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Kant: Categorical Imperative

A) Background to Kant

B) Kant's Concept of Freedom

Kant sets himself two major tasks.

Task one: to establish a firm foundation for his mind's capacity to know with a degree of certainty, the structure and organisation of the external world revealed to him through his senses (Moral sense). He did this by what he described as a "transcendental" (crossing time) deduction. He concluded that the world mediated to us through our senses is approximately as it appears to be. We can trust our sense experience not to deceive us totally provided that we think clearly and constantly.

Task two: to explain a defence of that common experience of human kind relating to commitment, choice and personal freedom. This task is to be with decision making and then taking action.

In task one, it communicates insights into the world, as it seems - The Phenomina.
In task two, it gives us a limited idea of reality, as it really is - The noumina - that which controls the universe.
The difficulty is, is the phenomina and the noumina are independent of each other. As far as Kant was concerned, it is quite impossible to determine wherever or not my moral decisions are justifiable by any somewhat formal reasoning or empirical experiment.

Andrew Bebb gives the example of himself sitting at his typewriter writing an essay.

Kant says freedom is always there. Humans simply experience it. It is the inevitable consequence of obligation; the sense of ought, which is embedded in human behaviour and self-conscience. The deduction that enables Kant to transcend the limits of the mere appearance of things, his famous "transcendental" deduction establishes that freedom is really the rational foundation for the moral obligation. Freedom does not consist in mere randomness (doing what you like). The truly free gent is identified not by his absents of constraints, but his special nature of the constraints, under which he labours. For Kant the constraint is reason.

NB Freedom is not a licence to do what you like. It is subject to moral law.

C) The Categorical Imperative theory

The Hypothetical Imperative
I must not eat chocolate, as I will get fat.
I will not murder because I will go to prison.
These statements have rarely got morality in them. It is self-centred action.

The Categorical Imperative
I will not steal.
I will not kill.

The Hypothetical Imperative tells us what actions would be good solely as a means of something else. The imperative (to eat less, using the first example) is dependent on the desire to achieve a certain result; to lose weight. If I did not want to lose weight, the command would lose its force. Eating less, therefore, is not considered good in itself but only as a means to an end.

The Categorical Imperative is to be obeyed because of what it commands is accepted as being good in itself as being an intrinsic good. The action is under taken because of the very nature of the action and not because it is the means of achieving something else. This is a very deontological theory (absolute) and is a complete philosophical system that he wrote in two great works called "The Critique of Pure Reason" and "The Critique of Practical Reason". He says the man's ability to think objectively separates us from all other creatures. Pure and practical reason binds man to man. Two reasoning humans looking at the same moral problem, through human logic will reach the same conclusion.

D) Good Will

If a moral law is to be conditionally and universally binding, it must contain something that is unconditionally and universally good. Kant calls this the highest good. He asks, what is good? He looks at intelligence, power, wealth, honour, judgement, happiness, courage and perseverance.
Kant rejects them all. He says they are all capable of making a situation moral worse and for example, an intelligent and powerful criminal. These qualities are also not intrinsically good. He concludes,
"It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except God's will."

The consequences of the action are irrelevant. It is the intention of its good will is what that counts. Kant says good will is only emotive is to action for the only sake of duty. He gives the example of a shopkeeper. He says he should not overcharge any one even a child. It is an example of self-interest. Neither is it good will if you get enjoyment from it because if you stop getting enjoyment, you will stop doing it. The man of good will act solely in his accordance with his duty and for duty's sake. He does what is right because it is right and for no other reason.

"I ought never to act in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law."

The action is taken because it is intrinsically good and not because it will result on a good or bad consequence.
An example of ignoring the consequences; good or bad would be to tell the truth in all situations. We might find this difficult when dealing with a dying child. If the law can not be universalised, then to Kant, it is not good. If it can not be acted on consistently by mankind, and always then it should not be made a categorical imperative.

E) Arguments for Kant

F) Arguments against Kant

One of the weaknesses of Kant's theories is that there are no provisions for exceptions. Sometimes keeping promises and telling lies conflict. This is what those who criticise Kant, call a "conflict of duty". For example, a friend asks you to keep his whereabouts from a murderer. You promise to do that. Then the murderer knocks on the door and asks you where the friend is. Most normal people would introduce their exceptions at this point and would lie to save their friend's life.

Kant resorts to Christianity. The part of it is Christ's incarnation and the principle of salvation. It is the only place God becomes central for Kant.

The Theories of W.D Ross (1877 - 1971)

(An amendment to Kant's theories)
He is a modern British philosopher. He argued that Kantian duties should not be taken as absolute but as duties that allow exceptions. He calls these "prima facie" (at first sight) duties. These can be over ridden by a more compelling duty. For example, never take a human life except itself-defence. This is an add on to the categorical imperative.

The Duties

Therefore, for Ross, there is no such thing as a rule that is without possible exceptions. In making these exceptions, much will depend on the situation in which my duty is done, on the probable consequences of doing my duty and the personal relationship that nay exist between those to whom I believe a duty is owed and myself.