Kantian and Buddhist Consequences of Self

Metaphysical theories on the nature of ‘self’ include cross-cultural perspectives that are often overlooked or categorically dismissed. However, the consideration of other philosophies is imperative to any serious undertaking in search of truth and knowledge. By contrasting starkly different views, we can come to recognize what each may have taken for granted. Additionally, the implications of various beliefs are more apparent when held in critical contrast.

In this paper, I will explicate and contrast Kant and Buddhist arguments on the nature of ‘self.’ Ultimately, I will argue that metaphysical assumptions of the nature of ‘self’ have ethical implications. I will support this claim using two examples, contrasting Kant’s concept of a self with Buddhist concepts of ‘no-self.’

For the sake of this paper, it may be enough to merely show whether each philosopher accepts or rejects the existence of a self. However, it is interesting to note that the existential, epistemological and ontological questions seem to be inextricable from each other when discussing the self. If there is a self, what can we know about it? It may make no sense to explain the details of self if it is nonexistent. Furthermore, how can we discuss the idea of no-self? Are we not proving the existence of a self by this very discussion?

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant states, “The mere but empirically determined, consciousness of my own existence proves the existence of objects in space outside of me.”[1] (p. 23) Kant is claiming that consciousness, which he makes sure to delineate as verifiable by sense experience, proves both the existence of self and other, simultaneously. He is not saying that the self is only consciousness, but rather that we can know of an inner and outer experience of the self simultaneously and that the inner experience is only possible because of the fact of the outer experience, the outer experience, in this case, is consciousness as a self-representing activity. In other words, his reformulation of Descartes’ famous quote might be put more simply as, “I am; therefore I think.”

Kant’s deliberate categorization of consciousness as an empirically determinable fact that can prove both the existence of self and the existence of other is sophisticated, although extraordinarily complex. What has been established here is that we can know, empirically by the act of consciousness, that there is a self. I can know for certain that I exist because I am conscious of my inner and outer experience. So far, we have concluded that 1.) the self exists 2.) we can know empirically that the self exists 3.) there is an inner experience and an outer experience of the self and 4.) the self is something more than consciousness. It is still not clear exactly what the self is. However, given that the self is something that has an “inner experience” and an “outer experience,” I will stipulate that the self, for Kant, is at least something that is both mind and body, subject and object.

It may be that the self is more than the mind and body. Kant states that objects are divided into phenomena (beings of sense) and noumena (beings of understanding)[2]. The self, if considered as an object, would, therefore, have a noumenal part. Through logic, we could stipulate this, but it is something that can never be empirically verified. There may be purple unicorns, we can understand the idea of purple unicorns, but since no one has seen a living, breathing purple unicorn, it is only an idea. Likewise, there may be a soul or other notion of a permanent and continuous self that is more than mind and body, but, although it is something we can grasp and debate about intellectually, it is beyond what we can know empirically. Therefore, there is a possibility that abstract ideas correspond to something ‘real’ beyond the grasp of human perception and there is a possibility that there are abstract ideas and worlds that exist that are entirely inconceivable to us. Therefore, the self is at least a mind and body.

If there is a noumenal part of the self, and that noumenal part is called a ‘soul,’ then the concept of a soul can be considered by reason. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant considers the immortality of the soul and the existence of God as postulates of pure practical reason. He argues that the principle of morality, which is a law, is necessarily grounded in the presuppositions of a soul and a god. Kant states, “…it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God.”[3] Kant is not saying that we can prove the existence of God, as he thinks it is beyond our capacities to do so. However, Kant contends that these presuppositions have a “necessarily practical reference.”[4] In other words, there is no practical reason for us to assume that purple unicorns exist even though we cannot verify the fact of it. However, the question of morality, for Kant, necessarily requires the presupposition of the existence of a soul and a god, both of which are immortal, or, eternal.

Now we have concluded that Kant’s idea of the self is complicated. The self is mind, body, and soul. The soul, although not empirically verifiable, is a given. Although the argument that we should presuppose as the fact that which we cannot verify as fact is troublesome, considering objections to that argument is not the focus of this paper. And, although we could more simply consider the ethical implications of Kant’s idea of the self without attempting to explicate ‘noumena’ as it may relate to the concept of ‘soul’, we would be missing an essential ingredient of Kant’s ethical theory, namely, that the self is something that is more than a body or a mind.

