The Catalyst

Volume 2 | Issue 1 Article 2

2012 Examining Moral Necessity in the Kantian Mark E. Harris University of Southern Mississippi

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Recommended Citation Harris, Mark E. (2012) "Examining Moral Necessity in the Kantian Categorical Imperative," The Catalyst: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 2. DOI: 10.18785/cat.0201.02 Available at: http://aquila.usm.edu/southernmisscatalyst/vol2/iss1/2

This Article is brought to you for free and open access by The Aquila Digital Community. It has been accepted for inclusion in The aC talyst by an authorized administrator of The Aquila Digital Community. For more , please contact [email protected] Examining Moral Necessity in the Kontion Categorical Imperative could n?t be . the basis of Mar k E. Horns a law. When these inclina­ o:al necessi~ is the idea that specific imperatives tions are dispensed with as mor­ bmd the actiOns of a moral agent regardless of his ally impertinent, only the law M or her personal goals or wishes. Contemporary ethi- and respect for the law can de­ cists have debated whether the moral system of termine the . 7 includes rules which do in fact bind necessarily on the moral agent. This paper will argue that Kant's categorical imperative Since there IS nothing per­ does not bind necessarily. The three different formulas given for sonal about the law which binds the categorical imperative can each be used to derive different a person to duty, then the law moral rules. If varying and conflicting rules can be constructed must bind all rational beings. depending on which formula is used, then it is impossible to Kant calls this law the categori­ know which rule, if any, binds necessarily. Thus the Kantian cal imperative, since it binds re­ deontological system, though based in , does not show gardless of a person's interests. how moral necessity can be derived from reason. However, this Practical rules which are not uni­ failure does not preclude the existence of moral necessity. It is versally binding he refers to as even sti ll possible that necessity could rest its foundations on hypothetical imperatives, since reason, though Kant has not shown that such a foundation exists. they depend on a person's indi­ It is important to note this failure since many modem-day Kan­ vidual interests. The substance tian ethicists argue for necessary moral rules and actions based of the categorical imperative is in reason and the categorical imperative. 1 Their arguments and essentially "do your duty," but moral prescriptions must be ignored or substantially amended Kant formulates this instruction if the Kantian perspective is suspect. Furthermore, a fai lure or in various ways. The first formu­ contradiction present in Kantian would mean that a lation he gives is derived from new, sound deontological would be needed. his conclusion that the law must bind on all rational beings: "Act In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics ofMorals , Kant relies only m accordance with that on a foundation of a priori universal concepts to establish the through which you can at categorical imperative, which is the cornerstone of his deonto­ the same time will that it become logicaJ2 moral framework.3 With this imperative, he develops a a universal law." Essentially, law-conception of in which adherence to a moral law de­ this formulation states that one termines the permissibility of an action. A person will often feel must conform any particular ac­ that he or she will have to do a particular action. This having to tion to a general rule or maxim, is what Kant most wants to explain. He that if a law is such as "do not " or "do not to hold morally "as a ground of obligation," then it "must carry steal." Whatever rule one choos­ with it absolute necessity."4 He finds that a moral law based on es, one must act according to a empirical facts could not carry with it necessity since empirical rule which could be followed by facts do not apply identically to all rational agents. Thus his ethi­ all rational beings. If one acts cal system depends solely on reason.5 according to one's personal in­ In attempting to explain necessity, he assumes that there actu­ terests, which are not shared by ally are moral duties. He considers "duty" to be equivalent to all rational beings, then not all moral necessity. A duty is thus something that a person is bound moral agents can act in the same to do. 6 Necessity binds regardless of personal interests, since way. Since the moral law must a personal interest would represent a mo- tive and be able to bind on all persons, 3 this formulation stresses the re­ other, always at the same time lieves that such authorship is 14 15 quirement of universalizability as an end, never merely as a unnecessary. • Kant says that for all moral maxims. means."12 Essentially, one must the divine will, being perfectly Kant goes on to discuss how not " use" a person to get some­ good, is not determined by any­ the basis of the categorical im­ thing else, but must instead treat thing other than the law. There perative also in the rational every rational being with re­ is no moral "ought" imperative nature of free persons. He says spect. This applies universally on the divine will, since its vo­ that the first formula necessitat­ to the actions of every rational lition is necessarily in accor­ ing that rational beings consider agent since every rational being dance with the law; however, universally the maxim of their that an agent comes in contact neither does the law emanate 16 actions must be connected "with with has his or her own will and from the divine will. Rather, the concept of the will of a ra­ the right to self-determination the law comes from philosophy, 17 tional being as such. "8 In other that comes with it. or reason. words, one must have a will ca­ Kant's ethical law