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We have discovered that in determining the morality of actions, consequences alone
are inadequate as guides. We, therefore, examine features of actions that are independent of
consequences, in our search for an adequate standard of morality, that is the categorical
imperative of Immanuel Kant.
The ethics of Immanuel Kant (1724-1803) was to a large extent activated by a reaction
against hedonism, especially the egoistic variety of it, and his theory took the form that the
primary thing to consider is not the happiness produced by an action or indeed its unhappiness,
nor even any of its consequences, but the nature of the action itself.
Nothing, he says, is intrinsically good but a goodwill. Kant tries to prove this by taking
other alleged intrinsic goods, such as happiness, intellectual eminence, etc. and showing that
each of them may be worthless or positively evil when it is not combined with a goodwill.
That a goodwill is one that habitually wills rightly. And that the rightness or wrongness of
volition depends wholly on the nature of its motive. It does not depend on its actual
consequences. And it does not depend on its intended consequences, except in so far as the
expectation of these forms part of the motive. Of course a mere idle wish is of no moral value.
But, provided we genuinely try to carry out our intention, and provided our intention is right,
then the volition is right no matter what its consequences may be.
According to Immanuel Kant, an action cannot be right unless it is done on some
moral principles, which the agent accepts (Omoregbe, 2003:222). These principles or maxims
of conduct are divided into two classes, which he calls Hypothetical and Categorical
Imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is a principle of conduct which is accepted, not on its
own merits, but strictly as a rule for gaining some desired end (Ibid. p. 223). Suppose that I
refuse to make a certain statement on a certain occasion, for the reason that it would be a lie,
and that lies ought not to be told. Suppose that my ground for believing that lies ought not to
be told is that they undermine confidence and, thus, reduce human happiness. Then the
principle that lies ought not to be told would be, for me a merely hypothetical imperative. It is
accepted as a rule for maintaining human happiness, and not on its own merit. It is, thus, both
contingent and derivative. It is contingent, because conditions are conceivable in which lying
would not reduce human happiness, and in such conditions I should no longer accept the
principle. And it is derivative, because the acceptance of it in existing circumstances depends
on my desire for human happiness. The latter is my ultimate motive for not lying.
Following from the above premise, Kant argues that any action which, in a given
situation, is right or wrong at all, must be right or wrong, in that situation, for any rational
being whatsoever, no matter what his particular tastes and inclinations might be. There is
nothing impossible about the supposition that there might be rational beings who have no
sensations at all e.g. angels. Therefore, there is no hypothetical imperative, which would be
acceptable to all rational beings as such. Hence if there be any principles of conduct which
would be accepted by all rational being as such, they must be accepted on their own merits and
must, therefore, be categorical imperatives.
We may now come to the final question: “What characteristics must a principle of
conduct have in order to be accepted on its own merits by every rational being as such? Kant’s
answer is that the feature, which is common and peculiar to such principles, must be a certain
characteristic form, and not anything characteristic in their content. And the formal criterion is
this; it is necessary and sufficient that the principles shall be such that anyone who accepts
them as his principles can consistently desire that everyone else should also make it their
principle of conduct and should act upon it. This supreme criterion Kant calls ‘The Categorical
Imperative’ because it states the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be fulfilled by
any principle if the latter is to be a categorical imperative and action determined by it is to be
morally right. Omoregbe (2003:224) chronicles the six different formulations of the
categorical imperative thus:
Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should
become a universal law.
(ii) I am never to act otherwise so that my maxim should become a universal law.
(iii) Act as if the maxim of your action were to become, through your will, a universal law
(iv) So act as to use humanity both in your own person and in the person of every other,
always at the same time, as an end, never simply as a means.
(v) So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through
(vi) So act as if you were always through your maxims a law-making member in a
universal kingdom of ends.
We may sum up the theory thus, an action is right if and only if the agent’s sufficient
motive in doing it is in fact that he recognizes it to be required in the circumstances by a right
principle of conduct. A principle of conduct is right if, and only if, it would be accepted on its
own merits by any rational being, no matter what its special tastes and inclinations might be. It
must, therefore, be a principle, which is acceptable to rational beings simply because of its
intrinsic form, and not because it is a rule for gaining some desired end. And a principle will
be acceptable to all rational beings, if and only if each could consistently will that all should
adopt it and act on it. This is the essence of Kant’s theory.
