This paper tackles the categorical imperative theory of Immanuel Kant as well as its first and second formulations and how they apply to a particular case of infidelity. Introduction In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant defines an imperative as any proposition that declares a certain action or inaction to be necessary and practical (Kant, 1993, p. 413). The categorical imperative is a type of imperative which states what one ought to do under certain circumstances and it implies the moral requirement that we should act directly and unconditionally in order to achieve some end or purpose (p. 417).
In the Groundwork, Kant distinguishes between the hypothetical imperative and the categorical imperative. The hypothetical imperative states that if one wants to do A, then he should do B, or he may choose not to do B or even A (p. 414). On the other hand, the categorical imperative requires that if one wants to do A, then he really ought to do B. It therefore follows that doing B is of an absolute necessity, is considered a moral duty, and is unconditional (p. 420). An Ethical Situation and the Action Taken
The situation that is to be considered for the analysis is that of a young man who has a girlfriend and who once swore to love her and only her and not to cheat on her in whatever way especially by having flings with another girl. For many months he has kept this promise in order to make her happy and make the relationship work. However, one day this young man just happens to get to know one extremely beautiful young girl on Facebook, a girl who is more beautiful than his own girlfriend judging from the same standards.
After a few secret exchanges of messages on the same social networking site, the young man meets up with her without telling anyone and they have a date that ended up in a sexual encounter. Evaluation of the Situation Based on the First Formulation For any imperative to be a categorical imperative or a true moral proposition, Kant proposes that this imperative should possess universality. This means that it must not concern itself with the particular physical details and circumstances surrounding the present situation, including the seemingly most pressing instinctual needs of the individual on which the ethical situation is focused.
Kant therefore states that there is only one categorical imperative and it is this: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (p. 421). In the situation, the young man clearly does not obey the categorical imperative when he decides to exchange messages with the girl on Facebook and later on meet up with her. If the young man made a promise of loyalty, then it is his moral duty to do so (p. 422).
This means that if the notion of promising to be faithful to one’s lover and breaking it is universalized, then, based on the first formulation of the categorical imperative, there would be no promises at all and no such thing as honest oaths between lovers. The young man is therefore, according to Kant, never justified in the infidelity that he committed. Evaluation of the Situation Based on the Second Formulation Another characteristic of the categorical imperative is that it should not only be a principle but that it should also be an end in itself, unlike a hypothetical imperative on which many human moral decisions are based.
Thus, if a hypothetical imperative goes like, “If you want to do A, you should do B,” the categorical imperative should go like, “Do B,” for doing B is an end in itself and not a means to any other end like A. Kant therefore states, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity…always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end” (p. 428). In our situation, the young man, based on the second formulation, has clearly violated the categorical imperative and this violation lies in the young man’s making an oath of faithfulness to his girlfriend in order to make her happy and to make the relationship work.
According to the second formulation, if you have made a promise in order to make someone happy and to make the relationship work, then you are not acting out of moral duty; because if you are, then you will have made such a promise as an end in itself. The young man should have made the promise of loyalty just out of pure reverence for promise itself in exactly the same way as one decides to love not for the happiness of the other but for the sake of love itself. For Kant and the categorical imperative, true morality is doing one’s moral duty without concerning himself with the results (p. 417).
The young man in the situation tried to concern himself with the results. Owing to this, his promise was therefore not purely made and such a fact may have even been the reason behind his subsequent immoral act. Conclusion Kant teaches us that an action is good and moral not because it is based on reason as what the rationalists contend nor because it has good results as what the utilitarians say, but that it is done in obedience to an inner sense of duty – the categorical imperative.
According to this principle and based on the scenario presented, one should make a promise of love and keep it because the fulfillment of a promise is universal. One should also keep a promise of love not for any other reason such as the happiness of the other but for the sake of the promise itself, for true moral duty is self-sufficient and does not concern itself with results. References Kant, I. (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by James W. Elington. 3rd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. , 413-428.
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