Immanuel Kant is one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy. The influence of his writing is so immense that almost all subsequent authors commented on or alluded to his ideas. At the same time, his texts are often difficult to understand, and beginners can end up being just being more confused after having read them. But because his ideas are so important, it’s worth to know even a single one than none. One of these, central to his outlook on ethics, and one that will be briefly presented here is the categorical imperative.
What is it? When we think about our actions, we notice that there is almost always a reason for why we choose to do something. We drink because we are thirsty, we read novels because we’re interested in the story, we get annoyed because the neighbours are being noisy again. Those are the examples of almost automatic actions – we don’t really think about the reasons involve, but what about moral decisions – those that people tend to debate? Some people choose to be kind because that’s what their parents told them to do, some people choose to help others because they hope they will get something in return. But such “morality” seems shaky – there appears to be no solid reason why one would obey their moral code outside of convenience or someone’s demands.
For Kant this was unacceptable. A true guideline for acting should always apply. There are no exceptions, because if there were, people could just break their moral code whenever they pleased. If we demand, instead, that people always treat others how they wish themselves and everyone else to be treated, then we demand nothing less than a universal rule. And such is Kant’s formulation:
Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 422
All it is saying is that the maxims – the reasons for one’s actions – should be chosen so that they can be made always applicable.
The categorical imperative fits neatly into Kant’s moral system, which revolves around an unquestioning fulfilment of one’s duties. The system was to be ruled by reason, so duties would be universal, not corrupted by people’s individual desires. (p. 434) (It’s worth noting that Kant specifically adds that we should treat humanity as an end, and not a means to an end.)
We can ask whether such a system is truly the right moral system, and we can wonder whether there is any set of rules that can be applied blindly, but one thing remains certain – this world is not a Kantian one. Whether in private or public life, people lie, cheat, and engage in all sorts of cynicism.
Kant’s principled approach stands in contrast with the reality most people know – it is clearly not how we govern ourselves. One can only imagine what an outrage it would be if a Middle-Eastern country decided to invade a Western one. Or what if everyone could establish themselves as legal entities in a tax heaven? Things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sound wonderful, but thinking about Kant’s philosophy, one quickly realizes they’re anything but universal. We live in an inconsistent world, and it’s only logical that we end up in a mess.