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.” To Kant, this categorical imperative is based purely in a priori reasoning. Kant’s system denies all morals based on anything empirical, claiming that everything empirical is unable to add anything to morality, and “is not only quite inept for this; it is also highly prejudicial to the purity of morals.” He explains that anything added to a priori reasoning is unneeded, saying that virtue is “nothing other than to present morality stripped of any admixture of the sensible and of any spurious adornments of reward or self-love.
He maintains that not even the end result of a moral system should be in any benefit to a person, saying that there is nothing that humans provide that nature could not, and that the worth of one’s actions does not come from the results that arises from them. Keeping promises and showing benevolence bring no worth in themselves or in any results that they bring. Rather, morality comes from logical consistency applied by the will in universal (categorical) circumstances.
Kant grounds his system in pure rationality. He holds that the basis for the categorical imperative, and therefore for all morals, is rationality as an end in itself. Pure rationality is the first principle of his system, held to be a universal law. He holds that morality comes from reason, speaking of “the mere dignity of humanity as rational nature, without any other end or advantage to be attained by it – hence respect for a mere idea . . . it is just in this independence of maxims from all such incentives that their sublimity exists. . . Morality is thus the relation of actions to the autonomy of the will.” He can then maintain that “I ought to try to further the happiness of others, not as if its existence were of any consequence to me . . . but simply because a maxim that excludes this cannot be included as a universal law in one and the same volition.” Therefore Kant’s moral system is not ultimately based in an effort to treat the other person correctly or anyone’s happiness or human rights, but in the pure rational consistency of the categorical imperative, with a grounding in pure reason, with reason as an end in itself and reason providing the worth of the morals.
Kant’s teachings of morals are beset with several problems. His attempt to apply morals from a rigorous and logically consistent approach based in pure reason results in some unusual conclusions. Kant’s morality is based upon the interest of no individual or group. 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.
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 conclusions drawn from a culture that is heavily influenced by a Christian perspective, one that a radical postmodern relativist would not hold.
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. Indeed, much of the ideas of strident atheists in modern times, such as pure materialism, are only tolerable morally because the culture has a remnant of Christian morality. Even Kant believed we must posit God in order to ultimately save our reason and morality.