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Kant's categorical imperitive

  1. Aug 4, 2010 #1
    Kant is probably the hardest philosopher to understand. Even the above is an unclear mouthful. So if anyone could lay out a clear explanation of what it actually is, it would make discussing it much easier.

    This is an ethical discussion. So generally cultural and religious relativism should be left out of it. Arguments should be grounded with some reasoning or experience (such as thought experiments).

    Anyways, in so far as I understand, it says something like before acting, we should consider what would happen if everyone made the same decision. He tries to point out that if everyone did that, there would be a contradiction between what the agent (person making the decision in the first place) intends to accomplish and what he would actually accomplish if everyone did it. I think another way to think of it is to say that we should only make choices that we think everyone should make (or at least consider it).

    I'll just demonstrate one example, about "the lying promise". Stuart needs money so that he can repay some urgent debt. He asks his friend for a loan, promising to pay it back, while at the same time knows he will never be able to do this. So he's making a promise (usually good) but lying (usually bad).

    The categorical imperitive (CI) analysis would first ask what would happen if everyone did that. Well, eventually people would realise no one keeps promises, and so no one would trust each other, and so a promise could never be made - which is what this started with! It's a contradiction because what he uses ends up prevent what he started with. He acts without considering the universal consequences.

    Kant doesn't argue from a consequentialist point of view, he considers the intentions more important than the effects (the means over the ends). My post is probably a bit unclear, but I've just started on the CI and am looking for simple clarification and good discussion :)
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 12, 2010
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  3. Aug 12, 2010 #2
    Sorry I don't know much of the subject, so I don't have much to contribute, but I think this interpretation is limited? Consider: if I was a pregnant woman and I wanted to get an abortion, that doesn't mean I would want every pregnant woman to get an abortion (or even consider it). Something like an abortion (leaving politics aside) is a very situational decision and highly depends on the circumstances of pregnancy.

    But maybe I am looking at it too simply. :)
  4. Aug 12, 2010 #3


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    Kant is arguing for moral absolutism, saying that only those morals that can be applied universally can be valid. Anything less leads to logical inconsistencies and functional problems.
  5. Aug 12, 2010 #4
    I think yours is a good example to check validity of Kant's statement, and I think it is valid.

    If I apply it to your example, I'd say, yes, you'd want all pregnant woman to do as you, if they were is SAME situation as you are when choosing for abortion (or else, why would you want it for yourself, if it's not the best decision in given situation).

    In short, I don't think Kant's statement is far from old saying: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

    In short, as I see it, both statements say: Have best intentions, always.

    None can truly know what's the best decision in every given situation in universal viewpoint (we simply cannot know how future will unfold - e.g. saving a human life is considered as universally good act, but what if we save life, say, of a serial-killer and we didn't know it at that moment?). But I do think that we, humans, are pretty well capable of knowing what's best (for self and others) if specific situation at that particular moment when decision is being taken.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2010
  6. Aug 12, 2010 #5


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    Kant is arguing that moral laws are valid if you wish them to apply to all people. Kant is not arguing for a specific system of morality, but an absolute morality based the personal moral convictions of each and every one. Russ said, and Kant argues, that morals which does not agree with this imperative is inconsistent and thus cannot be genuine moral convictions.

    You will have to grant that it is morally acceptable that people in a similar situation as yourself decides to have an abortion.
  7. Aug 12, 2010 #6
    Nicely explained.
  8. Aug 12, 2010 #7


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    I'll discuss more later but the abortion example isn't valid: the woman is not getting an abortion because she thinks it is a moral requirement, she mereley believes it is morally permissible.
  9. Aug 12, 2010 #8
    What if medical tests showed up that her child has down syndrome?

    I think it's more pro life if she does abortion, since such a child cannot live a normal, healthy and long life, nor can parents have a normal life anymore (one has to leave job and provide support all day long). IMO it's better to try again, to get a healthy child, one who can grow into a healthy and happy person. Better for child, parents and society.

    Also, I don't think Kant's statement is about moral requirements, nothing in life is truly required, or say necessary, or worse, a must. Healthy life is not a must, but a gift.
  10. Aug 12, 2010 #9


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    It is, actually, an imperative is a requirement, a moral obligation to act. Kant's ethics revolves around the notion of duty.

    If you are (though presumably not) convinced that taking an abortion is a necessary moral act, then it would be morally right to take it. But the question was if it is morally wrong to take an abortion, i.e. that it breaks with the categorical imperative. In that case you must ask yourself if you accept the maxim "you ought to keep your child" as a universal law for all. If not, then it is at least not your moral duty to keep your child.
  11. Aug 13, 2010 #10
    On the pregnancy example, it was Elizabeth anscombe (another philosoper) who said situation was important. For a simpler example, if I wanted to lie to save someones life, the universalisation would not be everyone can lie, but that everyone can lie to save someones life. But if you can keep adding situations, this makes the theory relativist, while Kant is arguing that something is right no matter what.

    Another obvious objection is that if you "good will" causes something bad. What if I try to save a man's life and he ends up dying? Kant says you are blameless because you did nothing wrong. He says only if you didn't try to save him are you responsible for his death. Most of us think this is wrong, because someone must be responsible.

    So similarly for the serial-killer thing, you are right because you tried to save a life and aren't responsible for what he is. Its exactly like this in the Hippocratic Oath, doctors have to save a life, sinner or saint.

