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.