Immanuel Kant's presentation of the categorical imperative in 'Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals' is considered by some as his most famous work. His presentation is accompanied by examples intended to show the categorical imperative. In this paper, I present a critique of these examples and Kant's usage of the categorical imperative therein. Ultimately, I find that though the examples serve admirably Kant's primary purpose of being clear examples of the imperative's usage, they fall apart on further examination.
Understanding the categorical imperative is vital to assessing the validity and cogency of Kant's examples, and so I will attempt to summarize and explain the imperative as Kant provides it. The background to this construction is quite extensive but not vital to the discussion in this paper, so it will not be detailed here. In the second chapter of the 'Groundwork', Kant provides two versions of the categorical imperative which he considers equivalent. To me, they are not equivalent; he presents first a longer and slightly more wordy one, then a shorter version. For the purposes of this paper, I will use his first presentation, the longer version, because I find it more precise and more complete; it seems to be the one Kant refers to when describing his examples.
[...] first half of this formulation is fairly clear and self-explanatory; the second half requires some clarification. Kant here uses a slightly odd meaning of the word He does not mean that this world should exist if someone tries hard enough to realize it. Rather, he means that this world could be interpreted, by some rational being, to be equally or more desirable than the present world. In particular, the intended implication of this is that even if a maxim would lead to an acceptable world if universalized, it would still not be considered moral if a rational being could not prefer it to a world in which the negation of that maxim were universal in some way. [...]
[...] The third and fourth examples deal with maxims that are acceptable when universalized, but invoke the second part of the imperative in that they, in their universal forms, cannot be preferred by rational beings. The third example is of a man who could make something of himself through work and effort. However, he prefers to simply surrender himself to pleasure and leisure, a sort of hedonistic living. The universalization of this, in and of itself, does not seem to trouble Kant to any great extent. [...]
[...] Because Kant's refutation of the man's maxim using the categorical imperative hinges on this being a choice a rational being would not make, his argument is invalidated if my argument holds. The fourth example is mostly acceptable, with one minor blemish. The alternative to the maxim that Kant implies seems to conflict with evolutionary theory. I do acknowledge that the Groundwork was written before evolutionary theory was proposed, but this makes no difference when evaluating its validity. Kant contrasts the maxim of the man to its direct opposite, if the man were to help everyone that seemed to be in need of it. [...]
[...] The impracticality of counting potential people affected is also a clear issue. Another potential solution would be an appeal to the intuition: the only deciding criterion would be the question, “Does this maxim seem intuitively reasonable?” However appealing this may be, it is by no means rigorous, nor even consistent, either across people or across time. I will not be so confident in my own abilities as to conclude that such a line does not or cannot exist, but if one does, it is quite elusive indeed. [...]
[...] However, consider the case of an “unreasonable” maxim. What if this man's maxim was that killing himself is the “correct” thing to do only if it is July at his house? Clearly, when this unreasonable maxim is universalized, very few others would be affected by it, and life would continue as normal for nearly everyone on Earth. The conclusion is that under the categorical imperative, suicide is justifiable with this maxim, and the corollary to this is that with a sufficiently unreasonable maxim, one could use the categorical imperative to justify any possible action. [...]
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