People often evaluate their behavior and the actions of others from the standpoint of right or wrong. Nevertheless, the assessment itself, as well as the idea of good and evil, can be pretty subjective. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who developed his views under the influence of the Enlightenment, and his ideas are one of the most influential in reflection on the topic. He talked about the morality of human actions and deduced the universal moral principle, a categorical imperative, which should guide rational beings in deciding on a specific act. This concept is central to his philosophy of morality and implies the constant application of moral principles and their independence from external circumstances. This paper aims to present Kant’s main ideas about morality, human happiness, and the categorical imperative. Although Kant recognized that happiness is the main goal and necessity grounded by nature for human life, the philosopher did not believe that any means must be used to achieve it.
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To fully understand the categorical imperative, it is crucial to consider the concepts that Kant discusses presenting his vision of morality. The philosopher is sure that various qualities inherent in people as intelligence, courage, and other characteristics, cannot be considered as uniquely good since they can be used for harmful purposes (Cahn 99). However, a good will that helps manage them is inherently good. People can also have an inclination to any action that they want to satisfy. Another critical concept is a duty, meaning action, which happens as it is necessary by law. Using these concepts, Kant comes to the conclusion that morally significant is something for which good will is the basis and not the result, what overpowers inclination and is the law – maxim (Cahn 101). This argument is the moral basis for how to consider human actions.
People are considered to be unique and intelligent, capable of rational thinking. The will inherent in people helps to act not just following the laws but also in accordance with ideas of laws, that is, principles. Kant calls the formulation of these principles or commandments – imperatives (Cahn 102). At the same time, there are hypothetical and categorical imperatives that differ significantly from each other. Hypothetical involves actions necessary to achieve the desired goal and depends on circumstances. The categorical imperative, in turn, is “Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Cahn 103). Thus, if people, when deciding on an action, have doubts about whether they would like their motives to be universal and applicable to everybody, their actions are probably immoral.
Based on the understanding of the categorical imperative, Kant’s point of view can be opposed to the prospect that the goal justifies the means. The latter approach may serve as an excuse for any action and lacks clear divisions between good and evil. The categorical imperative, in turn, is not characterized by relativism; it is a universal norm that cannot be violated. Statements have logical grounds, and the use of the imperative allows checking whether people contradict their own beliefs. Using Kant’s example, if a person is going to borrow money in return for a guarantee that cannot be fulfilled, it is necessary to assess whether this individual is ready for a world in which all promises are broken. No one can make exceptions to the rules for self as this will be a deviation of morality.
While human intent can rarely become a universal law, natural human rights can be seen as examples of the use of a categorical imperative. They unite morality and real life and are versatile for application. The human right to life, security, or happiness are examples of what everyone would like to have. When making decisions, people should take them into account and not violate these rights.
In considering the goals and means to achieve them, Kant also raises the critical issue of attitudes towards human life. In particular, he claims “a human being, and in general every rational being, does exist as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will as it pleases” (Cahn 106). The means to achieve the goal can be different as long as they correspond to morality. Humans, in turn, can never be a means, as their lives are an end. In particular, considering the dilemma of sacrificing one life to save several, according to Kant, such a sacrifice is immoral since it turns a person into a means. If, as a result of one person’s decision, another becomes a means, the one who decides gives the right to others to do the same to them.
It may seem that Kant considering actions committed for such purposes as the approval of others not sincerely moral requires people to suffer and prevents their happiness. However, the philosopher recognizes happiness as part of the nature of people, and their need for it is moral. The essence of virtuous actions is that individuals become worthy of happiness since pleasure received to the detriment of others cannot be real. Although the statement echoes religious postulates, it represents Kant’s logic. Immoral actions, therefore, cause human misfortune, but the use of a categorical imperative contributes to creating peace and order.
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In conclusion, Kant’s categorical imperative gives a logical justification for morality. His guidance is understandable and thoughtful, and he considers morality as universal and unconditional. I think studying this concept reveals Kant’s views and helps to understand them. Although I am close to high moral requirements and respect natural human rights, this philosopher seemed to me too judgmental. In particular, his opinion that good deeds committed by a person for own pleasure are not moral can be demotivating for those who are characterized by altruism. Moreover, one cannot ignore the fact that people’s opinions are also different, and their maxims can be very subjective.
The categorical imperative significantly echoes the well-known golden rule that people should deal with others in the way they want to be treated. I feel that this philosophy has had a substantial impact on my life. It influenced the formation of my beliefs about how to behave in society. However, I would like to note that a balance is needed in the application of these ideas. Constantly doing things to the detriment of oneself and the pleasure of others is more of an improper extreme than highly moral behavior. As a result of a similar situation, an individual is unlikely to achieve personal happiness but only experience moral exhaustion. Happiness, in turn, as Kant admits, is an essential goal for people.
Cahn, Steven M., editor. Exploring Ethics: An Introductory Anthology. 5th ed., Oxford University Press, 2020.