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18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) presents a criterion of moral obligation, which he calls the categorical imperative. Kant s account of morality fits squarely into the deontological tradition and is found in three principal books: The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and The Metaphysics of Morals (1798). Kant s writings indicate that he was aware of the moral traditions that went before him, such as virtue theory which bases morality on good character traits, and consequentialist accounts which base morality solely on the consequences of actions. In all of his ethical writings, Kant rejects these traditional theories of morality and argues instead that moral actions are based on a “supreme principle of morality” which is objective, rational, and freely chosen: the categorical imperative. Kant s clearest account of the categorical imperative is in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.
In Section one of the Foundations, Kant argues against traditional criteria of morality, and explains why the categorical imperative can be the only possible standard of moral obligation. He begins with a general account of willful decisions. The function of the human will is to select one course of action from among several possible courses of action (for example, my choice to watch television right now instead of going jogging). Our specific willful decisions are influenced by several factors, such as laziness, immediate emotional gratification, or what is best in the long run. Kant argues that in moral matters the will is ideally influenced only by rational considerations, and not by subjective considerations such as one s emotions. This is because morality involves what is necessary for us to do (e.g., you must be benevolent), and only rational considerations can produce necessity. The rational consideration which influences the will must be a single principle of obligation, for only principles can be purely rational considerations. Also, the principle must be a command (or imperative) since morality involves a command for us to perform a particular action. Finally, the principle cannot be one that appeals to the consequences of an action, such as the joy I would receive from watching television; for, appeals to consequences involve emotional considerations. The only principle which fulfills these requirements is the categorical imperative which dictates the universalizability of our actions: “act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Morality, then, consists of choosing only those actions that conform to the categorical imperative.
In Section two, Kant explains key terms, presents different formulations of the categorical imperative, and illustrates the categorical imperative with examples of specific immoral acts. He begins by distinguishing between types of imperatives. Imperatives in general are commands that dictate a particular course of action, such as “you shall clean your room.” Hypothetical imperatives are commands that depend on my preference for a particular end, and are stated in conditional form, such as, “If I want to lose weight, then I should eat less.” In this case, the command to eat less hinges on my previous preference to lose weight. There are two types of hypothetical imperatives. Problematic-hypothetical imperatives involve rules of skill based on preferences that vary from person to person (such as “If you want to be a doctor then you should go to medical school”). Assertoric-hypothetical imperatives, by contrast, involve rules of prudence based on the preference everyone has to be happy (such as, “If you want to be happy, then you should go skydiving”). None of these hypothetical imperatives, however, are moral imperatives, since the command is based on subjective considerations that are not absolute. A categorical imperative, by contrast, is an absolute command, such as “you shall treat people with respect,” which is not based on subjective considerations. Thus, the supreme principle of morality is a categorical imperative since it is not conditional upon one s preferences.
Kant continues by describing the sources of the above types of imperatives. His discussion uses four technical terms:
Analytic propositions: propositions that are true by definition, such as “All wives are women.”
Synthetic propositions: propositions that are not true by definition, such as “Jones is bald.”
A posteriori knowledge: knowledge attained through the five senses, such as the fact that the door is brown.
A priori knowledge: intuitive knowledge attained without use of the senses, such as 2+2=4.
Kant argues that problematic-hypothetical imperatives are analytic or true by definition, such as, “If you want to be a doctor, then you should go to medical school.” Assertoric-hypothetical imperatives are less clear since the concept of happiness varies so greatly, as in the statement, “If you want to be happy, then you should go skydiving.” However, Kant believes that even this statement is true by definition since if we fully understand happiness, we will also know the means to happiness. Finally, categorical imperatives are synthetic a priori, since the statement “you shall treat people with respect,” is not true by definition, and is not known by means of the senses. Kant s point is that the categorical imperative involves a unique type of knowledge that is intuitive, yet informative.
In view of this background, Kant presents the single categorical imperative of morality: act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Although there is only one categorical imperative, Kant argues that there can be four formulations of this principle:
The Formula of the Law of Nature: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”
The Formula of the End Itself: “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 always at the same time as an end.”
The Formula of Autonomy: “So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims.”
The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: “So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”
According to Kant, each of these four formulations will produce the same conclusion regarding the morality of any particular action. Thus, each of these formulas offers a step by step procedure for determining the morality of any particular action
The formula of the law of nature tells us to take a particular action, construe it as a general maxim, then see if it can be willed consistently as a law of nature. If it can be willed consistently, then the action is moral. If not, then it is immoral. To illustrate the categorical imperative, Kant uses four examples that cover the range of morally significant situations which arise. These examples include committing suicide, making false promises, failing to develop one s abilities, and refusing to be charitable. In each case, the action is deemed immoral since a contradiction arises when trying to will the maxim as a law of nature. The formula of the end itself is more straight forward: a given action is morally correct if when performing that action we do not use people as a means to achieve some further benefit, but instead treat people as something which is intrinsically valuable. Again, Kant illustrates this principle with the above four examples, and in each case performing the action would involve treating a person as a means, and not an end.
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