“Kant” Revisited: The Categorical Imperative

When questioned about his writing, GWF Hegel (supposedly) said: “when I wrote that, only God and me knew what I meant and now…only God knows.”

When people ask me, my response is: “I’ve been to rehab since I wrote that.”

Did I know what I was talking about in this episode? I don’t know. As I say at the end of this post: you be the judge.

Now this post is actually taken from TWO episodes of Life With Kant. During the first half of one, I was talking about the morals of Adam Smith. I think. But I took all of that out and I might post some of that later.

But again, I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to “full time” writing. But I’ll keep posting these until I can’t anymore. This is a pretty long post, so if you’re one of my two fans, this should keep you busy.

Per usual, I don’t edit or spellcheck. Enjoy!


Time to bring back our old buddy Immanuel Kant.

And since this is a podcast that has Kant’s name in it, I figured that it would be a good time to discuss Kantian Ethics. The work that I have today is Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785, so it was between the first and second editions of the Critique of Pure Reason.

And it’s written in the typical Kantian way, so it’s hardly a joy to read, but let’s just jump right in. So if you will recall, Kant seems to think that the question “how is knowledge a priori possible?” is the central idea behind Metaphysics. And of course, a priori means independent of experience. So we’re now going to take that idea and place it in the field of morals. And as Kant says in the preface “For in the case of what is to be morally good, that it conforms to the moral law is not enough; it must also be done for the sake of the moral law.” So Kant wants to establish that morals must derive from our a priori understanding, or rationality, which is what he calls pure philosophy (or metaphysics). Now correct me if I’m wrong, because I have read A LOT of philosophy since reading the Critique, but I believe that knowledge a priori isn’t necessarily empirical, but it is universal, meaning that everyone possesses a rational sense understanding independent of experience. So our morals must come from the same place if they are to be universal.

So this is just classic Kantianism. I was originally dreading reading this, but reading a different work by Kant is like buying a new AC/DC album. It’s still good, but it all just sort sounds the same. ANYWAYS…Immediately in the first section, he brings up the idea of a good will. So all our other talents like intelligence, wit, judgement, etc, are fine and good, but they can be used in a perverted way if the will is…bad. And, it seems to me, Kant’s also saying that things like power and riches can make one arrogant and discontent without a good will, so therefore a good will is necessary for happiness in general. But he will add that having a will that is good is not SO because of the things it accomplishes, but because it’s good in-itself.

Now living things have to, in an immediate sense, tend to it’s own preservation and welfare, and reason doesn’t seem to help with any of that. In fact, it seems to me that Kant is saying that if nature had it her way, that she would have entrusted instinct alone to achieve those ends and means. Plus he would say that the more a quote “cultivated reason devotes itself to the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the further does man get away from true contentment.” So it appears that quote “the idea that existence has another and much more worthy purpose, for which, and not for happiness, reason is quite properly intended.” So we must live for more than just happiness, we are to use reason to help us achieve a good will, even though reason is not competent enough to guide the will safely as regards its objects and the satisfaction of all our needs, Kant’s words not mine, but he would go on to say “its true function must be to produce a will which is not merely good as a means to some further end, but is good in itself.” So it’s one thing to do something good, it’s another thing to have good intentions behind your actions.

So then Kant brings up duty, which he goes into some detail, but basically it all comes down to intentionality. Even if an action produces a good outcome for everyone involved, it wasn’t dutiful if the intention behind it was self-serving. But there’s an interesting part here that sort of echoes Adam Smith. Kant believes that to be beneficent when one can is dutiful, and there are those that try to bring joy to those around them because they are oriented that way, but there is no moral worth to those actions. Because he would say “It is on a level with such actions as arise from other inclinations. e.g., the inclination for honor, which if fortunately directed to what is in fact beneficial and accords with duty and is thus honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem; for its maxim lacks the moral content of an action done not from inclination but from duty.” So you must be beneficent not because of its inclination towards honor or any sort of self-glory, but because it’s your duty to do so. Right? I mean it gets a little choppy here for me.

