In his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, philosopher Immanuel Kant gives a succinct definition of his basis for morals, which he calls the categorical imperative. Kant states “There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” This becomes the foundational element of his entire system of morals.
Kant provides example situations which are designed to illustrate the application of the categorical imperative. One instance describes a man who sees someone in need but declines to offer aid. Kant says such a situation would not be moral. The reasons he gives are not on the grounds of a wrong committed against the other person, but because the action cannot be applied universally. Kant maintains that sooner or later we would all need aid, and would then if the maxim were applied categorically, we would all be denied the aid we needed. However, since actions are only considered wrong because they must be applied categorically and not because they violate God’s law, result in pain to someone, or violate their rights, then it could very well be that a society could develop which holds that helping anyone in a time of aid would be considered detrimental to the long-term success of a society. If helping those in need were to be considered weakness or violating natural selection, then no one should receive help. Thus even if anyone in the society were to desire aid, including ourselves, it would be a categorical imperative that we not render aid to anyone. Such a maxim of ignoring those who are suffering is perfectly rational and meets the categorical imperative, and if the categorical imperative is applied consistently, it violates no reason or logic. But it does violate the universal moral law engrained on human hearts, which is in actuality why everyone, including Kant, finds it morally reprehensible. Kant’s application of the categorical imperative here is inconsistent, apparently only due to his inability to view situations apart from his largely Christian cultural perspective.
Thus the system Kant describes worked for Kant because he lived in a time that had the benefits of an overall Christian worldview. If applied to a system of complete absence from a theistic moral perspective, Kant’s categorical imperative becomes quite immoral.
[Note: I had a different post that expands on the concepts in this one. I am posting it below.]
Kant’s Explanation for Morality
In his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, philosopher Immanuel Kant gives a definition of his basis for morals, which he calls the categorical imperative. Kant states “There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” A second statement is given as support: “act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.” Kant goes to great lengths to say that morality cannot be based on self-interest, for self-interests are vague and based on biased human perceptions which cannot be trusted nor applied universally. Rather, according to Kant, morality is based on a pure application of the categorical imperative to all situations and all people universally. Whether knowingly or not, many modern people hold to a very similar viewpoint, believing that things are only “moral” if they can be applied to universal well-being of the specie.
Kant’s teachings of morals are beset with several problems, as are the modern viewpoints. His attempt to apply morals from a rigorous and logically consistent approach based in pure reason results in some unusual conclusions. For example, Kant gives an interesting explanation of the categorical imperative: “This imperative is categorical. It has to do not with the matter of the action and what is to result from it, but with the form and the principle from which the action itself follows; and the essentially good in the action consists in the disposition, let the result be what it may.[sic]” It is an odd system indeed that defines morality as rational consistency alone and is not the least concerned with subject matter, nor whether or not the actions are aimed at some empirical end, nor whether the actions result in any benefit to a human. Kant can say that any results are fine as long as we have the correct logical form and principle and have applied them universally. Similarly, modern people tend to hold that all actions are moral if they can somehow be said to enhance survival.
Kant’s viewpoint from the Christian moral and cultural perspective appears to have influenced the way he applies the categorical imperative. He holds that all humans, even the most hardened scoundrels, if their reasoning were logical, would choose honesty, steadfastness, sympathy, and general benevolence. He goes on to say that “fidelity of promises and benevolence from basic principles (not from instinct) have an inner worth.” Why? Does Kant not say that morality comes from pure reason as an end in itself? With Kant’s first principles being pure rationality, how then do fidelity and benevolence have an inner worth? Kant’s statements appear to be laced with statements drawn from a culture that is heavily influenced by a Christian perspective, one that a radical postmodern relativist would not hold. Likewise, many modern atheists’ view of morals appear to be drawn from a cultural perspective heavily laced with Christian morals.
What if the categorical imperative is applied in another culture or circumstance? What if the humans involved are totally depraved? In Nazi Germany, the leaders held, and the population ultimately believed and accepted, that Jewish people were detrimental to society and should therefore be exterminated. Such a principle can be applied logically and categorically. If the Nazi beliefs are true, then one truly ought to exterminate all Jews. If the premise were true and one were a Jew, it would only be rational to agree with this conclusion, and will one’s own death. In fact, if one were Jewish, one ought to will this, no matter what the desire for self-preservation might motivate us. But Kant (and the rest of us) are repulsed by the idea, and rightfully so.
Modern application of social contract and instinct as explanations for morals are equally inadequate. For the situation above fits with explanations of instinct, social contract, and learned behavior, and thus fits with the atheists’ models of the development of morals. But deep down, we all know that such things are wrong, and things “ought” to be different.
Therefore the moral argument stands strong, holding that morality is written on our hearts by a moral law giver. And this we call God.