KANTIAN CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE: ITS IMPLICATION IN NIGERIAN ETHICAL ORDER
KANT’S MORAL PRINCIPLES
Kant in virtue of his education has a vivid appreciation of the unparallel excellence of moral value. In his ethical theory, Kant sets out to discover and justify the supreme principle of morality and the foundation on which the whole structure of moral law must rest if it is to be valid as a genuine law of duty. On his part, he has nothing to do with utilitarianism or with any doctrine which gives to morality a purpose outside itself. The basis on which his entire ethics rest are; Goodwill, duty and the imperative.
The concept of “goodwill” is a very important concept in Kant’s ethics. Infact, it is at the center of his moral philosophy. Kant argues that reason must have some functions. It then follows according to Kant, that our existence has a different and far nobler end, for which reason is
properly intended. This end can only be the cultivation of a will not merely good as means to something else, but good in itself.
For Kant, goodwill is the only thing that is good par excellence. Thus he writes;
Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification except a goodwill.”1
Thus, all other things we generally refer to as good are conditionally good; their goodness needs to be qualified because they can become bad when misused. For instance. Intelligence, courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament and other talents of the mind, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects, but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which makes use of it is not good. There are even some qualities which are of service to this goodwill itself and may facilitate its action, yet which have no intrinsic unconditional value, but always presuppose a good will, they are not good absolutely. Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person. However, they are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancient thinkers. This owes to the fact that without the principles of goodwill, they may become extremely bad.
For Kant goodwill is intrinsically good and is always good. Hence he opines;
A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end but simply by virtue of volition that is good in itself.2
Succinctly, we can say that for Kant, Goodwill is the only thing that has absolute and unconditional goodness and that which gives meaning to other limited goods.
However, Kant’s conception of goodwill attracted two questions by way of objection. First, what does Kant mean by Good without qualification? Second, what is Goodwill? In answer to the first question, Professor Paton in his book The Categorical Imperative explains good without qualification as meaning an unconditional good. By this he means that goodwill transcends all conditions and therefore is good in whatever condition it is found.
Kant distinguished the two senses of the word”Summum” extracted from the phrase “ summum bonum” and therefore drew a distinct line of demarcation between supreme and perfect good. According to him,
The Summum may mean either supreme (supremum) or perfect (consummatum). The former is that condition which is itself unconditioned, i.e. not subordinate to any other (origianarum); the second is that whole of the same kind (perfectissimum)3
By this, Kant means that the supreme good is the unconditioned good but not the perfect good; it is only a part of the perfect good, while the perfect good is the whole good. According to Kant, goodwill means supreme and not a perfect good, while the perfect good is realizable in the life after. Thus Kant gives the condition under which goodwill can as such be called the “summum bonum” He thus denies the possible existence of any other perfect goods.
As regards the second question, which centers on the nature of goodwill, Kant gave some elaborations of this in his notion of duty. He succinctly defines goodwill” as that which acts for the sake of duty.”4 Hence for fuller understanding of the nature of goodwill, we turn to Kant’s notion of duty.
1.2 THE CONCEPT OF DUTY
Kant defines goodwill as that which acts for the sake of duty as we have earlier written. This does not necessarily imply that an action done for the sake of duty is what solely makes a will good. This leads Kant to distinguish between the holy will and human will. According to Kant, a holy will is that which is inescapable of any maxim conflicting with the moral law. In other words, it is that which naturally and necessarily acts in accordance with the moral law. Such a will, in Kant’s conception is not above the moral law but is above the restraints and constraints of such law and therefore is above duty.
On the other hand, a human will is that which does not necessarily act in accordance with the dictates of moral law because of the influence of passion and inclination. However with the help of reason, acting in accordance with the dictate of moral law becomes a standard a good towards which such a will strives amidst the opposing torrent of passion. Hence, acting for the sake of duty is for human will, a constraint, a duty. Therefore human will is a will under duty and can only achieve its goodness by acting for the sake of duty.
Kant further distinguishes two types of actions in relation to duty; an action which accords with duty and an action which is done from duty or for the sake of duty. By an action which accords with duty, Kant means an action which is performed from any other motive like from inclination, sympathy or selfishness which happens to coincide with the requirements of duty.
On the other hand, by action done from duty or for the sake of duty, Kant means an action performed from no other motive but the moral one, such an action is done solely because it is what duty requires. Hence, only such an action, for Kant, has moral value. Thus he says:
An act is morally praiseworthy only if done neither for self-interested reason, nor as the result of a natural disposition, but rather from duty5
By way of synthesis, Kant defines duty as “the necessity to act out of reverence for the law”6. In Kant’s conception, it is only moral law, detectable by practical reason that could be the object of respect. This law awakens respect for itself, by checking and humiliating our passions and inclination. Thus, whereas moral law awakens respect in us, duty makes us conscious of this law and gives us the reason for acting out of respect of it.
