In his Groundwork, Immanuel Kant sets himself the task of finding the supreme principle of morality. He defines this as acting in accordance with duty. The duty he has in mind is the categorical imperative, a moral principle which operates along the lines of: act only according to maxims that can at the same time be willed as universal law.
However, because of Kant’s insistence to find the supreme principle a priori – and not rely on any external evidence – this greatly restricts the use of the categorical imperative in terms of actual real-life situations. As this essay will discuss, a purely rational approach would seem to rule out many of the ‘heteronomous’ (non-rational) elements that we encounter in everyday life. It is therefore not clear if the categorical imperative really does distinguish between permissible and impermissible courses of action, even though Kant would insist that this was the case.
We start the analysis them with a closer examination of why the categorical imperative is needed to help us make moral decisions. Because we are creatures that live in both a world of sense (the natural world) and a world of understanding (the rational world), Kant believes we need the force of the categorical imperative to allow us to make correct moral decisions. If the categorical imperative did not exist, we would be too swayed by nature and external inclinations, and we would be unable to ever make correct moral decisions.
On the surface, the categorical imperative is intended to strictly define the nature of permissible and impermissible moral actions. As a result of applying the ‘rule’ that one has formulated from the categorical imperative, you can be totally assured that you are acting morally or not. Kant defines the categorical imperative in at least three ways, however for the purposes of the current post, it does not make a great deal of difference which definition we prefer. I will use the first definition, as indicated earlier: act only according to maxims that can at the same time be willed as universal law.
To see how this rule could be applied, consider the following example: I’m sitting in a restaurant and have noticed the people next to me walking off and leaving a wallet behind on the table. I could easily take the wallet without anybody noticing it, but by doing so, could I will this act as a universal law? The answer is ‘no’. If every person always took another’s property whenever it was in their means to do so, the entire property system would break down, and nobody would trust anybody else. So it is wrong to steal someone else’s property.
This is a fairly clear example of an impermissible action. Kant describes such an example of a ‘perfect duty’. The categorical imperative has provided us with a specific rule that we must obey (‘do not steal the property of other people’).
However, Kant also admits that some rules can’t be as specific as this. All that the categorical imperative can provide is a general principle, and it is up to the individual moral agent to decide how to carry out that principle in practice. Kant refers to these as ‘imperfect duties’. As a result then, not all applications of the categorical imperative can provide us with a simple case of right/wrong. The rule should be seen more as general guidance.
As an example of an imperfect duty, we can consider one of Kant’s own examples. The rule in this case is ‘be benevolent towards other people’. The exact nature of the benevolence cannot be specified in advance, since Kant realises this depends on the nature of the two parties, and the difference in wealth. In some cases, given £10 might be entirely appropriate, while in others, it would be ridiculously trivial.
This example highlights a number of potential problems with Kant’s theory. Firstly, in terms of our main topic, the categorical imperative can’t always provide us with a definitive rule of right and wrong. We need to consider the wider circumstances to determine how the imperfect duty should be carried out – the ‘rational law’ cannot do this for us.
Secondly though, by performing this process of analysis, it seems we contravene one of Kant’s own requirements. Kant is keen that we avoid heteronomous elements, such as relying on external evidence, but how is this possible for imperfect duties? We have no way of carrying out the duty unless we consider the actual facts of the case. We don’t know if £10 is appropriate until we consider the circumstances in which the money was given.
The third problem that arises from this example concerns any feeling of pleasure that the agent might receive in carrying out the benevolent act. In his own example of the philanthropist who spreads his wealth because he enjoys the feeling he gets from making other people happy, Kant concludes that this is not an example of acting in accordance with duty. Simply giving the appearance of abiding by a moral rule is insufficient to satisfy the requirements of the categorical imperative. Instead, we have to consider more closely the ‘maxim’ of the moral agent (the personal volition) to determine whether the agent has acted in accordance with duty.
So this adds another layer on top of Kant’s theory. The categorical imperative doesn’t just give you a ‘rule’ to follow, rather you need to act upon the rule with the appropriate maxim in mind. Finding pleasure in the act is insufficient. According to Kant, you almost need to act reluctantly and find acting in accordance with duty an onerous task. Only then can we be assured that you are acting morally. This seems to introduce a very stringent requirement. Towards the end of the Groundwork, even Kant seems to accept that this could be too strict, so concedes that the agent having some pleasure out of performing the act could be permissible in some cases. However, the pleasure must not be the primary motivation.
Therefore, we have reached the point where we have recognised that the categorical imperative is not just a simple case of giving us a right / wrong rule. There are other factors we need to keep in mind to determine whether we have acted according to duty. Are we able to determine the rule in advance without relying on external evidence? In the case of imperfect duties, we have no choice but to consider the individual circumstances of the case, but are we acting rationally according to Kant?
In addition, we can only be certain of permissible courses of action if we abide by the right maxim when carrying out the action. If our primary motivation was pleasure or wanting to maintain a reputation in business, then even though the action might be permissible, it cannot be said that we were acting in accordance with duty. Kant therefore imposes a difficult system of morality on us, but he might argue that morality itself is a difficult subject, and we should not expect any easy solutions to help resolve our moral dilemmas.