So this sort of ties into Kant’s second facet to his notion of duty, but in order for an action to qualify as moral, it must be done because that’s how duty deems it to be. An ulterior result cannot be desired. And the last proposition is quote :”Duty is the necessity of an action done out of respect for the law.” And later he would say “the preeminent good which is called moral can consist in nothing but the representation of the law itself.” So acting in accordance with the law presupposes whatever effect might occur from an action, if it is to be considered dutiful. Make sense?

Now Kant concerns himself with making moral actions universal. And if the principle doesn’t make sense for all then it must be rejected. So don’t make promises you can’t keep, because if you lie, and if lying becomes a universal law, it would destroy itself because all promises made by all people would not be kept. So act in accordance to how you think universal law should be kept. And that introduces Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

I have a mostly religious-based education. Not that I’m all that religious myself, a good number of people that were brought up in that find themselves holding very different views later on in life. But I do have a sizeable knowledge on theology and a number of other things in a certain faith. But the one thing that we all know, no matter what kind of beliefs you were raised in, is the Golden Rule. You know: “Do unto others as you would want done to you.”

Almost every religion has their own version of that rule. It’s based on this assumption that you like to be treated well, and if you like to be treated well, you should treat others the same way, and you will get that same respect paid towards you if you do so. It’s a pretty basic ethical idea, but it quickly falls apart when try to sit down and think about it. Just taking a long hard look at humanity will cause you to see all the holes in the Golden Rule.

When I was being taught this idea in Sunday School, I always wondered if there was someone out there that liked being treated like a slave. You know, like some sort of sadist or something. So if they liked being treated like a slave, then would that make it okay for them to treat everyone else like a slave? Additionally, let’s say that someone did you harm. They did something so bad that they clearly deserved punishment or some sort of recourse for their action. Now, clearly that person would not want any sort admonishment from you, and you wouldn’t want to be scolded for committing the same action, but yet punishment is warranted. So therefore, that person should not be punished, at least according to the Golden Rule. So as nice as it sounds, this is a very limited ethical concept, and definitely one that can’t be considered universal. And this is where Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative comes in. And what Kant is trying to do here is take the individual perceptions out of the equation in order to make ethics universal. So therefore individuals must not do good because they want to be good people, or have good things happen to them, but because it is a universality. So in any given situation, there’s an absolutely proper ethical way of handling it. As we’ve discussed in the last episode, Kant defined the Categorical Imperative as “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” And he discusses this first in his work, The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. So in Section II, Kant begins to expand on the idea of moral duty. And he seems to admit that it might be difficult to find examples of moral actions that were not in some part at least influenced by self-love. So we can see that our actions are moral, but we cannot see the intentions behind them. And that would lead Kant to say “most of our actions are in accordance with duty; but if we look more closely at our planning and striving, we everywhere come upon the dear self, which is always turning up, and upon which the intent of our actions is based rather than upon the strict command of duty (which would often require self-denial).” So if we really analyze our actions, we can easily determine that they are in service of our selves and not towards moral duty because moral duty would require us to deny our self-serving tendencies.Therefore, we can’t draw upon the action itself to determine its moral worth. We can’t use experience to determine moral law. And Kant is going to use his all too predictable path of using a priori knowledge as the basis for moral law. So this argument is going to more or less start off with him asking the question: “But whence have we the concept of God as the highest good?” And he answers the question by saying “Solely from the idea of moral perfection, which reason frames a priori and connects inseparably with the concept of free will.” So he brings up Free Will. But Kant wants to hammer home that moral concepts must find their origin in a priori reasoning, and not as he would later say “be abstracted from any empirical, and hence merely contingent, cognition.”

So Kant would say that everything in nature works according to laws. And rational beings have the power to act according to these laws, and so therefore rational beings have free will. Because the will has the power to choose between imperatives that are good or self-serving. And Kant divides these imperatives into hypothetical and categorical. He would define hypothetical imperatives as being, quote: “the practical necessity of a possible action as a means for attaining something else that one wants (or may possibly want).” So it’s something that you want for an immediate self-serving end and by the way, this includes your own happiness. And a categorical imperative is defined as “one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself, without reference to another end.” So a categorical imperative is something that is good in-itself.

