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Kant’s Categorical Imperative

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Immanuel Kant’s ethics focuses on libertarian free-will and intrinsic value in human persons. Kant is going to argue against consequentialism in favor of non-consequentialism or what he calls the categorical imperative.

Morality is broken down into three subsets. There is an agent (the person who does the willing), there is an action (the means), and there is the consequence (what Kant calls effects, or ends). In ethics, consequentialism says that all morality is based around the consequences of an action. People do not murder because they will go to jail. People do not smoke because it causes cancer. Consequentialism basically says that the ends justify the means. This means that whatever end is obtained completely justifies whatever means were used to get that end. An example of this could be applied to the issue of torture during wartime. Some have said that we should torture terrorists in order to achieve some end (which is the information regarding the terrorist’s plots and so forth). This end, if obtained, justifies torture because it served the greater good of humanity. This may be justified because the terrorist is making threats on other persons. Another example could be laws that prohibit alcohol. During the prohibition, the United States banned alcohol because it served a greater good and the consequences of drinking were bad. In short, consequentialism focuses on the ends (or consequences to an action) rather than the means to an end. Kant will show how consequentialism ultimately fails under his ethical framework.

Kant sees morality not as just doing the right thing but also doing it for the right motive. What he focuses on is the motives (or means) of an action rather than the end itself. Something justifies our actions other than ends. Kant sets up what he calls the categorical imperative. This is a universal command in which we have to obey. The categorical imperative is basically this: Always treat humanity as an end in itself, never as a mere means. Kant says that humans are rational beings and that this rationality is what makes them have worth. Humans are autonomous and can make up their own minds about actions and their will. Human persons should always be treated as persons and not as mere means to some end. There is a distinction between “means” and “mere means.” To use an example, suppose one were to go to a restaurant and order some food from the waiter. It would be right in saying that the person ordering the food would be using the waiter as a means to obtain food and to satisfy hunger. But the waiter can still be treated as an end in himself — with dignity and respect from the person ordering. The categorical imperative is violated when the person treats the waiter as an object. That person is viewing the waiter as a “mere means” rather than any type of end (namely a rational being).

This categorical imperative is set up to test our maxims or wills. It places great worth on the human and on the individual. Also, this imperative only works if libertarian free-will is true. Any type of determinism would call into question Kant’s ethical system.

What if for the theist that the categorical imperative is something greater than just one universal moral command? What if it is God Himself which is the imperative and standard for all humanity? The Christian can use Kant’s arguments and semantics to argue for a more absolute position which is in God.

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1 Comment

  1. […] critique ties in nicely with Kant’s principle of humanity. It is impossible to have moral responsibility if the criminal has no will. The determinist has to […]

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