An Analysis and Application of Kants Categorical Imperative

The following discussion provides a detailed analysis of the first formulation of Kants categorical imperative (henceforth CI) by specifying the framework Kant provides for the existence of the CI. Such an analysis will reveal a problem in the tight framework of Kants moral philosophy.

ONeills discussion of Kants philosophy in Constructions of Reason provides three formulations of his CI, these being, (1) Formula of Universal Law (henceforth FUL), (2) Formula of the End-in-Itself (henceforth FEI) and (3) Formula of the Kingdom of Ends (henceforth FKE) (126). FUL provides the most common formulation of the CI as it states, Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law (qtd. in ONeill 126). FEI, on the other hand, states, Act in such a way that you always treat humanity whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end (qtd in ONeill 126-127). Finally, FKE takes the following form, All maxims as proceeding from our own making of law ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of end as a kingdom of nature (qtd in ONeill 127). Kant himself specified the relationship amongst these different versions of the CI as he posits that FUL, FEI, and FKE are at bottom merely so many formulations of precisely the same law, one of them by itself containing a combination of the other two (qtd in ONeill 127). For the sake of brevity, this discussion will focus on the first formulation of CI mentioned above, that being FUL.

In Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant argues for the existence of a CI as he posits that actions in the realm of ethics are categorical in nature, wherein a categorical action refers to a form of action which is dependent on the form and principle of which it is itself a result (76). These actions take the form of an imperative or command since, within the realm of ethics, each individual has a duty towards other individuals as well as towards himself to ensure the attainment of the good, which Kant refers to as the good will (Groundwork 55). The concept will here ought to be understood as practical reason as it refers to an individuals ability to gear his actions in line with principles (Groundwork 73). Principles here refer to representation of laws (Groundwork 73).  The will is practical reason since it refers to an individuals capacity to align his actions determined by his reason for the attainment of the good, which is an end independent from his inclinations and hence dependent on his reason alone (Groundwork 73). An imperative, in this sense, can be categorical since reason serves as the form and principle of action which requires individuals to formulate their actions for the attainment of the good.
FUI is a CI since it requires a rational being to base his actions on universalizable principles, the universalizability of which is ensured by each individuals possession of reason. In order to understand this, it is important to elucidate on the two main parts of the FUI. The initial part of the FUI provides the category for formulating an action as it states that one should base ones actions on maxims. The later part of the FUI, on the other hand, provides conditions for the principle to be chosen as it requires these principles to be universalizable.

An individuals capacity to base his actions on principles has already been clarified above as it was specified that the realm of morality requires each individual, by virtue of his possession of rationality, to base his actions on specific principles. It is important to note that the first part of FUI allows an individual to base his actions on a subjective maxim, the subjectivity of which is based on its dependence on the parameters set by the immediate conditions in which the individual is required to formulate a basis for actions. It is important to note that although the initial part of FUI is based on a subjective maxim, these maxims are arrived at through the use of reflective judgment (henceforth RJ) which Kant refers to as the consideration of nature (in order to guide our judgment on things in the world by means of such an Idea as a regulative principle, in conformity with the human Understanding) (Critique 198). In other words RJ refers to judgments whose appraisal for an action is based on a singular or subjective account of a particular case. Kant provides different maxims for the appraisal of RJ, these being (1) maxim of unprejudiced thought, (2) maxim of enlarged thought and (3) maxim of consecutive thought (Critique 102). The maxim of unprejudiced thought states that one ought to continuously assess the rationality of ones beliefs (Critique 102). The maxim of enlarged thought, on the other hand, states that one ought to consistently expand the scope of ones beliefs (Critique 102). Finally, the maxim of consecutive thought states that one ought to ensure the coherence of ones beliefs (Critique 102). These maxims serve as guides for formulating RJ and hence also serve as guidelines for determining the maxims to be followed in the initial part of FUI specified above.

The later part of the FUI, on the other hand, requires an individual to act on an objective maxim as it introduces universalizability as a qualifier for the subjective principle that an individual choices in performing a moral action. This qualifier is determined by the universalizability test which requires an individual to base his actions on a principle which requires all moral situations with the same parameters to be addressed in the same manner. Within the context of FUI, an act is universalizable if an only if it is possible to conceive of a world wherein all rational beings perform an act, A within the context of B without leading to inconsistencies. In FUI, what ensures an individuals capability to address this qualifier is its inclusion of the will in the CI. The will, which is practical reason, ensures an individuals capability to determine the universalizability of an action by virtue of human beings possession of rationality.

An application of FUI to the moral dilemma of euthanasia thereby takes the following form. First, an individual specifies a specific maxim which he will apply to his situation. He may arrive at his maxim by following the maxims of RJ specified above. If the maxim he arrives at states that he ought to perform euthanasia, he will then assess whether this maxim is universalizable by addressing whether it can be performed by other rational individuals if they are in the same situation by considering if it is possible to conceive of a world wherein all rational beings perform euthanasia.

Although Kants deontological philosophy provides an interesting account of the relationship of rationality and morality, a problem with Kants moral philosophy lies in its inability to provide the grounds for determining a hierarchy of the good. There are some ethical situations, for example, wherein in choosing a particular form of good, one neglects another form of good. An example of this is evident in the case of lying. An individual, for example, may lie in order to prevent the death of another individual. In the case of lying to save a life, the conflict is apparent since lying opposes a morally good action which is telling the truth. However, within the context of the scenario mentioned above lying will lead to a morally good action which is ensuring another entitys well-being. The FUI will state that in this scenario the individual ought to tell the truth and hence allow the death of the other individual. Within the context of the FUI, this action is moral since it holds that if lying is universally adhered to by all individual in society then social order would no longer exist. This problem in Kants philosophy is more evident if it is presented in its form.

In the context of FUI, A is good if and only if A is universalizable if it is performed in the context of C, which pertains to specific event. During instances wherein A is performed in order to achieve B, which refers to another form of good, in the context of C, if A is not universalizable, it follows that A regardless of B is an immoral action. Another example of this is apparent in the following case. An application of FUI to the case of a person who commits murder in order to prevent the rape of his daughter would be considered as an immoral action since what will only be considered in the FUI is the universalizability of the act of committing murder and not its consequence.

As a counter-argument to the counter-example mentioned above, one may argue that Kant implicitly provided a hierarchy of the good as he made a distinction between a perfect and imperfect duty wherein the former takes precedence over the later. Despite of this, the non-consequentialist stance of Kants deontological philosophy still fails to consider the possible consequences for ones actions in performing an act thereby failing to account for the reasons behind an action. In Kants FUI an act which is not universalizable is immoral regardless of its consequences since it always assumes that an individual will perform the most rational action in a particular scenario. By doing this, Kants moral philosophy provided a strict framework for addressing moral situations however it also failed to account for instances that may lead to the attainment of two or more conflicting manifestations of the good.


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