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Critical View and Philosophers' Response to Kant's Concept of Categorical Imperative and Moral Philosophy

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In Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is a text that begs to be understood from some of the philosopher’s more well-known concepts including the categorical imperative, which is introduced in the book as a way of evaluating the motivations for individual action. For Kant, a proposition declaring a certain action as necessary includes ways of evaluating the motivations for one’s actions. This is in contrast to hypothetical imperatives that Kant suggests, outlines means to achieve ends: e.g. If I want to feel energized, I must eat something with sugar. On the other hand, a categorical imperative conveys a universal. This is described in Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative as: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1993, p. 30). He suggests that through “pure practical reason” we can decide ethically what is right and what is not. Importantly, Kant contrasts this with “pure reason”, which is the capacity to know if something is true without ever having shown and “practical reason” that allows us to understand the world we live in. Thus, the ability to decide ethically what is right is based on the pure practical reason outlined in the Groundwork.

For Kant, the ability to use practical reason has an important role to play in morality because it moves even without dependent incentives. For Kant, this means that human reasoning is based on the pure practical reasoning of choosing actions at the base level because they are good, which Kant describes as the basis for the nature of good will. He argues that to be good and moral in and of itself requires acting with pure practical reason, that becomes part of a larger transcendental law that has an impact on how humans use reason pragmatically. Kant developed his moral philosophy after finding dissatisfaction with the moral philosophy of his day. He determined that reason, different then how one experiences the world empirically, could be used to examine moral events and circumstances as well. The concept of reason went on to prefigure significantly within Kant’s oeuvre and became a fundamental principle for moral reason.

For Kant, moral questions could be determined by examining them with respect to the pure practical reason independent of any other empirical factors. As such, morality is not defined by sense, but are reached a priori, through pure practical reason. The determining principle on whether or not moral questions can be examined, minus other sensuous factors is what makes morality, for Kant, universally applicable. Accordingly, moral universalism came to predominate Kant’s moral philosophy and became one of his most distinctive contributions to the field. As humans, Kant believed we all sought to exercise some measure of freedom and desire. However, for Kant, self-consciousness meant coming to terms with individual autonomy and the ability to exercise free will. According to Kant, “The faculty of desire in accordance with concepts, in-so-far as the ground determining it to action, lies within itself and not in its object, is called a faculty to “do or to refrain from doing as one pleases” (Kant, 1993, p. 213). Meaning that those who use free will have an interesting characteristic: they enable us to see empirically an object in action and with desire, are able to ground will in deterring choice of action. Strictly speaking, the will has no grounding in and of itself, yet can be determined by what Kant calls “inclination” that involves basically our human senses and the ability to see and judge situations empirically, which factor into what the autonomy of individual actions because this in effect relates to what it means to be “free”, or have free will, which Kant argued, one must be able to understand it relative to a causal power, but yet without causality to do so.

In Kant’s First Formulation on the Universality and the Law of Nature is an example of how Kant develops the moral proposition necessary for what he calls the “principle that is universalizing” (Kant, 1993, p. 92). For Kant, this is grounded in a law of nature formulation that can be reduced to what Kant calls “Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature” (Kant, 1993, p. 421). Accordingly, Kant believed that in delivering any sort of moral responsibility and/or moral autonomy, a property must contain a will of being a law in and of itself. Thus, there is a law of nature that has a universalizing force and that morality as such is fundamental to apprehending it. This allowed Kant to develop his idea of the categorical imperative as a universal. It follows that for Kant, the construction of moral law is based at its most fundamental level on the categorical imperative, which acts regardless of individual interests or desires. The pure practical reason that Kant outlines, is a way for evaluating the motivations for an individual’s action and as such, they determine what our duties are based on imperatives. In short, an imperative is basically a command that governs our actions. For example, being told to pay taxes is an imperative, as is being told not to eat or kill animals.

However, for Kant it is the categorical imperatives that command unconditional sublimation to what he calls the “principle that is universalizing” that connect morality to categorical imperatives. He argues that in order for morality to function as such, it must be based on a universalizing command that one cannot simply ignore. This is how Kant’s categorical imperative and pure practical reason, factor into morality. However, numerous philosophers over the years have attempted to debunk Kant’s moral philosophy. Some critics have posited a thought experiment in response to Kant’s moral philosophy, which argue that it can be seen in relation to the “Golden Rule” (citation).

One of the major challenges to Kant’s reasoning in the Grounding came during his lifetime by a French philosopher, named Benjamin Constant who, believing Kant’s categorical imperative to be flawed, offered a thought experiment that showed its inner incorrigibility. Constant said that according to Kant’s categorical imperative, it would be impossible to lie to a known murderer, therefore suggesting there to be a weakness and the core of Kant’s moral grounding. Constant suggested that there was an inherent weakness in Kant’s premises because if one could not lie to a murderer, that moral actions are not always derived from pure practical reason. This challenge treated the possibility of moral actions as a means to an end, which Kant denied in his response to this challenge, stating that this would in turn deny being free and rational actors in the first place. The claim that lying to a murderer undermines Kant’s premise of the categorical imperative rests on the simple assumption that all moral actions are not universal, and that some may have unintended means to an end goals. This reminds one of the school of classical realism and the morality of those like Machiavelli, who see the means to the end as the only possible way of developing a cohesive moral framework without any universals as such. In contrast, Kant’s categorical imperative model for determining morality, stands in stark contrast to these criticisms and other philosophies. While Kant’s premises that a moral duty would make it impossible to lie to a murderer, he nevertheless suggests that this does not weaken any of his premises because the imperative stands and that to deny it means to deny that the murderer possess any rationality him or herself.

As this essay has shown, Kant’s moral philosophy in the Grounding is based on the fundamental law of the categorical imperative. For the German philosopher, pure practical reason was able to provide grounding for a “principle that is universalizing” that made morality a universal law. This was an important development in the history of philosophy and morality because it allowed one to shift away from dogmatic reason into one involving categorical imperatives and universals, that could be inferred without transgressions. It follows that for Kant, the categorical imperative had a very important role to play in the development of his subsequent philosophical works, including the Critique of Pure Reason that came some years later. It is due in part to his work on morality—and in particular that of the categorical imperative—that Kant came to show how universal laws apply to man. Criticisms of his moral imperative—which some like Constant suggest were based on the Golden Rule—do not adequately assess the underlying imperatives that make morality universal for Kant. Though the critique posited by Constant offers some measure of reconciling morality with rational choice, it does not disprove Kant’s original categorical imperative. When determining as Kant suggests if an “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,” the philosopher brought into the fold a way of looking at morality according to universals.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel (1993) [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Hackett. p. 30 Rawls, J. (1980). Kantian constructivism in moral theory. The journal of philosophy, 77(9), 515-572.

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