A theory of ethics holding that moral value is determined by formal, and not material, considerations. Material and formal are here related by analogy to their physical meanings (see matter and form). The material aspects of a moral act include what is done and its consequences, while the formal aspects are the law and the attitude and intention of the agent. Usually ethical formalism refers to views of the Kantian type, although intuitionism too is formalistic in a wide sense. A formalistic ethics is called such because it holds that an agent's disposition, taken without reference to any material aspect, determines the morality of his actions, just as form determines the nature of a material subject.
Immanuel kant is the classic example of a formalist. For him nothing can possibly be conceived as an absolute good, except a good will. A will, however, is good only insofar as it does its duty out of sheer dutifulness, and not because of what it achieves or is capable of achieving. Moral goodness is submissiveness to the law that imposes duties. This law is unique, necessary, universal, and inherent in reason itself. It is the categorical imperative: "Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." It is also purely formal; it does not specify any concrete duties, but merely provides a criterion whereby one can determine what his duties are. And since it does not allow any exceptions, it entails rigorism.
By emphasizing the rationality of the moral law, Kant did much to curb the excessive empiricism and sentimentalism that was current in ethics in his day. He was right also in insisting that morally good acts can proceed only from a free will with a right intention. Again, his categorical imperative expresses a valid insight, that the moral law must be consistent and universal. However, as a norm of morality it is negative and inadequate. With it, Kant may show what cannot be a duty, but when discussing man's obligations in the concrete, he has surreptitiously to introduce considerations of consequences and ends. For it is impossible to divorce, as he tries, the notions of goodness and teleology. It is also a serious defect in a moral theory to ignore the nature and circumstances of an act whose morality is to be determined. Again, it is incorrect to identify the good with acting out of mere dutifulness. In a sound ethics the central notions are those of nature, end, and good; duty is a sub-ordinate concept. Many good acts are not duties. The spontaneous, exhilarating love of the good attained in an act may in itself be a better reason for doing it than any duty. Finally, one should point out that only God, by His essence and not merely by His will, is absolutely good and, in addition, also the source of all goodness.
Formalistic views of one type or another have been held also by Jean Jacques rousseau, Hermann Cohen (1842–1918), Paul Natorp (1854–1924), J. F. herbart, Josiah royce, and Simone de Beauvoir (b. 1908).
See Also: ethics, history of; kantianism; neokantianism.
Bibliography: j. d. collins, A History of Modern European Philosophy (Milwaukee 1954). j. leclercq, Les Grandes lignes de la philosophie morale (rev. ed. Paris 1954).
[g. j. dalcourt]