/herself is to say that an individual is valuable in him/herself. According to Kant, each person is a free rational agent, and, in order to have a functioning society, the freedom to act as an individual rational agent must be preserved. In order to have a society that values intelligence and free thought, the rational agents (rational people) that make up that society must be valued in and of themselves.

There are a few ways in which you could use someone as a means only. The first is taking advantage over them and forcing them to do something against their will. The second is deceiving them into doing what you want. Both of these situations remove a person’s ability to act rationally based on true facts that everyone knows.

In order to act ethically according to Kant, each person must be able to knowingly, freely participate in whatever actions they choose to do.

Kantian Ethics is also known as formalism, a branch of deontology (duty oriented ethics) which focuses on how people should conduct themselves, and prescribes that people should act by duty rather than inclination. It distinguishes between doing what we must, whether we like it or not; and doing what we like, whether we should or not. The former follows Kants' formalism principle, which states that people must practice a prescribed law on how they conduct their life.

An issue arises, as no political body governs all people, so there must be a universal law, known to all, and followed by all. Kant uses the term "categorical Imperatives", principles that are always valid in every situation. To determine what ones duty is, he describes maxims, a subjective principle of action, that consists of an action paired with its intention. One must analyze their own maxim subjectively, and extend it to the entire world, asking "what would happen if everyone followed the principle of which I am about to act?"  If this action would be problematic, the action is wrong and should not be done. As an example, take a look at robbery. The action is stealing, and its motivation is personal benefit. If everyone acted like this, the world would fall into shambles. Therefore, the act is wrong, and should never be done.

Formalism can also  be applied to professionals in the workplace. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers may be faced with ethical dilemmas on occasion, and must always look at their motives behind the potential action. Say an engineer is tempted to take a shortcut on a building design, in order to save time and money. His action is cutting corners at the potential risk of his occupants, and his motive is self gain, in the form of time and money. This is unacceptable, and should be seen as such by the engineer.

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