Kant and Rousseau on a Moral Life

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Page count 11
Word count 3118
Read time 11 min
Topic Philosophy
Type Essay
Language 🇺🇸 US


Immanuel Kant and Jean Jacques Rousseau are considered to be among the most prominent philosophers of their epoch. Undoubtedly, their views and theories are worth full appreciation and deep consideration. Some of their ideas are incredibly relevant nowadays, contributing to understanding many issues, ranging from inequality to immorality. The philosophers’ views regarding a moral life are worthwhile; thus, it is essential to explore them further, as they are applicable in the modern world. Even though Kant and Rousseau lived in entirely different ways, their theories have much in common. The former strictly stuck to the routine, rarely left his hometown, and arranged his work systematically. The latter led a restless life, moving from one place to another and encountering individuals from all possible backgrounds. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s ideas on a moral life appealed to Kant, who adopted and developed some of them. In general, both philosophers’ views need to be closely analyzed to broaden one’s perspective on morality.

The Value of a Human Being

To begin with, both Kant and Rousseau highly regarded the value of human beings despite their backgrounds. It is a widely held idea nowadays, though it was still innovative in the 18th century. Multiple people were convinced that kings could trace their origin back to God at that time. Wealth was a primary issue, while those in power ignored justice and broke the laws designed by themselves. The concept of human dignity had little support among political and church leaders back then. Ordinary individuals could not recognize their power and avoided preserving their morality. However, Kant and Rousseau opposed the view prevailing among others that human lives are worthless; thus, they constantly challenged it, trying to prove the contrary.

Kant started to genuinely believe in the value of human beings after examining Rousseau’s works. The latter was among the first to emphasize the significance of human dignity and inspired numerous philosophers across Europe. The former noted, “I despised the masses… Rousseau has set me right. This blind prejudice disappears; I learn to honor men, and would find myself much more useless than common laborers…” (Steinkraus, 1974, p. 266). Rousseau reminded Kant of the importance of paying attention to the problems of ordinary people. The German thinker finally recognized that every person is valuable despite their socioeconomic status, erudition, and professional achievements. He resolved to direct his intellect to design approaches to various problems, which could affect people surrounding him. Kant believed that his work might be more useless than that of a common laborer unless his ideas positively influenced others.

The Enlightenment was a period when society was occupied with the idea of progress. Simultaneously, multiple individuals worked in the fields under constant pressure and with few opportunities to fulfill their potential. City residents were forced to suffer from hours of hard toil each day as well. Rousseau criticized this system in which people in power undermined human dignity. Steinkraus (1974) emphasizes that both philosophers were assured that their ideals of humanity are hindered by two critical factors, such as government and culture. Therefore, they worked diligently to produce works and spread ideas, which might influence humans and encourage them to believe in their value.

According to Kant and Rousseau, morality cannot be achieved within a society in which human dignity is undermined. They proposed different ways to solve this problem and create a state where everyone follows certain moral laws. Kant appeared to be more optimistic about the future than Rousseau. Even though the latter believed that human beings could implement his ideal of humanity, he was incredibly pessimistic “that humanity will escape from a dystopia of alienation, oppression, and unfreedom” (Bertram, 2020, para. 1). More than two centuries have passed since Kant and Rousseau introduced their ideas, and it seems that many problems, especially concerning a righteous life, have become more serious. Hence, it is vital to explore their thoughts on morality and analyze them to understand the issue more clearly.

Humans’ Predisposition to Good and Evil

The question of whether human beings are naturally good or evil has always interested scientists and intellectuals, though there is still no satisfactory answer. Both Kant and Rousseau were concerned with it and developed their views on the issue. Even though the latter primarily influenced the former, they disagreed on the right answer. The Genevan philosopher considered humans to be predisposed to good, while the German intellectual was convinced that they are naturally evil.