Now let us consider the implications of Kant’s idea of ‘self’ on his ethical theory. In the preface of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals[5], Kant’s first task is to delineate the categories of philosophy. This is important to understand where ethics, and more importantly for Kant, where the ‘metaphysics of morals’ fit into the schematic. This analysis is partly also an explication of Kant’s understanding of ‘self’ insofar as ‘rational cognition’ is an activity of the self. Kant writes:

“All rational cognition is either material, and considers some object, or formal, and concerns itself merely with the form of the understanding and of reason itself and the universal rules of thinking in general without distinction among objects.”[6]

Kant takes as a given the ancient Greek divisions of philosophy into three “sciences”; Physics, Ethics, and Logic. Physics and Ethics are subsumed under the category of material philosophy, or that which deals with material objects and their laws. In other words, Physics considers the laws of nature in relation to everything that happens and Ethics considers the laws of freedom in relation to human will and what ought to happen but often does not. Material philosophy is empirical, as it deals with experience. Logic, on the other hand, is under the category of ‘pure (or formal) philosophy.’ The word ‘pure’ here means that there is no empirical part mixed in. Logic is concerned with universal and necessary laws of thinking that is not grounded in experience. Metaphysics, then, is the branch of Logic that can consider “determinate objects of the understanding” to establish universal laws for both physics and ethics.

Regarding Ethics, one might wonder what Kant thinks ‘ought’ to happen. To this Kant presents the notion of imperatives. He explains the difference between a hypothetical and a categorical imperative. Kant writes:

“Now all imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former represent the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to attain something else which one wills (or which it is possible that one might will). The categorical imperative would be that one which represented an action as objectively necessary for itself, without any reference to another end.[7]

Once again, the distinction that Kant is making is one between experience and pure reason. These two distinctions may be at odds with each other. For example, hunger is an instinct and the will to satisfy one’s hunger is understandable and unavoidable. However, according to Kant, there are right and wrong ways to go about satisfying one’s hunger. Kant might argue that it is immoral to steal food because it would not be universally applicable that everyone ought to steal food.[8] This leads us to Kant’s idea of duty.

Understanding Kant’s idea of duty is necessary because it brings us squarely back to the assumption of a soul. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant states that the duty to completely conform to the moral law is impossible but practically necessary towards which there must be “endless progress.” Kant states, “This endless progress is, however, possible only on the presupposition of the existence and personality of the same rational being continuing endlessly (which is called the immortality of the soul).” [9] (p. 40)

Kant’s philosophy has many challenging aspects, most of which I’ve not thoroughly unraveled. However, what I’ve attempted to do with this seemingly discursive exposition is to show how Kant’s notion of ‘self’ is intricately woven into his entire philosophy and especially of his ethical theory. I contend that one cannot subscribe to Kantian ethics without a similar understanding of a self. Furthermore, by searching for an ‘intrinsic worth’ of the self in Kantian ethics, one finds only the necessity of a body to support the pure reason of the mind for the highest aim of an immortal soul. The ethical implications of such a self should be at least partly evident at this point.

One could argue that it is obvious that the notion of self has an impact on ethics. Ethics is, after all, about how one should act. Therefore, one’s belief in either an eternal self and a phenomenal self will shape ethical theories. I grant that my explication of Kant’s view of the self is over-simplified and that the question of self as it relates to ethics seems a bit elementary. If one believes that Ethical theories are simply social constructs erected to encourage conformity to certain norms of behavior, then the question of the nature of self as it relates to Ethical theory would be, as Kant might say, simply “cultural anthropology.”[10][4:388] But if one is concerned with even the possibility of universal truths, then the question of the nature of the self and morality would be of utmost importance.

Many societies seem to hold fast to a foundational belief of an eternal self. However, the belief in a ‘self,’ whether it is eternal or not, does not necessarily commit one to a Kantian-like ethical theory. Additionally, by contrast, it is interesting to consider the ethical impact of the concept of ‘no-self.’

In Buddhism, for instance, there are two contrasting views on the nature of self[11], although each tradition subscribes to the same ethical theory. In the Heart Sutra, and ancient and famous text across many schools of Buddhism, it is written:

“Listen, Shariputra,
Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.
The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.”[12]

This sutra goes on to list the body and all other phenomena as emptiness. The first question one must ask is, “What is the definition of emptiness?” The answers to this question have been anything but simple in Buddhist Philosophy. However, for the sake of this paper, it is enough to focus on two general interpretations. On the one hand, it is said that emptiness is nothing and on the other, emptiness is something. If emptiness means that there is nothing, then there is no intrinsic self. If emptiness is something, then it could be argued that the self is something.

