Problems with Kant’s Categorical Imperative

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.”[1] 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]”[2] 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.[3] He goes on to say that “fidelity of promises and benevolence from basic principles (not from instinct) have an inner worth.”[4] 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.

[1]Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4:421

[2]Ibid., 4:416

[3]Ibid., 4:454

[4]Ibid., 4:435


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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13 Responses to Problems with Kant’s Categorical Imperative

  1. joe says:

    Please clarify
    1. If helping those in need were to be considered weakness or violating natural selection, then no one should receive help.??? what are you trying to say here? whose statement is this and why in anyways the categorical imperative would mean helping those in need were to be consider…
    2. Kant’s categorical imperative becomes quite immoral.?
    the reason you give doesn’t support at all your conclusion. could you give other example?

    • humblesmith says:

      Sorry, I guess I didn’t make a clear enough distinction between Kant’s explanation and my critique.

      Kant’s view of the categorical imperative (CI) is very clinical and non-emotional; if the CI can be applied consistently in a purely reasoned situation, then he claims it will apply. Thus any and all emotion or tugging of our hearts is not relevant in Kant’s system. Therefore to Kant, we do not judge what is moral by whether it seems wrong, we judge what is moral by what can be logically applied categorically. If it can be applied universally, it’s moral; if not, it is not moral.

      My critique is that Kant’s system of the CI only really works if you assume a moral system that is basically moral from the start. It worked for Kant because he was in a largely Christian culture, shaped by the morals of the Bible. But if we were to do as Kant says, and merely look at what can be applied universally, then we can all think of things that can be applied universally that we know are not moral. For example, ignoring those who are suffering violates no principle of logic or reason. It could logically be the case that everyone in the world ignores those people who are sick and suffering and leaves them to die. (so I’m told, it happens in Calcutta all the time.) So Kant’s CI could logically be applied to such cases as ignoring the sick and suffering, yet there is something inside us which screams that this is not moral. This “something” is the Natural Law, written by God on all men’s hearts.

      Other examples could be forms of racism, such as Naziism, (in Kant’s system, if the Nazi’s were right, the Jews ought to die, and even if you were Jewish, you’d have to agree), torturing little puppies to death, not paying your taxes, and anarchy. Remember, to Kant, all that matters is ‘is this system logical? Can it be applied categorically?’ The only way Kant’s system of CI can work is if we do not question our basic presuppositions about what is moral. Kant’s system worked for Kant because he was in a culture that was basically moral. If we remove all those presuppositions, and posit a world that is radically agaist what we call normal, then the CI could be applied in situations we all know in our hearts is immoral. Therefore Kant’s CI fails as a basis for morality.

      Hope this helps.

  2. Mike says:

    While I respect your opinion, I believe that you’re absolutely wrong.

    First, you are only looking at the first formulation of the categorical imperative. The second states “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” If you were to refuse to help others in an attempt to benefit the species, you would be treating them merely as a means to a social goal. Because of this, your example doesn’t actually follow from the categorical imperative.

    Even if we only look at the first formulation, however, the conclusion you reach still does not follow. Evolutionary biologists universally agree that the progression of the race has ceased, due to the lack of genetic drift. Refusing to help a few people (or even a lot of people) would have absolutely no result, as their genetic material is already widespread, and their elimination does nothing to halt that genetic progression.

    Additionally, if you decide to refuse help to another man due to natural selection purposes, then it is to be expected that you would be refused help as well on the same grounds (or possibly because we find such a person to be morally deplorable. Would you assist nazis?) which means that Kant’s original logic holds true.

    • humblesmith says:

      Someday I will get around to the other points that he makes in his moral system, but the one I dealt with here, universal application of the imperative, is the lynchpin of the entire system. At the very least, the one you stated does not fundamentally change the first; the heart of Kant’s system is still the universal application of a logical principle. In Kant’s own lifetime, he was challenged on the application of the categorical imperative with the question of whether we should lie to a murderer to protect his victim. Kant’s reply was that a consistent application of his imperative would indicate that we should not lie to a murderer, that it is not our concern whether the murderer slaughters an innocent, but it is our concern whether we can universally apply his principle, the categorical imperative. So Kant’s reply, as stated by Kant, would be that we should indeed tell the truth to help murdering Nazis. Most people would rightfully find this position morally unacceptable, and rightfully so, for despite Kant’s best attempts, we all have a moral compass provided by God.

      Because Kant defined morality not in terms of human rights or some external moral principle, but in terms of systematic application of reason and logic, then the only way to “find such a person morally deplorable” is to find where he is not consistent in the logical application of the categorical imperative. Again, Kant’s system is purely logical, and sounds good to our ear at first, but upon inspection only works if we keep sneaking an emotional moral judgement in the side door.