On the one hand, Rousseau believed that humankind is innately good. In his works, he discussed the state of nature in which people act to satisfy their basic needs, such as hunger and sleep, and fulfill their desire for self-preservation. It is a virtuously neutral condition, and people can live peacefully, without violating moral laws. Rousseau believed that vices are alien to individuals in the state of nature. According to the philosopher, “human beings are distinguished from the other creatures with which they share the primeval world only by two characteristics: freedom, and perfectibility” (Bertram, 2020, para. 13). The former is the capacity to be governed by reason, while the latter is the ability to learn new things and find innovative approaches to satisfy one’s needs. People could become rational, conscious, and moral beings because of these characteristics. However, society fostered corruption among its members, aiming to gain distinction and respect. Hence, Rousseau believed that every individual is naturally good, but progress spoils them.

On the other hand, Kant stated that people are predisposed to evil and developed the concept of radical evil. He noted, “the failure of human agents to observe moral laws is symptomatic of a character or disposition that has been corrupted by an innate propensity to evil” (Hanson, n.d., para. 2). This predisposition encourages every person to act against universal principles. Kant stated that there are good and evil principles for behavior or maxims, and people choose to follow the bad ones, as they are naturally immoral. However, the philosopher emphasized the significance of the reason which pushed everyone to act according to universal moral laws. Kant claimed that people are innately bad, and it cannot be changed, though they can use their intelligence to be good.

In general, Kant and Rousseau had different views on the nature of human beings. The former considered them evil by nature, while the latter thought they are innately good. Despite their opposing views, both believed that it is possible to create a society where everyone follows universal moral laws by fully employing humans’ capacity to reason. The philosophers believed that only people’s rationality could lead them to righteousness despite their natural predispositions. Rousseau feared that social influences affect a virtuous life, and Kant was convinced that evil is an intrinsic characteristic of people. Nevertheless, they agreed on the idea that solely rationality can help them become moral.

The General Will and the Categorical Imperative

Rousseau produced the idea of the general will, which played an essential role in further events, such as the French Revolution. It also influenced many intellectuals, including Kant, who developed his concept of the categorical imperative. Both theories proposed creating an ideal society where everyone could enjoy more freedom and follow ethical principles. Undoubtedly, they need to be carefully explored to realize how Rousseau and Kant perceived morality.

First, the Genevan philosopher’s concept of the general will was prevalent at the time. It is necessary to note that although Rousseau concluded that people in the state of nature described above were not corrupt, he did not encourage them to turn back to it. The intellectual asserted that perfectibility and freedom create opportunities for human beings to be rational and righteous. In the state of nature, morality is irrelevant as long as individuals do not interact with each other. However, during the Enlightenment period, the issue was of extreme importance. Rousseau believed that a virtuous life becomes possible only if the material and social environment have pushed humans to need and sustain it (Schneewind, 2003). Therefore, the intellectual endeavored to sketch an ideal society where the general will could preserve morality.

The philosopher believed that the general will is the desire of all the people together, aiming to maintain the common good. He emphasized that it is essential to distinguish between this concept and the collection of individual wills, including private interests. Rousseau regarded society as a body in which each part has its interests, though the body has the goodwill to care for its well-being in general. Therefore, the will is relevant to all of its parts. It may seem that this approach restraints personal freedom at first glance. However, Rousseau was convinced that “that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body; which means only that he will be forced to be free” (Schneewind, 2003, p. 622). It proves that the intellectual assumed that there were some universal principles, which every human being had to follow. His philosophy is an example of moral universalism, which was independently adopted by Kant as well.

Second, Kant developed the categorical imperative concept, which apparently demonstrated how he viewed a virtuous life. He thought that humankind is evil by nature, but the ability to reason makes morality possible. In general, the philosopher paid incredibly much attention to human reason and believed that only it could make his idea of a perfect society real. Kant emphasized that people need to follow their goodwill to be considered moral. It is essential to highlight that, according to the philosopher, not the consequences of an action matter but agents’ motives. Hence, social and professional achievements cannot have any value in themselves, and farmers can be as ethical as scientists and politicians since moral worthiness depends only on the intention of the will (Steinkraus, 1974). For example, if a person helps others solely to get some benefits, their actions cannot be viewed as good. On the other hand, if an individual contributed to some project voluntarily to improve its quality, their actions can be considered virtuous.

