It is probably safe to say that as human beings, we all have some sense of what is right or wrong. The system through which we determine right or wrong conduct is called morality and the study of morality is called ethics. Hence we all subscribe to some form of morality, which could be taught by our parents or through our religion, and can be different. It is interesting to think about whether there is a “logical morality”, a morality where two rational beings can systematically decide whether something is right or wrong. When reading up on Kant recently, I learned about his formulation of a universality test, which seems to satisfy this “logical morality”.
Kant is known for his work in ethics known as categorical imperatives. Now it is actually quite hard to put a finger on what that actually is 1.
Taken literally it could be a class of actions (imperative) that are unambiguous (categorical). In the context of ethics, it’s referring to actions that are unambiguously moral. Here categorical is in contrast with hypothetical, which roughly means the class of actions that are moral in a hypotehtical context.
Categorical imperative could also refer to a rule that says “act only on those maxims that you could at the same time will to be a universal law” [for rational beings]. Simply put, Kant believed that for something to be moral, it had to be universal - that is, it can’t be “right” to do something in one situation and “wrong” to do it in another.
There are some natural questions that follows: If we choose the first definition, what are these actions? If we choose the second definition, how do we actually follow that rule, or how should we act?
To help answer those questions, Kant came up with a universality test.
This test does not work purely on actions, but on maxims, which is an action paired with its motivation. It will tell us whether a maxim can be considered moral, hence can be labelled as or adhere to the categorical imperative.
The universality tests can be applied procedurally as follows:
- Define the maxim by considering the action paired with its motivation.
- Make it universal by imagining a world where everyone in similar situation followed the maxim.
- Decide if it leads to a contradiction or irrationality.
- If it does, then that maxim is not permissible.
- Otherwise, it is.
- There is an extended test which requires the reader to ask if she would want to live in a world where that maxim is followed by everyone.
This is better illustrated with examples. Consider the maxim: I may make false promises for personal benefits. The universal version of this statement is: Anyone may make false promises for their own benefits. However, if everyone makes false promises, then on one will take promises seriously and promises will become meaningless. It is therefore irrational to make promises in the first place. Hence, it is not permissible in this framework.
Consider the maxim: I should steal from the bakery if I am poor and hungry. It could be arguably permissible to steal from the bakery as it does not lead to any irrationality nor contradiction because the predicate that one is poor and hungry effectively limits the universality effect. Because of this, critiques argue that categorical imperatives are too broad to be useful.
The logical nature of the universality tests suggests that if two rational beings subscribe to Kant’s categorical imperatives morality, then they could apply the test and come to the same conclusion as to whether an action (or maxim) can be considered moral.
I started out hoping that I might discover some insights to the possibility of universal/generalized morality that is shared by all human beings but I realized that at the end of the day, it’s still boils down to which school of morality one chooses to subscribe to. This means the next time you want to complain about someone acting in an immoral way, you’ll have to consider the recipient’s morality; they may have a different conclusion.
It is interesting to note that categorical imperative falls under deontological ethics, which is a category of ethics theories that place emphasis on the characteristics of the action itself regardless of their consequences to human welfare. These ethics can be described as “virtue is its own reward”. By contrast, teleological ethics holds that the basic standard of morality is precisely the value of what an action brings into being; an utilitarin approach.
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