So far, we’ve explored 2 ethical theories: Divine Command Theory (DCT) and Natural Law Theory (NLT) – both of which derive their moral principles from religion. Of course, these theories are not going to appeal to more secular thinkers. One such thinker is an 18th century German philosopher: Immanuel Kant. As you may have probably already guessed, he’s the pioneer of Kantianism; and also Categorical Imperative.

Kant’s View of Morality And His Grounding On Reasoning Capacity of Humanity

Unlike Thomas Aquinas, Kant do not think that morality comes from God(s). In fact, he thought that morality and religion are a lethal mix -which is a statement that holds a fair amount of credibility since religion was used to justify holy crusades, inquisitions/executions, and is still the reason for community marginalizations and genocides (take the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar for instance). However, the biggest rebuttal that Kant have against religious-based ethical theories is that they are not universal. Although NLT is universal in the sense that it is based on human instincts and desires, it is still limited by the Christianity lenses that Aquinas looked through. What Kant meant by NLT not being universal is that not all religions are going to subscribe to NLT, simply because Aquinas is a Christian monk and he based his idea on Christianity’s assumptions. In fact, today, only some variants of Protestantism, Christianity and Catholicism use NLT. Other religions like Buddhism and Islamism do not adhere to NLT. So in this sense, NLT isn’t universal. Needless to say, DCT is also not universal because of the different religious scriptures by different religions; and DCT is an ethical theory based on religious scriptures. Kant saw these flaws in religion-based ethical theories, and he also thought that morality should be universal and constant; which is why he was a moral absolutist. So instead, he proposed that: In order to know what’s right, we have to use reasonings- a prerogative that only and all humans have. The commonality that all humans have the mental capacity to reason is what Kant used to ground his ethical theory on.

Metaethical Species – Moral Absolutism

Before we understand Categorical Imperative, it is better to first understand it’s antonym: Hypothetical Imperative.

Hypothetical Imperative

Kant observed that most of us do things that are contingent on our desires. For instances, if I want to get a high salary, then I should study and get a good grade; if I want to satiate my hunger, I do not have any money with me right now, and no one wants to lend me any; then I should steal some food. These if-then statements are examples of how most of us are driven by what Kant called Hypothetical Imperative.

Categorical Imperative

Kant felt that we should not be driven by Hypothetical Imperative when it comes to morality. Remember, he was a moral absolutist. So instead, he believed that moral principles should be followed irregardless of our desire, in other words, he believed that we should be driven by Categorical Imperative. What the Categorical Imperatives specifically are will be explained further later.

Kantianism

Categorical Imperatives are the driven necessities for our moral principles to be devoid of desires. Kantianism encompasses Categorical Imperatives plus the belief that the very same moral principles are derived from pure reasoning, no God(s) required.

Kantian System of Moral Principles

So how exactly are Kantians supposed to derived moral principles through pure reasoning? Kant came up with 4 definitive formulations of Categorical Imperatives – rules – that we must follow to be a Kantian. The 2 most popular and essential ones among the 4 formulations will be explained.

1st Categorical Imperative: Universalizability Principle

“Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

To put it in simpler terms, this principle instructs that we should only commit actions that we can universalize. What universalizing an action means is that we apply these actions to everybody. For instance, if I decide to steal food; stealing food should be universalize in a hypothetical situation. In this situation, everyone steals – it has become a universal law; and this will lead to a contradiction. If you take a second look at the statement that explains the Universalizability Principle in Kant’s terms; you will realize that he said that there should be no contradiction. Think about it: if I steal food, and everyone steals food. We will just keep stealing from each other endlessly. This endless vicious cycle will just lead us to not eat the food that we are stealing over. It is therefore not rational to steal, should we consider the hypothetical situation of universalize action to be real. Hence, it is actually not ok to universalize stealing; making it morally wrong to steal. In essence, “what Kant’s really saying is that it’s not fair to make exceptions for yourself. You don’t really think stealing is OK, and by imagining what it would be like to universalize it, that becomes clear.” (Crashcourse,2016)

For every action, Kant advised, we should abide by this Universalizability Principle to derive our moral principles.

2nd Categorical Imperative

“Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end, and never as a mere means.” 

What this means is that we should respect every individual’s sovereignty over self. What we are prohibited to indulge in are manipulation and lies – Machiavellian tactics. This is because doing so is just using people for your own purpose. However, what we are allowed to do is to use each other with each other’s agreement and knowledge. We do this all the time, and we call this “helping” each other. However, help signifies cooperation and choice; and thus it does not violate individual’s sovereignty over self.

Conclusion

Immanuel Kant rejected the premise that morality comes from any form of divinity. However, he still recognized that there are moral truths. In fact, he think that moralities are true almost in the mathematical sense. He felt that morality is constant and binding, making him a moral absolutist. Based on this premise, he set off to create a moral system based on Categorical Imperatives and pure reasoning called Kantianism. The system of Kantianism sets out 4 Categorical Imperatives to guide people towards the Kantian’s way of morality. Due to the absolute nature of the Categorical Imperatives, Kantians deal with moral principles that are straightforward, absolute, and black-and-white-ish. In the next post, I will summarize what I learned about Utilitarianism – an antithesis of Kantianism and also another secular alternative to NLT and DCT – from Crashcourse.

Signing off,

Jackson

Reference:

CrashCourse (YouTube Channel)

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