A Categorical Imperative is considered by Kant to be a maxim that would be followed by any rational being. There is no "if" involved, they simply are ends in themselves. These imperatives should be followed simply because they are duties. They are a reason for action.

The best known of the Categorical Imperatives are three included in the summary of Kant's Groundwork. H. J. Paton translates them as follows (the comments are my own) -

1. Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a Universal law of nature.

This is known as The Formula of the Law of Nature. It is basically saying that we should attempt to eliminate all self-interest from our action. It is somewhat utilitarian because it is saying we should base our actions on what will benefit the majority of people the most.

2. Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

This is The Formula of the End In Itself. Kant is stating in this that it is never right to treat a human being as simply a means of working towards some end, but always an end in themselves. Kant described humans as "holy" because of this. It can never be right, therefore, to use any group of people for your goals, or to categorise any group as a minority that doesn't matter. This principle upholds the ideal of no discrimination based on creed, gender or age.

3. So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a Kingdom of ends.

This is The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends. Kant imagined that rational agents working to solve problems would all reach at similar rational decisions, so in-effect any rational agent was making a law that would be agreed upon by all. Any disagreement could be solved by rational debate.

Immanuel Kant devised a system of morals based on reason alone, without regard to the empirical world. Using a tool, a system of moral determinism that he called the Categorical Imperative, Kant claimed to be able to negotiate the labyrinth of morality and action using an analytical and reasonable approach. The benefits of this approach are quite numerous, for using this approach anyone would, theoretically, be able to reach the same conclusions again and again regardless of religious, educational, or social background. Kant attempted to elevate the philosophy of morals above that of intuition; in the Categorical Imperative, Kant hoped, lay the path to a scientific approach to the philosophy of morality. However, there are some severe fundamental flaws in Kant’s approach, and, ironically, in his reasoning. The Categorical Imperative can actually be used to determine the immorality of the Imperative itself. Kant’s approach to the issue of morality is not only elitist, but also irresponsible.

Kant has long been accused of being elitist, usually because of his choice of language. Kant tended to invent words and phrases in order to adequately explain his theories and ideas, but in doing so, sometimes caused the alienation of his peers. While his language was ultimately understandable and worthwhile to those who chose to spend the time to master it, it was viewed as dangerous, because it separated the philosophy of morality from those who need to understand it the most: the common person. This, however, is only half correct. Kant is most definitely elitist, and his theories definitely alienate the common person, but for a much deeper and more significant reason that his choice of language.

In order to understand why Kant failed to adequately provide a system of morals, it is important to understand what Kant was attempting to do in the first place. For much of history, morality was determined through two different but similar ways. The first was through education: a child would be taught the lessons of morality by his parents, or by his church, or by the educational institutions of the state. The second method of moral education came through an empirical basis: as a child went through life, he would make discoveries and determine which actions tended to produce the more desirable results. Both of these methods are related by the empirical approach, both being based upon past knowledge of what creates the more desirable results. What Kant hypothesized, and indeed came close to successfully arguing, was that morals should not be based on empirical evidence but on reason alone. In one of the most fundamental passages in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant draws a distinction between acting in accord with duty, and acting from duty.

“To be beneficent where one can is a duty…but I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however dutiful and amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth…deserves praise and encouragement but not esteem; for its maxim lacks the moral content of an action done not from inclination but from duty.” (Kant, 11)

Kant thus differentiates from he who has memorized the actions that morals demand, and he who can determine the morality of an action in and of itself, by using the Categorical Imperative. This is an important distinction, for it demands a person not only act the way he has been taught, but to be able to reason and determine that certain actions have genuine worth, and thus deserve esteem. When one uses the Categorical Imperative, says Kant, they can truly act from duty.

It is here that Kant alienates a large section of the populace. The Categorical Imperative is a tool that demands the user to “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In this way, one can determine, through reason, which action is morally responsible. In the text Metaphysics of Morals, Kant offers four “duties” that illustrate, by willing that a maxim should become a universal law, how the Categorical Imperative can be used to determine the moral worth of an action. These four “duties” present how reason, and only reason, should be used when determining the moral worth of an action. However, the severe limitation of the Categorical Imperative is that it presupposes a populace’s ability to reason; if the Categorical Imperative is the only route to true morality, then a person who takes an action in accord with the Imperative’s conclusions, but does not utilize the Imperative, is not acting from duty. The logical extension is that such a person is, if not immoral, at least amoral. This is a dangerous path for Kant to follow.

