Summary of Kants categorical imperative

First, Kant presupposes that there is a moral law. That is, there exists some basis for morality beyond subjective description of it. He then begins with a series of identifications to answer how the moral law possibly gives a pure abstract form of a moral law that will ask if it is really moral. He says the only good thing that exists without qualifications is a good will (or good intentions). Other things may bring goodness, but always with qualifications.

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For example, happiness is a good thing in itself, but if there is a qualification that a happiness could be caused by harming someone, it is no longer good. Or perhaps we could say that someone is very ‘good’ at making money, but this does not necessarily imply overall ‘goodness’ (in the case of Wall Street banks, for example). This is a somewhat circular argument, in that he says that what is inherently ‘good’ (or moral) is a ‘good will’.

He, thus, further defines it as: a good will acts for the sake of duty alone. In other words, a good will does the right thing only for the reason that it is the right thing, and for no other reason. Not for happiness, personal gain, personal inclination, but only because it is ‘the right thing to do’. Kant sees this duty to ‘do the right thing’ as a triumph of reason in the struggle over superstition.

But what is ‘good will’? And how can we know what our ‘duty’ is? And will there be problems with always doing this ‘duty’, no matter the extenuating circumstances? Well, Kant begins to answer these questions with another circular argument, saying that ‘duty’ is when someone acts in accordance with the ‘moral law’.

This does not appear to clear up the confusion at all, if duty is defined by moral law, and vice versa, and we’re back where we started from. Kant continues, however, by proposing a solution in the form of a universal moral law that can be inserted as a sort of formula to determine the correctness of any particular action. This solution is called the ‘categorical imperative’.

The categorical imperative can be basically defined as “Always act so that you can will the rule of your action to be a universal law.” It is ‘categorical’ because it is not ‘hypothetical’ or ‘contingent’ on anything, but is always and everywhere ‘universal’. That is, there is no “if” clause to any moral act, but only the imperative clause (*not: you should do X if Y; but: you should do X!)

It is called an ‘imperative’ because it is a command, not an option. So this means that, for every action you perform, you could potentially create a universal rule based on that action. Your action and the universal rule would be equally true and representative of ‘goodness’, or morality.

The categorical imperative must meet these demands: it must be universal and without restrictions; and it must be reversible. There are no proper names or group distinctions allowed in any context of a moral rule, either to attribute with praise or with blame. There are no unique exceptions, and it can be applied on a universal level to everyone equally. Kant draws four principles from the categorical imperative.

The first is the ‘ends’ principle, that says, “Always treat others, and yourself, as though you were an ‘end’, and never a ‘means’. Basically, don’t use other people!

Secondly, “We must always act under the practical postulate that our will is free.” Don’t make excuses or refuse to act because you think that your actions will not make a difference. It is ‘practical’ because our everyday decisions are borne out as a result of our free will, and because we recognize that our actions result from such practical decisions.

Thirdly, “Always act so that you can regard your own will as making universal law.” This means that when we decide how to act in a given situation and choose the action (with our free, autonomous will), we would want everyone else to act just as we did.

The autonomy of this decision leads to personal responsibility, and excludes any other reason to act that was not from our own free will. For example, if God himself ordered you to do something, and you followed the command, it would not be moral because it was not derived from your own free will. Morality comes only from the decisions you make, and not from decisions that are made for you by others. (For what it’s worth, Kant, like many Enlightenment thinkers, was a Deist, and believed that Reason alone was our most important attribute).

Finally, Kant says that “Human capacity to be a moral agent gives each human dignity.” This dignity gives unconditional worth to every human being. In this last principle, Kant understands that there is the possibility (or ‘capacity’) for anyone to act morally, and describes what this action would look like in practice. It explains why we are hesitant to try to put a value on a person’s life, and why most people would refuse to even attempt such a thing. Money, in this case, would introduce a ‘conditional’ value that is not permitted in Kant’s view.

With these four principles, Kant describes how a moral individual would act using the categorical imperative. If there is to be something called ‘morality’, this is what it would look like according to Kant. If all individuals acted this way in accordance with his

principles, there would result what he calls a “Kingdom of Ends.” In this kingdom, everyone would treat everyone else as an ‘end’ rather than as a ‘means’, and everyone would grant everyone else his own autonomy or free will. This kingdom would be one in which no one gets ‘used’ by anyone else. This is the end-state result of Kant’s morality, and one which he believes would lead to universal peace. If everyone on earth thought the same way as Kant, this might be true.

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