Kant’s Ethics (Part 2)

(continued from yesterday’s post.)

4. Hypothetical Imperatives

But what exactly does reason command? We have already seen how reason commands actions given antecedent desires. If we want a new car, then reason tells us the various means to achieve this end. We can save or borrow the money, pray, enter a raffle, call our mother, or steal a car. But whatever we do, reason only tells us how to pursue the end; it does not tell us which ends are worth pursuing. Commands or imperatives of this sort, Kant called hypothetical imperatives, since they depend upon some desires or interests that we happen, hypothetically, to have.

Kant distinguished between two types of hypothetical imperatives. The type we have been discussing so far, what he called “rules of skill,” demand a definite means to a contingent (dependent) end.  There are also what  Kant called “counsels of prudence,” which are contingent means to a definite end. Kant recognized that happiness was a common end or universal goal for all individuals, but that the means to this end was uncertain. For example, we may think that getting a new car or losing weight will make us happy, but when we get the new car or figure we may still be unhappy. Even though the end is definite, the means to the end are not. Thus, there are no universal hypothetical imperatives because either the ends are contingent or the means to the end are uncertain.

5. The Categorical Imperative

Does reason command anything absolutely? In other words, does reason issue any imperatives which do not depend upon contingent ends or un-certain means? Hume had claimed that reason did not command in this way and that any rational commands depend upon our passions. But if absolute commands exist—commands independent of personal taste—then the essence of the moral law is revealed.

If we think about any law—say temporal relativity—we recognize immediately that law is characterized by its universal applicability. So that, if relativity theory is true, then time is relative to motion everywhere through-out the universe. Similarly, the distributive law of mathematics applies no matter what numbers we insert into it or what planet we are on. Mundane physical laws are similar. Suppose we are asked about the post-operative effects of aspirin. We do not know about the anti-clotting effects of aspirin and believe it should be given after operations. In this example, it seems clear that the truth of the matter does not depend upon us; it depends upon laws governing how human bodies respond to aspirin. Kant believed that the moral law was like this. If there really is a reason why killing innocent people is wrong, then the reason applies universally. It doesn’t matter that we want, desire, or like to kill innocent persons; we violate the moral law by doing so.

Of course, we can say that killing innocent people does not violate the moral law just as we can say that time is not relative to motion, that the distributive law works only on Monday, or that aspirin should only be given after operations. But our statements do not affect these laws; rather, the laws determine the truth of our statements. Kant held that a universally applicable moral law governs human behavior and can be discovered by human reason.

Kant had seized upon the idea of universalization as the key to the moral law. He called the first and most famous formulation of the moral law the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” A maxim is a subjective principle of action which reveals our intention. To universalize a maxim is simply to ask, “what if everybody did this?”  We should act according to a principle which we can universalize with consistency or without inconsistency.  By testing the principle of our actions in this way, we  determine if they are moral. If we can universalize our actions without any inconsistency, then they are moral; if we cannot do so, they are immoral. Ponder these simple examples. There is no logical inconsistency in universalizing the maxim, whenever we need a car we will work hard to earn the money. However, there is something inconsistent about universalizing the maxim, whenever we need a car we will steal it.

Kant advanced five formulations of the same imperative. Another famous formulation was: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.” This formulation introduces us to the idea of respect for persons. Individuals are not a means to an end; we should not use people. Instead, they are ends in themselves with their own goals and purposes. Whether we use ourself or others, we violate the imperative if we treat any human being without dignity and respect. Certainly it is true that we all use people to an extent. We use physicians, teachers, nurses, and auto mechanics to get what we want. But there is a difference between paying persons for services and using them merely as a means to your end. In the latter case, we disregard their inherent worth.

6. Perfect and Imperfect Duties

The categorical imperative commands actions in two different ways. It specifically forbids or requires certain actions, and it commands that certain general goals be pursued. The former are called perfect duties, the latter imperfect duties. Perfect duties include: do not lie, do not kill innocent persons, and do not use people. We should never perform these actions! Imperfect duties include: helping others, developing our talents, and treating others with respect. These duties are absolute, but the way we satisfy them varies. There is flexibility in how we help others, treat them with respect, or develop our talents. When we universalize a maxim that violates a perfect duty, we will an inconsistent world. When we universalize a maxim that violates an imperfect duty, we will an unpleasant world.

