Kant is said to be a strong opponent of the ethical relativist position. But his Categorical Imperative
seems to me to be pretty supportive of ethical relativism, and here's why. I think that
reasonable/rational people can disagree on "hard case" issues . These same people would also be
willing to make their decision into a universal law. It seems to me that the Categorical Imperative,
therefore, is really a restating of the relativist position, and could not be used to, say, settle an
argument about medical ethics. Am I missing some subtle philosophical point here, or is the
Categorical Imperative only universal from the point of view of my being willing to impose my ideas on
everybody, and subjective from the various points of view held by various people?
Perhaps another way to state my question is this: does the Categorical Imperative aim only to help
individuals make a decision that is right for them, or does it aim to give a formula by which all
reasonable people would come to the same conclusion regarding some of the "hard cases" we hear
so much about in philosophy? Please help, my textbook has me going around in circles on this one!
You have done an excellent job of laying out the problem facing Kant's Categorical Imperative. I have
heard the criticism voiced that any action whatsoever can be interpreted in such a way as to satisfy
the Categorical Imperative, e.g. 'Only fifty year old philosophers who live in Woodseats, Sheffield and
wear bottle green V-neck jumpers are permitted to rob banks.' I can quite happily will that rule as a
universal law, it is claimed, secure in the knowledge that I am, in fact, the only individual who falls
under the description. — Kant would have no difficulty brushing aside such a specious objection.
When it comes to genuine 'hard cases', things are quite different. For example, the pro-abortion and
the anti-abortion campaigners would each like to see their view of abortion made a law for all.
It is clear from this example why it won't do to regard the Categorical Imperative as a way of making a
decision that is 'right for you'. In the eyes of the anti-abortionist, abortion is equivalent to murder. To
say, 'I would never seek an abortion, but I do not object if other women do' is like saying, 'I would
never commit a murder, but I do not object if others do.'
There are two ways you can go. Richard Hare, author of The Language of Morals(1952), Freedom
and Reason(1963), and, more recently, Moral Thinking(1981) has argued that a necessary defining
characteristic of a moral judgement or 'prescription' is its universalizability.However, as we have seen
in the case of abortion, many of our moral beliefs that pass the universalizability test still fail to meet
the requirements of a universal moral principle. Hare calls the beliefs that fail fanatical.The pro- and
anti-abortionist are 'fanatics' in this technical sense because each wishes to impose their view on
everyone, regardless of their views. Can anymoral principle be non-fanatical? Hare thinks so. The
principle, Choose the action which leads to the maximum satisfaction of individual preferencesis the
only principle which would be acceptable to all those individuals who were not fanatical.
Notoriously, Hare's advocacy of preference utilitarianism leads him to embrace the conclusion that in
a society of Nazis sufficiently 'heroic' in their hatred of Jews, the former might under certain
circumstances be morally justified in exterminating the latter ('Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism', in
Contemporary British PhilosophyH.D Lewis Ed. Unwin 1976, cf. pp. 121—2). Hare's defence of this
seemingly outrageous claim is that such a situation would be extremely unlikely to arise in the real
world. Likely or not, it goes without saying that Kant would have regarded such a notion with the
contempt that it deserves.
