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The Categorical Imperative Essay

In addressing the issue of the existence of moral truths, Immanuel Kant presents one of the more popular meta-ethical theories we have today. Deriving his ethics from a purely rational standpoint, he presented a theory which may apply to any action made by any individual in any situation (Guthrie, 2001); one which, in his words, “should be determined solely from a priori principles without any empirical motives, and which we might call a pure will, but volition in general” (Kant, 1785). Morality is a priori

Kant believed that individuals should, of their own accord, perform decisions and actions solely for morality’s sake. In his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant (1785) argues that morality is a priori, that is, pre-observational; what determines the rightness or wrongness of an action is not the consequence of his actions, but rather the quality of motive behind it. And in Kantian deontology, the only motive which makes an action right is when it is done for the sake of rightness alone: I do this because it is simply the right thing to do.

Yet even Kant is aware of the fact that as humans, it may be downright impossible to find or perform such an action which conforms to the idea; everything we do, more or less, has some taint of selfish motive. Kant states: “It is absolutely impossible to make out by experience with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of an action, however right in itself, rested simply on moral grounds and on the conception of duty.

Sometimes it happens that with the sharpest self-examination we can find nothing beside the moral principle of duty which could have been powerful enough to move us to this or that action and to so great a sacrifice; yet we cannot from this infer with certainty that it was not really some secret impulse of self-love, under the false appearance of duty, that was the actual determining cause of the will” (Kant, 1785).

In this statement we find two apparently critical concepts in establishing the categorical imperative, that is, duty and will, which are topics on another publication of Kant entitled Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative. “Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative” Guthrie (2001) explains that moral duty refers to the complete separation of a moral means from its end-results. Furthermore: “By making the act universal and necessary, the highest good must be achieved in the subject-object relationship.

This determines what our duty is. In understanding what the proper ideal is in the maximization of the highest good of each action, we look through it in our perception of the world and how we ought to act in it” (Guthrie, 2001). In order to distinguish his deontology an a priori morality, he provides the foundational trait of good will, declaring that only through it one may achieve anything which could be called good.

This is what separates Kantian deontology from other ethical systems, which appeal to more concrete things like pleasure or happiness as motivational foundations for our actions (Guthrie, 2001). Guthrie (2001) notes that the categorical imperative, according to Kant, is something that ought to be universal; that is, an action good in itself is categorical, while an action which is deemed good only as a means to other ends, then it is hypothetical (Kant, 1785).

That said, the aim of the categorical imperative is to present a universal meter stick for all our actions, and to make us further realize that as humans, we have the capacity to act with purely moral motivations. ? References Kant, I. (1785). Fundamental principles of the metaphysic of morals (S. Thomas, Trans. ). Retrieved 12 June 2009 from http://ebooks. adelaide. edu. au/k/kant/immanuel/k16prm/index. html Guthrie, S. L. (2001). Immanuel Kant and the categorical imperative. In The examined life on-line philosophy journal. Retrieved 12 June 2009 from http://sguthrie. net/kant. htm


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