7. Kant’s Examples

Kant provided four examples—making false promises, committing suicide, developing our talents, and helping others—to demonstrate how the categorical imperative governs human conduct. Consider Kant’s first example, making a false promise. Can we consistently will the principle, “whenever in need of money make a false promise to get it?” We cannot, since a world where everyone acts according to this maxim would be inconsistent. This is easy to demonstrate. In such a world: 1) false promises would be useful because there would be persons to believe them; and 2) false promises would not be useful because, in a short time, nobody would believe them. Such a world is not even possible. On the one hand, it would contain the necessary preconditions for false promises to be successful—people to believe our lies—and, on the other hand, the normal and predictable result of universal false promising would be that no lies would be believed. So it is not just that this world is unpleasant; it is logically impossible!

Consider Kant’s second example. Imagine that we are depressed and con-template suicide. Our principle of action is “whenever we are depressed we will commit suicide.” Now try to universalize a world in which everyone does this. What would it be like? In such a world: 1) people would exist to commit suicide; and 2) people would not exist to commit the suicides they intend. Such a world is not logically possible. On the one hand, it would contain the necessary preconditions of suicide—live people to commit the act—and, on the other hand, the normal and predictable result of universal suicide would be that everyone would be dead. It is easy to think of other examples. Worlds where everyone were killers or bank robbers would be logically impossible in the same way. Kant had demonstrated, at least to his own satisfaction, that these actions were both immoral and irrational!

If we consider the same two actions—making false promises and suicide—in terms of the second formulation of the categorical imperative, we discover that they violate it as well. If we make a false promise to someone, then we use that person as a means to our end. Analogously, if we commit suicide, then we use ourself to achieve some end. When universalization of a maxim is inconsistent or when we use ourself or others, we violate perfect duties. Kant believed that telling the truth and not committing suicide exemplify perfect duties. There are no exceptions to them.

Kant believed we have a moral obligation to develop our talents, which was his third example. Suppose we are comfortable and prefer to indulge ourselves rather than develop our talents. We act according to this maxim: “since we are reasonably well-off, we won’t develop our talents.” Upon reflection, we recognize that failure to develop our talents violates a duty and could not be universalized consistently. For if everyone failed to develop their natural talents, they would not fulfill the purpose for which those talents exist.

Furthermore, he might have added, nothing useful would be accomplished in human society without the development of talent. Yet, Kant never claimed such a world was impossible, unimaginable, or logically inconsistent. Rather, rational persons cannot will this maxim to be a universal law without disastrous and unpleasant results.

Similarly, we have a moral obligation to help others, Kant’s fourth example. Suppose we are prosperous and care little for others. We violate a duty by not helping others, and we cannot universalize the maxim. For we may need the benefit of others in the future. Again, Kant did not say this world was impossible, but he did not think any rational person desired such a world.

If we consider the same two actions—developing our talents and helping others—in terms of the second formulation of the categorical imperative, we discover similar difficulties. When universalization of a maxim has disastrous results or when we fail to treat ourselves and others as ends, we violate imperfect duties. Therefore, developing our talents and helping others are imperfect duties. They are absolute duties, but the specific means by which we satisfy these duties are open.

We may say that the categorical imperative is the formal representation of the moral law to the human mind. It commands human conduct independent of context. Compare the categorical imperative, as an abstract formulation of the moral law, to the distributive law in mathematics. This law states: a(b+c)=ab+ac. As stated, the principle is merely formal and without content. We give it content by putting numbers into the equation. The categorical imperative functions similarly in the moral domain. There, we place the maxim that operates in the moral context (situation) into the formulation to determine what to do. When we want to steal a library book or trash the sidewalk we ask, “what if everybody did this?” Recognizing the negative implications of our maxim, we see how it violates the categorical imperative. Theoretically, we may place any principle into the formulation to determine its morality. Those who do not test their maxim in this manner, turn away from the moral law.

We’ll continue the discussion of Kant tomorrow.

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