In Search of Kant’s Categorical Imperative


I have not read Immanuel Kant. Until recently, I did not feel at all apologetic about that statement. But when I watched the video above, I realized how much I was missing. A remarkable thinker, he proves to be, whose thoughts about society, religion, behaviour and politics appear at first glance quite akin to my own cogitations. And in many ways, his conclusions – at least as stated in the video – seem very Buddhist in nature. That “categorical imperative” seems most intriguing, and familiar in many ways, and I want more explanation.

The video, above, was posted on my Facebook timeline via Open Culture with this description:

His primary ethical mandate, which he called the “categorical imperative,” enables us—Alain de Botton tells us in his short School of Life video above—to “shift our perspective, to get us to see our own behavior in less immediately personal terms.” It’s a philosophical version, de Botton says, of the Golden Rule. “Act only according to that maxim,” Kant famously wrote of the imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

I had read about Kant, of course, mostly in works about the development of Western philosophy, but not his own words.

My personal efforts to read the European Enlightenment philosophers to date has been much like wading through treacle. This is why I usually prefer a more modern, conflated synthesis. But that has the problem of distance: I end up reading an interpretation of his words, not the words themselves (which would be a translation, compounding the matter). I need to know more; I need more depth to better understand his ideas and how they relate to my world.

Immanuel KantBefore I tackle Kant directly – a task that I approach with no small trepidation – I’ve been doing some groundwork, trying to get a sense of what he’s on about, surfing philosophy sites for a synthesis to guide me. Here’s the description from Philosimply (Philosophy Made Simple):

He is best known for taking up the challenge presented by the Scottish philosopher Hume as to what exactly we can know as human beings. What are the limits of reason and human knowledge? Kant presents what he declares to be a “Copernican Revolution” of the mind, explaining that the mind is not a “blank slate” receiving knowledge from the outside world, but rather the mind itself is programmed such that it structures our experiences in order make them meaningful and to make knowledge possible in the first place. He will distinguish between how things appear to us (phenomena) from their true nature (noumena), of which we can never know. He will also distinguish between judgments that are based on sensory experience (aposteriori) and judgments that are (apriori), and use this distinction to critically analyze metaphysical concepts such as the idea of God, the soul, immortality, and free will. Kant also famously puts forth the ethical belief that one should only act in a way that they would be happy if everyone were to act in the same way, known as the categorical imperative.

Get that? It’s understandable, but still a bit dense. And there’s clearly a word or two missing before apriori (which should be a priori – two words – Latin for ‘from the earlier’ just as a posteriori means ‘from the latter’) which leaves the sentence incomplete. A priori judgments are based on reason and deduction, rather than empirical evidence (a posteriori).

(No, I’m not that well-read: I didn’t know what those judgments were before I wrote that and had to read about them first…)

So then I went to and found this:

Kant’s aim was to move beyond the traditional dichotomy between rationalism and empiricism. The rationalists had tried to show that we can understand the world by careful use of reason; this guarantees the indubitability of our knowledge but leaves serious questions about its practical content. The empiricists, on the other hand, had argued that all of our knowledge must be firmly grounded in experience; practical content is thus secured, but it turns out that we can be certain of very little. Both approaches have failed, Kant supposed, because both are premised on the same mistaken assumption…

A priori judgments are based upon reason alone, independently of all sensory experience, and therefore apply with strict universality. A posteriori judgments, on the other hand, must be grounded upon experience and are consequently limited and uncertain in their application to specific cases. Thus, this distinction also marks the difference traditionally noted in logic between necessary and contingent truths.

Which helps clarify it a bit, albeit not entirely and, editorially speaking, it’s still a bit thick. Were you aware of the “dichotomy between rationalism and empiricism”? Neither was I. Sounds like it leads to treacle.

Does this mean I have to read about them first, and their alleged spat, before I understand Kant? Or will the description above suffice to pursue Kant without the background? A lot of philosophizing is in relation or response to something or someone else. There’s little that stands alone: it’s a network of intellectualizing.

