Categorical imperative

Categorical imperative

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The Categorical Imperative is the central philosophical
Philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 concept in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....

, as well as modern deontological ethics
Deontological ethics
Deontological ethics or deontology is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as "duty" or "obligation" or "rule" -based ethics, because rules "bind you to your duty"...

. Introduced in Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, it may be defined as a way of evaluating motivations for action.

According to Kant, human beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in one ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. He defined an imperative as any proposition that declares a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary
Logical possibility
A logically possible proposition is one that can be asserted without implying a logical contradiction. This is to say that a proposition is logically possible if there is some coherent way for the world to be, under which the proposition would be true...

.

Hypothetical imperative
Hypothetical imperative
A hypothetical imperative, originally introduced in the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant, is a commandment of reason that applies only conditionally:...

s compel actions in given circumstances:
  • if I wish to quench my thirst, I must drink something;
  • if I wish to acquire knowledge, I must learn.

A categorical imperative, on the other hand, denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation:
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."


Kant expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the popular moral philosophy of his day, believing that it could never surpass the level of hypothetical imperatives: a utilitarian says that murder is wrong because it does not maximize good for the greatest number of people, but this is irrelevant to people who are concerned only with maximizing the positive outcome for themselves. Consequently, Kant argued, hypothetical moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as bases for moral judgments against others, because the imperatives on which they are based rely too heavily on subjective considerations. He presented a deontological moral system, based on the demands of the categorical imperative, as an alternative.

Nature of the concept


The capacity that underlies deciding what is moral is called pure practical reason
Pure practical reason
Pure practical reason is the opposite to impure practical reason and appears in Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.It is the reason that drives actions without any sensible incentives...

, which is contrasted with pure reason (the capacity to know) and mere practical reason
Practical reason
In philosophy, practical reason is the use of reason to decide how to act. This contrasts with theoretical reason , which is the use of reason to decide what to believe. For example: agents use practical reason to decide whether to build a telescope, but theoretical reason to decide which of two...

 (which allows us to interact with the world in experience). Hypothetical imperative
Hypothetical imperative
A hypothetical imperative, originally introduced in the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant, is a commandment of reason that applies only conditionally:...

s tell us which means best achieve our ends. They do not, however, tell us which ends we should choose. The typical dichotomy in choosing ends is between ends that are 'right' (e.g., helping someone) and those that are 'good' (e.g., enriching oneself). Kant considered the 'right' superior to the 'good'; to him, the 'good' was morally irrelevant. In Kant's view, a person cannot decide whether conduct is 'right,' or moral, through empirical means. Such judgments must be reached a priori, using pure practical reason.

Reason, separate from all empirical experience, can determine the principle according to which all ends can be determined as moral. It is this fundamental principle of moral reason that is known as the categorical imperative. Pure practical reason in the process of determining it dictates what ought to be done without reference to empirical contingent factors. This is the sense in which Kant's meta-ethical
Meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

 position is objectivist
Moral objectivism
Moral objectivism may refer to:* Robust moral realism, the meta-ethical position that ethical sentences express factual propositions about robust or mind-independent features of the world, and that some such propositions are true....

 rather than subjectivist. Moral questions are determined independent of reference to the particular subject posing them. It is because morality is determined by pure practical reason rather than particular empirical or sensuous factors that morality is universally valid. This moral universalism
Moral universalism
Moral universalism is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality, or any other distinguishing feature...

 has come to be seen as the distinctive aspect of Kant's moral philosophy and has had wide social impact in the legal and political concepts of human rights
Human rights
Human rights are "commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being." Human rights are thus conceived as universal and egalitarian . These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in both national...

 and equality
Social equality
Social equality is a social state of affairs in which all people within a specific society or isolated group have the same status in a certain respect. At the very least, social equality includes equal rights under the law, such as security, voting rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and the...

.