rests, then, Reason does not operate by pable of reason to even be able on reason, impartiality, and dig­ itself; rather, it is found exclu­ to consider maxims in this way. nity. The further relevant ques­ sively in rational persons. Thus A will is essentially the abil­ tion concerning the basis of his Kant believes that a rational ity to determine one's own ac­ system is who authors this law. agent authors the moral law for tions in accordance with laws Kant answers: himself or herself, rather than or rules.9 The will then becomes having any external authority Kant's basis for the second for­ impose the law on him or her. We see philosophy put in a mulation of the categorical im­ If an externality were to author precarious position, which IS perative. Kant states that "every the law, there would have to be to be firm even though there is rational being exists as an end an external incentive.18 A rule nothing in heaven or earth from in itself, not merely as a means relying on an external incentive which it depends or on which it to be used by this or that will at amounts only to a hypothetical is based. Here philosophy is to its discretion." 10 Essentially, be­ imperative, one that a person manifest its purity as sustainer cause rational persons have the will only act on if one desires of its own laws, not as herald ability to determine themselves, the attached incentive, rather of laws that an implanted sense they must not be determined by . . 13 than a categorical imperative [ . . . ] w h1spers to It. others, since this would violate that applies universally regard­ the freedom inherent to having less of interests or desires. Thus a will. He says that "an end in In this passage Kant makes since the categorical imperative itself has not merely a relative clear that, not only does the cannot be authored externally, it worth ... but an inner worth, that moral law not rest on empiri­ must be authored by one's own is, dignity." 11 To treat a person cal or earthly facts, but it also reason. One legislates the law to as a means to some other end does not gain its authority from oneself and wills that one's ac­ would deny that they have an a divine mandate. G. E. M. Ans­ tions be conformed to the law. inner worth and tread upon his com be and Alasdair Macintyre, Though Kant articulates this or her inherent dignity. From twentieth-century detractors concept of self-legislation, he these ideas emerges the sec­ of Kant, have argued that God does not then believe that mo­ ond formula of the categorical would have to be the author of rality is relative. He believes imperative: "Act that you use the moral law in order for it to that all agents reasoning well humanity, whether in your own bind necessarily, but Kant be- will arrive at the same con- person or in the person of any 4 elusions about the moral law. each person would have some moral system cannot be derived Rather than seeing morality as a part in interpreting the categori­ from any single formula of the matter of opinion or preference cal imperative, which forms an categorical imperative. The dictated by personal interests, overarching template for laws, three formulas he gives for the he views it as the equivalent of into specific rules for the com­ categorical imperative can be mathematics or logic. 19 There munity. Since everyone would used to derive different moral is a metaphysical component be involved, each autonomous rules. Because of the possibil­ to morality that makes it ob­ person would be able to agree ity of different rules, one can­ jective. 20 Just as a not know which rule, if any, person constructs .. . contrary to his claim, the binds necessarily. objective math­ entire moral system cannot As shown above, Kant ematical principles believes reason places cer­ through reason and be derived from any single tain constraints on what the applies those princi­ formula of the categorical moral law is, namely that ples to arrive at re­ a given edict can only be al-world solutions, imperative. a moral law under certain so also does a ratio- conditions: the edict must nal person construct be able to be followed by objective moral principles and with the imperatives and with any rational being; any actions apply those principles to deter­ the reasoning for them; hav­ following from the edict must mine his or her actions. ing agreed, each agent would not compromise the Part of the reason Kant be­ be able to hold himself or her­ of any rational being; and the lieves that all rational agents self accountable for adhering to edict should promote a society will arrive at the same conclu­ them. By this process of reason­ in which all rational beings are sions is that he expects them to ing through, agreeing to, and treated as autonomous ends. reason together. He asserts the adhering to the community's However, these constraints do "worthiness of every rational rules, Kant believes that each not tell the actual content of the subject to be a lawgiving mem­ person is "self- legislating" the moral law; they merely tell the ber in the ."21 imperatives. He or she is bring­ general form of the law. By a "kingdom of ends," he ing the rule to bear on his or her own actions. Moral rules outlining the spe­ means a society of persons in cific content of the law must be which the autonomy of each Thus, Kant builds an ethical deduced from the categorical individual to be an end unto theory on the will and reason imperative. Kant believes that himself or herself is uncompro­ of rational agents. The moral the three forms of the categori­ 22 misingly respected. In such a necessity of his system lies in cal imperative, each of which society, no person would be un­ the need for universalizable corresponds to one of the three willingly subjected to decisions maxims and dignity-respecting conditions just mentioned, made for him or her by anoth­ actions, so that maxims can ap­ are three versions of the same er individual or by the state. ply consistently to all rational rule. Because he believes that Rather, each person would beings and the autonomy of all all moral rules can be deduced contribute in the community's agents remains intact. However, from the categorical imperative, determination of which moral the discussion that follows will and he believes the three formu­ imperatives were necessary and show that Kant's project fails las of the imperative to be giv­ logically merited for bringing because, contrary to .....