Kantís Categorical Imperative as Moral Syllogism

Back to Contents

    In an effort to establish a solid foundation for a theory of universal morality, Immanuel Kant presented his categorical imperative. He proposed to determine the morality of an act by universalizing it; that is, an act became morally proper to him if he could imagine making it the subject of a universal law. That determination was the categorical imperative.

    We distinguish the categorical imperative from the hypothetical imperative, so we need to consider the latter before analyzing the former. We need the contrast between the two to use as a guide.

    An hypothetical imperative is contingent. It is fundamentally an if-then statement. For example: if I am thirsty, I must drink water. Usually I am not thirsty, so there is no need for me to drink water. But on certain occasions I become thirsty, so on those occasions it becomes imperative for me to drink some beverage that contains water. Thus, what I must do, what is imperative for me to do, depends upon the situation in which I find myself.

    A categorical imperative is absolute: it admits no exceptions. It is a necessary thing, but we must ask in what respect that is so. As stated by Kant, the imperative is "Act only according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." But how do we decide what should become a universal law?

    Suppose I feel an urge to steal something. According to Kantís formula, I must ask whether I could will a universal law by which everyone would steal. Of course, I would will no such thing, but why not? Well, if stealing were a universal law of human behavior, some people would steal from me. If everyone stole, we certainly could not enjoy life in a good and decent society and we would not have civilization with all of its benefits. That statement tells us that we must refer to a civilized society in order to apply Kantís formula for devising a universal morality.

    That makes good sense because morality denotes a set of rules governing the behavior of people in social groups. In the absence of other people, my behavior is neither moral nor immoral. If I were stranded alone on a deserted island, like Robinson Crusoe, nothing I could do would be judged for its morality. Only when my behavior affects other people do the judgements of morality come into play. It is only when we exist in a society that we need laws, universal or otherwise.

    Now I can state Kantís formula as a syllogism. I can combine a contingent statement with a necessary or universal statement and obtain a judgement. Thus I have:

        If I steal, I must will that all others steal.

        If all others steal, we cannot have a civilized society.

I want to have a civilized society, so I must will that no one steal; therefore, I do not steal.

I can thus state an absolute as a pair of contingencies on the tacit assumption that all people want to live in a civilized society.

    But thereís a problem with that formulation. Consider what a Nazi might say:

        If I kill Jews, then I must will that all others kill Jews.

        If all others kill Jews, then we will have a pure Aryan society.

I want to live in a pure Aryan society, so I must will that everyone kill Jews; therefore, I kill Jews.

Clearly that does not constitute a good moral calculation. How did we go wrong?

    We have tacitly assumed that all people share the same ideas of what constitutes a good and decent society. The Nazi example shows us how wrong that assumption is. But itís not as wrong as it first appears. Ask what the phrase "good and decent society" means to you at its most fundamental. Most people would say that itís a society in which other people treat them fairly and well. Even the Nazi would agree with that statement, though he would also say that Jews donít treat people fairly or well and would even go so far as to say that Jews arenít even real people.

    If people agree, more or less, on what constitutes a good and decent society, then we can use that agreement to devise a more universal criterion for morality. We need to make the categorical imperative more directly personal; that is, we now write it in the form

Act toward others only according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law mandating how others act toward you.

Now we must refer to others as objects as well as subjects in our syllogism:

    If I steal from others, I must will that all others steal from me.

    If others steal from me, they will diminish me.

I do not want to be diminished, so I cannot will that others steal from me; therefore, I do not steal.

Our Nazi is in for a real disappointment:

    If I kill Jews, then I must will that Jews kill me.

    If Jews kill me, then I will be diminished.

I do not want to be diminished, so I cannot will that Jews kill me; therefore, I donít kill Jews.

Of course, the Nazi wonít actually reason that way because the Nazi is someone struggling with a sense of inferiority: too stupid to overcome his inferiority, the Nazi seeks to diminish others as a means of aggrandizing himself and thereby covering up his feelings of uselessness and impotence.

    The reference to diminishing people brings in the concept of evil. We use the word evil as a label to refer to anything intended to diminish a person: itís a convenient shorthand for the longer phrase and it also expresses our disapprobation. Certainly a society permeated by evil cannot be good and decent, so we expect morality to involve a rejection of evil.

    We can rewrite our new version of the categorical imperative in a more familiar form: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. That is the golden rule that has been taught for centuries by every major religion on Earth. As a syllogism we can express it as

        If I do X unto others, I must will that others do X unto me.

        If others do X unto me, they will augment/enlarge me.

I want to be augmented/enlarged, so I will that others do X unto me; therefore, I do X unto others.

In making that syllogism we have subtly assumed that people are all alike in what they regard as augmenting or enlarging them.

    That is not a good assumption. People differ in their aspirations and goals, so they differ in their feelings of what augments or enlarges them. But all people are susceptible to the same hurts and harms and regard them as diminutions. Thus we get a more universal basis for morality if we express the golden rule in its negative form Ė Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you. Or, to put it more simply, we can borrow from the Hippocratic Oath Ė First, do no harm.

    If everyone were to follow that maxim, we would have a good and decent society. People would still have minor arguments, certainly, but they would neither hurt nor harm each other. So why donít we have such a society? Some people refuse to live by the maxim. The challenge now is to determine why some people reject the golden rule and figure out a way to change that fact. Thatís more an act of psychology than of philosophy. But in philosophy we see the goal that psychology should strive to achieve.

efhghgef

Back to Contents