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Kant: Categorical Imperative - 55



Now I say that man, and in general every rational being,

exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means
for arbitrary use by this or that will: he must in all his actions,
whether they are directed to himself or to other rational beings,
always to be viewed at the same time as an end.

— Immanuel Kant
I Introduction
In Kant’s moral theory the dignity of persons and their right to respect is
grounded in their freedom – their ability to subordinate their particular
desires and inclinations to the universal law of morality. To live up to this
freedom is the meaning of integrity, and so it is understandable that
more than anything else Kant treasured intellectual and moral integrity,
both in himself and in others. Kant is remembered by those who knew
him as the best model of his own moral doctrines: He valued the
impersonal universal in all those with whom he dealt more than their
individuality or particularity. An incident occurred about a week before
his death that has often been used to illustrate how Kant guided his
relationships with others by the disinterested interest of moral respect,
which he nonetheless called the “courtesy of the heart.” Desperately
weak, mentally unable to concentrate, and virtually blind, Kant insisted
on rising and remaining standing until his doctor had seated himself.
With great effort Kant then remarked that at least “the sense of humanity
has not yet abandoned me. (Sullivan, 1989: 1-3)

General context for Kant’s moral philosophy. The main problem

confronting Kant emerged from the New Science developed by Galileo,
Kepler, Newton, Descartes and others. This science viewed the universe
as one big machine governed by precise physical laws that can be
discovered by observation and experiment. Freedom and responsibility
disappear from this picture of the world – and with them morality. Such a
world has no meaning, no purpose, no intrinsic value; it simply is.
Kant did not want to oppose this new science; but he did want to
defend belief in morality (and religion). To be able to do this, he would
have to show that theoretical or scientific knowledge has limitations that
prevent it from reaching all of reality. In other words, scientific knowledge
leaves room for and does not undermine morality.
Kant’s aim is then to rehabilitate morality. But to do this, he first had
to analyze knowledge, to explain how we come to know the world and
what counts as such knowledge. Only then would he be in a position to
show the limits of knowledge. (Sullivan, 1989: 11-12)

Our presentation of Kant’s thinking on morality will follow the same route
he journeyed. We will be guided by the following three questions: (1)
Foundations of Moral Values - 56

What can we know? [Kant had to analyze knowledge first.] (2) What
ought I to do? (3) What may I hope for?
II What can I know?

Kant's main contention . . . is that man as reason, as unity of

consciousness, as the "I think," is not so much he who is subjected
to some object as he who constitutes the subjective conditions
which make possible the object of experience. Thus the Kantian
subject is one that "legislates," sets the rules and boundaries for
the emergence of the object. This, in general, is what is meant by
Kant's "transcendental" method. (Sullivan, 1989: 55)

Conditions of the possibility of experience and knowledge. In The

Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wishes to determine the cognitive powers
of reason, to find out what it could and could not achieve in the way of
knowledge (hence, the conditions of the possibility of knowledge). This
aim can be rendered in a question that has become synonymous with
Kant: What are the conditions of the possibility of experience and
knowing? In trying to respond to this question, Kant had hoped to un-
cover, as it were, the limit-boundaries of what we could possibly know.
Possibility of Synthetical a priori judgments. How are synthetic a priori
judgments possible? This is the crucial question for Kant upon whose
answer depends conditions of the possibility of both experience and
knowledge. And this is where Kant's transcendental method comes in.
For Kant, knowledge is a cooperative endeavor in which both mind
(subject) and object (experience) make a contribution. The subject con-
tributes the relation (connection) while objects contribute the relata.
Knowledge is not mind/reason alone--else there is no content, nothing to
be known. Nor is knowledge sense experience alone--else there is only a
formless diversity or manifold of sensibility.
Human knowledge is a composite of matter and a set of forms. This
being the case, Kant says (in agreement with the empiricists) that "all our
knowledge begins with experience" but also claims (against the
empiricists and for the rationalists) that it does not necessarily follow that
all knowledge arises out of experience.
All knowledge will thus contain elements that are not drawn from
experience but are supplied by the mind itself (a priori).
What are these a priori forms? 1
(a) As regards experience (sensibility): the a priori forms are SPACE and
TIME, i.e., for experience to be possible at all, these two forms are the
necessary conditions.
 Space: According to Newtonian physics: Space is an absolute real-
ity, independent of ourselves, a big box in which events occur.
Problem: How could we ever have the a priori knowledge of it claimed
in geometry? We could know that in this part of space, under inspection
here and now, triangles have interior angles equal to 180, but how could
we know that this is true, as geometry claims, of all space everywhere?
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 57

