gorical ImperativeDeontology is the ethical view that some actions are morally forbidden or permitted regardless of consequences. One of the most influential deontological philosophers in history is Immanuel Kant who developed the idea of the Categorical Imperative. Kant believed that the only thing of intrinsic moral worth is a good will. Kant says in his work Morality and Rationality “The good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes or because of it’s adequacy to achieve some proposed end; it is good only because of it’s willing, i.e., it is good of itself”. A maxim is the generalized rule that characterizes the motives for a person’s actions. For Kant, a will that is good is one that is acting by the maxim of doing the right thing because it is right thing to do. The moral worth of an action is determined by whether or not it was acted upon out of respect for the moral law, or the Categorical Imperative. Imperatives in general imply something we ought to do however there is a distinction between categorical imperatives and hypothetical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives are obligatory so long as we desire X. If we desire X we ought to do Y. However, categorical imperatives are not subject to conditions. The Categorical Imperative is universally binding to all rational creatures because they are rational. Kant proposes three formulations the Categorical Imperative in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Moral, the Universal Law formulation, Humanity or End in Itself formulation, and Kingdom of Ends formulation. In this essay, the viablity of the Universal Law formulation is tested by discussing two objections to it, mainly the idea that the moral laws are too absolute and the existence of false positives and false negatives.
The first formulation of the Categorical Imperative is defined by Kant to “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. Good moral actions are those of which are motivated by maxims which can be consistently willed that it’s generalized form be a universal law of nature. These maxims are otherwise known as universilizable maxims. Maxims can then be put through the Categorical Imerative test to determine their universilisablility and thus the premissability the maxim. To test a maxim we must ask ourselves whether we can consistently will for a maxim to be obeyed by everyone all the time. If we can, then the act is permissable but if we will inconsistently then the maxim is not universalisable and the act is forbidden. There are two ways to we can will inconsistently, either the generalized maxim is logically impossible or that what we will contradicts another of our wills. An example of a maxim which would not pass the Categorical Imperative test would be : “Whenever anyone wants money they will make a false promise, borrow the money and never pay the lender back.” This generalized maxim cannot be universalized because it is self defeating for if it was adopted by everyone no one would lend out money. If there is no one that will give you money, there will be no false promises that can be made and hence the maxim cannot be universalized. Another example of a maxim that does not pass the Categorical Imperative test is : “Whenever anyone is better off than others, they will never give to the less fortunate”. This maxim in itself does not contradict itself but it cannot be consistently willed. If the agent was to imagine himself at that moment to be a homeless person they would will that others who are better off would aid him. However this second will is in direct contradiction of his previous will. In this way, the agent is engaging in inconsistent willing and thus the maxim cannot be universalized. An example of a maxim which passes the Categorical Imperative test is never tell a lie. The generalised maxim would be: “Whenever anyone is asked a question, they will always tell the whole truth”. This maxim can be willed consistently, for there is no self-defeating element in the maxim itself and there is no contradiction with any other will one might have. Everyone would want the truth from the person they asked a question to. Hence it is moral obligation to consistantly tell the truth.
In opposition to the first formualation of the Categorical Imperative, Benjamin Constant proposed the famous example called the Case of the Inquiring Murderer which showed that the moral laws of Kant are too absolute. In this hypothetical situation, someone is trying to escape a murderer and tells you that he is going to hide in his house. After the fleeing man has left, the murderer on the way to the first man’s house stops and asks you where the first man has gone. You personally believe that if you tell the truth or remain silent, the murderer will kill the man. Most people would be morally compelled to tell a lie to save the first man’s life. Yet in kantian ethics, telling a lie is in direct violation of the Categorical imperative. Kant personally responded to this objection by saying there is no way anyone could know with complete certainty what will happen in the future. Whether you tell the truth or not may not result in the death of the man. The best policy for Kant is to avoid the know evil of telling a lie and accept the consequences. Even if there are bad consequences it is not our fault if we did not tell a lie because we have done our moral duty according to the Categorical Imperative. Kants counter-argument is not all that convincing. However this objection may be circumvented altogether by reformulating how we contrive the maxim by which we are acting on. Anscombe pointed out that Kant’s “rule about universalizable maxims is useless without stipulations as to what shall count as a relevant description of an action with a view to constructing a maxim about it”. The objection may be rendered null if we let the maxim of our actions be as specific as possible to the situation. In this case, the generalized maxim would be: “If I can tell a lie to save an innocent life, I will till a lie”. This maxim is universilizable and can be consistantly willed.
A more severe fault of the first formulation of the categorical imperative is the existence of false negatives and false positives.When using the Universal Law formulation to determine moral worth, there are some maxims that pass the Categorical Imperative but are seen to be morally wrong. Such a case is known as a false positive. The maxim: “When anyone see a kitten they shall kick it around”, is a falso positive. This maxim does not null itself in anyway or contradict other maxims that would be willed by the cruel agent. Since the maxim passes the Categorical Imperative test, kicking cats is accepted and even considered praiseworthy when it is clearly not praiseworthy. From our moral intuition, cruelty to animals seems immoral and ought to be rejected as a permissible action by an ethical theory. A false negative is a maxim which fails to pass the Categorical Imperative test but is clearly acceptable in society. A specific maxim “Whenever the stock market passes it’s record low I will withdraw all my money from the bank” becomes impossible when it is changed into it’s generalized form “Whenever the stock market passes it’s record low everyone will withdraw all their money from the bank”. A bank keeps your money safe in exchange for the priveledge of lending the money you put in out to other people. If everyone wanted to withdraw all their money from the bank at once the bank would not beable to return it to everyone and would become bankrupt. The maxim is selfdefeating for if it was universalized there would be no more banks to withdraw from if the stock market reaches another record low because of the bankrupting banks. Therefore the action of removing all your money from the bank when there is a stock market downturn is immoral according to the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative. The fact that a person cannot withdraw their money from a bank because of moral restraints shows that there are some serious problems with the moral theory at work.
The first formulation of the Categorical Imperative “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” seems at face value viable. Nevertheless the lack of guidelines to determine which maxim should be used to describe an action causes problems with the consistency of the Universal Law formulation. Moreover, the abundance of false positives and false negatives suggests a deep problem with the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative that may not be fixable.
1) Feldman, Fred. Kantian Ethics’ in EBQ James P Sterba (ed) Ethics: the Big Questions, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, 185-198.
2) Kant, Immanuel. Morality and Rationality’ in MPS 410-429.
3) Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy fourth edition. NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 2003.