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Kant's Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 and died in 1804. He is known best for his 'Coperncian Reveloution' in the theory of knowledge.He argued that space time and causality were the features that allowed our minds to organise our experiences in a rational order, and that it wasn’t features from the external world. He said that we only understand what we see in the world and what it appears to be, not what it actually is.

Kant’s moral theory is based on practical reason, not Utilitarianism, which it stands in contrast to in its principles. He started with the principle of moral ‘ought’, as in what we ‘ought’ to do; this gave his starting point, which was ‘good will’. He said that “There is no possibility of thinking anything good in this world or out of it, which can be regarded as good, except for good will itself.”

This caused a radical shift in ethics. Instead of starting with his point about the final cause, our purpose or the results of our actions, he placed his principle purely in good will. The main idea of other philosophers was based on consequentialisim, which place more importance of the result of an action, rather than the intention of it.

Kant believed in doing one’s duty, therefore, he looked for an ‘objective’, a purpose set in certain guidelines that needed to be considered moral to do one’s duty for the right reason. He believed that it was not good enough just to do one’s duty because you had to, or it benefited you in some way, but said that you need to want to do it because it is the right thing to do.

The term Categorical Imperative means that you should do something. It is in contrast to the hypothetical imperative that says if you want something, you need to do this action to get that result. The Categorical imperative is you should do this, not because it will benefit you in this way, but because it is the morally right thing to do. In other words, you are not doing a good thing for your own self interest, but because you know it is morally right. This is ‘good will’.

Kant has three basic forms on which bases his Categorical imperative. The first being: So act the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law. In simple terms this means that you can only call something morally just, if it is able to be turned into a universal maxim, on which everybody should uphold in a similar situation. Kant used an example for this. If you make a promise with not intention of keeping it, then it is only morally just if it can be applied to everyone. This would mean that everyone who tells a promise would have no intention of keeping it. This would make promises pointless, as no one would keep them and there would be no reason for them. He uses this to argue that the maxim of making a promise with no intention of keeping it is not a maxim at all, because it would not work in society.

Kant finds maxims very important as he believes that they are the main basis of ‘good will’. If there was no maxims, then there would be no universal morality in which we could uphold. Although Kant says this, he still stresses the importance of free will. Even if something is a Categorical imperative or a universal maxim, he says it is not forceful to follow it through and that we are free whether or not to do the morally right thing.

His second basis is: Act in such as way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply a means an end. What Kant is saying here is that, he does not believe that people should use other people as a means to achieve a personal goal. One should be used by someone else to meet their purpose, which they want to fulfil. He said that if you allow others to be free individuals, like we should, then they must be treated an end and not just the means

Finally, Kant’s third basis for his Categorical imperative is: Act as if a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends. This follows on from the second basis and means that you ought to act in a way that is considered morally right within the society you are in. Your moral choices should be compatible with those around you.

Kant’s theory has brought up debate as to whether it is ethically sound or not. Where some are for his theorem, others, such as Utilitarians disagree with him.

Those who agree with Kant, believe he is correct because they see ‘good will’ as the most important thing above all else. Without good will, they would argue that no good can exist, because people wouldn’t be willing to do good unless for their own cause or purpose.

A Kantian follower would say that the maxims are important because it gives us all a foundation for the differences between being morally good or bad. If you do an action that can be put into a universal maxim, then you are acting ethically, but if your action cannot be used universally in a similar situation, then your actions are not ethically correct.

The reason they agree with this is because they believe that practical reason has value. If you don’t have reason they would argue how could you manage to make the correct decisions in life?

However, there are people who disagree with Kantian ethics and the Categorical Imperative. A lot of these people will be following Utilitarianism instead, which follows consequentialism. It is the contrast to the Categorical Imperative. Utilitarianism has its starting point with the result. They consider something as morally good if a good result comes out of it, but if there is a bad consequence then they consider it morally wrong. This places more development in the ends than it does the means. A Utilitarianist places the welfare and happiness of human beings above all else, whereas Kant does not. He says that ‘good will’ is the prime factor and that being happy is just a bonus. He would argue that life is not about being happy, but being worthy of being happy.

The reason some would not call the Categorical Imperative morally acceptable is because not only is the theory very different from usual ethical philosophy, but also because when put in to general use, it is not always as useful as it appeared to be originally. For example, when there is a choice to be made, both of which have value, and practical reason, how do you assess which is the better course to take? It is also argued that the theory would seldom work in the real world as in most circumstances no one does something purely for the good will of all kind. Part of them are still doing it for general interest, no matter how small.