Freedom and autonomy


Kant viewed the human individual as a rationally self-conscious being with "impure" freedom of choice:

The faculty of desire in accordance with concepts, insofar as the ground determining it to action lies within itself and not in its object, is called a faculty to "do or to refrain from doing as one pleases". Insofar as it is joined with one's consciousness of the ability to bring about its object by one's action it is called choice (Willkür); if it is not joined with this consciousness its act is called a wish. The faculty of desire whose inner determining ground, hence even what pleases it, lies within the subject's reason is called the will (Wille). The will is therefore the faculty of desire considered not so much in relation to action (as choice is) but rather in relation to the ground determining choice in action. The will itself, strictly speaking, has no determining ground; insofar as it can determine choice, it is instead practical reason itself.

Insofar as reason can determine the faculty of desire as such, not only choice but also mere wish can be included under the will. That choice which can be determined by pure reason is called free choice. That which can be determined only by inclination (sensible impulse, stimulus) would be animal choice (arbitrium brutum). Human choice, however, is a choice that can indeed be affected but not determined by impulses, and is therefore of itself (apart from an acquired proficiency of reason) not pure but can still be determined to actions by pure will.

- Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 6:213-4



For a will to be considered "free", we must understand it as capable of affecting causal power without being caused to do so. But the idea of lawless free will
Free will
"To make my own decisions whether I am successful or not due to uncontrollable forces" -Troy MorrisonA pragmatic definition of free willFree will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. The existence of free will and its exact nature and definition have long...

, that is, a will acting without any causal structure, is incomprehensible. Therefore, a free will must be acting under laws that it gives to itself.

Although Kant conceded that there could be no conceivable example of free will, because any example would only show us a will as it appears to us — as a subject of natural laws — he nevertheless argued against determinism
Determinism
Determinism is the general philosophical thesis that states that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. There are many versions of this thesis. Each of them rests upon various alleged connections, and interdependencies of things and...

. He proposed that determinism is logically inconsistent: The determinist claims that because A caused B, and B caused C, that A is the true cause of C. Applied to a case of the human will, a determinist would argue that the will does not have causal power and that something outside the will causes the will to act as it does. But this argument merely assumes what it sets out to prove: viz. that the human will is part of the causal chain.

Secondly, Kant remarks that free will is inherently unknowable. Since even a free person could not possibly have knowledge of their own freedom, we cannot use our failure to find a proof for freedom as evidence for a lack of it. The observable world could never contain an example of freedom because it would never show us a will as it appears to itself, but only a will that is subject to natural laws imposed on it. But we do appear to ourselves as free. Therefore he argued for the idea of transcendental freedom — that is, freedom as a presupposition of the question "what ought I to do?" This is what gives us sufficient basis for ascribing moral responsibility: the rational and self-actualizing power of a person, which he calls moral autonomy: "the property the will has of being a law unto itself."

Good will, duty, and the categorical imperative


Since considerations of the physical details of actions are necessarily bound up with a person's subjective preferences, and could have been brought about without the action of a rational will, Kant concluded that the expected consequences
Consequentialism
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct...

 of an act are themselves morally neutral, and therefore irrelevant to moral deliberation. The only objective basis for moral value would be the rationality of the good will, expressed in recognition of moral
Moral
A moral is a message conveyed or a lesson to be learned from a story or event. The moral may be left to the hearer, reader or viewer to determine for themselves, or may be explicitly encapsulated in a maxim...

 duty.

Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the moral law set by the categorical imperative. Because the consequences of an act are not the source of its moral worth, the source must be the maxim
Maxim (philosophy)
A maxim is a ground rule or subjective principle of action; in that sense, a maxim is a thought that can motivate individuals.- Deontological ethics :...

 under which the act is performed, irrespective of all aspects or faculties of desire. Thus, an act can have moral content if, and only if, it is carried out solely with regard to a sense of moral duty; it is not enough that the act be consistent with duty, it must be carried out in the name of fulfilling a duty.

The First Formulation


From this step, Kant concludes that a moral proposition that is true must be one that is not tied to any particular conditions, including the identity of the person making the moral deliberation. A moral maxim must have universality
Universality (philosophy)
In philosophy, universalism is a doctrine or school claiming universal facts can be discovered and is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In certain religions, universality is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe...