The German intellectual declared that human beings place moral rules on themselves by using their ability to reason. It is vital to distinguish between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. The former is linked with satisfying human desires, such as hunger or rest, and is typically conditional and governed by nature. In contrast, the latter is always unconditional and controlled by reason. Kant regarded moral laws, which everyone should follow to bring about law and order, as categorical imperatives. He was convinced that “we are always free in the sense that we always have the capacity to govern ourselves rationally instead of letting our desires set our ends for us” (Rohlf, 2020, para. 83). Hence, people can fully exercise their freedom by using their ability to reason to act morally but not satisfying their desires dictated by nature.

Kant believed that human rationality helps people recognize a categorical imperative for moral action. It is critical to analyze two aspects of actions before determining whether it is righteous or not. First of all, the agent needs to understand that they “ought to act so that the maxim of their action may become a universal law” (Schneewind, 2003, p. 657). For instance, if a person decides to steal to get money to buy some food for their hungry children, they should consider whether it is acceptable for everyone to act in this way. Undoubtedly, the answer is no, as the others may take the stolen food from the agent if it is yes. Furthermore, according to Kant, it is crucial to respect human dignity to act virtuously. People have to treat their friends, relatives, neighbors, or colleagues as ends but not means. For example, if a student cheats, they act immorally, as they do not respect their dignity and use themselves as a means to get a better mark or gain positive feedback from teachers and parents.

The general will and the categorical imperative demonstrate that all human beings have to follow some universal moral laws, which apply to everyone despite their backgrounds. Both Kant and Rousseau encouraged individuals to act from their goodwill, though the former made a stronger emphasis on reason than the latter. Interestingly, the philosophers regarded freedom in a way different from the one dictated by the common senses. The German philosopher stated that personal freedom is about employing one’s reason to act morally but not fulfilling the needs imposed by nature. The Genevan intellectual believed that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Schneewind, 2003, p. 615). Rousseau proposed to solve this problem by incorporating the general will, which would force individuals to be free. The theories of both philosophers primarily help to understand how they understood the approaches to preserve morality.


Rousseau, as well as Kant, was concerned with the concept of self-love. Undoubtedly, it makes an impact on humans’ morality and needs to be explored. The philosophers believed that self-love explains why people act in a particular way but not another. They concluded that self-love is inevitable, though it distracts individuals from following universal moral laws. Therefore, it is critical to use one’s capacity to reason and act out of goodwill to be viewed as a righteous being.

Kant saw self-love as a constant pursuit of happiness; thus, it may be often immoral. The reason for it is that it motivates people to use others as means, not ends, to achieve some goals. What is more, people who pursue happiness entirely concentrate on the consequences of their actions, not the motives. The German philosopher declared that self-love includes self-concern and self-conceit, being humans’ genuine compassion for themselves at the same time (Hanson, n.d.). It serves humans in succeeding in different fields, but it leads them astray from a moral life. Kant was assured that “preference for oneself over others is a strongly felt, pervasive human tendency, perhaps even the ultimate source of our other-regarding affections” (Hill, 1993, p.9). Therefore, humans need to be aware of it while relying solely on their reason.

Rousseau often perceived self-love as a problem, which needs to be solved. The philosopher believed that human beings in the state of nature are driven by amour de soi. It pushes people to fulfill their basic needs, such as food, shelter, and water. Therefore, it is morally neutral as long as people do not relate to each other. However, amour proper develops later due to various social influences. It encourages humans to be egoistic, consider only their private interests, and exploit others to achieve some objective. The former concept is compatible with morality and happiness, though the latter is viewed as unfavorable, leading to vices, corruption, and misery. Individuals derive their sense of self from others’ opinions and do their best to obtain attention, respect, and distinction. According to Rousseau, it was among the gravest problems of his contemporary society. Nevertheless, he believed that humanity could live in a completely different, more virtuous, and rational way.