    Don't really want to make this about abortion - because that's a controversial case and deserves its own thread. Just trying to analyse the CI in itself. Another thing: try to play the devil's advocate and defend Kant even thought you can think of a counter example. That makes a true philosopher!
  12. Aug 13, 2010 #11
    Another example. Kant would say (I guess) that universal moral law is to not torture any human being. But what if a nuclear scientist made a nuclear bomb and set it to explode in a major city, and when caught he refuses to reveal location, so bomb could be stopped from exploding, we then shouldn't force him, with physical and/or psychological torture, to reveal location?

    There's a movie about this topic, but it might also be that motivations for producing such a movie were also to make public think that torture is OK if it is possible to save many lives -- and by having this fear imprinted in general public governments would surely have freer hands in how they treat those who they consider to be terrorists (either they really are or if they just need to get rid of someone who might reveal their secrets which aren't meant to be revealed).

    Also, IMO, moral universals don't depend only on situations but also on particular individual who'd form a moral universal. Some people would say that all lies are bad, while others would say that a lie which results in a positive outcome is good. So, is it really possible to make universal moral laws which would hold true for everyone?

    Even if I try to 'defend' Kant's viewpoint I don't see it as possibility, for we'd need someone all-knowing who could provide such universally valid "moral laws", and even then, all would have to completely trust that authority, and I doubt people would, even if God would appear in front of them and display incredible powers some might still claim that he's not benevolent God, but Satan in disguise.

    I don't think that our human race can ever create moral laws of universal quality, but if I'll get proven wrong, I'll be very happy about it. Let's not lose hope, though ;)
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2010
  13. Aug 13, 2010 #12


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    This would be using then nuclear scientist as means to an end (saving people). It is morally wrong to torture him due to the maxim of not treating others as means to an end. However, my thoughts is that the appeal of saving thousands of lives is larger than the incentive to act morally correct.

    Wikipedia's article on the categorical imperative discusses a similar situation:

    It is a difference between a good outcome, and a morally correctness. It is a good outcome to have enough food on the table every day, but that does not justify stealing. Only intentional acts themselves have moral content. The sum of outcomes does not have moral value in itself. Universal laws such as the utilitarian principle which consider the ends as the ultimate judgment of the moral value of an act is according to Kant contradictory in that it breaks with our rational sense of moral value, and rather appeals to our notion of goodness, but not morally goodness.
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2010
  14. Aug 14, 2010 #13
    Interesting explanations. Wondering how you'd address next example...

    What if you knew someone stole money and it cannot be proven, but you can steal it back and return it? You wouldn't do it because universaly stealing is wrong?
  15. Aug 14, 2010 #14


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    Taking is not the same as stealing.

    Stealing is to gain possession of (i.e, take) an object without the owner's consent, knowing that the object was owned in the first place.

    Since the thief is not the owner (mere possessorship does not amount to ownership), it is impossible to steal a stolen object from the thief.
  16. Aug 14, 2010 #15
    And what if you took that stolen money and kept it to yourself, even if you know to who it legally belongs, the money you keep is still just "taken" or it is "stolen"?
  17. Aug 14, 2010 #16
    Rich people hardly get to millions of dollars (to not mention billions) in a moral way, so, when someone has lots of money which he legally got, due to hard working people and/or partners, who he never payed well, stealing from him would be illegal, but IMO morally universally valid.

    Where is this picture in Kant's viewpoint?

    Even with seemingly legally and morally valid situations I've got issues of true morality. E.g. when Apple makes iPhone, iPods and iPads and gets billions of dollars for it, is it moral in a social/society sense? Not in my view, even if perfectly legal and commercially just, because they got way more than they invested. When someone gets a billion of dollars it means others lost it.

    Distribution of world wealth is in my view very disturbing, and highly evolved moral society should do something about it.

    I'd love to see how Kant would set morally universal foundations for society as whole, from family as smallest social units to world commerce and governments.

    Never lie, never steal, never torture would be all simple and most welcome moral laws if all took them for their own, but as long as people abuse systems and other people, I'd not say is still the right time for their implementations.
  18. Aug 14, 2010 #17


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    Sure, I said that you cannot steal the stolen object from the thief, but most definitely, in sofar as taking the object from the thief in such manner that the owner would not approve of (for example, by keeping it to yourself), then you are stealing from the..owner.
  19. Aug 14, 2010 #18


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    Some interesting, rather abstruse issues are like this:
    Suppose you steal a vase from someone you think is the owner, because you have an identical one at home that you wish to make a pair out of, and you come home finding that YOUR vase is actually your own vase, stolen from the guy you thought you stole it from.

    Are you still to be considered a thief?

    Certainly, but no puunishable crime has been committed, insofar as the intent of stealing as such has been criminalized...

    Or, maybe not:

    WHO exactly, did you steal from???
  20. Aug 14, 2010 #19
    What if... You "take" money from someone who stole it, but you don't know that, so, you are a thief but no crime committed? ;)

    IMO, there is a simple rule for making it right.... you can have it (money or whatever) only if you fairly earn(ed) it.
  21. Aug 14, 2010 #20
    Nice one. If intention was to make a crime, then it is a crime even if not really? (I'd say so, our conscious acts is what matters the most.)
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