How are we to understand what is means to
be ethical, especially in a world of relative ethics, where different
individuals have extremely divergent beliefs? We need some system by which to
interpret how we think and act that moves beyond static laws – something that
is as flexible as the very humans that struggle with these issues. The most
comprehensive yardstick for ethical behaviour that has been proposed so far is
Kant’s categorical imperative, and understanding its principles is crucial to
modern moral philosophy.
A Foundation for Ethics
Immanuel Kant was an eighteenth century
German philosopher from
Kant’s categorical imperative is first described in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, published in 1785). In this piece, the first of three major works on ethics, Kant begins by considering how we think about ethical behaviour in common sense terms, and then develops this into a conception in terms of popular philosophy. From here, he develops his ideas of the metaphysics of morals into a critique of what he calls “pure practical reason”. These would later be expanded into his books Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Metaphysics of Morals (1797).
In understanding Kant’s work today, we face
a choice in how to review his formulation of the categorical imperative. Do we
start at the same place as Kant, working from common sense ideas? Or do we skip
ahead to the end and see what he is talking about before looking at how he gets
there? It is helpful to peek ahead and note that Kantianism (moral philosophy
in the tradition founded by Kant) is based on the idea that morality begins
with freedom – morality as autonomy. It is perhaps this idea which makes
Kant’s moral philosophy so valuable, even today.
Freedom requires an absence of external influences – if a person acts out of desire for something, or for recognition, or for vengeance, then they are not free in Kant’s terms – they are “beholden” (that is, enslaved) by their influence. And crucially, in Kant’s view influence can occur within a person, but still be external to that person’s will: our greed may drive us to steal, for instance, but that greed is a force outside of our will. As a result, Kant’s freedom is not “the freedom to do what you want”, but something subtly different: the freedom to do as you would will. This distinction effectively separates desires from what can be willed – and it is by this means that Kant attaches rationality to morality.
Kant says in the Groundwork:
Autonomy of the will is the property that the will has of being a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition).
Or to put it another way – if we wish to be autonomous, we must avoid being compelled into action by external influences and instead be certain that those actions we take are those we can rationally will.
Kant’s position is that when we interpret
autonomy in this manner, as acting on our rational will, we create a
perspective on morality which applies to all rational beings – a
categorical imperative (in Kant’s opinion the categorical imperative).
In the Groundwork, he composes three principal approaches to this,
written in five unique ways, but in his mind, Kant views all such formulations
as expressions of the same principle – the categorical imperative.
The First Formula: The Ethical as the Universal
Beginning by how we look at ethics from a
common sense perspective, Kant begins his exposition of his categorical
imperative by leading to what is conventionally referred to as the Formula of
Universal Law (FUL):
Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
There is also a variant on this theme, the Formula of the Law of Nature (FLN):
So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.
This talk of ‘maxims’ is one of many distracting terminological issues in the way Kant writes (and is translated); by ‘maxim’, Kant refers to the specific justification for a particular action.
Suppose that you wish to steal a book from
a library, because you want the book and you can’t afford it. The maxim of your
action in this instance is “I will steal a book, because I want it and cannot
Now this first formula says, in essence, that one is behaving ethically only if the maxims one acts upon could be willingly considered to be universal laws. The argument goes, therefore, that stealing books from the library (or indeed from any place) is unethical because one cannot rationally will this to be a universal law. Indeed, to do so in this case creates an obvious contradiction: if you want the book, but to take it you need a universal law that allows theft of books, then you will not achieve your goal of possessing the book – the universal law that allowed you to steal it allows someone else to steal it from you. Thus, there is a logical contradiction and this maxim cannot be considered ethical.
Conversely, consider a destitute person who
wishes to steal a loaf of bread in order to eat. The maxim of action in this
case is: “I will steal bread, because I must eat and cannot afford to buy
bread.” Here, it is not so clear whether one can will this as a universal law,
and a matter of choice perhaps enters the question. I believe I could will this
as a universal law, but a baker may be less willing to agree! This demonstrates
that Kant’s first formula of the categorical imperative cannot produce absolute
answers to ethical questions – but it provides a framework for evaluating the
ethics of a particular action, based upon the premise upon which one acts.