In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals,Kant takes an alternative route. His successive
formulations of the categorical imperative reveal an increasingly teleologicalelement. So that, 'Act
only on that maxim that you would will to be a universal law' becomes, 'Act in such a way as to treat
humanity, whether in others or in your own person, as an end in itself and not merely a means', which
in turn becomes, 'Act as a law-making member of the Kingdom of Ends'. (The Kingdom of Ends is an
ideal community of rational beings who are end-in-themselves for the very reason that they are, each
and every one, the authors of the moral law.) Kant's strategy is the same as Hare's: to develop the
notion of universalizability to the point where it would no longer be capable of sanctioning rival moral
No-one can fail to be impressed by the nobility of Kant's vision. Making moral law, making a society in
which we can all exist in harmony with one another as moral law makers, is our ultimate goal in life. It
is a vision that blinds by its very lucidity. If we cannot all agree about how to live, that can only be
because of a failure of rationality. For we ourselves arethe reason why reason exists in the first
place! — Here Aristotle's idea of the Good Life as the life fit for rational beings to live is brought to its
You might look at a later work, The Metaphysical Principles of Virtuewhere Kant tries much harder to
give convincing derivations of specific moral rules from his Categorical Imperative, by comparison
with the relatively perfunctory examples given in the Groundwork.I also think you should look at
criticisms of Kant's strategy from a Hegelian perspective, for example, the very readable chapter on
'Duty for Duty's Sake' in F.H. Bradley's brilliant Ethical Studies(2nd Edn 1927).
When we are engaged in moral practical reasoning we might be willing to make our decision into a
universal law but the rational principle is that we should all be able to will the maxim such that it has
the binding force of law. Based in rationality, as it is, the categorical imperative, rules against
relativism. Habermas holds that the Categorical Imperative is a principle of justification which can be
used to discriminate morally valid from morally invalid principles. It constitutes a norm against which
to test whether our principles are relativistic or not, asking us to reflect upon whether our moral
principle is rooted in cultural facts about ourselves.
As to moral differences and disagreements, when these occur, there will be non-rational reasons. We
might take euthanasia as a medical ethical example. Euthanasia may be regarded as moral in one
country and not in another. In the former case the ground would be to minimise suffering, in the latter
that any form of killing is wrong. You cannot universalise a principle that we should kill someone to
minimise suffering since this is not a decision that we would all take as having the binding force of law
because it is based on differing inclinations between persons. If a principle makes reference to
anything subjective such as your ideas or point of view it cannot become a universal principle.
It is true that the Categorical Imperative is not very helpful. It does seem as though there is not much
that we can universalise as a law. Normally in practical reasoning we have to take account of the
circumstances and we are also guided by moral inclinations, such as feelings of consideration for
others. Kant argued that to be moral is to be guided by duty rather than inclination and made no
allowance for circumstances. He held that you should never kill and never lie. He once asserted that
even when a man who wants to kill your friend asks you where your friend is you shouldn't lie about
However, Kant's ethics is essentially a theoretical account of morality, and so necessarily abstracts
from everyday practical issues. General principles cannot contain all the rules for application or
provide answers to hard cases. Take the "hard case" of whether to kill one to save twenty. You can't
universalise a law that we should always kill one to save twenty (put aside, for the moment, that
according to the Categorical Imperative you shouldn't kill at all) because of possible circumstances
such as the one being a decent person and the twenty being evil. If you were to apply the Categorical
Imperative to this particular case in the sense of using it as a guide to behaviour or reason for action,
you come up with the supposedly moral imperative that you "should" kill a person. So the Categorical
Imperative should rather be used to sort out the moral from non-moral principle in terms of it ability to
pick out principles which are based on cultural prejudice, as mentioned above, and also as
determining whether our principles are based upon emotion, such as in the medical ethics case. It
should be understood as a higher ethical principle rather than a principle of practical reason.
The one or twenty case is used to test our moral inclinations. Kant doesn't deny that we have
inclinations. We might, as Bernard Williams suggests, simply be too "squeamish" to kill one. Testing
our moral inclinations might lead to some moral insights into our nature, but cannot produce a theory
of justification for moral principles as Kant attempts to do.
Kant's ethical theory reflects our idea that as rational beings we have duties to others and can act
upon those duties and if we can shape our inclinations such that they don't conflict with duty, there is
the possibility of a truly moral action. It also reflects the rigidity of a moral attitude, that there are some
things we must not do because they are simply not moral, like hurting and killing others. The
Categorical Imperative encapsulates our idea that a good man abides by certain rules of justice.
Morality is not about imposing your ideas on others.