Monday, February 21, 2022

Kant's Categorical Imperative

 Somehow a USB got corrupted at some point (by causes I do not know) and I had to start retyping some of my class handouts whose electronic back-up copies I could not find (for reasons I do not know). In any case, it gives me a chance to do some minor revisions. Since I'm doing the work anyway, I thought I'd put up one or two as I get to them; and that way I'll always have a copy here, as well, while they might be helpful to people who are interested in the topics.


Categorical Imperative

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become universal law.

A ‘maxim’ is a “subjective principle of acting”; it is the rule someone makes in a decision that is based on their own circumstances and conditions.

Kant also summarizes this as: Always choose in such a way that the same willing includes the maxims of our choice as a universal law.


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

‘Nature’ in its broadest sense means everything that is determined by universal laws, so this formulation emphasizes universality.

Kant also summarizes this as: Act on maxims that can at the same time have for their object themselves as universal laws of nature.

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

An absolutely universal moral principle would have to be based on something whose existence is of absolute worth or value (something that could function as an ‘end in itself’); this must be value for every rational being precisely because they are rational. The only thing that can have worth for every rational being in this way is rational nature itself. Another way to put it: The only end that can be proposed by a moral law supposed to legislate for all rational beings in all possible circumstances is that which concerns an end for all rational beings in all possible circumstances. The only such end is rational nature itself.

This formulation emphasizes the maxim. The categorical imperative requires restricting our maxims so that they conform to universal law; this formulation recognizes that doing so requires only allowing maxims in which rational nature is always paramount.

Act according to the maxim of a universally legislating member of a merely possible kingdom of ends.

To recognize yourself as being an end in yourself, you must recognize that you, as a rational being, are legislating universally for all rational beings, independently of any interest or incentive.

‘Autonomy’ is legislating for oneself; it is the opposite of ‘heteronomy’, receiving one’s laws from another. The only law that could be universally valid for all rational beings is the kind of law that rational beings legislate for themselves as rational beings. The only permissible actions, therefore, are those consistent with the autonomy of a rational will.

By ‘kingdom’ is meant a society of different rational beings united by common laws. Since each rational being, as rational being, legislates universally for all rational beings, one can think of a kingdom whose members are each autonomous legislators who are able to be united because they are all willing the same law; and for this law to be universal, it would have to treat rational nature as an end in itself. Such a society would be a ‘kingdom of ends’. It is said to be ‘merely possible’ because we are not talking about a society that already exists, but only a society that we choose to form by our actions.

Worth is determined by law. Because rational beings are self-legislating ends in themselves, and thus are the source of law, they have absolute worth. This absolute worth is called ‘dignity’, a pricelessness such that nothing else can be substituted for them as having equal or greater value. The only correct attitude toward something with dignity is respect. It is because they have dignity that we call human beings ‘persons’.


Kinds of Heteronomous Moral Principle

Kant thinks most attempts at ethics fail because they try to base it on a moral principle that guarantees heteronomy (reason has to serve something other than its own imperatives). He considers several families of such failed ethics:

Empirical (based on happiness) 

 Private Happiness 

 Moral Sentiment (which somehow connects us to a general happiness)

Rational (based on perfection) 

 Divine Will 

 Abstract Relations of Perfection

Kant tells us that, while they all fail, they are not all equal failures. Moral sentiment is a better candidate than private happiness and relations of perfection are a better foundation than will, because trying to base morality on private happiness or divine will weakens the force of moral law. Relations of perfection are a better foundation than moral sentiment because using relations of perfection as a foundation recognizes the centrality of reason. None of these, however, are capable of being a real foundation for morality; they all separate the source of moral law from the rational being who is supposed to follow moral law, which is heteronomy. The true ethics, Kant holds, must be an ethics of autonomy, that is, reason giving the moral law to reason.