Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was interested in duty above all else. He disagreed with the utilitarians, who believed the consequences of an act are what count most. He also disagreed that pleasure and happiness count in determining the moral worth of an act. Instead, morality depends on doing your duty.
A Good Will
Kant believed that the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will — that is, willing rightly, willing to do the right thing in every situation. According to Kant, having a good will is important even when one cannot accomplish anything. As you can see, this differs very much from utilitarianism, which states that unless an act has good consequences, it is not good.
According to Kant, even intelligence and courage are not good in themselves; they are good only when they are used in accordance with a good will. After all, a criminal with intelligence and courage is much more dangerous than a criminal who is a fool and a coward.
A famous quotation of Kant’s is this: “Even if it should happen that, by a particularly unfortunate fate or by the niggardly provision of a stepmotherly nature, this will should be wholly lacking in power to accomplish its purpose, and if even the greatest effort should not avail it to achieve anything of its end, and if there remained only the good will (not as a mere wish but as the summoning of all the means of our power), it would sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself.” (Note that at this time stepmothers were sometimes regarded as behaving evilly to their stepchildren — remember the story of Cinderella?)
Actions Based on Impulse
Kant believed that Humankind performs many voluntary actions, only some of which have moral worth. We perform many actions based on impulse; for example, I walk by an ice cream shop, buy an ice cream cone and eat it, then remember that I am on a diet. (Unfortunately, this has really happened to me.)
Another kind of voluntary action is based on hypothetical imperatives. Kant used the word “imperative” to mean “command”; “hypothetical” is used here because the object of our action is something we may or may not desire. Hypothetical imperatives are expressed in the form of “if … then” statements. For example, if you wish to get an A on the philosophy midterm, then you ought to study now and let the pizza parties wait until the weekend. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to do what is necessary to get an A.
The Categorical Imperative
The kind of imperative that is used to decide which actions are right and which actions are wrong is the categorical imperative. By “categorical imperative” Kant meant that this imperative is not dependent on varying conditions and that this imperative commands absolutely and with no exceptions. Kant believed that there is only one categorical imperative, although it can be expressed in three different ways.
The first formulation of the categorical imperative says that you should act only on that principle which you can will should become a universal law. To use the categorical imperative, think about the action you are considering whether to perform, think of a maxim for that action, then test the maxim to see if it is consistent with the categorical imperative. By “maxim,” Kant meant the principle on which we act; as such, it is a candidate for a universal law.
For example, let’s suppose that you need money desperately and that the only way you can acquire that money is to borrow it and make a lying promise that you will pay the money back although you know that you will never be able to do so. The maxim would be this: “When you need money, it’s OK to make a lying promise that you will pay the money back although you know that you will never be able to do so.” Can we will that this maxim become a universal law?
Kant says we can’t. If it were made a universal law, it would contradict itself, because no one would be able to borrow money. If the maxim were made into a universal law and you then wished to borrow money and promised to pay it back, all the possible lenders would laugh in your face.
Universalizability and Reversibility
Kant believed that maxims ought to be tested for universalizability and for reversibility. By “universalizability,” Kant meant that the maxim would apply to everyone. As we have seen, there would be problems if we were to try to make this maxim a universal law. The other term, “reversibility,” means that what you want to do to another person, that person can also do to you. You may be willing to make a lying promise to obtain other people’s money, but are you willing to allow other people to make lying promises to you in order to obtain your money? Of course not.
This maxim did not pass the test for consistency with the categorical imperative and thus the action is immoral. If the maxim had passed the test, the action based on it would be moral.
Treating Other People as Ends, Not Means
Another formulation of the categorical imperative says that you should act in such a way that you treat humanity, including yourself as well as other people, always also as an end and never only as a means.
If you treat another person as a means, then you are using that person. For example, a guy unfortunately might be very nice to a woman, sleep with her, then never call her. In this example, the guy is treating the woman only as a sex object (a means to achieve an orgasm), not as an end (a person valuable in herself).