In Sanskrit, the word ‘ātman’ refers to the notion of a soul as an eternal, essential, permanent and unchanging part of self. It is beyond the scope of this paper to compare different understandings of the word ‘soul’ with Kant’s definition. It is enough to contrast general ideas of an eternal self. The word ‘anātman,’ on the other hand means no ātman, or, no eternal self.

It is generally assumed that Buddhists do not subscribe to a notion of an eternal self, based on the teaching of emptiness when emptiness is translated as nothing. Canadian Philosopher, Emer O’hagan writes, “The doctrine of no-self is the view that there is no self that is permanent, unchanging, or that identifies the essence of a person.”[13](p. 3) She goes on to show that this doctrine can be understood either as a “bald denial of self” or as simply a contemplative teaching strategy. O’hagan argues that understanding the doctrine of no-self as a contemplative teaching strategy is more plausible than a metaphysical interpretation given what she considers to be concrete textual support for this theory. As a contemplative strategy, the idea of no-self would be used to ensure that one does not identify with anything as a self. The doctrine of no-self, when viewed as a contemplative strategy, which she also referred to as “a technique of perception,” does not necessarily make any claim about whether there is an ātman. On this account, there could be something of a phenomenal representation of a self that is important to ethical theories, even if there is no ātman. Therefore, the ‘self’ by this view is not necessarily nothing.

This interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine of anātman is troubling in that what has been proposed seems to ignore the idea of emptiness as it relates to no-self altogether. Furthermore, if Buddhist Ethics are merely prescriptive tenants to help one to suffer less by reminding them that they need not identify with any ephemeral states of being, then Buddhist Philosophy would be reduced to mere Psychology.

Joseph D. Markowski has offered another interpretation of the doctrine of anātman, considering what O’hagan might perceive as a “bald-denial of self.” Markowski considers the impact of the doctrine of no-self on Buddhist ethics in light of a common objection that the denial of self would lend itself to nihilism. If there is no self, some argue, there would be no ethical obligation to anyone. This argument would be a problem for Buddhist Ethics in general if it made sense. In his essay, Markowski accepts the interpretation of no-self as nothing and, as for the ethical implication of that position he states:

“In response to Buddhism’s rejection of vedic epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, along with their philosophy of no-self and emptiness, Buddhism has often been characterized by scholars as a nihilistic philosophy. The argument for this characterization can be framed as follows:

(1) Either morals are objective, or they do not exist at all.

(2) Buddhism argues that nothing is objective.

(3) Therefore Buddhism is nihilistic.”[14](p. 234)

Markowski objected to the first premise of the objection, citing that there are distinct cultural differences that show that moral belief need not be objective or universal. Markowski concludes that Buddhist Ethics are “non-cognitive,” or, do not include any assumptions of moral knowledge and that, although there is no essential self, there is a concept of personal identity that ethical theories must contend with.

The personal identity, which is a “bundle of parts or aggregates” is perhaps similar to a Kantian concept of a phenomenal mind/body self. However, making a hasty connection between the two may be problematic if the aggregate parts are weighted differently. For instance, for Kant, the mind and its capacity for reason are much more important than the body and individual feelings.

What is generally accepted by all the Buddhist schools as Buddhist Ethics, regardless of how one interprets the doctrine of no-self, are what is referred to as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path that are attributed to the founder of Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha who lived sometime between 563 – 400 BCE.[15] The first Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is the truth of suffering. In this translation of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, it is written that the Buddha explained what is now popularly referred to as ‘the first Noble Truth:

“This, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of ill: birth is ill, decay is ill, disease is ill, death is ill, association with the unloved is ill, separation from the loved is ill, not to get what one wants is ill, in short the five aggregates of grasping are ill.” (p.4)

The word ‘ill’ in this translation is generally accepted to mean ‘suffering.’ Many argue that suffering is ultimately a state of delusion that is caused by the misperception of self. In other words, if one identifies with her aggregate parts (skandhas), then she will necessarily suffer. By this account, one way to remedy suffering, as O’hagan pointed out, would be to use the Buddhist Philosophy of no-self as a contemplative strategy to recognize that one is not the mind, is not the body, is not the feelings, and so forth. In this way, individuals can transcend their suffering by perceiving of themselves differently. However, the “contemplative strategy” does not address the possibility that emptiness may be something and furthermore, it may be that Buddhist ethics is concerned with something much more significant than personal mental states.

