Kant: Categorical Imperative

A) Background to Kant

  • He was writing at the same time as Isaac Newton and had just explained the physical laws of the universe but God, value, faith and goodness were not to be found in the physical environment. (Science versus religion)
  • Faith and a series of freedom were only to be found in the inner privacy of a man’s soul. Mankind found it difficult to speak about ideas of faith and freedom. The scholars of the Middle Ages were great explicates of Natural Law. By the time Kant was writing, scientific theory had started to erode the truth of Natural Law and for Kant, there had to be a way of replacing it. Pure reason is morals that are straight from your mind.
  • Kant had been brought up in Germany in the Protestant ethic that he had adopted in an uncritical way. This was to reflect in his personal life with quietness, regularity and integrity. He was born into a Protestant Pietist culture that focused on the sacredness of work, duty and prayer. It claimed that conscience was supreme and that ethics was about moral goodness as opposed to religious doctrine.
  • Kant conducted his personal life by:
    • Choosing to carry out the duties that were expected of him,
    • To resist sensuality and sentimentality and,
    • To experience true freedom by acting always and only for duties’ sake.

B) Kant’s Concept of Freedom

Kant sets himself two major tasks.

Task one: to establish a firm foundation for his mind’s capacity to know with a degree of certainty, the structure and organisation of the external world revealed to him through his senses (Moral sense). He did this by what he described as a “transcendental” (crossing time) deduction. He concluded that the world mediated to us through our senses is approximately as it appears to be. We can trust our sense experience not to deceive us totally provided that we think clearly and constantly.

Task two: to explain a defence of that common experience of human kind relating to commitment, choice and personal freedom. This task is to be with decision making and then taking action.

In task one, it communicates insights into the world, as it seems – The Phenomina.
In task two, it gives us a limited idea of reality, as it really is – The noumina – that which controls the universe.
The difficulty is, is the phenomina and the noumina are independent of each other. As far as Kant was concerned, it is quite impossible to determine wherever or not my moral decisions are justifiable by any somewhat formal reasoning or empirical experiment.

Andrew Bebb gives the example of himself sitting at his typewriter writing an essay.

  • A behavioural psychologist could establish beyond any doubt that he could not be doing otherwise. A chatty person can not be silent, as it would go against the person’s natural behaviour.
  • Bebb himself is convinced he is writing the essay because he wants to do so. He could have chosen not to do it if he wanted.
  • He could felt obliged because he has made a promise to the publisher to do so. By making the promise, he has accepted responsibility for his action.

Kant says freedom is always there. Humans simply experience it. It is the inevitable consequence of obligation; the sense of ought, which is embedded in human behaviour and self-conscience. The deduction that enables Kant to transcend the limits of the mere appearance of things, his famous “transcendental” deduction establishes that freedom is really the rational foundation for the moral obligation. Freedom does not consist in mere randomness (doing what you like). The truly free gent is identified not by his absents of constraints, but his special nature of the constraints, under which he labours. For Kant the constraint is reason.

NB Freedom is not a licence to do what you like. It is subject to moral law.

C) The Categorical Imperative theory

The Hypothetical Imperative
I must not eat chocolate, as I will get fat.
I will not murder because I will go to prison.
These statements have rarely got morality in them. It is self-centred action.

The Categorical Imperative
I will not steal.
I will not kill.

The Hypothetical Imperative tells us what actions would be good solely as a means of something else. The imperative (to eat less, using the first example) is dependent on the desire to achieve a certain result; to lose weight. If I did not want to lose weight, the command would lose its force. Eating less, therefore, is not considered good in itself but only as a means to an end.

The Categorical Imperative is to be obeyed because of what it commands is accepted as being good in itself as being an intrinsic good. The action is under taken because of the very nature of the action and not because it is the means of achieving something else. This is a very deontological theory (absolute) and is a complete philosophical system that he wrote in two great works called “The Critique of Pure Reason” and “The Critique of Practical Reason“. He says the man’s ability to think objectively separates us from all other creatures. Pure and practical reason binds man to man. Two reasoning humans looking at the same moral problem, through human logic will reach the same conclusion.

D) Good Will

If a moral law is to be conditionally and universally binding, it must contain something that is unconditionally and universally good. Kant calls this the highest good. He asks, what is good? He looks at intelligence, power, wealth, honour, judgement, happiness, courage and perseverance.
Kant rejects them all. He says they are all capable of making a situation moral worse and for example, an intelligent and powerful criminal. These qualities are also not intrinsically good. He concludes,
“It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except God’s will.”

The consequences of the action are irrelevant. It is the intention of its good will is what that counts. Kant says good will is only emotive is to action for the only sake of duty. He gives the example of a shopkeeper. He says he should not overcharge any one even a child. It is an example of self-interest. Neither is it good will if you get enjoyment from it because if you stop getting enjoyment, you will stop doing it. The man of good will act solely in his accordance with his duty and for duty’s sake. He does what is right because it is right and for no other reason.

