Archive for December, 2010

Kant has been described as a “typical and supreme representation of the enlightenment” (MacIntyre, p. 183). His philosophy is described as deontological, as it rests on the notion of duty or moral obligation. His moral philosophy rests on fundamental notions of the good will; moral law; moral duty; hypothetical and categorical imperatives. Good will is essentially the fundamental notions on which morality and ethical theory can be argued. The moral law is a universal moral law which is binding to everyone (Grosch and Large, 1994). This leads to the categorical and hypothetical imperatives, which are commands expressed as absolutes (categorical imperative) or as unconditional commands expressed for the sake of itself and follows logic (hypothetical imperative). The notion of duty arises to express the moral obligation of humans based on reasoning and acting for the sake of duty. The moral law is a pivotal term in Kantian philosophy. It refers to the ultimate good in which individuals are aware, some more than others. This awareness relies on practical reasoning and leads to distinguishing between what is a good action in-itself, and what action is bad in-itself. Kant takes this further and emphasises a human obligation to the moral law, leading to a moral duty. This essay will discuss what Kant means by the „moral law‟ and relate it with the notion of duty.

For Kant, philosophy is not based on what man „actually‟ does, but what man „ought‟ to do. We see therefore that his moral philosophy is based „a priori‟ in that we cannot base what we ought to do by examining whether we do so or not. We can also see that Kant is trying to find a universal ethical theory in which all mankind can aspire to achieving or „ought‟ to abide by. His entire enquiry is to discover the origin in practical reason of the fundamental principles „according to which we all judge when we judge morally‟ (Copleston, p. 309). Good will is the only real „Good‟, and it is not always obviously clear to us. Kant sees feelings and desires as unreliable and submissive.

Concerning the categorical imperative, it is based on unconditional commands that bind each individual at all times. It is applicable at all times as it asserts what one must always do, for example, one must always tell the truth. The categorical imperative comes from principles that state we must act according to a moral law that has universal applications. For example, what is fair for one is fair for all. It is an absolute, universal moral obligation, characterised by what one „ought‟ to do. As Kant puts it, always acting “in such a way that the maxim of your action can be willed as a universal law of humanity.” The hypothetical imperative comes from „if-then‟ principles, for example if you want something to happen, you must will something else to happen. It comes from the practical necessity of an action not necessarily moral in nature.

He distinguishes between acts done in accordance of duty and acts done for the sake of duty. The acts done for the sake of duty are the only actions which have moral worth. It seems that the less inclination one has to do our „duty‟, the greater the moral value of our action has, if we actually perform in accordance of our duty. The more we have to overcome our inclination to do our duty, the more moral the act is – our „natural‟ inclination, it seems, is misguided. However, Kant acknowledges acting in accordance to a natural desire to do Good. This, it seems, is misguided but still not altogether improper. He describes acting in a natural inclination for acting to benefit others as „proper and loveable‟, referring to philanthropists, do-gooders and anyone who wishes to do right for the sake of pleasure or other motives.

For Kant, when we perform our duty against our natural inclinations, the fact that the action is done for the sake of duty and not simply out of a natural tendency is clearer that it would be if we had a natural attraction to the action. The good will is determined as a decision made on the basis of moral law. Moral law is determined by the moral demands of the situation. For Kant, the term „law‟ refers to constraints on human desires motivated through duty (Kerner, 1990). This can be compared to other motives, for example, self-interested, self-preservation, sympathy and happiness. These actions do not have moral worth as they come from a „natural‟ human tendency to preserve oneself and one‟s self interest. If we were to continue with this and not consider the moral worth or moral duty then we are not acting morally as we fail to consider extraneous interests which have the greater impact on the greater outcomes. It is clear from this that Kant argues for a position of moral universalisability. Moral worth does not come from the consequences of which the action entails, but comes from the integrity on which the moral duty rests upon.