The rest of the web page goes on about Kant’s distinction between synthetic and analytic judgments, and I can feel my eyes beginning to glaze over. I’m smart enough that I can figure it out, and understand what’s meant, but it feels like I’m on that treacle trail again.

What I really want to know about is Kant’s “categorical imperative” – his version of the golden rule; how he derived his ideas and what they mean to the bigger picture of society, politics, ethics, morality and human interaction. Philosophypages describes it thus:

Constrained only by the principle of universalizability, the practical reason of any rational being understands the categorical imperative to be: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” That is, each individual agent regards itself as determining, by its decision to act in a certain way, that everyone (including itself) will always act according to the same general rule in the future. This expression of the moral law, Kant maintained, provides a concrete, practical method for evaluating particular human actions of several distinct varieties.

Hmmm. Treacle again. Steven Pinker, in his book The Sense of Style, writes about the “curse of knowledge” that makes for bad writing. That is, people who know a lot about a subject often write using words, terms and ideas they already understand without explaining them clearly to the reader. They naturally assume the reader knows what they know (a fault which I plead guilty of in my own writing).

I’m looking for a non-treacle description; not an oversimplification: something between Kant and a bumper sticker, something I can gnaw on, but still explain to Susan over a glass of wine or when walking the dogs.

Digging further, I find Kant’s own words are not very helpful (which is why I want the abbreviated form before I read his works). Here’s a paragraph of treacle from The Metaphysics of Morals to illustrate:

The faculty of desire in accordance with concepts, in-so-far as the ground determining it to action lies within itself and not in its object, is called a faculty to “do or to refrain from doing as one pleases”. Insofar as it is joined with one’s consciousness of the ability to bring about its object by one’s action it is called choice (Willkür); if it is not joined with this consciousness its act is called a wish. The faculty of desire whose inner determining ground, hence even what pleases it, lies within the subject’s reason is called the will (Wille). The will is therefore the faculty of desire considered not so much in relation to action (as choice is) but rather in relation to the ground determining choice in action. The will itself, strictly speaking, has no determining ground; insofar as it can determine choice, it is instead practical reason itself. Insofar as reason can determine the faculty of desire as such, not only choice but also mere wish can be included under the will. That choice which can be determined by pure reason is called free choice. That which can be determined only by inclination (sensible impulse, stimulus) would be animal choice (arbitrium brutum). Human choice, however, is a choice that can indeed be affected but not determined by impulses, and is therefore of itself (apart from an acquired proficiency of reason) not pure but can still be determined to actions by pure will. Metaphysics of Morals, 6:213-4

It’s dense enough you’d think it was written by a bureaucrat or (worse) one of those consultants the town employs to create reports that obfuscate the real issues and baffle council with bullshit.

In trying to explain his categorical imperative, however, Kant rephrased it in different ways to get it across more easily. Such as this, from the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (he also wrote The Metaphysics of Morals:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”

And this, from the same book:

…every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.

Which I understand. But is it right? Schopenhauer didn’t think so, as I soon discover.

Seems Schopenhauer had a lot of critical things to say about Kant. He apparently felt the CI was an almost militaristic command followed though a sense of duty, without consideration for emotions. But should emotions be considered in absolute right and wrong? Isn’t this the trolley problem all over?

Does this mean I need to read Schopenhauer, too? Well, to understand anything properly, you have to read and weigh its counterpoints as well. Otherwise you’re just an ideologue (or an uneducated blogger spouting diaphanous piffle online and in the local paper). But as intriguing as Schopenhauer is from first glance – he believed compassion must be the driver of moral acts, but also discounted the notion the universe was a rational place –  it looks like it adds more treacle to the path. I’d need to find a clear synthesis of his works, too.

The loud sigh you hear at this point is a combination of tones. Susan is sighing because she knows that my pursuing such lines of thought inevitably means another pile or two of books added to the already over-burdened library (not to mention the credit card) and cluttering the bedside and counters. I am sighing because the open vista of learning this portends also means a lot of work, a lot of reading, and correspondingly less time for other pursuits and interests.

And yet the challenge of learning something new, of exploring new horizons, of adding to my understanding of the world beckons. Besides, can one ever have too many book?

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