Both Kant and Rousseau acknowledged the importance of education for creating a perfect society where everyone sticks to universal moral laws. However, their ideas on the topic differed from the ones widely held by politicians, educators, and parents during the Enlightenment. The philosophers emphasized the significance of human rationality, though they did not believe that it alone could lead humankind to prosperity. The Genevan intellectual blamed social influences, while the German thinker was convinced that humans’ predisposition to evil is the root of the difficulties in preserving morality. They designed two unique approaches to education, which could direct humanity to moral prosperity.

Kant declared that humans should aim to achieve moral perfection, and, according to the philosopher, it was possible by proper education. He included four crucial elements in his program, such as nurture, discipline, culture, and moral training (Curren, 1998). First, children need to receive care, protection, and adults’ help to develop various skills. Second, they should learn how to be self-disciplined and take control of their natural predisposition to evil. Third, adults should provide them with credible and valuable information and clear instructions. Finally, moral training is essential for children to realize the priority of righteousness over self-love. According to Kant, this approach to education could ensure that humankind would create a perfect society.

Rousseau’s views on education were more radical, and he precisely presented them in his famous work, Emilie. The philosopher stated that the primary goal of education is to foster human autonomy. Moreover, it has to minimize negative social influences and prevent people from developing destructive forms of self-love. If society adopts the right approach to education, it may alleviate all the problems and create a nurturing environment for human beings to live virtuously and rationally. The Genevan philosopher severely criticized the existing system and the blind reliance of his colleagues on human rationality. He noted that “the arts and sciences encourage sentiments of self-love and ambition which are destructive of our goodness and freedom, leading us to an insatiable pursuit of private gain at the expense of the common good” (Curren, 1998, para. 1). Hence, it is essential to find different ways to educate children and foster morality. Rousseau emphasized that it is vital to preserve freedom and goodness while educating infants. Tutors need to encourage children to learn by experience and protect them from adverse societal influences.

Nevertheless, the philosophers sincerely praised human beings’ value despite different factors; thus, they opposed the idea that education must presuppose morality. Evidently, an ordinary farmer or artisan can be as morally worthy as a philosopher and monarch. According to thinkers, people’s ability to reason alone makes righteousness possible, and education solely contributes to its development. Hence, human rationality but not education ensure morality within society.


Rousseau and Kant largely contributed to the development of philosophical thought on morality. Despite their entirely different backgrounds and lifestyles, their ideas had many similarities. Both of them believed in the power of humans’ dignity and ability to reason. Even though the Genevan intellectual considered people innately good, while the German philosopher was convinced that they are naturally evil, they agreed that there are some universal moral principles, which everyone should follow. They emphasized that personal freedom was not about satisfying one’s needs and impulses but about being rational and living righteously. Both considered self-love to be destructive, as it led humans astray from morality. Finally, they believed that the right approaches to education could save humanity from dystopia. Undoubtedly, the influence of Rousseau on Kant is visible, though the latter also succeeded in developing his own philosophical system worth deep appreciation. In general, the philosophers’ ideas help broaden one’s perspective on morality and see multiple current issues from a different angle.


Bertram, C. (2020). Jean Jacques Rousseau. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Curren, R. (1998). Education, history of philosophy. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Hanson, E. M. (n.d.). Immanuel Kant: Radical evil. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Hill, T. E. (1993). Beneficence and self-love: A Kantian perspective. Social Philosophy and Policy, 10(1), 1-23. Web.

Rohlf, M. (2020). Immanuel Kant. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Schneewind, J. B. (2003). Moral philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. Cambridge University Press.

Steinkraus, W. E. (1974). Kant and Rousseau on humanity. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 12(2), 265-270. Web.

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