Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Categorical Imperative

Recently I have been dejunking my life, and that includes sifting through years worth of school papers. The process of dejunking can be quite cathartic, and on one such occasion, enlightening. I stumbled across a paper written in my Ethics class my Senior year of my Bachelors program on the Categorical Imperitave, written by Immanuel Kant. The assignment was to write a five page paper that outlined what you learned from the book academically, and what you took away from the book personally.

Reading this essay reminded me of some ideas I had on why I believe in God. It also reminded me that I have not been keeping up with my goals of treating others with kindness and respect like I ought. My essay lays out reasons for these things according to the ethics developed by Kant.

Below is the complete unaltered text of that essay. Not to toot my own horn, but my professor stated that it was one of the best treatments of the categorical imperative he had ever read in his class, which shows that I at least got the subject matter down correctly. He asked for a copy to use as an example in future classes. (/bragging).

The Essay

Immanuel Kant categorically defines the existence of the need for reason and the subsequent use of that reason when coming to understand virtue. In his book “Metaphysical Principles of Virtue,” Kant clearly lays out the need for true ethics to be a priori in order for them to be beyond simple juridical morality. In other words, Kant claims that in order for virtue to exist the intent or conscious action of a man must be in accordance with a principle for the sake of being right, not by coercion or obligation. This reading covers the primary tenets of what this moral philosophy thus entails, and provides further logical proofs to attest to the validity of the statements produced in the introduction. I read the entire book, including the 75 page essay summarizing Kant’s ethics.

To say that Kant is a difficult read is an understatement. His words are so laden with meaning that simple understanding could not be reached except by multiple readings of the same paragraph, or even at times the same sentence. Once the style of writing became common to my mind, I then was able to understand a bit better what Kant was attempting to describe. However, if not for the essay leading into the main text by a Professor Warner Wick of the University of Chicago, it is unlikely that I would have understood at all what Kant was saying.

The essay written by Professor Wick was most useful in helping frame the philosophy Kant examines into a clear tapestry of duties and actions. It is because we as humans are social beings that the need for ethics arises in the first place. Law and juridical obligation oppose upon man the need to be right. Much of Kant’s writing, both in this book and in previous books, attempts to put reason behind why man must act in one way or another, and acting in the right way is a book all to itself called “The Science of Right.” Because of this separate book, at times his reasoning didn’t seem as clear to me as it almost presupposed that I knew the rationale behind the need to be right.

However, this gap in understanding was minor at best and I was still able to understand his reasoning behind correct actions: it is requisite that we act in such a way as not to impose upon another man’s liberty. This logic is simple enough and would in and of itself be a great lesson for a great many in the world to live by. But notwithstanding this obligation to not overstep our natural bounds in social interaction, Kant argues that there is yet more we must do to live moral lives.

Unless a man is to live in total isolation, existing without influence upon any other soul, that man cannot expect to have all the tools he needs for proper social interaction with just an understanding of the science of right. Indeed, the act of doing right by another only is a guide insofar as limiting us in what we ought to do. But what should happen if we are met in some situation where our actions will inevitably impact the existence of another? These actions need not only influence humans, but it could impact animals, plants, or any form of creation (and Kant deals with such existence accordingly in his book).

In this question lies the crux of what Kant has come to be most known for: the categorical imperative. For something to be categorical it must be unambiguous and direct, and an imperative could mean something that must not be avoided; or, on a deeper level, the power to restrain or control. An imperative could also be considered a command. Therefore, the categorical imperative is an unambiguous and clear command to control the power to act inherent in all of us. This power cannot be avoided and all must attain unto its principles.

Of note in this categorical imperative is the fact that Kant does not expressly state where these imperatives come from. I am still slightly unclear on his exact feelings towards deity, but it would seem to me that he does not claim that these universal truths come from a higher power. In fact, it would seem that his reasoning states that only an infinite God would be able to live a perfectly ethical life because He would know or would have power to control what Right is. However, once Right is understood, the ethics behind a situation are arrived at a priori, meaning that it is by definition and reason that we understand their meaning.

Nothing empirical can lead us to know an ethical duty. Therefore, in order for something to be a duty of virtue – and by extension a categorical imperative – it must be attained by reason only. This point lends to the fact that Kant does not claim the principles of ethics exist outside of themselves, or in other words, that they are a universal constant that somehow exist before any man discovers them. On the contrary, ethics exist only because man has thought about the existence of the ethical principle. This is a key, yet subtle, point of Kant’s framework because it clearly puts the responsibility of ethical reasoning upon the man who acts in society.

