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- Kant’s Categorical Imperative
Kant’s Categorical Imperative
The Universal Rule for Morality
How do we decide if something is right or wrong? Should we care more about the outcome or the intention behind it? Is it okay to do something wrong if it leads to good results? Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century German philosopher, offers an ethical theory that sheds light on these questions. According to Kant, it’s not about the consequences of an action, but how we act based on our sense of duty and what’s morally right. In simpler terms, it’s not the outcomes that matter most, but how we follow our moral principles thoughtfully.
Kant’s ethical perspective stands out because it focuses on duties—what’s right and wrong—rather than simply labeling things as good or bad. Duties tell us exactly what we should or shouldn’t do. If something is right, we’re morally obliged to do it; if it’s wrong, we’re morally obligated to avoid it. This approach is called deontology, derived from the Greek word “deon,” meaning duty or responsibility.
Portrait of Immanuel Kant by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768
Kant introduces a concept called the categorical imperative to assess our actions’ morality. While Kant discusses this principle in three forms, let’s concentrate on the first one: the “Maxim of Universalizability.” In essence, it instructs us to act in a way that could be a rule for everyone worldwide.
Imagine someone who borrows money from a friend, promising repayment even when they know they can’t fulfill it. Is this morally acceptable? To explore, we analyze the universal rule behind it. It might say: “Whenever someone has a need, it’s okay to make false promises to fulfill that need.”
Now, let’s consider the consequences if everyone were to follow this principle whenever they found themselves in need. The result would be an abundance of false promises, to the extent that promises would lose their value and significance. They’d become meaningless. Therefore, this principle cannot stand as a universal rule. As a result, a duty emerges: the duty to refrain from making false promises.
Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.
Remember, when Kant talks about universalization, he’s not asking if a rule for everyone would cause problems. He’s not saying lying is bad just because we wouldn’t like a world where nobody keeps their promises. It’s morally wrong because the rule can’t work for everyone. Why? Because it creates a kind of puzzle. In this case, the puzzle is about promises: they lose their meaning when everyone makes false promises.
We can grasp this with other examples. Think about wanting to take something that isn’t yours. The universal rule for this might be: “I’ll take what I want.” But if everyone followed this, ownership would lose meaning. If nothing belonged to anyone, stealing wouldn’t even make sense. Stealing means taking what belongs to others without permission. This is where the problem lies. You can’t steal if nothing belongs to anyone. So, this rule can’t work for everyone. Thus, we have a duty not to steal.
If the truth shall kill them, let them die.
Kant argued that lying is never acceptable, based on his principle of universalizability: if everyone lied whenever convenient, the concepts of “truth” and “lie” would lose all meaning. This view faced criticism, as many believed there must be exceptions that justify lying.
Kant addressed this by imagining a scenario where your friend, fleeing a would-be killer, hides in your house. When the killer asks if your friend is inside, should you lie? Kant says no. He reasons that outcomes are unpredictable; for instance, if you lie and your friend decides to flee, they might encounter the killer anyway, making you partially responsible for their death.
Thus, for Kant, the moral value of an act isn’t anchored in its outcomes, which are often beyond our control, but in the action’s inherent morality.
Words of wisdom
“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” —Immanuel Kant
“We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” —Emmanuel Kant
“Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” —Immanuel Kant
“Have the courage to use your own reason—That is the motto of enlightenment.” —Immanuel Kant