Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

So I was reading the “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals” by Immanuel Kant, as translated into english by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, and discovered that Kant had established a rule for morality which hits the issue directly on the nose:

There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act 
only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it 
should become a universal law.

I interpret this as meaning that one should only act if they know that what they will do will never be the wrong thing to do in the situation that they are in, or for anyone if in their place.  Its sort of a generalization of the golden rule.  The golden rule deals only with the way people interact with each other, while Kant’s imperative includes any action someone might take.  For instance, if you own a perfectly good drinking glass that only you use and you would like to use it later, and you smash it purposely into the ground, that is not a violation of the golden rule, but it is a violation of Kant’s imperative.

Unfortunately, as I continued reading the book, I found what amounts to a slur of a people he calls, “South Sea islanders” only a few pages later.  Kant uses them as an example of people that “neglect their natural gifts.”  These would have been a group of people that Kant had never visited, so it was likely that he was parroting the slur from rumors or other reports and writings that he had read.  Now if Kant thought that believing and repeating such rumors or other hearsay about these people was both valid and moral in accordance with his imperative, then he must also have believed that if such rumors or hearsay existed about him then it would be valid and moral for other writers to believe and repeat them.

Obviously, Kant would not have enjoyed such a situation, and in this regard the man literally failed to follow his own moral imperative only a few pages later in the same book that he wrote it in.  But Kant probably didn’t think that he had violated it, and although he managed to create the perfect moral law, he exposed the main problem with following it.  The problem with following Kant’s imperative is that one must be knowledgeable enough to be able to predict whether or not a given maxim should be a universal law.  In this sense, trying to act morally by Kant’s imperative has the same level of intellectual difficulty as trying to write the correct laws for an entire society.  Thus, acting morally by Kant’s imperative is an exercise for geniuses or people that would aspire to be.

Leave a Reply