To explain further, Kant argues that virtue can only be attained when there is no obligation for a man to act, otherwise the action thereof cannot be virtue because it is juridical. In order for a man to be virtuous he must act only because he knows through reason that the action is how he should act. If these categorical imperatives were to exist outside of themselves, it would mean that there was thus a law or obligation decreed by some universal being that mandates how one should act in some situation. If this is the case, then man cannot be virtuous but only right (as pertaining to the science of right). Therefore, ethics is a matter for the rational human to discover and cannot be compelled upon any by mandate or decree.
After establishing that man, in order for him to act virtuously, must reason his duties when acting with other entities, Kant outlines some of the duties associated with this framework. One of the crucial and most profound (at least for me) duties that Kant derives is that humans must never treat other humans as a means to an end. This does not only refer to other humans, but also to oneself. Clearly the idea of categorical imperative is meant to extend to how we treat ourselves.

As an example of what Kant meant by not treating ourselves to an end, he spends an entire section outlining the problems with Virtue as Aristotle describes, and provides a better definition for virtue. A human who engages in vice uses himself as a means to satiate animalistic desires and subdues the dignified humanity that is within him. As Aristotle has stated, “Virtue is that median between avarice and vice.” Kant then responds to the logical implication of such a statement: “Virtue is therefore an increasingly lessened form of vice.” This is a problem since virtue must be the opposite of vice and not a lesser version of it. Virtue, in the Kantian sense, is not using ourselves in any which way that could be seen as vice. Kant then outlines different vices, such as sex, drugs, and gluttony, and attempts to clearly define the proper use of each in our lives.

This sort of reasoning is key to understanding how we are to act as individuals. My personal application of these principles has led me to some very interesting changes in my life. First of all, my relationship with God and the gospel has been profoundly affected as of taking this class, and was furthered through reading this book. It has occurred to me through class discussion that it is not enough to believe or act on something simply because one has a good feeling. Indeed, good feelings can easily be mistaken. I have come to the conclusion that a man must act upon what he has reasoned to be true.

This is not to say that a testimony of the gospel can be attained by reason alone. No, it is necessary that man reaches to Heaven and asks for a divine witness lest he reasons himself out of the kingdom and be damned. What I mean by coming to act by reason alone is accepting that something such as faith exists and that it is acceptable to base your rationale upon that foundation. Once I realized that it is a categorical imperative to act according to those duties that my mind has come by reason to accept, I discovered that I have a base upon which to act in the future when faith is not enough.

What I mean by faith not being enough is not to say that I won’t act by faith. To the contrary, all my actions should be grounded to my faith. My meaning is that I learned through this book that it is not only acceptable, but absolutely necessary for a man to stand by his ideals in the face of opposition. It is true intellectual courage to know that there is no empirical proof for an idea yet stand boldly beside that idea anyways. Much of my life I have struggled with the notion that there exists the rational Marc and the spiritual Marc. Kant puts my struggles to rest by showing me that a truly ethical man arrives at his ideals through thought alone and is not compelled to believe one way or the other. It has given me an understanding that I am still an individual in the gospel even when I adhere to the principles taught therein.

The other great application to my life I have found in this reading is the idea that a truly ethical person does not use himself or others as a means to an end. Essentially I have come to realize that many things in my life, which I had viewed as being ethical, were not simply because my intentions were not pure. My life has been spent attempting to find fulfillment by interaction with others. Although only a full history of my life would be able to explain what I mean by this statement, suffice it to say that I found myself lacking (especially of late) any sense of fulfillment in my interactions with others. This surprised me so much that for about a week I lost all desire to even communicate with people.

But then I read this book and was taught about the Kantian framework. Upon further reflection I realized that the reason my life had seen little fulfillment is because previous to this last year I expected others to bring me happiness by inviting me to do things. This past year I learned that if I was to be happy, I must be the catalyst behind my own social experiences. But even after changing my own social fortunes, I still didn’t feel satisfied. But then I realized that I had still been using others as a means to gratify my own desires to be happy. I was not inviting others to do things because it made them happy, but because I thought being the center of social life would make me happy.

This fact dawned upon me sometime in February and I decided that I would try changing the way I think about social situations. I report that this single act – the act of fully realizing my intent and changing it to never use humans as means to my own self-fulfillment – has led me to be happier and more filled with my social interactions than at any other time in my life.

Why does my intent affect how I feel so much? It goes back to what Kant says about ethics being derived only by reason and not by obligation. Previous to my epiphany in February it seemed like social interaction stopped being fun and felt more obligatory. I was attempting to satisfy this craving within me, this almost carnal desire to be popular. The desire created an obligation that immediately made social interaction juridical and no longer ethical. I think this at the heart of not using humans as a means – doing otherwise not only destroys the liberty of the one used, but it also destroys the liberty of the malefactor.

Kant has helped me free my mind of some false and rusty thinking concerning social interaction. It is useful to ask others how to act, but it is often necessary to arrive at these conclusions ourselves before we act. I feel as though I have spent too much of my life trying to learn by others what to do and not enough through my own reasoning. Kant has, ultimately, set me at liberty within my own mind.