Markowski correctly pointed out that Buddhist ethics are non-cognitive. The “right-actions” that are later proposed by the Buddha do not assert any moral judgments. Right actions are any actions that one does to reduce suffering, both for oneself and for others.  However, the assertion that the doctrine of anātman is a fundamental part of Buddhism may be incorrect.  For instance, it may be that the doctrine of anātman was a misinterpretation of the concept of emptiness.

In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the concept of emptiness. In the Sutra, Avalokita stated that the Five Skandhas (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness) are empty. Hahn states:

“And if we ask, “Empty of what?” he has to answer. And this is what he said: “They are empty of a separate self.”[16](pp.272-273)

This interpretation of emptiness does not necessarily entail that there is no ātman.

In conclusion, the point of this essay was not to defend or support any view of self or ethics. What I’ve attempted to show is that metaphysical assumptions of self, or of no-self, (however those concepts might be interpreted) are integral to both the development and understanding of ethical theories. Furthermore, if we borrow elements from an ethical theory that was developed as a cohesive whole with a specific notion of self intricately woven into it, application of that appropriation will be haphazard at best. Although some argue that there are parallels in Kantian and Buddhist Ethics and notions of self, I contend that the only similarity is that they are both complex and cohesive philosophies that take the task of wisdom, of Philosophy, to be the search for Truth.


[1] Benjamin D. Crowe “Selections from Critique of Pure Reason (1781)” In The nineteenth century philosophy reader. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.

[2] Ibid. pp. 26 – 27

[3] Ibid. p. 41

[4] Ibid. pp. 42

[5] Immanuel Kant, Allen W. Wood, and J. B. Schneewind. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

[6] Ibid. [Ak 4:387]

[7] Ibid. [Ak 4:414]

[8] But, should everyone go hungry?

[9] Benjamin D. Crowe “Selections from Critique of Practical Reason (1788)” In The nineteenth century philosophy reader. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.

[10] Immanuel Kant, Allen W. Wood, and J. B. Schneewind. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

[11] Buddhism encompasses hundreds of interpretations and translations in many languages of original texts that originated thousands of years ago. Therefore, for the sake of this paper, the introduction of the concept of “no-self” will be oversimplified and topical. The point is simply to argue that assumptions of ‘self’ shape ethical theories.

[12] Thich Nhat Hanh. Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2012. These are Thich Nhat Hanh’s translations and interpretations of ancient Buddhist Sutras. Of particular interest here is his translation of The Heart Sutra

[13] Ohagan, E., “Non-Self and Ethics: Kantian and Buddhist Themes” in Ethics without Self, Dharma without Atman. Western and Buddhist Philosophical Traditions in Dialogue | Gordon Davis | Springer, 2018.

[14] Markowski, Joseph D. “Buddhist Non-Cognitivism.” Asian Philosophy 24, no. 3 (August 2014).

[15] Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha. “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – London Buddhist Vihara.” London Buddhist Vihara. 2010.

[16] Thich Nhat Hanh. Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2012.


Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama. “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – London Buddhist Vihara.” London Buddhist Vihara. 2010. Accessed March 18, 2018.             http://www.londonbuddhistvihara.org/Dhammacakkapavattanasutta.pdf.

Crowe, Benjamin D. “Selections from Critique of Pure Reason (1781)” In The nineteenth century philosophy reader. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.

Kant, Immanuel, Allen W. Wood, and J. B. Schneewind. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Accessed April 19, 2018.             http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Kant – groundwork for the metaphysics of morals with essays.pdf.

Markowski, Joseph D. “Buddhist Non-Cognitivism.” Asian Philosophy 24, no. 3 (August 2014): 227-241. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2018).

Nhat Hanh, Thich. Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2012. Accessed April 29, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

O’hagan, Emer, “Non-Self and Ethics: Kantian and Buddhist Themes” in Ethics without Self, Dharma without Atman. Western and Buddhist Philosophical Traditions in Dialogue | Gordon Davis | Springer, 2018. Accessed April 10, 2018 from:             https://philpapers.org/archive/OHANAE-2.pdf

Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),