Now with this imperative, Kant isn’t so much concerned with the consequences or the intended result. So he would say that “what is essentially good in the action consists in the mental disposition, let the consequences be what they may.” So, I guess, even if the effects of an action aren’t good, the action can still be considered moral if it is committed by an act of duty, which are bound by the moral laws.

However, Kant speaks about actions that might be seemingly categorical, but are actually covertly hypothetical. The example he gives here is giving false promises. If you don’t provide a false promise because you fear the consequences, then it’s your own well-being that you’re concerned with, and not because you are concerned with the universal good of being truthful.

So Kant would suggest that we have to quote “investigate the possibility of a categorical imperative entirely a priori”. But when Kant thinks of a hypothetical imperative he does not know beforehand what it will contain until it’s condition is given, But he can know immediately what the categorical imperative is because it always means the same thing: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that It should become a universal law. Which is what we covered earlier.

And so Kant discusses some duties that we have to ourselves and others. And they are pretty obvious ones like don’t kill yourself because if you take that action and apply it to everyone than everyone would be dead. Or don’t borrow money if you can’t pay it back. Always develop your talents because everyone benefits. And, of course, when you see others struggle with hardships, it’s your duty to help them because if everyone ignored everyone who was in a sort of trouble, then we would all suffer.

However, Kant isn’t quite content with this explanation so far. He states that “we have not yet advanced far enough to prove a priori that there actually is an imperative of this kind, that there is a practical law which of itself commands absolutely and without any incentives, and that following this law is duty.” And here, Kant sort of rings the same bells that he’s been ringing the whole time, by saying that we can’t rely on human nature or anything empirical, but all moral laws and our duty to it must be found a priori. So therefore he asks the question: is it a necessary law for all rational beings always to judge their actions according to such maxims as they can themselves will that such should be universal laws? He says that if there is a law then it must be connected with the concept of the will of a rational being in general.

Now Kant looks into metaphysics. He goes on to say that the will is a faculty that can only be found in rational beings. Then he brings up ends and means and would ultimately say that “man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will”. And therefore people should treat themselves and others as ends and not as means to an end. Kant would then say that attempts to describe principles of morality before his, failed because people are only bound to their own will. However, the will can be enacted to legislate universal laws. So we both legislate laws and are beholden to them.

Then Kant becomes somewhat utopian by saying quote: “For all rational beings stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as an end in himself. Hereby arises a systematic union of rational beings through common objective laws, i.e. kingdom that may be called a kingdom of ends, inasmuch as these laws have in view the very relation of such beings to one another as ends and means.” End quote. So a kingdom of ends where everybody enacts laws that treat everyone as both ends and means.

And in this Kingdom of Ends, everything has a price or a dignity. He would say that whatever has a price can be replaced by something else, but whatever is above price, therefore has a dignity. So things like skill and diligence have a market price, and imagination and humor have an affective price, but humanity and morality are above price, and they alone have dignity.

Then Kant adds that there are three ways of representing the principle of morality. One is what we have already mentioned: maxims must be so chosen as if they were to hold as universal laws of nature. The second is treat all humans as ends to themselves. And the third is, as Kant says: “a complete determination of all maxims by the formula that all maxims proceeding from his own legislation ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends as a kingdom of nature.”

And therefore Kant finds himself going full circle by ending where he began by describing the concept of an unconditionally good will. So that the will can remain free by choosing to fulfill its duty to the universal law of morality and not by simply giving into traditional external temptations, that makes us more than just animals.

But after reading all of this, it’s easy for me to see how the Storm and Stress writers became frustrated with Kant, as he seems to be denying a human’s natural tendency towards self-interest. He seems to think that rationality is the answer to all of people’s problems. And perhaps he’s right, but there definitely seems to be a lack of humanness in Kant’s writing even though he’s trying to bring humanity together by using a systematic code of morality. But you be the judge.

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