, which is to say that it must be disconnected from the particular physical details surrounding the proposition, and could be applied to any rational being. This leads to the first formulation of the categorical imperative:
  • "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction."


Kant divides the duties imposed by this formulation into two subsets:

Perfect duty


According to his reasoning, we first have a perfect duty not to act by maxims that result in logical contradictions when we attempt to universalize them. The moral proposition A: "It is permissible to steal" would result in a contradiction in conceivability. The notion of stealing presupposes the existence of property, but were A universalized, then there could be no property, and so the proposition has logically negated itself.

In general, perfect duties are those that are blameworthy if not met, as they are a basic required duty for a human being.

Imperfect duty


Second, we have imperfect duties, which are still based on pure reason, but which allow for desires in how they are carried out in practice. Since these depend somewhat on the subjective preferences of humankind, this duty is not as strong as a perfect duty, but it is still morally binding. As such, unlike perfect duties, you do not attract blame should you not complete an imperfect duty but you shall receive praise for it should you complete it, as you have gone beyond the basic duties and taken duty upon yourself.
Imperfect duties are circumstantial, meaning simply that you could not reasonably exist in a constant state of performing that duty. This is what truly differentiates between perfect and imperfect duties, because imperfect duties are those duties that are never truly completed. A particular example provided by Kant is the imperfect duty to cultivate one's own talents.

The Second Formulation



Every rational action must set before itself not only a principle, but also an end. Most ends are of a subjective kind, because they need only be pursued if they are in line with some particular hypothetical imperative that a person may choose to adopt. For an end to be objective, it would be necessary that we categorically pursue it.

The free will is the source of all rational action. But to treat it as a subjective end is to deny the possibility of freedom in general. Because the autonomous will is the one and only source of moral action, it would contradict the first formulation to claim that a person is merely a means to some other end, rather than always an end in themselves.

On this basis, Kant derives second formulation of the categorical imperative from the first.

By combining this formulation with the first, we learn that a person has perfect duty not to use the humanity of themselves or others merely as a means to some other end. As a slaveowner
Slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 would be effectively asserting a moral right to own a person as a slave, they would be asserting a property right in another person. But this would violate the categorical imperative because it denies the basis for there to be free rational action at all; it denies the status of a person as an end in themselves. One cannot, on Kant's account, ever suppose a right to treat another person as a mere means to an end.

The second formulation also leads to the imperfect duty to further the ends of ourselves and others. If any person desires perfection in themselves or others, it would be their moral duty to seek that end for all people equally, so long as that end does not contradict perfect duty.

The Third Formulation



Because a truly autonomous will would not be subjugated to any interest, it would only be subject to those laws it makes for itself — but it must also regard those laws as if they would be bound to others, or they would not be universalizable, and hence they would not be laws of conduct at all. Thus Kant presents the notion of the hypothetical Kingdom of Ends
Kingdom of Ends
The Kingdom of Ends is a thought experiment in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It is regularly discussed in relation to Kant's moral objectivist theory and its application to ethics and philosophy in general...

 of which he suggests all people should consider themselves both means and ends.

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means"
We ought to act only by maxims that would harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends. We have perfect duty not to act by maxims that create incoherent or impossible states of natural affairs when we attempt to universalize them, and we have imperfect duty not to act by maxims that lead to unstable or greatly undesirable states of affairs.

Normative interpretation


Although Kant was intensely critical of the use of examples as moral yardsticks, because they tend to rely on our moral intuitions (feelings) rather than our rational powers, this section will explore some interpretations of the categorical imperative for illustrative purposes.

Deception



Kant asserted that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance. In Grounding, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back. The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty). With lying, it would logically contradict the reliability of language. If it is universally acceptable to lie, then no one would believe anyone and all truths would be assumed to be lies. The right to deceive could also not be claimed because it would deny the status of the person deceived as an end in itself. The theft would be incompatible with a possible kingdom of ends. Therefore, Kant denied the right to lie or deceive for any reason, regardless of context or anticipated consequences.