For Kant, good will is the only inherent good in this world. By this, he means that alternative motives are insufficient when it comes to morality. We can see that his moral philosophy rests on practicality, it is not reasonable to consider an action morally worthy if it harms the greater good. For example, someone getting pleasure or satisfaction in the harm of others cannot be morally good, even if the injured parties are considered immoral – an obvious instance would be the death penalty. In this we can see that the moral duty is an individualised law of morality that concerns everyone. It is up to the individual to choose to act in accordance of the duty, for the duty is for the greatest moral outcome. A morally good intention does not reflect an individualised desire. We see this in the examples he gives us to portray the moral duty and good will. The first example is that of a young boy overcharged by a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper acts against the moral duty. In the other example the shopkeeper charges the correct price, but this stems from self-interest in that the shopkeeper wants to prolong the longevity of his business. This is also against the moral duty. The third example is where the shopkeeper happily charges the boy the correct price. Although according to the moral duty, it is flawed as he derived a personal satisfaction from charging the correct price, and therefore he is not acting according to the moral duty. In the forth scenario the shopkeeper is unpleasant and made more upset from the young boy, yet the shopkeeper charges the correct price, despite a personal inclination to overcharge or upset the boy in any way. This, for Kant, is acting in accordance with the moral duty. Kant describes treating people “as an end in itself and never as a mere means.”

An obvious objection is that he may be underestimating human nature, or he may have an imperfect view of human nature (O‟Neill, 1989). This has been seen in criticisms of Kant proposing that he is a product of the enlightenment period, and that his views on human nature may need to be revised. It may be possible to overlook such objections and focus on the practicality of what Kant is proclaiming, for example: consider a bankrupt country desperately in need of financial aid from other countries. On this large scale, the moral good, as Kant may see it, would be to help the country in the best possible way, despite the backlash of your home countries criticisms and raising taxes. We have a moral duty to help each other out – in the grand scale of things – despite personal and economic interests. To do so will allow the greatest number of people to benefit in the larger scale, despite short term suffering.

There are complicated examples of the moral duty described by Kant. Such acts appear morally good, but may not come from a moral perspective. Such actions would be to create a personal benefit in the grand scheme of things, despite the appearance of a morally contentious action. For example, consider a country financially supporting a country through an economic crisis at the cost of resources from the challenged country, or aiding the other country to appear morally contentious by other countries, or indeed for the other country to help your country if a reverse situation were to occur. If the country helped the other one because it was the right thing to do, then some moral worth was in the action. The moral duty must be motivated in the right sort of way as well as conforming to the moral duty. A more personal example of acting according to the moral duty is that of an exhausted mother getting up to tend to her crying child because caring for the child is the right thing to do. The mother could easily try to leave the child soothe itself back to sleep or let another person tend to the child if the resource is available. Acting out of no inclination, but respect abides by the moral duty.

Praise from acting on moral duty is only warranted if the action used reason to guide the action of duty. Doing so indicates an action based on a capacity for doing the right thing and an awareness of when it is necessary to do so. Praise should never be the driving force of the moral duty. We can see that moral duty is based on an individual capacity to do right “only what is connected with my will merely as a ground and never as an effect…can be an object of respect” (Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4:400).

Some actions are done in accordance with the moral duty, and others are done for the sake of moral duty. It is the actions done for the sake of duty that are truly connected to the moral law. Action only have moral worth is they are done for the sake of duty. If the action is done on the grounds of moral duty, then the action is in accordance with moral duty. However, if the action is done on the grounds of a non-moral foundation, (i.e. fear, inclinations etc.) then the action is done in accordance with duty. This distinction is important for Kant.

There are some questionable aspects to Kant‟s moral philosophy. For example, abiding by the moral law, if a murderer asked for the location of their next victim, according to the moral law, one would have to tell them. This clearly has some negative connotations. Taking human nature into account, one would surely not abide by moral law. We are therefore posed the question of how useful the moral law and moral duty is in relation to the practicality of human honesty. Surely one could still act ethically by acting in such a way to deviate from Kant‟s moral law and still act in accordance to moral duty, but of course for the law to stand on its own, one cannot deviate under any circumstances, so one is left with giving the location of a victims location to a murderer on one‟s conscience. In this sense, the moral law and moral duty falls at the hands of human nature, which it desperately tries to overcome. From this we can see that it does not necessarily matter what action is performed, to act according to moral duty, one must follow the moral law. For Kant, everything in nature happens according to laws and humans can act in order to conform to laws (Kerner, 1990). The moral action is that which acts on the intentions of moral law through reason, and not on primitive inclinations. Truth is an important component of moral duty. This of course cannot be driven from an inclination. A lie of any kind harms humanity, even if for the benefit for the greater good. This is because it harms the respect that moral law rests upon. The aim of the moral will is always the greater good.

