Monday, December 1, 2008

Kant’s Morality and the Categorical Imperative - By Eric Welch

Eric Welch

Dr. Moses

Philosophy 2306, section 24356

Second Formal Paper

Kant’s Morality and the Categorical Imperative

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant 998). Immanuel Kant’s theory of morality centers on this concept which he refers to as the categorical imperative. Kant was dissatisfied with much of the ethical philosophy of his time and sought to find a compromise between the ‘a posteriori’ philosophy of the empiricists and the ‘a priori’ philosophy of the rationalists. The empiricists believed knowledge was derived from experience (a posteriori) while the rationalists believed knowledge was derived from pure reason (a priori). He found both philosophical schools’ views on morality too limited and situational for his satisfaction. He believed they were based on what he referred to as hypothetical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives compel action in a given circumstance. Kant wanted to create an objective view of morality as opposed to the subjective views held by other philosophers of his day, and he developed the categorical imperative as an alternative. A categorical imperative is a universal law that compels action in all circumstances. He believed we should focus our wills on an end instead of on particular actions. If an action could not be applied as a universal law in all situations, then it could not be a moral action.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Kant argued that moral requirements are based on a standard of rationality he dubbed the ‘Categorical Imperative’ (CI). Immorality thus involves a violation of the CI and is thereby irrational” (Johnson). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy goes on to say, “The fundamental principle of morality — the CI — is none other than the law of an autonomous will”

(Johnson). In order to make rational, moral decisions, Kant believed that a person’s will must be free, and by free, he meant “free in the sense of being the author of the law that binds it” (Johnson). Each person, according to Kant, contained within them “a self-governing reason” (Johnson), but this reason cannot be determined by either external or other “negative” influences if it is to be free in Kant’s sense of the word. A rational, autonomous will must operate not only in freedom from outside influences or ends but free from deterministic components such as psychology or biology as well. Kant’s idea of an autonomous will on which his system of morality is based “contains first and foremost the idea of laws made and laid down by oneself, and, in virtue of this, laws that have decisive authority over oneself.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy uses the notion of laws in a political state as an analogy to explain Kant’s notion of autonomy. Just as in a political state, where citizens are bound by laws that are “in some sense of their own making,” Kant’s individual human will is bound by laws of its own making, and just as these citizens are bound to obey these laws because they made them, so does an individual have an obligation to obey the laws he or she has seen fit to make (Johnson). “Hence,” as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it, “the ‘moral legitimacy’ of the CI [categorical imperative] is grounded in its being an expression of each person's own rational will. It is because each person's own reason is the legislator and executor of the moral law that it is authoritative” (Johnson).

In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant begins his argument with the claim that the only thing we can call “good” without any qualifications is a good will. He argues this by saying, “A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is in itself” (Kant 984). Kant is establishing his idea of an autonomous will in order to set the stage for his theory of morality and the categorical imperative. He then goes on to define a good will as a will whose decisions are entirely determined by moral law. He believed humans viewed this moral law as constraint on their actions, and a good will was motivated by a duty to this law. He goes on to say that “an action done from duty must altogether exclude the influence of inclination and therewith every object of the will. Hence there is nothing left which can determine the will except objectively the law and subjectively pure respect for this practical law” (988). He then qualifies this moral law by saying “the pre-eminent good which is called moral can consist in nothing but the representation of the law in itself, and such a representation can admittedly be found only in a rational being insofar as this representation, and not some expected effect, is the determining ground of the will” (988).

After explaining his premise, Kant then reaches a conclusion by asking the following:

    What sort of law can that be the thought of which must determine the will without reference to any expected effect, so that the will can be called absolutely good without qualification? Since I have deprived the will of every impulse that might arise for it from obeying any particular law, there is nothing left to serve the will as principle except the universal conformity of its actions to law as such, i.e., I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law. Here mere conformity to law as such (without having as its basis any law determining particular actions) serves the will as principle and must so serve it if duty is not to be a vain delusion and a chimerical concept. The ordinary reason of mankind in its practical judgments agrees completely with this, and always has in view the aforementioned principle” (989).

In accordance with this idea, Kant believes a moral person must then “act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature” (998), such action being what Kant has termed the categorical imperative.

For Kant, the very nature of the autonomous will impels it to follow the categorical imperative. Since the autonomous good will is free from all external and negative influences, it is thus a purely rational entity and, as such, can only follow courses of action free from the irrational inconsistencies inherent in choices which only apply in certain specific situations. If an individual truly follows Kant’s system of morality and believes in the categorical imperative, it is never right to do an action unless one would will the action to be right under all circumstances. For example, in Kant’s system, lying is never a moral thing to do unless one would want to say that it is universally acceptable to lie and would will that lying become a universal law of nature.

