The Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant’s theories regarding deontological ethics sound far more complicated than they are. His thinking dictates that we ought to establish rules, which Kant called maxims, and follow them out of obligation. Kant believed that the intention of an action decides one’s moral worth. This is often contrasted to “consequentialism“, though I’m not sure the binary is clear. I mean sure, if you’re deciding how one ought to be judged for their actions, it makes most sense to try to determine their intent, difficult though it may be. But if you’re trying to compel one to act in one way or another, duty should be derived from consequence. Trying to parse out consequence from the action makes little sense.

Regardless, the issue at hand is the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative “denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself”. While I think it’s important to enshrine some form of moral foundation that can be passed between generations and adhered to cross-culturally, absolutism is foolish. This becomes more apparent when you see Benjamin Constant’s criticism of the categorical imperative. Constant poses that if the universal maxim for deception makes it impermissible regardless of situation that if a murderer came to your door and asked where your family is; you’re obligated to not lie (even if it would save their lives). Kant agreed that lying would forego one’s moral duty.

Not only is this absolutism foolish, it seems to directly contradict the idea of judging morality on the basis of intent. Lying in this case is done with the intent of preventing a terrible injustice. As I said before I think it’s crucial to have moral foundations of some sort, but forcing those obligations to be absolute in all cases actually impels us to be unethical.

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