What does it mean to be moral? Kant’s Categorical Imperative

The ethical theory of Immanuel Kant has, like his epistemology, altered the course of philosophical history. His categorical imperative in particular has been widely influential, even among those who reject it. Indeed, it does not seem inaccurate to say that to do moral philosophy one must either accept Kant or refute him; one cannot simply ignore him. Edmund Husserl’s ethical philosophy is both directly influenced by Kant and also differs from Kantian ethics in several critical ways. Thus, in this post, I will outline Kant’s ethical theory, focusing primarily on the first formulation of the categorical imperative. In so doing, I will prepare the way for a future comparison of Kant and Husserl in this area.

Kant opens his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals with this famous assertion: “There is no possibility of thinking of anything at all…which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will.”1 All other good things, according to Kant, are only relatively so. In defense of this claim, Kant argues that man, as possessing reason, has a nobler purpose than the pursuit of happiness. Happiness, he maintains, could be achieved more perfectly by
instinct rather than reason. He writes, “Inasmuch as reason has been imparted to us as a practical faculty, i.e., as one which is to have an influence on the will, its true function must be to produce a will which is not merely good as means to some further end, but is good in itself.”2 Hence, Kant argues that the exclusive focus in ethics must be on duty, rather than on the consequences
or purposes of action. Scholar James Ellington explains Kant’s central idea in all of this, writing that according to Kant, “The moral law is imposed by reason itself and is not imposed externally.”3 In other words, the moral law does originate as a means to the attainment of happiness, or as a command of God. Instead, it flows from the very nature of thought. As professor William F. Lawhead writes, “In Kant’s analysis, acting morally can be reduced to acting rationally.”4

One of the ways that Kant elucidates reason in action is through his concept of maxims. He writes, “An action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined.”5 According to Kant, a maxim is a “principle of volition,”6
and Ellington explains that this simply means “a rule that is followed in any deliberately intentional act.”7 In other words, Kant is asserting that each
truly human action is intelligible: it manifests an idea. As 20th century analytic philosopher Fred Feldman expresses it, “When a person engages in genuine action, he always acts on some sort of general principle.”8 For example, if one is thirsty and deliberately decides to have a drink, Kant would say that this action manifests the general principle of whenever I am thirsty, I shall drink.

Building on this, Kant argues that ethical precepts, commands, or imperatives cannot be hypothetical (i.e., “if you want X, then you should do Y”). For, hypothetical imperatives are necessarily directed toward the consequences of action, and Kant unequivocally rejects all consequentialism in ethics. As he writes, the only way that the will can be absolutely good is if it chooses “without reference to any expected effect.”9 Thus, Kant reasons that true moral commands can only be expressed as categorical imperatives ( i.e., “Do Y.”). However, Kant does not give a list of particular categorical imperatives, such as those found in the Ten Commandments. Instead, he writes that the only principle of the will must be “the universal conformity of its actions to law as such,” which conformity does not have “as its basis any law determining particular actions.”10 In other words, since duty can be the only motivation for truly moral actions, there can be no impulse to obey specific laws. Hence, there really is only one ethical categorical imperative. It can be expressed in various ways, but they all essentially mean
the same thing.

And thus Kant gives the first formulation of the categorical imperative: “I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”11 Feldman summarizes it as, “An act is morally right if and only if its maxim is universalizable.”12 In essence, Kant is saying that moral action consists in only following maxims that when generalized could without contradiction become laws of nature. For, in Kant’s understanding, to be immoral or unethical does not primarily mean to disobey a divine mandate or to hurt people. It means to be irrational, and irrationality according to Kant is shown by acting on maxims which are not universalizable. As Ellington explains, “The maxim of an immoral act cannot be willed to become a universal law.”13 Thus, Kant maintains that a maxim which is not universalizable is unethical for this very reason, and “not because of any disadvantage accruing to me or even to
others, but because it cannot be fitting as a principle in a possible legislation of universal law, and reason exacts from me immediate respect for such legislation.”14

To make this clearer, consider the maxim stated above. The general form of whenever I am thirsty, I shall drink is whenever anyone is thirsty, he shall drink. The categorical imperative tells us to only act on this maxim if it can be universalized without contradiction, and there does not seem to be any inconsistency in the idea of this maxim becoming a universal law. However, according to Kant, the maxim behind an act such as making a promise with the intent to break it is not universalizable. For, if that were a law of nature, promises would lose all meaning and credibility, thus destroying the very ability to make promises. As Kant writes, it is impossible to “will a universal law to lie. For by such a law there really would be no promises at all.”15 Or, as Lawhead explains, “[Kant] is saying that a moral rule governing an activity (promise making) that would eliminate the activity in question would be a self-defeating (and thereby an inconsistent or irrational) rule.”16 Hence, since that maxim cannot be a law of nature, willing it would be irrational, and so Kant maintains that an action based on it would be immoral.

This is a very brief overview of Kant’s categorical imperative. In a future post, I will describe the points of similarity and dissimilarity between Kant and Husserl in the ethical realm.

1 Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. by James W. Ellington, 3rd. ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1993), 7.

2 Kant, Grounding, trans. by Ellington, 9.

3 James W. Ellington, introduction to Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, by Immanuel Kant, trans. by James W. Ellington, 3rd. ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1993), vi.

4 William F. Lawhead, The Voyage of Discovery, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), 340.

5 Kant, Grounding, trans. by Ellington, 12.

6 Kant, Grounding, trans. by Ellington, 13.

7 Ellington, introduction to Grounding, by Kant, trans. by Ellington, vii.

8 Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics (New Jersey: Prentis Hall, 1978), 99.

9 Kant, Grounding, trans. by Ellington, 14.

10 Kant, Grounding, trans. by Ellington, 14.

11 Kant, Grounding, trans. by Ellington, 14.

12 Feldman, Ethics, 104.

13 Ellington, introduction to Grounding, by Kant, trans. by Ellington, vii.

14 Kant, Grounding, trans. by Ellington, 15.

15 Kant, Grounding, trans. by Ellington, 15.

16 Lawhead, Voyage of Discovery, 343.

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