Suppose a person is born without the ability to reason. If reason is to be a scientific process, surely there are some people who purely will not be able to reach the same level of scientific conclusion. Perhaps a personality trait, or a lack of intelligence, causes such a person to be unable to reason to the extent that the Categorical Imperative demands. Perhaps this person is a child, or is developmentally challenged. Kant would then say that, because such a person is unable to reason, their actions can have no moral worth, and thus that person will never have the ability of living a moral life. Perhaps this person, who up until now has been living under the moral code of their parents or their church, discovers that they cannot be moral. While Kant does claim that acting in accord with duty is at least “admirable” and at least “deserves praise and encouragement”, this person’s actions are nonetheless not truly moral.

Kant thus runs the risk of alienating a populace that cannot reason to his extent. Once one reaches the conclusion that they are amoral, that is, acting without morals, and that they cannot do anything to change this fact, it is quite possible that they will stop following any moral code at all. A person without moral duty is a very dangerous person, in that there is no reason for them not to act against morality as often as they do in accord with it.

The irony of this situation is that, because of such reasoning, the Categorical Imperative fails its own “Formula of Universal Law”. Suppose Kant were to attempt to follow his own Imperative, and that was his maxim, and as such he willed that it became universal law that all should have as their maxim “one should use the Categorical Imperative to determine the moral worth of an action.” If it were to become universal, then the above-mentioned hypothetical situation would occur, and people who could not reason would not be capable of performing actions with moral worth. They would then have no reason not to perform immoral actions, especially since the person cannot even reason that the actions are immoral. Kant’s own attempt at creating a “Kingdom of Ends]” actually creates a world in which people no longer even try to act moral. Since no philosopher could will that their own moral theory cause a breakdown in the systems of morality, Kant cannot will his Categorical Imperative into Universal Law.

Kant attempted to elevate morality to that of science, but in doing so forgot that morals are a tool for people to use. If people are to be told that they have no hope of ever becoming moral, that they will not be able to even use the tool, then the whole concept of morality is futile. Kant’s presupposition that all people can reason is not a responsible conclusion, but rather is the conclusion of an elitist who felt that morals were only to be available to those who had the privilege of higher thought. While honourable, Kant’s theories are nonetheless dangerous and, ultimately, irrational.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanual. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hacket Publishing Company Inc, 1993.

Hoopy Frood. “Immanuel Kant.” Online Posting. 25. March. 2000

Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory is based around his idea of a Categorical Imperative. That is, moral rules (imperatives) that man must apply in every case (categorical).
He saw the Categorical Imperative as being opposed to a hypothetical imperative. A Hypothetical Imperative is something that tells you what you ought to do if you want to achieve something in the short run. A Categorical Imperative is something which just simply ought to be done. There is no goal in it, it is, according to Kant, the one moral rule to follow.

Kant believed morality had nothing to do with consequences. Rather, it is about the means, and the only moral act, according to Kant, was one performed out of a sense of duty and purely out of a sense of duty. If there was any end in an act for somebody, even if it is the warm feeling one gets after knowing one has done something good for somebody- to Kant, the only moral act was one done with no end in sight for the person performing the act.
Had Kant been alive long enough to know of Utilitarianism, he would have written so much against it, because utilitarianism bases morality totally on consequences, specifically, ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’.

The Categorical Imperative is the rule, says Kant, all other moral rules boil down to (if they truly are moral rules). Kant expressed this rule in two major ways, the First and Second formation. The first formation was the Principle of Universalisability and the second formation was Kant’s principle of treating people as ends in themselves and not purely as means. Firstly, he had the rule of Universalisability. That is, in his own words (but, obviously, translated into the English of his day), ‘act only upon that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become an universal law’. This would seem fairly obvious to most people.
Put in simpler words, it means no man is special, therefore no man has the right to, say, lie. If one man lied, there’d be maybe some people slightly worse off than before, and it would be harder to trust this one man in future, and communication between the man who lied and the person who listened. But applied to the principle of Universalisability, everybody lying would break the whole of society down. Society is based on communication, hence if communication breaks down, society breaks down, and there would be chaos.

