Neo-Kantian ethics refers to any philosophical work that derives from the work of Immanuel Kant. Contemporary scholars in this area seek to advance key insights of Kant with the tools of contemporary analytic philosophy while at the same time avoiding difficulties that may be found in some of Kant’s original arguments. Such work is increasingly used to provide a theoretical foundation for business ethics. There are many active areas of interest in this vibrant field. Regarding ethical motivation, neo- Kantians defend the view that such motivation properly originates within the self, and not from external sources
such as God or other fear or concern for the opinions of others. In this view, agents who place profits ahead of moral duties are seen as not merely unethical but irrational. The question of how to understand the import of Kant’s famous categorical imperative is another active area of study. The categorical imperative, in its primary formulation, holds that one ought only act on the principles that can be universalized.
One prominent view holds that the categorical imperative ought to be properly understood as a sideconstraint on action. Actions are permitted insofar as they do not violate such constraints. This view, most notably defended by Barbara Herman, has gained significant traction in recent years. The view is important insofar as it disarms many important, historical criticisms of the categorical imperative, such as the claim that Kantians must constantly apply the categorical imperative if they are to know how to act at any given moment.
Neo-Kantians also seek to better understand what duties are entailed by the Kantian doctrine of respect for persons, which constitutes the second formulation of the categorical imperative. One prominent view holds that a proper understanding of the duty to respect persons yields a core set of basic human rights that must be respected. Such a view has important implications for business ethics. In particular, such a view may indicate that corporate managers have specific duties to employees (including employees in contract factories) regarding health, safety, and working conditions, as well as to other stakeholders. Given this concern with human rights, neo-Kantians tend to associate with a cosmopolitan perspective regarding global justice. In the cosmopolitan view, a system of global socioeconomic justice must be grounded in universal ethical norms. Cosmopolitans see political institutions as a means to ensure respect for such core norms. Nation-states and multinational corporations that contribute to the violation of these norms, or merely tolerate the violations of such norms, are problems that must be overcome.
Kant’s ethical philosophy is notorious for having given little weight to the moral status of nonhuman animals and to the natural environment. Some neo-Kantians who are persuaded by the merits of a Kantian perspective on ethical relations among persons are now seeking to provide perspectives on duties toward animals and natural environments. There are a variety of views in this emerging area. According to one such view, nonhuman animals have value in proportion to the extent that they exhibit agency. There is, however, little agreement among neo-Kantians on these questions.
Critics of neo-Kantian ethics argue that if theorists with Kantian sympathies have not yet been able to fully work out some of the most pressing difficulties of Kantian thought, then the Kantian project ought to be given up as untenable. The aim of neo-Kantian ethics is to demonstrate that simple invocations of old objections to Kant’s ethics cannot be a sufficient basis for dismissing Kantian ethics. Neo-Kantian ethicists believe that they provide a firm basis for ethical theorizing about business and about what it means to live a rational life as a businessperson.