According to the Leibnizian view: Space is not real, but a relational

structure and a product of sense and imagination. But if space were
merely relational, it should be possible to superimpose one glove (left-
hand) on the other (right-hand), for all the relationships between parts
(e.g., between thumb and forefinger in each glove) are identical. The
gloves ought to be spatially identical. The fact that they are not shows
there is something more to space than the relation of parts.
For Kant, space is simply a mode or form of the mind's apprehension of
the world. It is a way of "putting together" sense experience. Kant says
this is so because we can think of space without objects in it, but we
cannot think of objects which are not in space.
 Time: Likewise, time is a "pure form of intuition," that is, a mode of
order, or of putting together, which is immediate and sensuous. Hence,
just as our minds spread out their experience in space, as being above or
below, to the right or to the left, of other experiences, so they order these
experiences temporally, as before, after, or simultaneous with other
HENCE: Space and time are prior to, and a condition of the possibility, of
our experiences of objects.

Implication for what we can know: If space and time are merely ways in
which the mind orders things, then things can only be known by human
beings as they appear, that is, under the conditions of space and time (a
priori forms of sensibility), and never as they are in themselves.
Thus, we have Kant's famous distinction between phenomena: things
as they appear and noumena: things as they are in themselves.
According to Kant, all we can know are phenomena; this is the limit of
what we can know. Beyond the phenomenal world (i.e. the noumenal),
there can be no knowledge. 2
Kant says more about the conditions of the possibility of knowing. For
example, he discusses at length what he calls the a priori forms of
understanding and a priori forms of reasons. The former, like the a priori
forms of experience, constitute knowing. The latter are what he calls the
regulative ideas of reason. They do not constitute knowing, but they do
regulate the way we know and understand the world.
We will not go into the wearing discussion of these other a priori forms.
This matter is best left for a study of Kant’s philosophy or a study of his
epistemology. Besides, in the discussion of the a priori forms of
experience, the study of the possibility of synthetical a priori judgments,
we have all we need to proceed in our inquiry on Kant’s ethics. What we
should always keep in mind is Kant’s claim that our knowledge is a
composite of experience and ideas. In claiming this, Kant believed that
he has proven that there is indeed a necessary and universal component
in all knowing.
Summary: On the basis of what we have seen as Kant's response to
the problem of the possibility of synthetic judgments a priori, we can
make some general conclusions:
Foundations of Moral Values - 58

(a) "Knowledge," properly so called, is partly based on sense

experience and is partly not so based. Knowledge is always composite,
i.e., we may identify empirical elements and a priori elements. The latter
are contributions of the knower.
(b) The limit of what we can know then is the limit of what is there in
sensuous experience that we can apply our a priori forms to.
Concepts without sense experience are empty; sense experience
without concepts are blind.
All our knowledge begins with experience, but not all our knowledge
arises out of experience.
Hence, knowledge is limited to what we can experience in space and
time. And yet, there are “things” we don’t experience empirically – like
the “ought” in moral imperatives. Kant’s project is halfway done: through
his excursion into the possibility of knowledge, he has shown that there is
room for matters of moral and religious significance.
III Kant's Ethical Theory (What we ought to do)