The good will follows from moral law out of respect for good in itself. We use reason in order to identify what is morally good, as inclinations are often insufficient in identifying the good for the sake of good. He likens acting on inclination to primitive animal instincts, wherein we rely on basic primitive forces in action. For example, hunger is a natural inclination and doesn‟t use reasoning faculties in action. When one reason‟s with the moral law, one is acting in accordance to moral duty. Acting on inclination is psychological and acting with respect to reason conforms to the moral law.

Kant emphasises reasoning as a higher human faculty as reasoning is a human ability to make rational choices. While the moral duty is not altogether natural, we must utilise reasoning as it separates us from other animals. It is in this that he proposes that humans are „ends-in-themselves‟. By this he means that human beings are not held confined by natural desires or inclinations. To be captivated by desires would be a primitive form of life for Kant. The Good Will is not derived from what good it accomplishes, it is based on human reasoning faculties to recognise and respect the moral duty. The will is another distinction between animals and humans.

Kantian ethics aims to argue for an ethical theory on notions of consistency and rationality rather than upon considerations of desire and preference (O‟Neill, 1989). However, Kant alludes to conceptual inconsistencies in the theory. There seems to be a disconnect between what human nature should or „ought to‟ aspire to and what humans actually can do, or want to do. The individual who abides by the moral law is described as a person who may find the whole notion of acting in accordance to the moral duty as unpleasant, wherein they may consciously base their actions contrary to natural inclinations. This just does not seem practical, especially since there are no other incentives to behave in such a way apart from a culturally specific ideal of what is the „Good Will‟ and such a view is fallible and may be unethical in its very notion. For example, one may lose one‟s motivation if they must act in a way completely contrary to their inclinations, when acting in accordance with one‟s inclinations does not cause any harm and is arrived at through some reasoning process. Another objection may propose that if we are so bound by the moral law as to restrict our natural behaviour, then the moral law restricts our freedom and challenges our freedom to assent to the moral law and categorical imperative. On another point, there seems to be contradictory arguments for the maxims of moral action. If we can establish a moral duty whereby one must preserve life at every juncture, then this clearly would conflict with always telling the truth if one must disclose the destination of an individual to a murderer.

Despite these criticisms, Kant‟s moral theory is one of the most powerfully argued and carefully presented justifications for belief in rational moral principles (Grosch and Large, 1994). The notion of Good Will sets about the argument of moral law, and this directly contributes to the notion of moral duty. This essay has described the moral law and moral duty in a united way, in that the two depend on each other. They are lie at the core of Kant‟s moral philosophy.


Copleston, F. (1999 (1st pub. 1960)). A History Of Philosophy, Vol. 6. Cornwall: Burns and Oates.

Grosch, P. and Large, W. (1994). ‘Always tell the truth and Always keep your promises’ Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Dialogue, Issue 3 , 8 – 15.

Kant, I. (1993 ). Grounding for the metaphysics of morals; (Third Edition). Indianapolis

Hackett, ed.Kerner, G. (1990). Three Philosophical Moralists. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

MacIntyre, A. (1998). A short history of ethics (second ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

O’Neill, O. (1989). Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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“She had deceived herself in supposing that she could be whatever she wanted to be…” (Tolstoy, 1956 p. 256).

Free will is one of the many controversies in psychology. The problem of free will has been greatly debated in philosophy and theology for centuries. As science developed, we have come to understand the natural physical laws once attributed to supernatural or mystical forces. The debate between free will and determinism is important for psychologists today in order to understand some of the underlying principles in the theories we readily practice. Free will may not be particularly important to practicing psychologists today as the deterministic principles on which the science has been developed from is often taken for granted. Take for example an ABA tutor working with an autistic adolescent. The tutor would hardly attribute the behaviour of the individual to deterministic laws to which we identify stimulus and reinforcement, it’s not as clear-cut. We identify the cause and effect relationship but it does not satisfyingly discredit free will. The problem with free will and determinism may become more problematic if psychology commands for all individuals to be treated as deterministic agents. In this article I am going to primarily discuss the impact of a phenomenological approach to psychological principles. In doing so, I wish to draw from the phenomenological work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and contemporary psychological research on free will.

Free will and determinism are not opposites (Gross, 2009). Free will can be understood as the ability to be in control of your own actions, emotions and relative being. Determinism can be divided into two extremes  – soft determinism (a term suggested by William James in 1890) is a form of determinism which claims that it is not possible to identify all the physical laws involved on our psychological processes; strict (or hard) determinism suggests that everything can be determined through physical laws.

