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Ethics of Kant and the Categorical Imperative Essay

What is a categorical imperative? A categorical imperative is a moral obligation which is absolute and necessary in any moral situation and isn’t reliant on a singular person’s desires or wills. For Kant, categorical imperatives are the foundation for morality because they invoke “pure” reasons for our moral actions and decisions since each rational being reasons to act outside of their own personal desires or will which may cloud judgments or impose a biased verdict of the situation. Kant explains this by distinguishing two different kinds of imperatives; categorical and hypothetical.

Obviously Kant is interested in categorical imperatives and uses this distinction to show the difference between them so that categorical imperatives come out stronger. As stated before, categorical imperatives according to Kant are moral obligations which are absolute and necessary in any moral situation and isn’t reliant on a particular person’s desires or purpose. He also says that categorical imperatives (obligations) are such if they are of a commanding or imposing nature. For example “Don’t murder! ” is a categorical imperative which is binding to every rational person and forces a person to act of good will.

Hypothetical imperatives on the other hand are obligations in which there is an end result of your action which is in turn a result of your personal desires our thoughts. An example of a hypothetical imperative is the statement “If you want to stay out of jail, then don’t murder”. Here, there is no sense of authority behind it; it doesn’t have any weight or value behind it. He further distinguishes that there are different types of imperatives which make us act or think the way that we do in a question of morality. These distinctions are imperatives of skill, imperatives of prudence, and imperatives of morality.

Kant does recognize the imperatives of skill and prudence even though he doesn’t believe them to be intrinsically “good” or “of good will”. Imperatives of skill call for action and are a means to an end in which the end that the person is seeking isn’t the end result of happiness but something else. An example of this would be the duty to not smoke cigarettes in order to live a healthy lifestyle. Here, your end goal is to live a healthy lifestyle in order to avoid conditions associated with smoking. Imperatives of prudence also calls for action and is a means to an

end but with the end result being a product of the person hoping to achieve happiness. For example, the duty to be polite and respectful so that others will do the same unto you and in turn you will be happy. Here, you are hoping to achieve the end of being happy by acting in a polite and respectful way. Imperatives of morality for Kant are totally different from those of prudence and skill. These duties do not have a specific means to an end but instead they represent a way of determining what to do because of what is morally right.

These imperatives are the ones in which they are categorical since a rational being is one in which you are exposed to a situation in which you must determine what the right thing to do is and being a rational being, you choose the action which has good will which in turn means you are acting my duty due to respect and understanding of morality in general. For example the duty to not physically harm another person doesn’t have a specific end that will satisfy yourself but it is the morally right thing to do if you are a rational person who respects the wellbeing of yourself as well as others.

How does he arrive at the conclusion that The Categorical Imperative is the “purest” way to reason your morals? He reasons that the only thing that is unconditionally good is the good will and that good will is an act of duty. For Kant, acting from your duty means not acting by your own desires and wills but for respect of morality in general. Looking at the Categorical Imperative versus other moral theories, the Categorical Imperative is the only one in which a person’s desires or inclinations aren’t needed to make a moral decision (versus Aristotle’s view that a person’s skill and acting prudently is what contributes to moral decisions).

Therefore; the only thing that is unconditionally good is to act according to The Categorical Imperative. From this, Kant is saying that the amount of value placed on morals of any action or decision depends on moral duty and moral law. For Kant, if a person acts from a good will then they are acting by moral duty and if a moral decision is binding to every person capable of having a rational thought, then they are acting by moral law.

Since both are required for a “pure rational reason”, then The Categorical Imperative is the only moral law which allows us to meet these requirements of allowing us to act from good will and to also be binding to every person. Even though Kant does seem to be making his point, he has many flaws in his reasoning. One problem is that he doesn’t look at the big picture; he seems to say that if we are to make a moral decision then it should be based on being intrinsically good so that you are able to universalize it which is a good thought however he doesn’t look at situations case by case.

He doesn’t believe that there are any exceptions to his theory about categorical imperatives, he believes that it is morally right to act in a certain way for one situation, then you should act that way in all situations and also if it is wrong to act a certain way then it is wrong to act that way in any situation you are in. An example of this is say your best friend is very sick in the hospital and is feeling down. None of his/her friends seems to be coming to visit so your friend’s mom asks you to go and visit but then she adds that she will pay you twenty dollars if you go and do it. So you go and visit your friend which cheers them up.

A few weeks later when they are out of the hospital, your friend’s dad accidentally tells your friend that you were paid by their mother to go visit. Your friend is infuriated and confronts you about the situation. Here is the dilemma: do you tell your friend that you were going to visit them anyway and the money was a bonus or do you lie and say that you never took the money in order to save your friend from hurt feelings and a damaged friendship? In this situation Kant would have you tell the truth because lying in general is immoral so if it is immoral in one situation, it is immoral in all situations no matter the circumstances.

Another problem with Kant’s theory is that it creates contradictories since there is no room for exceptions even though some duties conflict with each other. An example I will use to show is this from the Bible in Numbers 10:4-6: “Who will give us meat to eat? ” they said. “Think of the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic! Here we are wasting away, stripped of everything; there is nothing but manna for us to look at! ” Here, the Israelites are complaining about their new source of food which God provided for them, because it isn’t tasty and that is the only thing they have to eat.

The Israelites are contradicting their new found freedom by wishing for the food they had back in Egypt when they were enslaved under the Pharaoh. Should they be thankful for their newfound freedom even though they have bad food or should they desire the good food they had while they were enslaved? This is a contradiction. Kant seems to only focus on the motives for our actions in moral situations versus the actual outcomes of our actions (which is kind of the point in acting or not acting in a dutiful way).

There are many times in which we have good intentions for a situation but what ends up being the outcome of those intentions are abysmal. For example, consider a family member is terminally ill and is in constant pain on a daily basis. There is no hope of a cure or for the pain to diminish; your family member must endure the pain until the illness kills them. What if your family member asked you to aid in their plan to commit suicide in order to escape their pain? Say you come to the decision to help them after deciding it is the morally right thing to do.

Without thinking of the outcome of the situation, you are soon found guilty of a felony charge of aiding in a suicide. Even though you had good intentions, the outcome of a person dying with the help of another person clearly outweighs the good and the outcome of the act is just as important as the decision itself. Overall, morality is too complex and full of exceptions to situations so that specific decision procedures won’t work. Kant believes that morality necessitates that we do the morally right thing because it is right, and for no other reason.

He also believes that we should account ourselves to the same standards we would require of everyone else so that we aren’t placing exceptions for our own benefit. We must use our reason to come to our own conclusions about good will and ignore our predispositions even if they tend to point in the right direction. An action or decision is only intrinsically worthy because of your ought to do it, because of your obligation to do it. I think what Kant was trying to aim at was the importance of a person’s character (acting the right way even when you may not want to). Only the actions done from our obligations have any value.

They have value because we will them from our obligations not because of the goal we try and achieve or the outcome we intend to happen. We have obligations to each other and our actions are right when we are correctly motivated in the face of every obstacle keeping us from those obligations. It isn’t easy being unbiased by our predispositions or desires, but predispositions and desires are often conflicting with what is right. Works Cited The Holy Bible: King James Version. Dallas, TX: Brown Books Publishing, 2004. Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge University Press. 2012. Print.


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