Moral Absolutes and Kant’s Categorical Imperatives

by Josephson Institute on December 28, 2010

From a painting of Immanuel Kant
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According to the eighteenth-century moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, the foundation of morality is the ability of humans to act rationally. It is this capacity for reason that makes us able to refrain from acting out of impulse or the desire for pleasure and free to act out of principle and moral duty. There are three aspects of Kantian thought that have special value to us here in thinking about our moral obligations.

First, Kant contended that ethical obligations are based on external moral principles (“higher truths”) that are absolute, invariable and do not allow for exceptions or extenuating circumstances. These principles create absolute duties that must be performed regardless of the consequences and in spite of social conventions and natural inclinations to the contrary. There are no exceptions, no excuses.

A major virtue of Kant’s duty theory is its simplicity; it does not require that we consider or predict consequences of a specific decisions. Truth is right and lying is wrong, always and invariably. Therefore, our duty is to always tell the truth. Another duty is to be benevolent, so we must never intentionally cause injury to another. The major shortcoming in Kant’s moral duty theory is that it provides no way to choose between two competing principles. For example, since truth telling is always right and hurting an innocent person is always wrong, under Kant’s theory, there is no ethically acceptable choice when the Nazis ask you about Anne Frank. Lying is wrong, but in this case so is telling the truth if you know the Nazis will harm her. Since ethical dilemmas often occur, we have to moderate Kant’s absolutism to allow to weigh and evaluate competing ethical values.

A second significant contribution is Kant’s fundamental rule of respect, which says that all human beings are intrinsically important and that the well being of each is an end in itself. It is wrong, therefore, to treat others as instrumental means for our own gain or gratification or to achieve some perceived greater good.

Finally, Kant contributed the Rule of Universality: Do only those acts which you are willing to allow to become universal standards of behavior applicable to all people, including yourself. This requires us to generalize from our conduct and ask whether we would want others to do whatever we would do. It can be simplified to “If everybody did it, would it be a good thing?” (You will recognize this as one of the conscience prodders.)

This rule is quite useful. For example, suppose you are waiting in a long line and a friend comes up and asks you whether he can cut in. If you apply Kantian analysis you have to ask yourself, “If everyone in line let their friends cut in, would that be a good rule for society?” The answer is clearly no, since people who got in line earlier than the latecomers would be unfairly pushed farther and farther back. Or, suppose a friend asks you to write a letter recommending her for a job you don’t think she is qualified for. Would it be a good thing if everyone did this? No, because it would eventually undermine the value of letters of recommendation and it would give people with friends who will lie an unfair advantage.

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