Phenomenological social psychology explores the problem of free will in more detail. Phenomenology is about lived experience and how people live their day to day lives. Often in psychology we pay particular attention on specific aspects of human behaviour or brain functions in the case of neuropsychological research etc. Merleau-Ponty (1962) states ‘I am free to act in the face of my world; my freedom is shaped in turn by this world.” This can be seen as a form of soft determinism on the human experience. Life experience and environmental factors are important in understanding human behaviour. Genetics, socio-biology and neuropsychological research are often derived from strict deterministic principles and we may be losing touch to what it means to be human. If we take the term ‘situated freedom’ we refer to neither absolute freedom nor an absolute determinism (Valle and Halling, 1989).

Merleau-Ponty comments that behaviourism is inadequate as it reduces human beings to purely ‘reactors to the world’. As he sees it, we ‘exist in a relationship with the environment in which each partially determines the other’. The issue of free will is extensively argued in Phenomenology and Cognitive psychology, but for the purpose of this article I wanted to mention an important area of research on human experience (see Dreyfus 2002 and Storey 2009).

The video below is taken from the movie Waking Life in which philosophical concepts are explored. The clip speaks of free will and our knowledge of physics (a little off the point but an amusing look at the philosophical and psychological understanding of determinism).

Now to introduce a less abstract approach to free will, Daniel Dennet has argued extensively on free will and determinism in science. Psychology, as a science, is seen to adopt deterministic principles. Dennet (2003) argues that our brains can be seen as causally determined. Dennet also states that although we may be causally determined it is incorrect to assume that we are not morally responsible for our behaviour (Gross, 2009). Baumeister et al. (2009) believes that a disbelief in free will ma y lead to aggressive behaviour. Vohs and Schooler (2008) noticed increased cheating behaviour in individuals who declared a disbelief in free will. The authors suggest that moral behaviour rests on a belief in free will. These articles do not comment on whether we have free will or not, but they do show that free will may have a function in our behaviour.

Recently, Meyen (2009) has reviewed research on free will and forensic psychology. The claim reacts to Morse (22008) who asks the question – why is free will the conclusion for one’s actions? A ‘lack in free will’ is not seen as an appropriate response in the testimonies and reports of psychologist s and psychiatrists. The research highlights a confusion surrounding free will in this particular aspect of psychology.

In reading about the problem of free will it is clear that there is a lot of confusion and conflicting arguments, particularly in psychology. Dennet (2003) comments on ‘doublethink’ wherein we posit a particular view (deterministic principles determining behaviour) yet actively engage in activities we regard ourselves as free actions or under our control (Gross, 2009). Doublethink can be extended into other disciplines – take for example a strict religion. A strict religious argument may state that everything in the universe (including our behaviour and mind) is controlled by a force they call God. This all knowing force eliminates the possibility of free will as the entity has created the laws to which the universe works. This can be likened to a strict deterministic argument – we are just not using the word God as an ultimate force and using the understanding we have of how the universe works and construing that everything is determined. A strict deterministic argument and a fundamentalist argument of free will are similar in a number of ways and it seems to be suggesting an exemption to moral responsibility.

A ‘soft’ determinism appears to be the best approach to the problem of free will for psychologists and scientists. Whether or not we have free will has little impact on the psychological principles in psychology today (deterministic principles do have their merits) – yet I wanted to highlight that there: a) is a problem with the ethics of an underlying hard deterministic approach that psychologists may need to be aware of; b) there appears to be a functional relationship between human behaviour and belief in free will that psychologists can investigate further: c) a strict determinism (or fatalism) I think, is not sufficient and it may not be necessary. As scientists we may have to confront the issue that there may be concepts that we are unable to understand fully and free will is one of them.


Dennet, D. (2003). Freedom Evolves. London: Allen Lane.

Dilman, I. (1999). Free Will. London & New York: Routledge.

Dreyfus, H. (2002). Intelligence without representation – Merleau-Ponty’s critique of mental representation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences , 367–383.

Gross, R. (2009). Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology. London: Hodder Education.

Meynen, G. (2009). Should or should not forensic psychiatrists think about free will? Med Health Care and Philos , 203-212.

Storey, D. (2009). Spirit and/or Flesh. PhaenEx, vol. 4, no. 1 , 59-83.

Tolstoy, L. (1956). Anna Karenina, trans. Rosemary Edmunds. London: Penguin Classics.

Valle, R., & Halling, S. (1989). Existential-Phenomenological Perspectives in Psychology: Exploring the Breadth of human experience. New York: Plenum Press.

