Why is it wrong to think that the Categorical Imperative is a version of the Golden Rule?
I hope you haven't been led astray by my reply to Hiromi in which I said the categorical imperative is
often formulated as "Do unto others..". If so, I apologize. Even if the categorical imperative is so
formulated, it cannot be abstracted from Kant's complete theory, so the Golden Rule can't be
compared with the categorical imperative. The simple principle "Treat others as you would have them
treat you" doesn't mention motive. It might be in your own interests to treat others so and therefore it's
a matter of prudence, or if it rests upon the principle of "Love your neighbour" it requires the sort of
subjective commitment which Kant rejects. To act in accordance with the categorical imperative is to
act with a good will which is to recognise a moral duty as good in itself.
"Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law" is an objective
principle based upon what a rational person would do. For Kant, the will is a rational faculty that can
overcome inclinations and feelings, including sympathy. Sympathy for others, or an inclination to do
the right thing can fail us, especially in times of pressure. So we ought to obey the categorical
imperative for its own sake in virtue of our ability to act rationally and do our duty whatever our
inclinations. Natural sympathy does not have the moral value of performing duties for their own sake.
Moral feelings, such as love and sympathy depend upon the emotional character of a person and
cannot be commanded. The duty expressed in the categorical imperative can be commanded since it
applies universally for all rational agents.
The Golden Rule makes no appeal to rationality or universality and cannot establish itself as a law.
Even if it were the case that everyone was simply obedient to such a rule, it still admits of actions that
Kant would regard as immoral. Sometimes a lie can be an act of kindness to save others' anxiety and
many would like to be so treated and think it right to treat others so. For Kant, acting for the sake of
duty rules out the desire to obtain particular results such as saving someone from anxiety. It is a duty
never to lie as we cannot will that this should be law.
The categorical imperative has its origin in the will, which is rational and, as such, able to make
universally valid law. The individual's will is subordinate to this law. A rule that does not have its origin
in the will is a hypothetical imperative: "I ought to obey the Golden Rule because it says so in the
Bible, and I want to perform my Christian duty". This doesn't impose an unconditional obligation.