“Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative”

By Immanuel Kant



Immanuel Kant is considered to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time. He made significant and highly original contributions to ethics, jurisprudence, and the philosophy of religion as well as to ethics and epistemology. In his writing “Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative” Kant says “to possess moral worth is more important than to possess intelligence, humor, strength, or any other talent of the mind or body. These talents are valuable, but moral worth has absolute value, commanding not mere admiration but reverence and respect.” He believes that to act morally is to act for no other motive than the motive of doing what is right, not what is most pleasing. People who do right solely because it pleases them are not acting morally, for if it pleased someone they would do wrong. Motives should have nothing to do with pleasure because pleasure is subjective. Moral persons act in such a way that they could will that the principles of their actions should be universal laws for everyone else as well. In other words, “would I want everyone else acting in the same manner as I am?” acting on universal principles. He goes on to say that universal principles impose categorical imperatives. An imperative is a demand that I act in a certain fashion, and is said to be either hypothetical or categorical. Kant writes, “If now the action is good only as a means to something else (conditional), then the imperative is hypothetical; if it is conceived as good in itself and consequently as being necessarily the principle of a will which of itself conforms to reason (unconditional), then it is categorical.” Thus a categorical imperative is not preceded by any condition. Categorical imperatives are moral. Kant argues that the categorical imperatives presuppose the absolute worth of all rational beings as ends in themselves. Thus another formulation of the categorical imperative is: “So act as to treat humanity…as an end withal, never as a means only.” The point Kant makes in his presentation of the categorical imperative is that an act becomes imperative (or commanded) when it ought to be applied to everyone. For Kant, the core of morality concerns obligation or reasons of ought. If it is defined in terms of ought, we must understand if conditional or unconditional usages are being applied here. That is, a conditional ought means that one ought to perform some act in order for something else to happen (i.e. possibly some type of reward). If something is an unconditional ought then one ought to perform some act apart from any consideration of merit. Kant calls the domain of beings that are to be treated in this way as the “kingdom of ends.”

There is no doubt that Kant was a great philosopher, but his theories fall short in answering some moral dilemmas. Most modern theories of moral reasoning were powerfully shaped by one of two great philosophers: Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. Kant believed that pure reason alone could lead to moral truths. Based on his own reasoning, for instance, he declared that it was wrong to use someone for your own ends and that it was right to act only according to principles that everyone should follow.

John Stuart Mill, by contrast, argued that the rules of right and wrong should above all else achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even though particular individuals might be worse off. (This approach became known as utilitarianism, based on the “utility” of a moral rule.) Kant puts what’s right before what’s good, Mill puts what’s good before what’s right.

In light of this I have become dissatisfied with utilitarians and Kantians alike. None of them could explain how moral judgments work in the real world. Consider, for example, this scenario: Imagine you’re at the wheel of a trolley and the brakes have failed. Your approaching a for in the track at top speed. On the left side, five workers are fixing the track. On the right side, there is a single worker. If you do nothing the trolley will bear left and kill the five workers. The only way to save five lives is to take responsibility for changing