Vohs, L., & J., S. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will. Psychological Science, Vol. 12, No. 1 , 49-54.


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This post will concern itself with how to summarize academic articles and what is the best way to prepare an academic essay (exam or term paper).

Most academic articels are broken down in the following sections:

  • Conclusion/Discussion – the end of the article, discusses implications of study and highlights contributions
  • Introduction/Literature review – may be very useful for a summary of the approaches considered
  • Method – the methodology employed by the researcher (s) in the study
  • Results – this is really the bones of the articel (of the other sections are the flesh and ligaments!). It shows either statistically or qualitatively the results that prove/disproves the hypothesis

Summarising articles well will really help with your research, especially when it comes to exams and essays. A useful summary will:

  • Make specific ties to your research
  • Highlight the argument of the study, i.e. findings, contribution to the area

When it comes to formulating a research proposal, answering an essay question or approaching an exam question, descriptive answers are usually redundant. You are usually asked to critically analyse (although they may not use the term ‘critically analyse’, they may say ’discuss, compare and contrast’ – this is all the similar ways of asking you to critically analyse). If we wanted to know the descriptive  details, we would open the book ourselves. You are really being asked to show adequate research of the field, an understanding of topic and appropriate material choice. You are basically demonstrating your ability to comment on a specific area of research, this is what you are usually graded on.

Early in the research:

  • Starting early is obviously ideal
  • Write a little, often
  • Gather your sources – most relevant articles
  • Establish your argument and where you are coming from
  • Stick to the argument – your essay must have a clear thread
  • Understand your argument – if you don’t, the reader won’t
  • Make sure you actually answer the question, it’s so easy to go off on a tangent
  • It’s not about the ‘right’ answer, it’s about adapting your knowledge on the topic and demonstrating an ability to comment on the area

A good metaphor or example of assignment structure is seen above with my example of a filter. Structuring your answer as a filter will allow your argument develop in a concise and comprehensive way. The example of a filter is suitable to essays, article summaries and exam essay questions. You generally introduce the topic to the reader, introduce your argument (1st paragraph) and then argue ruthlessly for your side of the argument! A good argument will also discuss contradicting arguments and evidence, but generally you will strengthen your own argument by doing so (as long as you don’t present a bunch of contradiction, which will seem like you don’t understand the material).

Another good metaphor for putting your academic assignment is to imagine the topic as a circle. In order to starts and establish your argument, you must look at the evidence and pick a point on a circle (the part of research most appealing to you) and construct your argument. In an academic assignment, choosing the material is your personal opinion on the area of research, which is why using personal conjecture is generally frowned upon.

Another useful (yet obvious) piece of advice is ALWAYS back up your work! Prepare for the unlikely or you may lose the will to live!! I’ve lost a few essays back in the day for not backing up correctly. I recommend using a memory stick and a storage site like dropbox. Alternatively you could email the file to yourself. Just make sure there is another copy of your work and save as you go! Obvious advice yet probably the most important and easiest to overlook!

Time management

–      Ideally, start early and write a little often

–      Leave enough time to gather all your resources (as in not the night before)

–      The subjectivity of research – some people will be able to reproduce the same quality of work in 45 minutes that others may take days to come up with

–      You know your limits and capabilities. I honestly could not leave it until the week of the deadline to find all my sources. Even gathering the appropriate material early is a major advantage

Resource management

–      Gather all your notes, lecture notes, selected articles and other material

–      Work as you see fit

–      Make notes, write paragraphs, memorise theories, whatever works best for you

Remember nobody is trying to catch you out, we were all in the same position at some stage – we know what it is like and don’t give exams/assignments for the fun of it.

Key terms

  • ANALYZE: Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.
  • COMPARE: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences.
  • CONTRAST: Show differences. Set in opposition.
  • DISCUSS: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.
  • EVALUATE: Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
  • ILLUSTRATE: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.
  • OUTLINE: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events.
  • SUMMARIZE: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.

This post presents material I would generally give in a typical of a class. I give tutorials in academic writing for undergrad psychology students just getting started but I altered the material to suit pretty much any field of research.

I hope that some of the advice helps, however its certainly doesn’t suit everyone. In a class setting I usually get feedback from people who disagree with the approaches presented here or individuals who don’t find it helpful. This would usually result in me creating an individualised study plan for the student. If you would like more advice or help just leave me a comment and I’ll be sure to get back to you – even if I cannot directly help, I may know where to go for the best advice tailored to your needs!

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