Saturday, February 28, 2015

Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative: Introduction and Overview

Key terms
  • Consequentialism (Teleological ethics): Actions are deemed right or wrong based on the result of doing them (E.g. Utilitarianism).
  • Deontological ethics: Actions are deemed right or wrong independent to the consequences. We do something because it is right to do it.

The categorical imperative is something we are fundamentally required to do irrespective of how we feel about doing it. In other words, we should ALWAYS do it. Categorical imperatives are also innately good and as such we have a duty to recognise (and accept) their moral authority and validity in our life. They are not judged 'good' (or determined to have moral worth) based any beneficial outcomes they might produce, or even because someone tells us to do it. A categorical imperative is good in itself, and that is all.

A rational (and reasonable) morality

The philosopher who is most widely known for his discussion of categorical imperatives is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued we had a 'duty' to always do certain things irrespective of the consequences of doing them. For example, he believed people should never tells lies no matter what the consequences for being truthful ended up being. He also believed it was important to understand our 'moral duty', and that this could be done using cold hard logic (reason). THEORETICAL REASON concerns things such as math and logic, whilst PRACTICAL REASON is the basis for discovering moral truth. 

Kant believed practical reason was superior to theoretical reason because it had the ability to show us how to live well. Kant also held that practical reason was grounded in a sense of ought. In others words, through a careful consideration and evaluation of choices, people can come to realise what their moral duty is, and do it. By working out what we ought to do we begin to understand how we should and must act. Logically this suggests it is impossible for practical reason to lead us into a sense of ought about something we cannot or should not do. While all this sounds simple (in theory), Kant believed acting morally should be hard to make it meaningful. If we simply did what we felt like doing all the time, then we would never have any reason to consider if we were doing the right thing.

For example, what would happen if we only did things that made us happy? All we would be interested in is personal gratification. What if we said that everyone can live in ways that made them happy all the time? It should be quickly evident that what makes us happy cannot be a reliable guide for what counts as good because what makes us person happy may not necessarily make other people happy too. Also, our happiness might be dependent on making someone else unhappy, which is clearly problematic if acting morally is about everyone being happy. So rather than pursuing self-gratification and acting on the basis of how we feel, we need to take a breath, pause, step back, and think about what we are doing and why.

All this means moral judgements need to be separated from emotion in order to avoid doing the wrong thing. Although an emphasis on logic and reason might suggest we need to become emotionally vapid to live a good life, this is not the case. Reason is simply the means by which we learn to do the right thing. We don’t do things we feel like doing, just those things it makes sense to do!

“Moral actions, for Kant, are actions where reason leads, rather than follows.” (McCormick M., Kant, Immanuel: Metaphysics, I.E.P.)

The importance of freewill

Kant's stress on the importance of freewill has significantly influenced moral enquiry, with any viable morality involving us making real choices (and being allowed to make them). When we speak of having freewill we mean a genuine and free ability to do something, rather than being forced to do it. Kant refers to this as the 'autonomy of the will'. Freewill is so important to Kant that he regarded it as one of the three fundamental truths of the universe (the others being God and Immortality). 

Freewill is necessary in order for us to be morally accountable beings, for without true freedom there is no real choice, and without real choice there is no actual struggle to do 'good'. One needs to be faced with a genuine opportunity to do good. To only do what one feels like doing, or to do something because we have been told to do it is not a sound basis for acting morally. To act in a truly moral way means we must have a free choice to do something, for having freely chosen to do something our actions become significant and we can be held accountable.

Hypothetical imperatives

An imperative is something that needs to be done. For instance, a teacher might say to a pupil that it is imperative they do their homework (meaning they must do it). However, the imperative to do homework is normally grounded in some reason for doing it, for example in order to get good grades or to avoid punishment. This means doing homework is conditional on a pupil being interested in getting good grades, or wanting to avoid being punished. If they are unmotivated by either of these, then they have no reason to do their homework.