So far, we have seen that goodwill is manifested in acting for the sake of duty; and that duty is acting from respect of law as an obligation says by J. Omoregbe. According to him, “duty is what a person has as an obligation to do”7 Hence, we can identify a goodwill with that which acts in respect of moral law.
Kant’s notion of duty has attracted criticisms and objections which could be summarized under these questions.
i. Must an action be absolutely excluded from feeling and inclination in order to possess moral value?
ii. Does an action done for the sake of goodness and not for the sake of duty have any moral worth?
Professor Paton reacted to these criticisms in his book,” The Categorical Imperative.” He tries to make explicit, the relation of inclination to duty as Kant conceived it. According to him, Kant never divorced inclination from duty or moral motive, but rather accepted as moral, those actions which though done from duty, have bearing of inclination. He therefore gives the two senses of an action done from duty.
i. That an action is good precisely in so far as it springs from a will to do one’s duty.
ii. That we cannot confidently affirm an action to be good except in so far as we believe that the will to do one’s duty could by itself have been sufficient to produce the action without the support of inclinations8.
What Paton precisely means is that in so far as the sufficient reason for our action is the will to act for the sake of duty, our additional inclination to such an action does not affects its morality. That is, our inclination or emotion does not affect the morality of our action, rather our acting for the sake of duty. Kant extols action done for the sake of duty and places it above the one done from duty. This is very clear in his distinction between a holy will which performs an action from its goodness and human will which performs from duty. However, Kant believes that a human being can never act from sense of goodness, because such an action is so noble and magnanimous that it cannot be achieved by man.
Summarily, for Kant, duty implies a constraint, a restraint. This constraint is of consequent to the imposition of the universal law, dictated by the practical reason to an imperfect will- the human will. The relation of the law to the will is that of a command, an imperative. Kant gave an elaborate treatment of this imperative to which we now turn.
1.3 THE IMPERATIVE
The relation of the objective principle or universal law to a human will is that of constraint. The conception of such a relation in so far as it is obligatory to such a will is a command and the formula of such a command is what Kant called an imperative. Thus, Paton writes;
The conception of an objective principles, in so far as it is necessitating for a will is a command (of reason) and the formula of this command is called Imperative.9
The imperative for Kant is expressed by an “ought” in which case, the law of reason proposes to the will what is to be done by use of obligation.
Kant distinguishes the two main types of imperatives – the hypothetical and the categorical imperative. Hypothetical imperative is that which commands an action only as a means to an end. It says: If you desire X, you ought to do Y. It commands an action only as a means to an end. Kant further distinguishes the two types of hypothetical imperative: the technical or imperative of skill and the pragmatic or counsel of prudence.
The technical imperative gives a direction to a will which wants to attain a particular end. It says: you ought to do this if you want to attain the other. According to Kant, this imperative is more of a counsel on techniques than of a moral principle. And since it is morally neutral, in the sense that it can be appreciated to good principle as well as bad one, Kant qualifies it as being problematic.
Where the end is one that every rational agent wills by his very nature , the imperatives are assertoric or pragmatic. Thus for Paton;
The end which every rational agent wills by his very nature is his own happiness, and an actions enjoined by a pragmatic imperative are good in the sense of being prudent10.
The categorical imperative on the other hand commands an action as an end- and never as a means to an end. It recognizes the intrinsic finality in human act and thus commands an action as being necessary of itself. It says; you ought to do X. The imperative is not conditioned by the hypothesis that some particular end is desired.
According to Kant, he calls this an apodictic imperative, which is demonstrably or indisputably true, thus it is the imperative of morality.
With these principles, Kant lays the foundation to his supreme principle of morality- The Categorical Imperative, Goodwill, which is a will that acts for the sake of duty with its unconditional quality an intrinsic goodness, is the only will that can act in accordance with the dictates of the unconditioned command- the Categorical Imperative. Duty gives the necessity of this command as well as its impacts to a finite will, while imperative gives the formula of this command.
1 J. Adler: Great books of the Western World. Kant(Chicago Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc 1996) p. 256
2 Loc. Cit
3 M.J.Adler; Critique of Practical Reason in Great Books of Western World, translated by Thomas Kingemill Abboth,( London:Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. Chicago,1996),p.338 .
4 H.J. Paton: The Moral Law, (London, Hutchinson publishers, 1972), p 18
5 C .Ekwutosi: Ethical Theories unpublished lectures,( Awka: Pope John Paul II Major Seminary, 2003), p. 8
6 F. Copleston; A History of Philosophy( London, Continuum Publishers Vol. 6 2003) P. 318
7 J. Omoregbe, Ethics; A systematic and Historical Study (Lagos; Joja Educational Research and Publishers Limited 1930,p. 118
8 H. J. Paton: Categorical Imperative (America Chicago University Press 1994) p.80
9 H.J Paton; The Categorical Imperative op cit P. 114