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An Insufficient Impracticality: Kants Categorical Imperative

Jacob Wheeler March 22, 2011 Immanuel Kant Term Paper

Kants categorical imperative is both too impractical and contradictory to ever serve as a sufficient solitary morality. The principle by which Kant demands we test all potential actions, the categorical imperative, is fatally vague and does not account for the potential to contradict itself thereby rendering it an impractical moral practice. This paper will begin with a brief overview of moral theory, an articulation of Kantian morality, and then a demonstration of its many faults. Moral theory is often bisected into two contradicting schools of thought: consequentialism and deontology. As its name would suggest, consequentialism renders judgments of morality with an appeal to the consequences of the action in question. To determine whether an action is right or wrong, agents must examine the goodness or badness of the consequences of that very action. All moral philosophers recognize that, obviously, our actions have consequences; and most would agree that right actions aim at, or result in, goodness in some way. Consequentialism insists, however, that right actions do not merely result in goodness, but that this is what makes them right.1 Rightness, according to consequentialism, is solely a function of producing goodness, or of having good consequences. Of course, different consequentialist theories differ on their conception of goodness, but they all necessarily agree that an action is good if it produces good consequences. Deontology, by contrast, maintains that rightness or wrongness of actions is not determined by an appeal to consequences. Deontology is derived from the Greek , or deontos, meaning as it ought which is an adverb of , or deon, meaning that which is binding, needful, or right.2 As such, deontology maintains that the coincidence of a right action

Wagner, Michael F. An Historical Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991. 2 Liddell, Henry, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1968.

producing good consequences is not what renders it right. For deontologists, once we judge an action to be right, we are morally bound to do it, regardless of its actual ensuing consequences.3 Deontology insists, accordingly, that the rightness of an action must actually take precedent over the possible consequences. While a deontological theory may require that we consider possible consequences, it would not render an action right or wrong based solely upon what would happen if some were to perform it. While different deontologists will disagree on what exactly makes an action right, they will all agree that once it is decided that it is right, than we are morally obligated to do it, regardless of consequences. Kants categorical imperative, while asking us to consider certain potential consequences is a decidedly deontological view. Central to Kantian morality is his notion that adults are autonomous. At the center of Kants Ethical theory is the claim that normal adults are capable of being fully self-governing in moral matters.4 Autonomy, to Kant, involves two components. First, no authority external to ourselves is necessary to inform us of the demands of morality. Moral requirements are imposed by us and upon us so everyone may know, without being told, what they ought to do. Secondly, in self-government, we can effectively control ourselves. These moral requirements we impose upon ourselves must necessarily override all other causes for actions, and may even run counter to our desires, but nevertheless, as we can effectively control ourselves, we have sufficient reason to act as we ought. Kantian morality is based not upon benevolence and goodness, but upon obligation. We impose a moral law on ourselves, a moral law that thus begets an obligation, a necessity, to act in certain ways. A society must not base its morality on the virtues of benevolence and kindness,

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Wagner, Michael F. An Historical Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Guyer, Paul. The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. P, 1993.

for it must, according to Kant, be a society of inequality and servility.5 If nothing is mine except that which is graciously given, I become dependent upon how the donor feels towards me and my independence as an autonomous person becomes threatened. Kant says as much in his own words: Many people take pleasure in doing good actions but consequently do not want to stand under obligations toward others. If one only comes to them submissively they will do everything; they do not want to subject themselves to the rights of people, but to view them simply as objects of their magnanimity. It is not all one under what title I get something. What properly belongs to me must not be accorded to me merely as something I ask for.6 Kant did not deny the moral importance of beneficent action, but his emphasis on obligation and moral necessity is his rejection of paternalism, even benevolently, and the innate servility that necessarily goes with it. Important to the function of the categorical imperative are maxims. A maxim, which Kant defines, in a footnote, as a subjective principle of volition, is a personal plan of action incorporating the reasons for acting as well as a sufficient indication of what act the reasons call for.7 Prior to acting, according to Kant, one must first formulate the proposed action into a maxim. Then one must test it by the categorical imperative. There are two imperatives, two basic laws of rational willing: the hypothetical imperative and the categorical imperative. Kant states the hypothetical imperative thusly: Who wills the end, wills (so far as reason has decisive influence on his actions) also the means which are indispensably necessary and in his power.8 In other words, if I will a certain telos (my use of the term telos is an attempt to remove any ambiguity of the term end which, in English, has

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Guyer, Paul. The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Allen W. Wood. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid.