Kant described any imperative (or command) as hypothetical when certain conditional factors are present: We do x because of y. This means hypothetical imperatives function as a means to an end, and derive their moral authority on the basis of this end. If someone is interested in the end result (y), then a hypothetical imperative will have the authority (and moral basis) to cause someone to act accordingly.

Hypothetical imperatives can be identified by the presence of 'if... then' conditions in moral statements (E.g. If you want to get good grades, then you need to do your homework). Kant rejected hypothetical imperatives as a basis for morality because they are not universally applicable or valid. For instance, consider the following statement:
  • It is wrong to tell lies because God has commanded us not to.
At first glance this statement might appear to contain an absolute imperative, to always act in a certain way (i.e. we should never lie). However, it is actually a hypothetical imperative because lying is deemed wrong simply because God has commanded us not to do it. Although there are many people who would be happy to ground moral behaviour on the belief that God wills it, the statement “It is wrong to tell lies because God has commanded us not to” only has moral worth to people believing God exists. For someone who does not believe in God there is absolutely no reason why they should pay any attention to what others say God has commanded, or live according to such things.

Categorical imperatives

Unlike hypothetical imperatives, a categorical imperative is something everyone must always do. We might say they are universally valid. A categorical imperative also has no condition attached to doing it. It is a fundamental, universal and indisputable moral truth. One might venture to say that if there were there no humans left in the universe, a categorical imperative would still be true.

Kant set out and explored his understanding of the categorical imperative in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785). He did this in response to two questions:
  • What ought I to do?
  • What is the highest good (or summum bonum) of humans actions (i.e. their 'end')?
Kant believed the highest good for humanity is to live according to the categorical imperative:

“Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a universal law of nature.”

To understand what Kant means here, let's consider if telling lies is ever the right thing to do. 

Although we might say there is nothing wrong in telling lies now and again, Kant would argue that the telling of any lie is logically problematic. For in order for a liar to be believed, they assume people tell the truth most of the time. However, if everyone lies when they see fit, then (logically) we end up with the situation where people don't know if someone is ever lying to them or not. In fact, this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in when people make excuses for things they have done, or not.

However Kant takes the logic of this situation further. If telling lies results in us not knowing when someone is lying to us, then in theory we cannot successfully tell lies. We simply do not know if anyone is ever telling the truth (or not). This means any act of lying (as far as Kant is concerned), is logically irrational. People have no reason to think we are telling the truth all the time, so why lie on the assumption that they are? Such behaviour is absurd! If we know we have the chance to not to be believed, why act as if we are? Also, as most of us do not want to be lied to, this is a further reason why we should not lie. In this sense we are to follow the Golden Rule: To treat others as we want them to treat us. All this means that the best (and logical) scenario for us is to treat not lying as a categorical imperative (it is something we should never do).

So Kant’s categorical imperative, “Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a universal law of nature,“ means we only act in ways we would be happy for others to act like. You don’t want to be lied to, then don’t tell lies. Following on from this are two other rational principles:

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but at the same time as an end.”

“Act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”

Hypothetical imperatives treat people as a means to an end, whereas a categorical imperative never will. For instance, to say that when it suits me I will tell lies is putting my needs before others. It is also forgetting that we are all part of a wider community and that we cannot live as we please without due regard and respect for others. Although Kant is adamant that we each have the right to live in any way we see fit to, we also have to keep in mind that others also have that same right too, and that as a result no-one should ever become a pawn in someone else's 'game of life'.


In terms of Kant's categorical imperative, the most logical and rational thing we can do in terms of acting correctly is to think about how our actions will affect those around us, and to only do those things that will not impinge on another’s right to freely live their own life. It is like looking into a mirror and saying to ourselves, “What would happen if everyone did this?” If we conclude that what we are about to do is not going to impinge on the liberty of others to freely live their own life, and it is something everyone else could (logically) do, then we have a duty to do it. If we cannot see everyone acting the way are or want to, or we wish people not treat us as we wish to treat them, or we want to do something just for personal or emotional gratification/gain, then we should not do it. This is why Kant said the categorical imperative will never lead to do something we ought not to do. Ought implies can... and can, implies we should do it.

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