Or take the case of one man committing murder. In the case where it’s just the one man, there is a single tragedy but on a world scale it comes to next to nothing of a tragedy. Applied to the principle of Universalisability, if everybody killed everybody, who would remain on the Planet?

Kant’s second formation of the Categorical Imperative was, in his words but, again, translated into the English of his time, ‘so act as to treat Humanity, in thine own person or that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only’. This also seems obvious. Put simply, it means to treat people only as means to you end is immoral. People are people and deserve to be treated as ends in themselves. This is not to say Kant didn’t agree with people being used as means to somebody’s end as well as an end in themselves. What this means is not to treat people ‘as a means only’.

So take the example of a fishmonger. He is needed by the people so they may have their fish. Nobody is treating the fishmonger purely as a means to their end of fish. The fishmonger is a human being, an end in himself, but he is needed so the people may eat fish.
But then take the example of, the capitalist exploitation of the working class, the proletariat. The wealthy upper class treat the working class purely as means to their end, their monies. Kant would find this highly immoral, had he lived to see capitalism. Indeed, as would, and do, most people around the world today.

I am, like almost everyone here, a product of what is called the counter-culture. I naturally distrust authority, and believe in individualism and spontaneity. Appeals to tradition and order make me grit my teeth. I, like almost everyone else who has grown up with a mixture of tales of the 1960s, and movies where the ragtag oddballs show up the arrogant power structure, have an innate distrust of anyone who lays down any type of absolute rule. And yet in certain ways, I consider myself much more conservative than my peers, and discussions of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative are one of the ways this always comes out. The belief that people have the ability to see their actions in terms of universal laws, and that such an ability to universalize your actions is important on a practical and spiritual level, is something that I find very important; but that many of my educated friends think is (paraphrasing loosely), a piece of authoritarian, absolutist nonsense.

And for a long time, I thought about ways to get over this seeming hurdle. And the other day, actually in the middle of a bad headache, and after some experiences that made the matter more pressing, I had a realization about what one of the major misunderstandings of the categorical imperative was.

The categorical imperative is not a rule about the way you should behave. The categorical imperative is a rule about rules.
And this greatly changed my understanding of the theoretical and practical meaning of the categorical imperative. When a person chooses to do something, they are not constrained by the categorical imperative. When someone chooses to do something, and does it because they are following a rule, the rule that they follow, however, is constrained by the categorical imperative. If you have any type of rule to guide you, you have already accepted the validity of rules.

Kant's formation of the categorical imperative was for a rational mind. One of the ways a rational mind can be described is as capable of understanding rules about the world. On the descriptive level, a rational mind understands that various different objects and phenomena are affected by the same laws and processes. A rational prescriptive mind would form prescriptive laws in the same way. It may be theoretically possible to have a rational mind with only a descriptive rationality, with no prescriptive rationality, but I think that the two go together.

Especially, (and this is where much of the anthropological, psychological application of this comes in), people make rules all the time. If there is an intelligence capable of living without prescribing, I have yet to meet it. Much as Hume said about skepticism, living even three hours with total lack of prescriptivity would be too much for anyone. Individuals, groups, societies, and nations are constantly making rules and laws. Most rules that people make don't become formal law. Most rules that people make don't even get spoken. Most societies keep their rules as a constant stream of hints, comments, glares, and tacit approval and disapproval for various behaviors. One of the main reasons that the rules don't get spoken too much, I believe, is once they are spoken, they can be critiqued. What is the basis for the rules that most societies and individuals believe in, but don't always speak?

The first example I thought of was a line from Chris Rock's book: "There's only one thing worse than a 35 year old man still living with his parents, and that's any woman willing to sneak into his room." How would this rule, the rule that adults should be economically independent, turn out when examined with the categorical imperative? This is a simple, even silly example. There are a host of other rules, stated and unstated, that are reversed quickly under the categorical imperative. People are under a constant unspoken barrage of beliefs about how they should live, work, eat, believe, dress, play, and feel. If all of these pressures were laid out clearly, would they pass the test of being universal laws?

I am sympathetic to people who claim that Kant's conception of the categorical imperative denies the deepness and uniqueness of human feeling, that the goals and movement of life is too complex to reduce to an abstract formula. But I find that in many of these cases, the real dislike of Kant's formula might be that it would disintegrate whatever small rules they put together to keep them and their clique in power.

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