A Utilitarianist would argue about how morally good something can be if it cannot bring eudemonia or even now and again a transient happiness. If an action does not give someone a sense of happiness, either through being just, getting closer to their final cause, or even just having a tasty meal once in a while, then what good is it serving the world, because it would mean everyone would have the right to be happy, but no one actually would.

In conclusion, in my opinion, I believe that both sides have worthwhile points, which is why I am between the two different sides. Where Kant says that good is only good if it is done by someone purely with ‘good will’, then I would disagree. I believe that anyone who intends on doing an ethically moral decision is being good, even if they have their own intentions in mind – to reach their own end. This is because, if you could only reach the end result they wanted by doing bad, then that person may not be willing to do that. They want something, but they have to do something bad for it. If they decide not to do this, then they are a good person; but if the action is good and suits both the whole and the individual then the action is still morally good.


Larry Allen Brown from Brattleboro Vermont on September 22, 2018:

"Where Kant says that good is only good if it is done by someone purely with ‘good will’, then I would disagree. I believe that anyone who intends on doing an ethically moral decision is being good, even if they have their own intentions in mind – to reach their own end."

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Really? Let's look at an example. According to Kant, only one kind of motive is consistent with morality. The motive of Duty. Doing the right thing for the right reason. own a store and a very young boy walks in to buy a loaf of bread. He's too young to understand the concept of making change, so you consider shortchanging him. He'll never know the difference. But then you stop and consider that if it became known that you cheated a boy out of his change, you might lose customers and damage your reputation. So you give the boy the correct change and send him on his way.

Question: Was there any moral worth to what you did? The answer would be no. You did the right thing but for the wrong reason. Your motive for giving him the right change was out of self-interest, rather than because it was simply the right thing to do.

Every time the motive for what we do, is to satisfy a desire or a preference that we have, to pursue some interest, we’re acting out of inclination. Kant says insofar as we act morally, in so far as our actions have moral worth, what confers moral worth is precisely our capacity to rise above self-interest and inclinations and to act out of duty. Do the right thing for the right reasons.

Kant says that man and in general, every rational being exists as an end in himself not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will.

Kant distinguishes persons on the one hand and things on the other. Rational beings are persons. They don’t just have a relative value for us, if anything they have an absolute value, and intrinsic value. Rational beings have dignity. They’re worthy of respect. “It’s the idea that human beings as rational beings are ends in themselves not open to use merely as a means to some other end.

f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 02, 2016:

Kant had a great mind, no doubt. He was quite influential in the development of rational thought and the concepts of reason. However, in todays world, morality has lost much of its importance to the value of truth and objectivity.

Unfortunately, the ability to apply critical reason is not as wide spread in contemporary society as to form a cultural limitation to an imposed manipulation of reality by the ruling elite.

How else are we to understand the official version of 9/11 as being even close to the truth after 15 years of reflection and objective analysis of the facts as nothing more than an insult to our right to think and understand the real world objectively and in reasonable terms?

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 01, 2016:

IMO, the place where all human-developed schemes of morality and ethics break down is with the question, who defines "good" and "good will"?

To take an extreme but entirely relevant example, Hitler, and those who followed him, claimed to be doing "good" by attempting to rid Europe of Jews. And in the absence of some absolute standard of right and wrong, who has the right to say they were wrong? The most that could be said is that because the Nazis did not prevail, their enemies won the right to declare what they did as wrong.

Ultimately, morality can only exist if there is some absolute standard of right and wrong to which all humans are held accountable. Otherwise, any standard that depends on what some person, or even some community of persons, defines as right or wrong is simply somebody's opinion. And why should any individual be bound by another individual's opinion?

ep on March 11, 2013:

Interesting definition, but I don't think your last statement or disagreement negates his theory. For example: if someone does good with wrong intentions, the immediate outcome may be good, but it is still considered a means to an end. Therefore, under Kant's theory, it can not be considered ethical, whether or not the true intent is publicly known. I think what you mean to argue is, that the categorical imperative does not seem appropriate for our western materialist ideals.

Bryony Harrison (author) from UK on September 12, 2012:

Yes, it is very limiting to apply such complex cases to theoretical discussion. Not everything can be shoe horned into one category.

f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on September 12, 2012:

Thanks for an interesting hub. I see my own psychological reality today as having evolved into so many different directions to make it a lot more difficult to apply strictly theoretical concepts to questions of ethics in pre-neo-maxist terms.

Happiness as an emotional factor can itself be highly relative to an individual or a group when induced by social, political or cultural forces as we currently experience considerable ethical confusion in a world driven by conflicts and wars.

Our limited focus on intellectual development is greatly retarding our progress towards building a more humanistic global society.

Franto in Toronto

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