Mark Alfano 19 September 2008 Major Issues in Philosophy Baruch College Kant’s Categorical Imperative Kant formulated three versions of the ethical rule he called the categorical imperative. To understand what he’s doing, we need first to comprehend two distinctions: (1) Imperative / Declarative (2) Categorical / Hypothetical An imperative utterance issues a command. For instance: Close the door! A declarative utterance states a fact. For instance: The door is closed. Imperatives are either obeyed or disobeyed. They cannot be true or false. By contrast, declaratives are either true or false. They cannot be obeyed or disobeyed. A hypothetical sentence is of the form if…then…. For instance: If you don’t close the door, I will do it myself. A categorical sentence is not. For instance: I will close the door. These are cross-cutting distinctions, so we end up with four types of utterances: Imperative Declarative Categorical “Eat cheese!” “Everything is made of atoms.” Hypothetical “If you want to eat “If something is physical, something nice, try cheese!” then it is made of atoms.” When Kant claims that he is describing the categorical imperative, then, he is saying that he has found a command that is appropriate for every person at every time in every circumstance. Aristotle did not think such a command was possible: he believed that different people should do different things in different circumstances. The difference is huge, and important. What, then, is the categorical imperative? Kant had several ways of expressing it. Here they are: (1) Act only according to that maxim that you can simultaneously will that it should become a universal law. (2) Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means. (3) Every rational being must act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends. What do they mean? Mark Alfano 19 September 2008 Major Issues in Philosophy Baruch College The first version demands that you go through the following procedure: First, describe in detail the action you intend to perform. What will you do? How will you do it? Why will you do it? What are the circumstances? Second, express a hypothetical imperative of the following form: Whenever I am in circumstances of this type, I should do an action of this type. Third, substitute ‘everyone is’ for ‘I am’ and ‘everyone’ for ‘I’ in the hypothetical imperative. Fourth, substitute ‘does’ for ‘should do’. Fifth, imagine what a world would be like if the modified claim were true. Sixth, ask yourself whether you could perform the action you had intended in such a world. If the answer is no, then your reason for acting is immoral. If the answer is yes, then your reason for acting is moral. The second version is a bit easier. It uses the distinction between means and end that we’ve already discussed in class. The claim is that you should never treat a person as a means merely. In other words, you may treat others as ends in themselves, and you may treat others as both means and ends, but you may not treat others as means that are not also ends. Kant believed that this advice was equivalent to the advice he gave in the first formulation of the categorical imperative. Kant also expressed the second version of the categorical imperative in this way: Treat people with dignity, where dignity is a technical term that applies only to things that are not fungible, i.e., that cannot be exchanged without residue for something else. Money, Kant thought, is fungible. If I give you one $20 bill and you give me two $10 bills, neither of us has lost anything. But, according to Kant, people are not fungible. If I give you $1,000 and kill your brother, you will still have lost something. Even if I give you $1,000,000 or $1,000,000,000, the exchange is still somehow unfair. The reason, according to Kant, is not that I haven’t offered enough money, but that human life is not exchangeable for anything, no matter how great its value. The third version of the categorical imperative is very similar to the first. However, it does not require you to convert the ‘should do’ to ‘does’. Instead, it asks you to formulate your motive (see step 2 of the procedure above) and then ask yourself the following question: If I were the king of the world, would I be willing to demand that everyone act according to precisely this motive? In other words, is your reason good enough for you to obligate other people to follow it? If the answer is yes, then your motive is good, but if it is no, then your motive is bad.
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