  • Therefore this duty must have no other alternative. For example, self-interest or pleasure
  • It must be applied universally; suitable for every human being, e.g. no murder or stealing.
  • It must be a duty that is rational. Thought out by man’s reason and for Kant what is contradictory to man’s reason is what he sees as immoral.
  • Kant calls these duties the Categorical Imperative.

“I ought never to act in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

The action is taken because it is intrinsically good and not because it will result on a good or bad consequence.
An example of ignoring the consequences; good or bad would be to tell the truth in all situations. We might find this difficult when dealing with a dying child. If the law can not be universalised, then to Kant, it is not good. If it can not be acted on consistently by mankind, and always then it should not be made a categorical imperative.

E) Arguments for Kant

  • It imposes duty on us all and therefore truly a categorical imperative. Duty is needed for the survival of the world, i.e. As in Mad Max with the anarchy.
  • He claims that each man has dignity and is a rational creature. Therefore, when confronted with a difficult ethical decision, his rational thinking will take over.
  • Suicide – any rational human will reject suicide because it contradicts Natural law. It is a form of self-love and rationally it is not possible to universalise it.
  • Borrowing money and promising to pay it back with no intention of paying it back contradicts the laws of nature because if we do not honour our promises, no one will trust each other. World economies would also collapse.
  • If man is thinking rationally, he will realise that in order for the world to progress, every human has the duty to develop their talents rather than sitting around enjoying themselves. If you accept the principles of universability, the if everyone sat around doing nothing, the world would never progress.
  • The rational man, who is doing very well, can not be content to watch the suffering of others because, eventually the suffering will lead to crime, revolution or war. The person who has sat back and watched it happen when he could have done something about it has only himself to blame.
  • Kant’s theories, if carried out stop people seeking self-interest.

F) Arguments against Kant

  • What happen if you do not morally agree with the law even though the law has been arrived at by rational thought? Some people think that for some crimes the criminal should be hung, e.g. terrorism. Other people say after having thought about capital punishment, it can never be right. This can be applied to wars as well.
  • As a rule can be universalised, it does not guarantee the rule will be good or even moral. Hitler may have thought having a pure race was morally just, but of course disagree.
  • Kant acknowledges this in his writings. He calls this the “contradictions of the will“. He says we can reject these rules if universalised would produce a state of affairs utterly objectionable to all rational people.
  • However, we might not be able to accept all people to be rational; we do not all have the same temperaments and desires and so we do not all find the same situations intolerable.
  • The Golden Rule is that we should treat people how you wanted to be treated yourself. Michael Palmer in his book, “Moral Problems” says it is wrong if a person is nasty. E.g. a ruthless businessman who is nasty should expect people to be nasty back to him in business. So, this is not a good moral.
  • Equally damaging criticism can be made of Kant’s so-called “contradiction in nature“. He says telling lies and breaking promises is always wrong because neither can be constantly universalised. The business world would collapse and therefore the rule applies to everyone without an exception. A pacifist would agree with this. His imperative, “never fight”, even though Hitler is your enemy. An anti-capital punishment supporter would never kill anyone through the state, not even a terrorist. Palmer asks, it is responsible behaviour or rational to allow Hitler to rule the world?

One of the weaknesses of Kant’s theories is that there are no provisions for exceptions. Sometimes keeping promises and telling lies conflict. This is what those who criticise Kant, call a “conflict of duty“. For example, a friend asks you to keep his whereabouts from a murderer. You promise to do that. Then the murderer knocks on the door and asks you where the friend is. Most normal people would introduce their exceptions at this point and would lie to save their friend’s life.

  • Kant has reduced religion to ethics. He tries to eliminate the idea of God from ethics. Men are bound by corrupt codes of practices (maxims) and therefore their eternal future is hopeless. There are two alternatives for any sort of eternal life:
    • Either men are not bound by their corrupt maxims and have an afterlife though they are bad, (Kant is sure they are bound.)
    • Or it is impossible for them to turn around and become good and so there is no eternal life.

Kant resorts to Christianity. The part of it is Christ’s incarnation and the principle of salvation. It is the only place God becomes central for Kant.

The Theories of W.D Ross (1877 – 1971)

(An amendment to Kant’s theories)
He is a modern British philosopher. He argued that Kantian duties should not be taken as absolute but as duties that allow exceptions. He calls these “prima facie” (at first sight) duties. These can be over ridden by a more compelling duty. For example, never take a human life except itself-defence. This is an add on to the categorical imperative.

The Duties

  • Fidelity and reparation – Acting on previous promises or duties and making amends of previous wrongs
  • Gratitude – Repaying a debt with thanks
  • Justice – I act to obtain an equal distribution of pleasure and happiness
  • Beneficence – I act to better the lives of others in respect of virtue, intelligence and pleasure
  • Self-improvement – You have a duty to improve yourself in respect of virtue or of intelligence
  • Non-maleficence – I will refrain from doing people harm

Therefore, for Ross, there is no such thing as a rule that is without possible exceptions. In making these exceptions, much will depend on the situation in which my duty is done, on the probable consequences of doing my duty and the personal relationship that nay exist between those to whom I believe a duty is owed and myself.

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