In his ethics, Kant's aim parallels that of the Critique. Here, it is "to seek
out and establish the supreme principle of morality." He wishes to
delineate the basic features of the situation in which moral decisions are
made, and so to clarify the special character of such decisions.
What Kant hopes is to be in a position to justify and defend, not every
individual moral judgment, but the principles in accordance with which
such judgments can be truly made.
We will glean from Kant's ethics that this does not tell us what we
ought to do concretely; it only presents us with the limit-boundary of
what is allowable by way of moral acts and decisions. In other words, his
theory seems to fence in an enclosure, outside of which would be the
realm where no moral person would dare venture.

Let us consider the following case of the inquiring murderer:

Imagine that someone is fleeing from a murderer and tells you he

is going home to hide. Then the murderer comes along and asks
where the first man went. You believe that if you tell the truth, the
murderer will find his victim and kill him. What should you do--
should you tell the truth or lie? (Rachels, 1986: 117)
In this case, most of us would think it is obvious what we should do: we
should lie. We don't think we should go about lying as a general rule, but
only in situations like this one. After all, we might say, which is more
important, telling the truth or saving someone's life? Surely in this case
lying is justified.
Kant, however, would beg to disagree. For him, we should never lie.
He believed that morality is a matter of following absolute rules – rules
that admit of no exceptions, which must be followed, come what may.
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 59

Kant's task: As in his epistemology, the task is the isolation of the a priori
and therefore unchanging elements of morality. It is true that there are
different moral schemes in different societies, but we ask: (a) What is it
that makes these schemes moral? (b) What form must a precept have if
it is to be recognized as a moral precept?
Kant, as we can see, rejects any morality based on anything outside of
or other (also called heteronomous morality) than the moral subjectivity
In the context of what we have seen as his theory of knowledge, our
study of morality must be focused on the a priori--i.e., pure ethics. Thus,
the task of ethics is to seek out, and if possible to justify, the supreme
principle of morality.
For example, some of our ethical knowledge is composite. I say, for
instance, "I ought not to lie to my mother." I could not make this
statement unless I had experience both of my mother and myself. But
over and above the empirical, there is an assertion of obligation (duty).
This duty, in general or particular, cannot be known merely from my
It is to deal with this aspect of morality that is untainted by its
empirical manifestations, the nature of duty as such, which is the task of
pure ethics.
The need for pure ethics is thus quite strong in Kant. "A morally good
action must not only accord with duty, but it must be willed for the sake
of duty. If we fail to grasp the nature of duty in its purity, we may be
tempted to act merely for the sake of pleasure or convenience." (Paton,
1967: 24)
How does Kant view morality?
GOOD WILL. First of all, Kant says: "It is impossible to conceive anything
at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without
qualification, except a good will. [393]"3 What does it mean for a person
to have a “good will”?
To clarify Kant's assertion about the good will, we ought to pay
attention to "without qualification":
(i) A good will alone can be good in itself, or can be an absolute or
unconditioned good. That is – it is a good will alone which is good in
whatever context it may be found.
[A good will alone is good in all circumstances and in that sense is an
absolute/unconditioned good. Other so-called good things are good only
(ii) Thus--it is not good in one context and bad in another. It is not
good as means to an end and bad as means to another. It is not good if
somebody happens to want it and bad if he doesn't. Its goodness is not
conditioned by its relation to a context or to an end or to a desire. It is
good on the basis of itself and nothing else. 4
By focusing on the "good will," Kant eliminates the idea that morality
can be based on our natural states and inclinations (vs. Natural Law
theory). As we will see later, he does not begrudge us pleasure and
Foundations of Moral Values - 60

