Kant’s ethical theory is based on an idea he referred to as the “categorical imperative”, that is that the most fundamental ideas of morality must be equally and consistently applied to all persons who accept the value of reason. Kant looks at a moral act and bases the extent of its morality on what truly motivated the act. If an act of good will is motivated by the individual’s self interest then it is considered a hypothetical imperative. But if the act is committed solely out of a sense of moral duty, then it is what Kant would call a categorical imperative and would be considered a true moral act. Hence, Kant argues that true morality lies in the selfless act of moral duty.
Kierkegaard looks at ethics in three stages of progressive worth, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic being the most trite way of life, revolves around inconsequential, simple pleasures. The ethical stage is one of rationalism, the acknowledgment that of a moral duty dictated by reason. The final stage, and the one that can be argued to be the most irrational, is the religious stage. According to Kierkegaard the highest level of ethic is that which concedes to the idea that our decisions are determined by God’s will and not our own.
To begin, Kierkegaard’s ethical stage of existence parallels Kant’s theory of duty based morality. The ethical stage, according to Kierkegaard, means to be conscious of one’s moral duty and to acting accordingly, as Kierkegaard states, “when a person has felt the intensity of duty with all his energy, then he is ethically matured” (180). This idea of moral duty is also central to Kant’s ethical theory, where he states, “an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is attained” (149).
But Kierkegaard directly addresses Kant’s ideas pointing out what he considers to be a flaw. According to Kierkegaard, the idea (Kant’s idea) that morality comes from obligation might not be wrong, but it “falls far short, and one could almost believe that it was devised to discredit the ethical” (179). Kierkegaard feels there is more to ethics than simply abiding by a universal code only for the sake of that code. He feels that to base moral judgment with the sole purpose of fulfilling a moral duty, the individual would be missing the point of having that code in the first place.