-----, ing the same message, he also societal order. In other words, his claim, the entire 5 believes that all moral rules can under this interpretation the first make an informed decision. be wholly deduced from any formula would indicate that a However, a world in which 23 single formula. In fact, he says maxim calling for is everyone makes false promises that one should be able to make not universalizable. Slavery re­ is not a logical impossibility, "a complete characterization of quires that there be both slaves but merely inconvenient. One all maxims" by means of any of and slave-owners. It is not logi­ can readily imagine a world in 24 the three formulas. cally possible for all persons to which no one believes promises His view that all three for­ be enslaved, since such a situa­ because all promises may be mulas are derived from reason tion would not allow for the ex­ false. Thus, if one interprets rea­ makes this last point essential istence of slave-owners. son to mean purely logic, then a to his project. If it is impossible The exerctse above shows prohibition against false prom­ to deduce all necessary moral that one can deduce a maxim ises cannot be derived from the rules from any one of the three against slavery from the first first formula concernmg the formulas provided by reason, formula of the imperative. It is universalizability of maxims. then Kant has not shown how also evident that the same max­ Alternatively, if one inter­ reason can be used to support im can be deduced from the sec­ prets "reason" to be referring moral necessity. If reason leads ond and third formulas. Slavery to , one is able a person to deduce two or more by definition does not respect to derive the prohibition against viable rules for the same set the autonomy of the slave, and false promises from the first of actions, then reason has not it does not allow for a society in formula of the categorical im­ shown that any of the rules de­ which all people are treated as perative. It would not be rea­ duced must necessarily be fol­ ends-in-themselves. Thus slav­ sonable for false promises to be lowed. Showing that conflicting ery is addressed consistently by universally allowable. No one rules can be deduced from dif­ all three formulas of the rule. would ever believe any prom­ ferent formulas, as laid out be­ One knows what rule to follow ises made, even if the person low, would show that Kant has concerntng slavery smce the making the promise intended to not established moral necessity. categorical imperative only al­ keep it. People would eventu­ There are two common inter­ lows for one rule. ally stop making promises al­ pretations of what Kant means However, not all moral rules together, which would certain­ by "reason," especially as it can be deduced consistently ly not be a practical situation. pertains to the universalizabil­ from the various formulas when Thus it would be practically ity of moral rules prescribed in one interprets reason to mean reasonable to have a prohibition the first formula. Reason can "pure logic." For example, Kant against making false promises. be seen as describing either believes that making a false Promises would then still be pure logic or practical reason. promise is an immoral action, made and still be believed. If one takes reason as meaning and he shows from the second However, the practical con­ "pure logic," then saying that formula how the categorical im­ siderations concerning promis­ 25 a moral rule is universalizable perative prohibits this action. es are their believability and the simply means that the results It is easy to see how such a pro­ consequences of the promise of universalizing the rule are hibition can be derived from the not being fulfilled. If a promise logically possible. If all ratio­ formula concerning rational au­ is believable, then the promisee nal agents can actually keep the tonomy. Making a false promise can act based on it, whether or rule simultaneously, then it is would prevent a rational being not it is a true or false promise. universalizable. For example, from be- ing able to Further, if a promisor suffers no 6 negative consequences for fail­ all rational agents. However, the Reason, the basis of his moral ing to fulfill a promise,26 then second and third formulas still structure, has led to conflicting the practical benefits of prom­ call for the general prohibition rules with no way of determin­ ises are not interrupted should of false promises. Thus, even ing which rule, if any, must be he or she make a false promise. under a different interpretation followedY The promisor will still be be­ of the meaning of reason, the This is not to say, however, lieved in future acts of prom­ categorical imperative can still that it is completely impossible ising. For example, one could yield inconsistent rules to gov­ to base moral necessity in rea­ make a false promise in com­ ern a single action. Even when son. It is possible that another plete confidence to a trusting one considers practical reason, ethical system could accom­ person on his or her deathbed. one cannot necessarily know plish this if it gave a moral law The person would believe the which rule should be followed. from which only one set of mor­ promisor and there would be no The formula concerning au­ al rules could be derived, thus negative consequences for this