Theft


Kant argued that any action taken against another person to which he or she could not possibly consent is a violation of perfect duty interpreted through the second formulation. If a thief were to steal a book from an unknowing victim, it may have been that the victim would have agreed, had the thief simply asked. However, no person can consent to theft, because the presence of consent would mean that the transfer was not a theft. Because the victim could not have consented to the action, it could not be instituted as a universal law of nature, and theft contradicts perfect duty.

Suicide


Kant applied his categorical imperative to the issue of suicide in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, writing that:

Laziness


Kant also applies the categorical imperative in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals on the subject of "failing to cultivate one's talents." He proposes a man who if he cultivated his talents could bring many goods, but he has everything he wants and would prefer to enjoy the pleasures of life instead. The man asks himself how the universality of such a thing works. While Kant agrees that a society could subsist if everyone did nothing, he notes that the man would have no pleasures to enjoy, for if everyone let their talents go to waste, there would be no one to create luxuries that created this theoretical situation in the first place. Not only that, but cultivating one's talents is a duty to oneself. Thus, it is not willed to make laziness universal, and a rational being has imperfect duty to cultivate its talents. Kant concludes in Grounding:
...he cannot possibly will that this should become a universal law of nature or be implanted in us as such a law by a natural instinct. For as a rational being he necessarily wills that all his faculties should be developed, inasmuch as they are given him for all sorts of possible purposes.

Charity


Kant's last application of the categorical imperative in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals is of charity. He proposes a fourth man who finds his own life fine but sees other people struggling with life and who ponders the outcome of doing nothing to help those in need (while not envying them or accepting anything from them). While Kant admits that humanity could subsist (and admits it could possibly perform better) if this were universal, he states in Grounding:
But even though it is possible that a universal law of nature could subsist in accordance with that maxim, still it is impossible to will that such a principle should hold everywhere as a law of nature. For a will that resolved in this way would contradict itself, inasmuch as cases might often arise in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others and in which he would deprive himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he wants for himself.

Cruelty to animals


Kant derived a prohibition against cruelty to animals as a violation of a duty in relation to oneself. According to Kant, man has the imperfect duty to strengthen the feeling of compassion, since this feeling promotes morality in relation to other human beings. But, cruelty to animals deadens the feeling of compassion in man. Therefore, man is obliged not to tmnm m m m m m mreat animals brutally (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, § 17).
Although actions with respect to non-rational agents do not have intrinsic moral content,

The Golden Rule


It is often said that the Categorical Imperative is the same as The Golden Rule
Ethic of reciprocity
The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a maxim, ethical code, or moralitythat essentially states either of the following:* : One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself....

. In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant states that what he is saying is not the same as the Golden Rule; that the Golden Rule is derived from the categorical imperative with limitations. Under the Golden Rule many things cannot be universal. A criminal on the grounds of the Golden Rule could dispute with judges or a man could refuse to give to charity, both of which are incompatible under the universality of the categorical imperative. Kant makes this point when arguing that a man who purposefully breaks a promise is immoral.

The golden rule is clearly not identical to Kant's categorical imperative (taken as a whole). Nevertheless, some authors do recognize the parallel between the two ethical frameworks. For instance, in his book 'The Fair Society', Peter Corning suggests that "Kant's objection to the Golden Rule is especially suspect because the categorical imperative (CI) sounds a lot like a paraphrase, or perhaps a close cousin, of the same fundamental idea. In effect, it says that you should act toward others in ways that you would want everyone else to act toward others, yourself included (presumably). Calling it a universal law does not materially improve on the basic concept." Corning adds that the "well-known economist and game theorist Ken Binmore (who claims to have read almost everything Kant wrote), comes to the same conclusion." Perhaps the clearest and strongest parallel can be drawn between the Golden rule (see [i] below) and the first formulation of Kant's CI (see [ii] below). His second and third formultions do not correlate as well with the Golden rule.