It may, at this juncture, be argued that, Kant’s insistence on duty, his rejection of a
morality of consequences in an age ever preoccupied with success, social well-being and the
like were very timely. His first claim, however, that nothing is intrinsically good except
goodwill appears to be an over-statement. If in fact we accept, as we do, that a goodwill is
something intrinsically good in itself, all we can claim is that a goodwill is a necessary
constituent of any whole which is intrinsically good.
To rest all morality on the motive of duty is unnatural and inhuman. The love of a
mother for her children, the sacrifice of a man for his friend cannot really be explained by
appeal to duty alone. Certainly a sense of duty will be present in such circumstance, but love
and generosity are always esteemed as higher motives than mere duty and give the act a
greater moral worth. We fall back on duty only when other motives fail. Duty is rather the last
appeal against wrong acting than the highest motive for right acting. In this sense too we can
say that Kant’s Categorical Imperative is more beneficial in guiding us in what not to do than
in what positively to do. How could Kant explain heroic acts, such as giving one’s life for
one’s nation? These are always thought to be the noblest and the best, precisely because they
go beyond the call of duty.
That the moral law commands us with a categorical imperative is undoubtedly true,
and Kant emphasises it well. But it cannot be properly understood unless the goal toward
which the duty ‘do good’ is determined. Kant lays down a formal principle, that is, the features
that all moral actions must have. Such features are: rationality, permanence, universalizability.
By permanence he means that if an act is once right, it is always right. By universalizability he
means that an agent must be able to claim that what he does holds good for all others in similar
circumstances as his situation. By rational, he means that an act must be right for all rational
beings. Thus, according to Kant, it is wrong to tell lies because lie telling becomes self-
defeating for rational beings.
Kant, however, does not claim that it can be shown of all wrong ethical principles that
their universal application would be impossible but merely that it would contradict our nature
to will it. Thus, in discussing why we ought to help other men who are in need, he says that
society could still subsist even if the principle of not helping others in need were universalised.
Because there are many possible circumstances in which we should wish to be helped
ourselves. We cannot really maintain that we seek only our own interest and likewise claim
that others should help me in distress. Kant is not falling here into egoistic lapses. Rather, he is
saying it is not consistent, we put it ‘not fair’ to benefit by the kindness of others, as one must,
and yet refuse to do others a kindness when they need it. While the ‘egoistic’ motive is
prudential, the latter is certainly moral. Kant’s general principle is “Act as if the maxim of
your action were to become a universal law”. When we act according to a principle which we
could not wish to be generally applied, Kant thinks we are acting immorally.
Kant seems to be stating something important here: the making of arbitrary exceptions
in one’s own favour is immoral. Furthermore, it does seem that in some cases the use of a
criterion like Kant’s is more in accord with our ordinary ethical thinking, as for example, in
the case of tax evasion where the harm done is insignificant in an individual case, but would
be very serious if others did likewise. Where a difference perhaps does enter is in the fact that
among people there are many who would look to the consequences of tax evasion whereas,
Kant would look to a certain inconsistency in such an act by a rational being.
Furthermore, it is true that there is really something inconsistent about wickedness in
the sense that it aims at an end, the attainment of which is at the same time by its inherent
nature self-defeating. For the man who is guilty of it seeks satisfaction for himself, yet real
satisfaction cannot be attained by evil but only by good.
It is true that all our answers to the question “what is right”? are of universal
application in the sense that granted that an act is right for me, it must be right under the same
circumstances for everybody. In this sense, any moral decision claims universalizability.
However, this principle needs modification and must take into account external circumstances,
psychological make-up and different types of good to be achieved. This, of course, is outside
the scope of this chapter.
We may, therefore, conclude this analysis of the adequacy of Kant’s theory by observing
that whereas it has much to commend and it brings out essential features of morality neglected
by hedonists and utilitarianism, it is, nevertheless, deficient because
a) it treats goodwill too exclusively
b) it does not recognize the wider range of moral motivation.
c) It is, in fact, inadequate in giving positive guidance in many cases.
We turn, therefore, to the analysis of the final theory, that is, the morality of human
development or human integration.
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