If you treat other people as ends, then you are treating them as valuable in themselves. For example, you can treat everybody you meet with common courtesy (which, as you probably know, is no longer common). If you see a parent teaching her young child how to cross the street, you can decide to refrain from jaywalking this one time and thus be a role model for the child. You can also refrain from demonstrating power by ordering around servers in a restaurant.
As you can see, our example of making a lying promise to borrow money fails this formulation of the categorical imperative. If you make a lying promise to borrow money, you are using the person you are borrowing from. You are not treating the person as an end; you are treating the person as a means.
Stressing that We are Free and Autonomous
The final formulation of the categorical imperative stresses the autonomy of Humankind. It says that you should act as if the principle of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.
“Autonomy” means “self-legislated.” According to Kant, we use our reason to determine right from wrong. In this formulation of the categorical imperative, Kant states that we should act the way we want other people to act. To me, this is a variation of the Golden Rule.
Examples of Universalizability
When we argue on the basis of universalizability, we argue on the basis of what would happen if everybody did it.
Maxim: I will pirate music.
If everybody pirates music, what would happen? Chances are, less new music will be written. If musicians can’t make a living from their music, they will have to get money from other sources, including jobs that may not allow them enough time to write and perform good music. We see a contradiction here. You make the maxim so that you can pirate music, but when the maxim is universalized, much less music will be created and so you will be able to pirate less music.
Maxim: I will always have an experienced surgeon when I need surgery.
If everyone insists on having an experienced surgeon when they need surgery, what would happen? People would be able to get surgery for a while, but as the experienced surgeons grow old and die, people will not be able to get surgery. We see a contradiction here. You make the maxim so that you can have an experienced surgeon when you need surgery, but when the maxim is universalized, soon you will not be able to have an experienced surgeon when you need surgery. (Fortunately, the first few times a doctor performs surgery, an experienced surgeon is on hand to make sure that everything goes well. That way, new surgeons are trained in a way that is safe for the patient.)
Maxim: I will always buy generic drugs.
If everyone always insists on buying generic rather than brand-name drugs, what would happen? Brand-name drug companies would not be making the profit that would allow them to do the research and development that is necessary to bring new drugs to market. We see a contradiction here. You make the maxim so that you can buy generic drugs, but when the maxim is universalized, you will not be able to buy new generic drugs because the drug companies do not have the money to develop them.
Maxim: I will watch only DVD boxed sets without commercials rather than watch the shows on TV with the commercials.
If everyone insists on watching DVD boxed sets without commercials rather than watching the shows on TV with the commercials, what would happen? Soon, fewer TV programs would be produced because the money from commercials that paid for the TV shows is no longer available. We see a contradiction here. You make the maxim so that you can watch TV shows without commercials, but when the maxim is universalized, fewer TV shows will be created and so there are fewer boxed sets of TV shows for you to watch.
Free Will, Immortality, and God
A final point to make about Kant’s ethic is that he believed that it is rational to believe in free will, immortality, and God. According to Kant, we must have free will in order to be moral. Kant took the moral quest (the quest to always behave morally) seriously, and so he believed in free will.
We also can rationally postulate an afterlife, says Kant. Although we take the moral life seriously and do our best to always act morally, we often fail. In order to achieve the moral perfection we desire, we need more time. This lifetime is not long enough for us to achieve the moral quest and so the time we need to achieve it is given to us in an afterlife.
Finally, Kant believed that the proper relationship between morality and happiness is that if you act morally, then you ought to be happy. Unfortunately, we know that life doesn’t always turn out that way. Drug dealers in Miami make much more money than we do and are probably happier (not in the Aristotelian sense, but in the sense of being able to buy as many sensual pleasures as they desire). Therefore, we can postulate the existence of God, according to Kant. God will be the guarantor of happiness for the moral people in the afterlife.
Note: The quotations by Kant that appear in this essay are from his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Lewis White Beck.
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