[i] The ancient 'Golden Rule': everyone should act as they would wish everyone else to act.

[ii] Kant's first formulation of his CI: "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

Inquiring murderer


One of the first major challenges to Kant's reasoning came from the French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 philosopher Benjamin Constant
Benjamin Constant
Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque was a Swiss-born French nobleman, thinker, writer and politician.-Biography:...

, who asserted that since truth telling must be universal, according to Kant's theories, one must (if asked) tell a known murderer the location of his prey. This challenge occurred while Kant was still alive, and his response was the essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives (sometimes translated On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns). In this reply, Kant agreed with Constant's inference, that from Kant's premises one must infer a moral duty not to lie to a murderer.

Kant denied that such an inference indicates any weakness in his premises: not lying to the murderer is required because moral actions do not derive their worth from the expected consequences. He claimed that because lying to the murderer would treat him as a mere means to another end, the lie denies the rationality of another person, and therefore denies the possibility of there being free rational action at all. This lie results in a contradiction in conceivability and therefore the lie is in conflict with duty.

Questioning autonomy


Schopenhauer's criticism of the Kantian philosophy expresses doubt concerning the absence of egoism
Egotism
Egotism is "characterized by an exaggerated estimate of one's intellect, ability, importance, appearance, wit, or other valued personal characteristics" – the drive to maintain and enhance favorable views of oneself....

 in the Categorical Imperative. Schopenhauer claimed that the Categorical Imperative is actually hypothetical and egotistical, not categorical. Kierkegaard believed Kantian autonomy was insufficient and that, if unchecked, people tend to be lenient in their own case, either by not exercising the full rigor of the moral law or by not properly disciplining themselves of moral transgressions:

The Eichmann Trial


In 1961, discussion of the categorical imperative included the trial of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Otto Eichmann was a German Nazi and SS-Obersturmbannführer and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust...

 in Jerusalem.

As Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt was a German American political theorist. She has often been described as a philosopher, although she refused that label on the grounds that philosophy is concerned with "man in the singular." She described herself instead as a political theorist because her work centers on the fact...

 wrote in her book on the trial, Eichmann declared "with great emphasis that he had lived his whole life ... according to a Kantian definition of duty." Arendt considered this so "incomprehensible on the face of it" that it confirmed her sense that he wasn't really thinking at all, just mouthing accepted formulae, thereby establishing his banality.

Judge Raveh asked Eichmann whether he thought he had really lived according to the categorical imperative during the war. Eichmann acknowledged he did not "live entirely according to it, although I would like to do so."

Deborah Lipstadt
Deborah Lipstadt
Deborah Esther Lipstadt, Ph.D. is an American historian and author of the book Denying the Holocaust and The Eichmann Trial. She is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University...

, in her book on the trial, takes this as evidence that evil is not banal, but is in fact self-aware. "Eichmann had acknowledged that he understood the implications of what he was doing but continued to obey his orders [not his Kantian duty] nonetheless."

See also

  • Ethics
    Ethics
    Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

  • The Ethic of reciprocity
    Ethic of reciprocity
    The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a maxim, ethical code, or moralitythat essentially states either of the following:* : One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself....

     or "The Golden Rule"
  • Generalization (logic)
    Generalization (logic)
    In mathematical logic, generalization is an inference rule of predicate calculus. It states that if \vdash P has been derived, then \vdash \forall x \, P can be derived....

  • Generalization error
    Generalization error
    The generalization error of a machine learning model is a function that measures how far the student machine is from the teacher machine in average over the entire set of possible data that can be generated by the teacher after each iteration of the learning process...

  • Hasty generalization
    Hasty generalization
    Hasty generalization is a logical fallacy of faulty generalization by reaching an inductive generalization based on insufficient evidence essentially making a hasty conclusion without considering all of the variables...

  • Kantianism
    Kantianism
    Kantianism is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher born in Königsberg, Prussia . The term Kantianism or Kantian is sometimes also used to describe contemporary positions in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.-Ethics:Kantian ethics are deontological, revolving entirely...


External links