In contrast with Kant, the empiricist philosopher David Hume found the genesis of human action not in a rational, autonomous will but in the sentiments or emotions that drive human beings. As Hume put it in his book A Treatise of Human Nature, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume 845). For Hume, how we act depends on what we desire, and what we desire depends on what we feel. Feelings provide the motivation for action rather than rational thinking. The reasoning faculties only serve the emotions and help them to achieve their ends. Hume recognizes the value of reason in assessing all the relevant facts related to a decision, but, as Hume says, “Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery” (Hume, An Enquiry).

The opposition between Kant’s and Hume’s philosophies is easily seen in Europe during World War II. Most citizens in Nazi-occupied nations were opposed to what Hitler was doing but had little ability to stop the atrocities that were taking place all around them. Suppose there is a merchant who is hiding Jewish children in his store rooms, and the suspecting Nazi soldiers have come to search his property. The soldiers ask him if there are Jews on his property and proceed to tell him that if they find out he is lying they will kill him. On the one hand, the merchant can tell the truth and save his own skin. However, the truth will assuredly be the death of the Jewish children who are hiding in his store rooms. On the other hand, he can lie to save the children but almost assuredly be put to death by the Nazi soldiers if they discover the children while searching his store rooms.

If Kant’s morality is applied to the situation, unless the merchant would want to will lying as a universal law of nature, he would have to give up the children’s location to the Nazi soldiers. However, he would also be conflicted in this action because giving up the children is also an evil thing to do. It is likely that the merchant would feel just as uneasy about making it a universal law that the children’s lives are never under any circumstances worth committing the evil of lying in order to save them. If Hume’s morality is applied to the situation, the merchant would let his feelings guide his course of action. His choice of whether or not to lie would be dictated by whether his emotions pushed him towards telling the truth to save his own skin or towards lying and potentially sacrificing himself in the hopes that the soldiers will believe him and not discover the children.

Obviously, the merchant is in a very difficult situation whether or not he chooses to apply Kant’s or Hume’s morality to his predicament. I would argue that while both systems have a facet of truth in them, neither of them is adequate as a universal ethical system. While the spirit of Kant’s categorical imperative is in the right direction, I do not believe such an all-encompassing rule succeeds in our very subjective world. There are degrees of evil, and Kant’s system doesn’t take this into account. Sometimes, doing something we usually consider to be wrong-doing is actually the right choice when it prevents a much greater wrong-doing. While clearly the majority of people would not want to say that lying is a good thing or something they would want to make into a universal law, it does not mean that sometimes lying isn’t actually the moral thing to do. I would argue that lying is the right thing to do if it means saving a group of children from being tortured and executed by the Nazis. At the same time, while the thought behind Hume’s system is a good one, it is also inherently flawed. While Kant’s system is too broad and objective, Hume’s morality is too narrow and subjective. If the only morality a person follows is the whims of his or her own personal feelings, he or she will undoubtedly base many decisions on selfish feelings such as greed and lust. The merchant might choose to lie and save the children out of feelings of selflessness and compassion, or he might just as easily turn around and give up their location to save his own life out of feelings of selfishness and fear.

Though the ethical situation of the merchant and the Nazis is not an easy one to solve, I would suggest that no matter how you reach your conclusion, the only ethical choice to make is to lie in order to save the children’s lives, despite the fact that the Nazis may end up finding the children anyway, in which case you haven’t saved anyone’s life but, in fact, have sacrificed your own. Ultimately, I find it difficult to develop a universal ethical system that does not fall apart under certain situations. There are too many circumstances with variable conditions that can arise to logically be able to follow as universal a law as the categorical imperative. If Kant truly believed in the idea behind the categorical imperative and the duty to do what’s right, I believe he would agree that even if you have to lie and may end up being killed for it, what’s truly important is the end that your will is working towards. I believe the only choice an autonomous good will could make is to try and save the children’s lives whatever the outcome of the action.

Works Cited

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Classics of WesternPhilosophy. Ed. Steven M. Cahn. 7th ed. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006. 829-855.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Project Gutenberg Library Archives Foundation. 2003-2008. Oxford, MS. 22 October 2008 <>.

Johnson, Robert. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008. Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University. 22 October 2008 <>.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Classics of Western Philosophy. Ed. Steven M. Cahn. 7th ed. Indianapolis/Cambridge: HackettPublishing Company, Inc., 2006. 981-1020.

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