      As for refusing help due to natural selection, if I were consistent with Kant’s system, others would be right to refuse help to me when I was in need. So the principle can indeed be universally applied, it merely results in my death, which in such a system, would be the right and correct thing to do. You see, Kant’s system only works if we keep borrowing from a predominantly Christian frame of moral reference. Once we consistently look at it from pure application of a principle as Kant insisted, the death of an innocent can be purely moral, as long as we universally apply the principle. We cannot say ‘It feels bad when it happens to me’ or ‘I don’t like it applied to me’ for feelings and likes play no role in Kant’s system.

      I am not a biologist, so I will defer on what they universally agree upon. But I am reminded of Phillip Johnson, who documented several instances of biologists failing to agree on the definition of what natural selection is (my memory says this is in Darwin On Trial). So I suspect that biologists are like most scientists, who will not universally agree on the time of day, let alone the finer points of what might happen in the future.

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  5. I thought that Kant solved the “Murderer at the door” thought experiment with INTENTION???

    Like a murderer comes and knocks at your door. When you open he says he is looking for A and asks whether you know where he is. You are in-fact hiding A.

    Now, are you saying that I cannot lie about it??? Because my INTENTION is to save that person, I can lie??? Isn’t this the Kantian way??

    Or, are you saying that Kantians can’t lie PERIOD??? So, in the above thought experiment, you HAVE TO tell the truth and get A killed???

    • humblesmith says:

      Kant’s response to the murderer at the door question was that the categorical imperative would drive is to tell the truth and give the innocent man to the murderer. In Kant’s view, as long as we are consistent with our reasoning process, we are moral. Thus to Kant, we cannot be consistent and lie to one person, the murderer, while telling the truth to everyone else. The categorical imperative says that if we are consistent and the activity can be applied to everyone, it is moral.

      Kant’s view is wrong, of course, for the reasons given in the post. Aiding a murderer is wrong. Thus those who lied tot the Nazis to protect innocent Jews were morally right.

      • I am from Sri Lanka. This philosophy and ethics are not part of any “philosophical” discussion here since everything is done according to the Buddhist texts. I myself am a Buddhist but, find Buddhism an incomplete system for ethics.

        What I want to know is, which school of philosophy is most popular among people who concern about these things (i.e. students of ethics, people who do masters and doctors in ethics etc.) in the US (I am assuming you are from the US)?? Is in Kantian ethics, Utilitarian ones or maybe someone else s??

        • humblesmith says:

          I am indeed from the US. I cannot say authoritatively which system of ethics is most popular. As in most cultures, people outside of philosophy do not think much about why they believe the things they believe. However, I can give an overview of several common systems.

          Many people believe in some sort of utilitarian system, what is the most good for the most people. However, those philosohically trained recognize the fallacy of this, for there is no way to add up good. Is it better to have a little good for a large number of people, or a lot of good for a few people? No one can say, so the system is flawed.

          Some people in philosophical circles hold to a type of virtue ethics, saying that things are good in themselves. I’m afraid that I am least familiar with the details of virtue ethics.

          Atheism is growing, and atheists are forced to believe that the only thing real is matter and energy, thus they all hold to some type of naturalism, saying that all ethics and morals are rooted in natural forces. Many times this system holds to either equating “good” with “survival,” in the sense that we all want to survive, thus humans think that anything that helps us survive is morally good. This is a very flawed system, as I have pointed out many times on this blog.

          Some people hold to a type of social contract theory, which says that groups of people have a common understanding of what is good, so things are only good in that culture. Another culture may have a different social contract, and therefore a different set of morals. This is also flawed, for it ends up teaching that good and evil are relative to the situation and the culture, while we all believe that some things are right and wrong for everyone.

          The only system of morals that works is the one that says that things are morally good because they align with the nature of the Creator, God. God is good, therefore the world He made reflects His nature. When we freely decide to reject God or disobey His commands, we introduce evil.

          I have written on this extensively on this blog. If you want more, go to “search” on the main page and search for the key words morals, naturalism, ethics, good, and evil.

  6. Seadowns says:

    The CI is an instance of the naturalistic fallacy,that is, an attempt to define values in descriptive terms. It is a pity so much time has been spent on it, which could have been better spent. Forget it!

  7. Seadowns says:

    To expand on what I have said above, you can say to Kant, “Yes, I agree that such-and-such a course is a categorical imperative, but it is bad and wrong all the same.” All he can answer is hat in his opinion it is right, but he cannot enforce this. This is because whether or not a given course fits the imperative is a finding of fact, and a factual statement is of a different category from a moral or value judgment. I think this is the basic logic behind Humblesmith’s very excellent arguments. It is also the fate of any doctrine that purports to define good in terms of facts.
    To be a bit humorous, Kant seems to me like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, who made someone late for a wedding while he held him with his glittering eye and went on and on. Kant goes on and on pushing his line until people give up resisting, and he gets away with his views on lying, for example.

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