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THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVES

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This is our weekly theological article

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), is one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His views on metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics have had a profound influence on virtually all philosophical movements that came after him. It was his views on ethics, however, that he is most remembered for.

Kant presented his works on ethics in two works. First, there was The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785, in which Kant sought to find and establish “the supreme principle of reality.” Then there was The Critique of Practical Reason, published in 1787, which detailed his moral philosophy. (This was the sequel to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781, in which Kant explored the foundations and limitations of human knowledge.)

Immanuel Kant is one of philosophy’s most ardent defenders of deontological ethics (think of this as the study of duty). Put simply, deontology asserts that it is the motivation behind an action that determines its morality, not its consequences. Kant believed that human freedom was based on the fact that human beings are endowed with a conscience that makes them aware of the power moral law has over them.

Immanuel Kant believed that human morality was based on an absolute and objective moral law that he referred to as the categorical imperative. There are essentially two kinds of imperatives: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative refers to commands that are conditioned by your own desires. Attending medical school is only imperative if you wish to become a doctor, for example. By contrast, a categorical imperative refers to an unconditional command. You cannot refuse to pay your taxes, for example. Kant believed that moral imperatives were categorical because the individual cannot decide they don’t apply to them.

Kant split his categorical imperative into three maxims:

First: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Put simply, this means that you should not engage in a behaviour unless you are prepared to will that everybody else does it all the time.

Second: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” In other words, it is immoral to manipulate others for any reason whatsoever.

Third: “Act as if you were through your maxim a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.” In other words, you must act as though you are the ultimate moral authority of the universe and that everyone was is duty-bound to emulate everything that you do.

Kant’s moral maxims, therefore, can be summarised in the following way: don’t do something unless you are prepared to tolerate everyone else doing it all the time, never manipulate people, and act as though others are duty-bound to emulate everything you do.


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