This first formula express the Kantian concept of universalisation; the idea that for behaviour to be ethical, it must be possible to universalise it. John Rawls does much to clarify Kant’s position in this respect by considering that this process of universalisation must remove all specific referents if it is to be valid – Rawls imagines a situation in which our laws are agreed to from what he calls the Original Position, where the individuals are rational but lack knowledge of the specifics of their own life circumstances. So in the previous example, the baker could not object, because in the Original Position the person does not know that they are a baker. This idea did much to revitalise interest in Kantian ethics in the twentieth century.
From a common sense perspective, then, Kant
asserts that the ethical and the universal are equivalent. Whatever we can
accept as a universal standard of behaviour can be considered ethical. This is
a simple an intuitive idea which has merit, but it is only the beginning of
Kant’s exploration of the matter at hand.
The Second Formula: Mutual Respect
Working towards a metaphysics of morals,
Kant’s second formulation of his categorical imperative is what is referred to
as the Formula of Humanity as End in Itself (FH):
Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means.
Here we can see the idea of the universal developed towards a specific rational conclusion in the context of other people. If we are to see ethics as universalisable principles, we cannot allow for people to be used solely as a means to an end without taking into account what they want (their ends). Such behaviour could not be considered universal, for we cannot will that we shall be used to achieve a goal that we do not share.
A modern example would be employers which
take advantage of their employees by paying low wages, providing no benefits,
and insisting on long hours. This is unethical by Kant’s second formula. Such a
company is pursuing its end – of making as much money as possible – without
taking into account the ends of the employees. The goals of the company are not
the goals of the employee, and it is unethical to use people in this way (at
least in Kant’s view).
It may be objected that if all the employee wants is money, there is a confluence of ends, but even here one must consider the discrepancy between what the company makes, and what the employee is paid. Paying minimum wage may be acceptable in a job with low turnover, but in a highly profitable company (such as Wal-Mart) which pays generous wages and bonuses to its management and executives, low employee wages is a clear case of using the workers solely as means, and not respecting their ends.
This second formula expresses the idea of mutual
respect; that the goals of all individuals must be taken into
consideration, and that using people solely as a means to an end is unethical. Although
often overlooked in the history of human rights, Kant’s moral philosophy is
acknowledged by most philosophers as utterly crucial to this field. If Kant had
not created an ethical system which stressed the dignity of humanity on the
basis of its rational nature, it would not have been possible to formulate
human rights in the manner we currently understand them.
The Third Formula: Communal Autonomy
Finally, Kant draws together the themes of
the first two formulae into his final statement of his categorical imperative:
the Formula of Autonomy (FA):
the idea of the will of every rational being as a will giving universal law
Not to choose otherwise than so that the maxims of one’s choice are at the same time comprehended with it in the same volition as universal law.
In this formulation we see Kant drawing together the earlier themes of universalisation and mutual respect. What results is an ethical perspective whereby a person’s capacity for self-determination – their autonomy – is seen as central to morality. If there is no freedom to choose, there can be no morality, for ethical deliberations require the possibility of meaningful decisions. In Kant’s view, if there is no freedom of the will – no autonomy – there can be no morality.
This was a remarkable step forward in moral philosophy, and all the more so because it did not require God as its justification for moral behaviour. Kant was a Lutheran, but he found much of the empty rhetoric of the Christian church in his day to be vacuous, and saw its self-serving corruption as the mark of “radical evil”. In his view, the moral law was not dictated by God, it was inherent in man’s God-given rational nature.
Kant’s God is the ideal of reason, which he acknowledges cannot be
objectively (measurably) real, and so (in Critique of Pure Reason) he
holds that “God does not exist”, in the sense that God does not belong in the
sphere of ontology (being) at all. Kant thus rejects the notion of the
“existence of God” as misleading (now a common theme in modern Christian
theology), but still emphatically asserts that the idea of God is meaningful.
He claims that morality cannot exist without God, because God to Kant is the
ideal of reason, and Kantian ethics derive their force from rationality. But
those who do not make this connection can still usefully employ Kantian ethics,
as their formulation is entirely independent of Kant’s theology (something most
earlier ethicists cannot claim).
As a variant of the Formula of Autonomy, Kant presents what is known as the Formula of the Realm of Ends (FRE):
Act in accordance with maxims of a universally legislative member for a merely possible realm of ends.
The term ‘realm of ends’ is another confusing piece of Kantian jargon, but it is easy to understand what it means when it is seen as the extension of the notion of autonomy to society as a whole. The ‘realm of ends’ is the confluence of the goals of all people, where everyone is systematically united and offering mutual support towards their various ends. Kant does not believe that this is wholly achievable – he says it is “merely possible” – but he asserts strongly the value of this ideal as a guiding principle in ethics.