tonomy of persons and the for­ clearly establishing that specific false promise-maker when the mula concerning a kingdom of rules bind necessarily. Howev­ oath goes unfulfilled. ends always calls for a prohibi­ er, Kant's system fails to do this, A rule allowing only false tion against making any false largely because it has three dif­ promises that would be be­ promises. However, one can­ ferent formulas of the categori­ lieved and that would lack neg­ not derive that same rule with cal imperative as possible start­ ative consequences would be surety from the· formula of uni­ ing points, multiplying the odds equally practically reasonable versalizable maxims, regardless that rules conflict. This failure to a maxim prohibiting all false of whether one interprets reason means that Kantian ethical sys­ promises. If one makes only to mean pure logic or practical tems must be abandoned or se­ false promises of this kind, no reason. Thus one cannot derive riously revised. Contemporary one would hold promises sus­ all moral rules from any single philosophers cannot simply cite pect and promises would still be formula. If one attempted to de­ Kantian ideas verbatim, since made. All rational agents could rive a body of rules from each their statements could harbor make such promtses without formula individually, the three unknown contradictions. A de­ compromising the practicality sets of maxims would differ ontological moral system might of promise-making, thus pre­ and conflict. Since all three sets be preferable, but the Issues serving universalizability of the would be derived from reason, inherent in the Kantian system maxtm. one could not rely on reason to leave a gap in ethical philoso­ Consequently, when reason decide which rules to follow; an phy. A new deontology is called is taken to have a practical con­ arbitrary or subjective choice for, one based on a single rule sideration, there are at least two would have to be made. Kant's that can avoid the contradic­ possible rules concerning false claim is then suspect that all tions that come from multiple promises that could be univer­ three formulas are merely dif­ basic rules. salized. One prohibits all false ferent versions of the same law, promises. The other permits as reason then has not shown Endnotes only a certain kind of false which rules are necessarily promise for the sake of practi­ binding, especially if rules are cality. Both rules could be fo l­ derived from only one of the 1 Contemporary Kan- lowed at all times and at all three formulas. Thus Kant has tian supporters include Harry J. places with practical success by not established moral necessity Gensler, SJ, and Thomas Nagel, within his s y s t e m . who often appeal directly to Kan- ~------~ 7 ~------~ tian principles and ideas. How­ tics (Minneapolis: University of the Kantian system. Anscombe ever, this Kantian or Neo-Kantian Minnesota Press, 1981). points out in "Modern Moral Phi­ school of thought is opposed by 15 Alasdair C. Macintyre, losophy" that Kant does not detail other moral ethicists in the con­ After Virtue: A Study in Moral what counts as a relevant action to temporary era. Utilitarians, most Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: constructing a maxim. Macintyre notably Peter Singer, oppose Kan­ University of Notre Dame Press, argues in After Virtue: A Study in tian thinking altogether in favor 1984). Moral Theory that immoral and of an ethic based on the end result trivial rul es could be universal­ of actions. Virtue ethicists such as 16 Kant, 25. ized, so there is little distinctive G. E. M. Anscombe and Alasdair 17 This is also not to say that about the rules that Kant wants to Macintyre support a system that reason or philosophy is synony­ universalize. While similar, thi s call s for a person to exhibit certain mous or substantially equivalent criticism is distinct since it focuses integral characteristics, rather than to God. Rather, because God is on the difference between rules choosing certain actions. omniscient, He always acts in ac­ derived from different formulas, cordance to reason. However, He 2 "Deontological" refers to rather than the difficulty of defin­ a moral system based on specific is not under the law, which is de­ ing a maxim or of showing specifi­ rules, which tell the agent what ac­ ri ved from reason. God is detached call y how universalizability per­ tions are permissible. This differs from the law, which Kant believes tains to moral maxims. from systems that call for actions to constrain all non-divine rational based on utilitarian needs or the agents. "greatest good." In Kant's system, 18 An external incentive the categorical imperative is the can be anything outside the agent rule used to determine all other which is cause for the agent to rules. act. This could take many forms, 3 Immanuel Kant, Grundle- including the promise of eternal gung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, paradise, a reward of money, or the Eng!i sh, trans. Mary J. Gregor, avoidance of punishment. Cambridge Texts in the History 19 Ibid., 22. of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cam­ 20 Ibid., 2, 2 1. bridge University Press, 1998), 3. 21 Ibid., 46. 4 Ibid. 22 Ibid ., 45-46. 5 Ibid. 23 Kant, 43 . 6 Ibid., 13. 24 Ibid. 7 Ibid., 13-14. 25 Kant, 15. 8 Ibid., 35. 26 All external negative 9 Ibid., 36. consequences would have to be 10 Ibid., 37 absent, including damage to the promisor's reputation which might II Ibid., 42. prevent him or her from being be­ 12 Ibid., 38. lieved in the future. 13 Ibid., 35. 27 It is worth noting the simi­ 14 G. E. M . Anscombe, "Mod- larity between this criticism and em Moral Philosophy" (1958), in the critiques of two prominent The Collected Philosophical Pa­ twentieth-century virtue ethicists, pers of G.E.M Anscombe, Volume G. E. M. Anscombe and Alas­ Three: Ethics, , and Poli- dair Ma- clntyre, on 8