Immanuel Kant laid out ways in his “Categorical Imperative” to derive the duties of mankind in their behaviour. He claims that all duties can be decided through the categorical imperative. In focusing on this topic, Kant provides a framework of how these moral duties can be decided. In this essay, I will illustrate the formulas of universal law and of the formula of humanity. This will allow for the recognition of how more specific duties can be found from using the categorical imperative. A criticism of the specific duties from the categorical imperative will be discussed. In drawing out a framework, a concept other than Kant’s will be explored, along with a view of their principals in morality. The essay will then describe the two ways that maxims can fail the categorical imperative test. While Kant’s Categorical Imperative provides a useful framework to making decision on the ways in which a person should act, it can’t be applied to every situation.
In his work about the categorical imperative, Kant refers to the perfect duty, which is what people are obligated to do throughout their lives, all the time. This includes no killing, no lies, no theft, no physically hurting others and no breaking promises. The Categorical Imperative is intended to provide a way so that moral actions can be evaluated so that moral judgements can be made. A main goal of the Categorical Imperative is to make judgements while considering the needs of others. In other words, others shouldn’t be treated as means; instead, they should be considered part of everyone’s freedom. “It is because other people have universal reason and freedom that you should never treat them as merely means to your own ends, and it is that rationality which provides the criterion for evaluation found in the first expression of the Categorical Imperative,” (Pecorino, 2002). The ways to achieve the Categorical Imperative is through Universal Law and through Humanity, or the End of Itself formulation.
Kant describes the Universal Law as being an, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” (Kant, 2012). This means that in making an ethical decision, a person must decide whether the world would function in a positive way if that action were done by everyone. This represents the first formulation in the categorical Imperative. In other words, Kant is saying that the actions should be decided by including them in the laws of nature. “Since the will is practical reason, and since everyone must arrive at the same conclusions in matters of duty, it cannot be the case that what you are able to will is a matter of personal taste, or relative to your individual desires. Rather, the question of what you can will is a question of what you can will without contradiction,” (Korsgaard, 2012). Kant admits that willing universal maxims creates contradictions. He said the nature of some maxims are that they can’t be thought as being a universal law of nature. The contradiction is a fallacy in conception and the second on is a contradiction of will.
The Humanity formulation is one of the reasons many philosophers agree with Kant’s Categorical Imperative. The formulation says that people shouldn’t act in a way that treats humanity, be it ourselves or others, as a means only and not as an end. “This is often seen as introducing the idea of respect for persons, for whatever it is that is essential to our humanity,” (Johnson, 2008). This is an aspect to the Categorical Imperative that is more closely in line with intuition. It essentially says that something shouldn’t be done because it just isn’t right. The issue with this formula, however, is that it doesn’t rule out the ability of a person to use someone as a means an end, (Johnson, 2002). People use others as means to an end all the time. For example, we use people to develop the tools that we use, such as the computers we write on. These people are a means to an end. But the humanity of these people also needs to be treated as an ends in itself. The ends that these people have are that they are paid an agreed-to price.
Problems with Theory
The major problem with the Categorical Imperative is that it can’t resolve conflicts between two perfect duties. This could be explained in the example of never telling a lie and never harming someone. This would pose a problem when telling the truth would harm someone. Another issue with his theory is that there wouldn’t be a way to solve conflicts between a perfect duty and an imperfect duty, (Pecorino, 2000). For example, what if a person had to keep a promise that involved them picking up a friend at a particular time, and at the same time there is the imperfect duty of having to stop along the way to picking up that friend so that the driving could give CPR to someone who is choking on a banana? The person’s life was saved after being rescued from the banana that was lodged in their throat.
Kant’s work is similar to the principle of John Rowls in his work “Theory of Justice as Fairness.” It suggests managers should imagine themselves as being behind a veil of ignorance, where a manager doesn’t know about themselves or of their abilities. Their sex, nationality, tastes and race are unknown. Behind this veil, everyone is pictured as free, rational and moral. In this position, the only rational choice would be what is fair, because a person who knows nothing about themselves would make a decision that isn’t based on personal gains. Rowls’ beliefs follow closely with Kant’s idea of the Categorical Imperative, which is at least a universal respect for all. This means everyone is given equal opportunity to basic liberties.
Let’s assume that this basic liberties to all is applied to a cigarette company in the 1950s that knows of the unhealthy effects of cigarettes. Let’s also assume the company relies on canvassers to sell the cigarettes. This company needs to ensure (based on the application of another one of Kant’s theories, the Liberty Principle) that everyone on staff tells the potential customers of the health effects. If a company is making a decision that affects change in this way, it could be met with much resistance by employees, which it is in the aforementioned situation. In applying the Liberty Principle also to the workers – which would make them a part of the decision-making process – a company can more easily implement a decision in an ethical manner.
A general way to implement a decision effectively in this way is by creating an ethical culture. It should be made clear from the start what the expectations are from each individual in the company. These could include setting out the company’s goals and core organizational values, which could mean placing equal value and liberties on all people and including all employees in developing ideas, as what was suggested by Rowls.
Effectively implementing a decision also requires managers to demonstrate their commitment to following the standards set out. A reduction needs to be made in the rewards for unethical behavior. For example, a cigarette salesman that sells the product for profit shouldn’t be encouraged if he lied about the health effects. Human resources procedures should also be developed for the best implementation. All employees should feel free to communicate with upper management. A board of directors that ensures these standards are met should be formed for best assimilation into the changed environment. This will help ensure employees are on board with the manager’s decision. Managers might single out and neutralize resisters, educate the workers, include all employees in the change process and reward positive employees.
Learning about Rowls’ ideas and lining them up with those of Kant, can help a manager understand the importance of allowing the employee to be able to come to their own ethical decisions (Kant, 1991). As Kant explains, those who have the expectations already written out for them aren’t as willing to comply with those ethics. He said moral decisions must be freely chosen for them to be taken seriously by the person who is making the moral decision.
As Kathryn G. Denhardt explained in “Unearthing the Moral Foundations of Public Administration: Honor, Benevolence, and Justice,” where rules aren’t “clearly applicable, the person with an underdeveloped understanding of general moral principles and underdeveloped capacities of discernment and judgment will be unable to make a good decision,” (Denhardt, 1991). This idea will help managers guide employees who might not have their own moral standards to better understand the reason the change is being made. This could be met with less resistance than if the process wasn’t explained to them.
So before making the decision to tell all potential customers about the health risks of smoking cigarettes, all employees should be made a part of the process, and this could be applied as a universal law. The viewpoints of the company should be made known so that workers without a moral standing will be involved in the decision-making process. This will promote a culture of the Categorical Imperative, as described by Kant.
Christine, K. (1985). Kant’s Formula of Universal Law. Harvard University.
Guthrie, S. (2001). Immanuel Kant and the Categorical Imperative. The Examined Life On-Line
Johnson, R. Kant’s Moral Philosophy. (2008, April 6). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Pecorino, P. (2000). The Categorical Imperative. The City University of New York.