Immanuel Kant, in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, argues that all moral actions can be boiled down to a set of formulations that are derived from one chief principle, the categorical imperative (CI). In this essay, I will explain the formulations derived by Kant’s CI. I will answer two common objections before offering a weakness in Kant’s theory.
The CI, ‘Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you at the same time, can will that it become a universal law’ (2018, p.34), practically manifests in three ways, which I will call:
The universal law of nature
the realm of ends
The principle of humanity
Kant’s most obvious derivative (1) states that we should consider an action moral if we could desire that all people do that very action. For example, if I were to consider killing people whom I do not like, a Kantian would ask; should there be a universal law stating that all people are allowed to kill people that they do not like, and furthermore, ought to kill them. If the assessment is considered reasonable (critics argue whether Kant was clear enough on what constitutes as reasonable) given that everyone did it all the time, it follows that the action is a moral one.
Kant imagines a hypothetical kingdom called to the realm of ends, governed by a legislative council of rational beings who impose laws on the people (2018, p.48). Principle (2) states that not only should one pose whether their action should become a universal law, according to (1), but they should ponder whether that law would be passed in the realm of ends. (3) is derived from Kant’s statement, ‘rational nature exists as end in itself’ (2018, p.41). Because of our rational nature which brings an inherent sense of worth, human beings should never be treated as mere means, but rather ends.
Hegel objected to the CI, saying that it does not provide a set of guidelines that a moral person ought to follow. This criticism hopes to label Kant’s theory as overly impractical. I would argue the complete opposite, that the existence of a first principle is the very reason that Kantianism is practical. Because there is no set of specific actions deemed moral and immoral, the CI can be applied to every moral decision. Philosophies that state ‘do not lie’, struggle to respond to more complex issues which cannot be boiled down to a simple case of lying or not lying. The three Kantian formulations on the other hand can be applied to such issues, offering great versatility. Kant’s CI provides a principle in which all moral obligations can be derived. Thus, we must limit our critique of Kant, not to the existence of a first principle, but to the content of the CI.
A popular objection to Kant is that he does not clearly define what constitutes a reasonable assessment in formulation (1). For instance, could we not say that it is conceivable that stealing for material gain could be a universal law and consequently allow stealing? This objection fails in two ways. Not only would stealing not follow (2), but Kant would also argue that that rule (1) has not been properly applied. One should not only conceive that stealing ought to be universal law, but rather will that other people ought to do it. In other words, if I actively willed that people steal, we would encounter that to be clearly unreasonable, as a person could not act as a member of society with such conditions. Further, Kant and his followers offer a variety of examples that I believe adequately demonstrate what counts as reasonable and what counts as a contradiction.
I believe Kant’s weakness lies in regard to the complexity of the CI. Schopenhauer argued that Kant’s complex CI would bear the same results as the morality of the golden rule ‘do to others what you want them to do to you’. To Schopenhauer, Kant has attempted to reinvent the wheel to disguise an egoistic rule. If this accusation is true, it would be practically much easier to apply the golden rule, rather than learning the definitions of ‘maxim’, ‘will’, ‘duty’, ‘universal’ and ‘contradiction’. Kant fails, therefore, to demonstrate why the CI is superior to simpler versions of the first principle.The two discussed objections do not compel us to abandon Kantian ethics; however, Kantians could greatly benefit by giving us good reasons to accept the CI.
Hegel, Georg W. F, & Dyde, S.W. (1900). Philosophy of Right (by S. W. Dyde, Trans.). London, Bell.
Kant, Immanuel. (2018). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: With an Updated Translation, Introduction, and Notes (Allen W. Wood Ed.). Yale University Press. (Original work published 1785)
Schopenhauer, A., Haldane, R. B. H., & Kemp, J. (2019).The World as Will and Idea. California, Classic Wisdom. (Original work published 1819).