The third formula therefore expresses the
idea of communal autonomy; that we must as rational beings with free
will co-operate towards our mutual goals, and that this is the ultimate
statement of the ethical. Kant’s ‘realm of ends’ is a near-impossible ideal of
all humanity co-operating towards a united community. This final formula best
expresses what Kant means by the categorical imperative, and thus what Kant
understands as ethical.
Criticisms of the Categorical Imperative
There are many ways in which one can
wriggle out of Kant’s strict position, but it is worth noting that for the most
part Kantianism remains a dominant force in ethics. One of the strengths of
Kant’s position was its flexibility – it does not state comprehensibly what
moral behaviour entails, it merely provides tools to explore morality and to
consider what should be considered unethical behaviour.
A great many modern ethicists incorporate Kant to some degree in their moral philosophy, although the range of approaches is vast – which is in itself a testament to the versatility of the Kantian position. Shelley Kagan even manages to take Kant’s strictly deontological (rules or rights-focussed) ethics and apply them to consequentialism (outcome-focussed ethics)! This highlights my point that one system of ethics can be transformed into another by changing which part of the “ethical sentence” we wish to pay attention to.
Minor criticism of Kant is so voluminous as to defy any attempt to summarise, but much of it is based upon analysing the first formula (universalisation), and attempting to show how it fails to express the ethical. Allen W. Wood soundly dismisses attempts to refute Kant’s position on this basis by noting that this is merely the stepping point for the underlying concept, and that Kant himself clearly believed the final formula (communal autonomy) was key, as this was the only formulation he refers to in his later works. Allen is thus scathing of those who attempt to use Kant’s first formula as “an ethical sausage machine”, used mechanically to crank out rules of action, and calls for a deeper understanding of Kant’s underlying principles.
A common way to dispute Kant is to take
task on the issue of free will, and claim that free will is incompatible with a
world of cause and effect. However, as already noted in discussion of the
concept of fate, this issue is a metaphysical distraction. Onora O’Neil
provides the closest to a coherent attempt on this ground, but her criticism
relates to Kant’s metaphysics – his separation of our existence as phenomenal
(natural and casually determined) beings and as noumenal (non-natural and
self-determined) beings. This distinction is tangential to Kant’s case; all that
is required is for free will to have meaning – which is comparatively easy to
defend – how one then incorporates this into a grander scheme is
tangential, and the alleged incoherence of Kant’s dual version of humanity is
thus a largely irrelevant metaphysical tangent.
Arthur Schopenhauer, writing in 1840,
provides the most comprehensive (and pedantic!) criticism of Kant’s Groundwork,
concluding that the true basis of morality is compassion or sympathy. Although
this tied morality closer to the Golden Rule, his influence was not Christian,
but in fact the Upanishads of Hinduism, and the teachings of Buddhism.
Schopenhauer affords to Kant the distinction of having identified the criterion
of morality – but considers it to be contained solely in the second formulation
of the categorical imperative, that is, in treating other people as ends and
not merely as means. I am sympathetic to Schopenhauer’s position, but believe
it overlooks the value of communal autonomy implied by Kant’s final
Kierkegaard also took task with Kant’s position, believing that autonomy was insufficient for morality, as individuals were not up to the challenge being asked of them. This is perhaps the most biting criticism, as it asks whether we are able to fulfil the high ethical ideals Kant proposed. However, it does not dispute the basis of Kant’s argument – and indeed, Kierkegaard consistently assumes that the ethical and the universal are equivalent terms. It merely questions the practical force of the categorical imperative in a world of self-determination on account of the general inability of individuals to assert their will over their desires.
In formulating his categorical imperative, Kant created a yardstick that was robust enough to provide a perspective for analysing ethical behaviour, yet flexible enough to be applicable to any society – provided it was based on free will. His three key ideas of the ethical as universal, mutual respect, and communal autonomy were major influences in the development of human rights, and provide a cornerstone to modern moral philosophy that is independent to (but compatible with) the idea of God.
Kant’s conception that we must co-operate towards our mutual goals, and in doing so form an ethical community based on individual freedom, is a powerful ideal that can inspire and enrich our modern societies. That it is difficult to overcome the differences in our belief systems such that we can find ways for the ends that we will to harmonise does not reduce the inspirational value of this utopian vision, nor detract from the categorical imperative’s power to provide a viable foundation to the idea of the ethical.