numerous definitions and meanings) then I should also will whichever means are necessary to achieve that telos. This imperative is hypothetical in that it is conditional: rational agents ought to will the telos if and only if they can also will the means. The categorical imperative is neither conditional nor hypothetical. The categorical imperative states: Act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.9 Kant also formulates the categorical imperative in an articulation supposedly easier to use: Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.10 Rational agents must be able to recast their maxims as universal laws of nature requiring that all people must act as they propose within the specific circumstances. Kant can be interpreted here as proposing a two step testing process for a certain proposed action. Rational agents must first test their proposed action by the hypothetic imperative: if they cannot simultaneously will all the necessary means, then they must abandon the action. Secondly, they must test their action by the categorical imperative. There are two different ways in which a maxim may fail the categorical imperative. The first is if the maxim would contradict itself, if the rational agent cannot even conceive of a universe governed by such a law.11 Kant provides an example of this: I need money. I conceive of asking to borrow such money from a friend with no intention of ever repaying the debt, and so I intent to make a false promise to repay. My maxim may appear: It is permissible to make a false promise to get money I want. I am then to recast this as a universal law of nature, where all people in similar circumstances are moved to make lying promises to get what they want. However, if everyone
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Kant, Immanel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Ibid. 11 Johnson, Robert. Kants Moral Philosophy. Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008.
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were to begin lying, it would become, quickly, rather obvious and therefore, people would cease to believe promises. But in a world where no promises were trusted it would cease to be rational to try to use a promise in this way. Thus, I cannot coherently conceive of a world where my maxim is a universal law of nature. Therefore I cannot act upon it. The second manner in which a maxim may fail the categorical imperative is if the rational agent could not will the world that would result from such a universal law.12 Kant provides, also, an example for this: If I was walking and I ignored someone collapsed in the street and decide not to help him, my maxim may be this: It is permissible to ignore those in need of help as to not interfere with my plans. Now Kant claims that while I could coherently conceive of a world of people indifferent to the distress of others, I could not will this world to be. As a rational agent, I must be able to will the means to my teloi (plural of telos). The assistance of others is often just such means, and so it would be irrational to exclude the help of others when I need it. If I universalize my maxim then I will be willing that no one help others in need. So I will at the same time be willing that others help me and that no one help each other. This cannot be and so I cannot act on this maxim. So, to test via the categorical imperative, rational agents must first formulate a maxim that enshrines the reason for acting as proposed. Second, they must recast that maxim as a universal law of nature. Third, they must consider if they can coherently conceive of a world governed by this maxim. And if they can, they must ask themselves whether or not they could rationally will to act on their maxim in such a world. If they can, then the action is morally permissible. My two charges of accusation against the categorical imperative are vagueness and self contradiction, and I shall demonstrate them in that order. The act of formulating a maxim which
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Johnson, Robert. Kants Moral Philosophy.

encompasses the reasons for acting requires further elucidation. There are a nigh infinite number of maxims one could formulate to encapsulate a proposed plan of action; which one ought we to recast as a universal law? The specificity of a maxim can greatly affect the outcome of that recasting process. Let us look at an example: I am walking into church one Sunday morning; I open the door. As I do so, I see behind me an elderly woman walking with two canes but I wish to not hold open the door. There are far too many manners in which I could formulate a maxim to encompass this decision. 1) Not helping those who need assistance. 2) Not holding a door for following pedestrians 3) Not holding a door for following elderly individuals 4) Not holding a door for someone entering churchetcI could continue nigh ad infinitum becoming more and more specific about when I was not holding the door, or for whom. Kant does not specify how we are to formulate our maxims, and with an extensive number of possibilities, for the categorical imperative to be practical, this must be decided. I mentioned that the specificity of a maxim can greatly affect the process of universalizing it. Let us examine, in the above scenario, maxims 1 and 2. I can coherently conceive of a world governed by the first maxim, but I could not will that it become a universal law. This is similar to the example provided by Kant actually. As I often require the assistance of others, I cannot rationally will that people ignore others who are in need of assistance. So according to the categorical imperative, it is not right to ignore her and I ought to assist the elderly woman and hold open the door. However, if I were to formulate my maxim by the second permutation the consequences would change diametrically. This maxim would not defeat itself in application and so I can coherently conceive of a world that was governed by a law that moved people to not hold open a

door for those behind them. Furthermore, I could also will that such a maxim became a universal law of nature. Granted it would be trivially cruel, but I could will this triviality to be. Thus, according to the categorical imperative I am permitted to ignore the elderly woman and not for her hold open the door. Here, then, is a situation in which the categorical imperative, according to its own mandates and rules of conduct had permitted and denied the same action. The categorical imperative needs more information and detail concerning the formulation of maxims. In a similar vein, the categorical imperative, even without different formulations of a particular maxim, has the potential to contradict itself. A single maxim is often not encompassing enough to adequately settle all possible moral ramifications of a single scenario. Let us consider another example: I am walking down the street and a gentleman stops me to ask a question. Where is the nearest bank? he asks, I am planning on robbing it. I have to decide whether or not I should give him this information, so I turn to the categorical imperative. I formulate the maxim: facilitating illegal and likely harmful actions. This action passes the hypothetical imperative as I can easily will the means to give him the information. This maxim may even pass the initial test of coherent conceivability. But I, as a rational agent, cannot will that everyone help facilitate illegal and harmful actions, and so it fails the categorical imperative. I cannot act on this; I cannot give him this information. And yet, let us consider a different maxim, not just a different formulation of the previous maxim: assisting those who ask for it at little to no inconvenience to me. This, again, passes the hypothetical imperative. I can coherently conceive of a world governed by a law that moves all people to assist those who ask for help if it does not inconvenience them. I can, also, certainly will to act on such a maxim in a world governed by it: it would be a fine world of courtesy

indeed. So it passes the categorical imperative and I am obligated to provide him with the information. Once again, the categorical imperative has contradicted itself. If one maxim was to take precedent over the other, or over all others, Kant was silent on how to decide between the two. Suppose we are to not perform any action that violates any maxim formulated to encapsulate it. This, unfortunately, would be imminently impractical as we cannot consider all the possible maxims, as there are almost an infinite number of possibilities. Kants categorical imperative is a laudable step towards an objective universal morality, but to succeed as a definitive method by which rational agents may decide which actions are right and which actions are wrong, it is severely lacking. Kant may have laid the foundation but neglected important further clarification and elucidation. The categorical imperative, by virtue of its vagueness, fails as a moral code.