display | more...
Immanuel Kant devised a system of morals based on reason alone, without regard to the empirical world. Using a tool, a system of moral determinism that he called the Categorical Imperative, Kant claimed to be able to negotiate the labyrinth of morality and action using an analytical and reasonable approach. The benefits of this approach are quite numerous, for using this approach anyone would, theoretically, be able to reach the same conclusions again and again regardless of religious, educational, or social background. Kant attempted to elevate the philosophy of morals above that of intuition; in the Categorical Imperative, Kant hoped, lay the path to a scientific approach to the philosophy of morality. However, there are some severe fundamental flaws in Kant’s approach, and, ironically, in his reasoning. The Categorical Imperative can actually be used to determine the immorality of the Imperative itself. Kant’s approach to the issue of morality is not only elitist, but also irresponsible.

Kant has long been accused of being elitist, usually because of his choice of language. Kant tended to invent words and phrases in order to adequately explain his theories and ideas, but in doing so, sometimes caused the alienation of his peers. While his language was ultimately understandable and worthwhile to those who chose to spend the time to master it, it was viewed as dangerous, because it separated the philosophy of morality from those who need to understand it the most: the common person. This, however, is only half correct. Kant is most definitely elitist, and his theories definitely alienate the common person, but for a much deeper and more significant reason that his choice of language.

In order to understand why Kant failed to adequately provide a system of morals, it is important to understand what Kant was attempting to do in the first place. For much of history, morality was determined through two different but similar ways. The first was through education: a child would be taught the lessons of morality by his parents, or by his church, or by the educational institutions of the state. The second method of moral education came through an empirical basis: as a child went through life, he would make discoveries and determine which actions tended to produce the more desirable results. Both of these methods are related by the empirical approach, both being based upon past knowledge of what creates the more desirable results. What Kant hypothesized, and indeed came close to successfully arguing, was that morals should not be based on empirical evidence but on reason alone. In one of the most fundamental passages in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant draws a distinction between acting in accord with duty, and acting from duty.

“To be beneficent where one can is a duty…but I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however dutiful and amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth…deserves praise and encouragement but not esteem; for its maxim lacks the moral content of an action done not from inclination but from duty.” (Kant, 11)

Kant thus differentiates from he who has memorized the actions that morals demand, and he who can determine the morality of an action in and of itself, by using the Categorical Imperative. This is an important distinction, for it demands a person not only act the way he has been taught, but to be able to reason and determine that certain actions have genuine worth, and thus deserve esteem. When one uses the Categorical Imperative, says Kant, they can truly act from duty.

It is here that Kant alienates a large section of the populace. The Categorical Imperative is a tool that demands the user to “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In this way, one can determine, through reason, which action is morally responsible. In the text Metaphysics of Morals, Kant offers four “duties” that illustrate, by willing that a maxim should become a universal law, how the Categorical Imperative can be used to determine the moral worth of an action. These four “duties” present how reason, and only reason, should be used when determining the moral worth of an action. However, the severe limitation of the Categorical Imperative is that it presupposes a populace’s ability to reason; if the Categorical Imperative is the only route to true morality, then a person who takes an action in accord with the Imperative’s conclusions, but does not utilize the Imperative, is not acting from duty. The logical extension is that such a person is, if not immoral, at least amoral. This is a dangerous path for Kant to follow.

Suppose a person is born without the ability to reason. If reason is to be a scientific process, surely there are some people who purely will not be able to reach the same level of scientific conclusion. Perhaps a personality trait, or a lack of intelligence, causes such a person to be unable to reason to the extent that the Categorical Imperative demands. Perhaps this person is a child, or is developmentally challenged. Kant would then say that, because such a person is unable to reason, their actions can have no moral worth, and thus that person will never have the ability of living a moral life. Perhaps this person, who up until now has been living under the moral code of their parents or their church, discovers that they cannot be moral. While Kant does claim that acting in accord with duty is at least “admirable” and at least “deserves praise and encouragement”, this person’s actions are nonetheless not truly moral.

Kant thus runs the risk of alienating a populace that cannot reason to his extent. Once one reaches the conclusion that they are amoral, that is, acting without morals, and that they cannot do anything to change this fact, it is quite possible that they will stop following any moral code at all. A person without moral duty is a very dangerous person, in that there is no reason for them not to act against morality as often as they do in accord with it.

The irony of this situation is that, because of such reasoning, the Categorical Imperative fails its own “Formula of Universal Law”. Suppose Kant were to attempt to follow his own Imperative, and that was his maxim, and as such he willed that it became universal law that all should have as their maxim “one should use the Categorical Imperative to determine the moral worth of an action.” If it were to become universal, then the above-mentioned hypothetical situation would occur, and people who could not reason would not be capable of performing actions with moral worth. They would then have no reason not to perform immoral actions, especially since the person cannot even reason that the actions are immoral. Kant’s own attempt at creating a “Kingdom of Ends]” actually creates a world in which people no longer even try to act moral. Since no philosopher could will that their own moral theory cause a breakdown in the systems of morality, Kant cannot will his Categorical Imperative into Universal Law.

Kant attempted to elevate morality to that of science, but in doing so forgot that morals are a tool for people to use. If people are to be told that they have no hope of ever becoming moral, that they will not be able to even use the tool, then the whole concept of morality is futile. Kant’s presupposition that all people can reason is not a responsible conclusion, but rather is the conclusion of an elitist who felt that morals were only to be available to those who had the privilege of higher thought. While honourable, Kant’s theories are nonetheless dangerous and, ultimately, irrational.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanual. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hacket Publishing Company Inc, 1993.

Hoopy Frood. “Immanuel Kant.” Online Posting. 25. March. 2000