happiness, but wants us instead to see that such cannot be the

foundation of morality as rationally conceived.
Consider, for example, what we might call the innate gifts of
intelligence, wit, and courage, or even the accidental gifts of power,
wealth, and honor. For Kant, these would have no unconditional value.
How so? Note how any one of them could be corrupted or turned into an
evil. In other words, Kant supports his claim that nothing is superior to
“good will” “by pointing out that everything else we consider good – can
be used immorally. Even happiness can tempt a person to act in a
morally careless way, and, besides, he continued, we do not think that a
person who leads an immoral life is deserving of happiness” [393]..
(Sullivan, 1994: 30)
But, is there anything more basic than these, which would be
absolutely and unconditionally good? Kant answers YES - the GOOD WILL.
And it is, in fact, the very thing that these other things depend on for
their goodness, and without which they would become corrupted and
turned into evil.
But first, we must ask a question: “What makes a person have a ‘good
will’”? Kant points out that when we act, we always act to accomplish
something; every action has some goal or other. But we do not consider
people to be morally wanting when, despite their best efforts, they fail to
achieve their goal. Instead –
“morally good [will] is . . . intrinsically good, that is, good in itself, just for
what it is and not good merely insofar as it is effective in achieving
something further. (Sullivan, 1996: 30)
DUTY. If the good will does not depend on the good things a person is able
to accomplish, on what does it depend? Or ask: What makes the good
will good? At this point, it might help to ask what Kant means by “duty”.
It is instructive to ask first what duty is not.
First, duty is not an action recognized by agent as
inconsistent/contradictory with duty (however useful they may be). For
example: A student's duty is to study. When a student does not study, he
is doing something contrary to duty, hence, which cannot be a duty.
Second, an action conforming to duty and to which we have no direct
inclination, but to which we are driven by some other inclination (self-
interest) is not a duty. (When I do something (a duty) but only because it
pleases you, not because I see it as my duty.)
For example: Duty prescribes action A, but is done neither because we
see it to be our duty, nor because we have an inclination to it, but
because in order to get to B, which we desire, we must do it. A
dealer/businessman who refrains from overcharging his customers
neither from sense of duty nor from love for them, but in order to extend
his business, may be seen as doing his duty, but the in reality he is not.
Third, a more difficult case would be that in which duty and direct
inclination point in the same direction.
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 61

It is much more difficult to observe the distinction where an action

conforms to duty and the subject besides has an immediate
inclination for it. [397]
Kant presents some illustrations [378-399]:
First, the preservation of life is both an inclination and a duty (allusion
here to Natural Law Theory?); but we know it is from sense of duty that
we preserve life if one's life is so wretched that one has no inclination to
preserve it;
Second, beneficent action is the result either of a sense of duty or joy
in giving pleasure to others. The latter has no moral worth; etc.
Third, promotion of our own happiness from sense of duty or from
inclination. That is, when natural inclination, though not absent, is
weaker than some other inclination--such as a gouty person's happiness
in general may be weaker than his desire for the momentary pleasure of
the table. For Kant, only the former has moral worth.
Note, Kant is not saying therefore that when we have a direct
inclination to do a certain act, the doing of it has no moral worth
whatsoever. Rather, he is saying that the doing of a certain act has moral
worth if it is done, "not necessarily against his feelings and inclinations
(which may or may not be in line with duty)," for the sake of duty, i.e., in
accordance with the demands of the rational will.
The same can be said about the relationship between the fulfillment of
a duty and its consequences. Kant is not saying that in deciding what we
ought to do (duty), we should never take the consequences of our actions
into account. Often it is necessary to consider the results of an action in
order to perceive whether it is our duty. But it is out of duty that we
should act, not for the sake of consequences. To illustrate:
Imagine two soldiers who volunteer for a dangerous mission;
because they see a task they ought to undertake, they voluntarily
assume the responsibility for it. Certainly their act will have
consequences; equally certain is the fact that they desire certain
consequences for their act. The most careful consideration of
these consequences, calculation as to how to achieve some
desirable consequences and avoid others less desirable, and an
ardent desire to attain the goal do not in the least detract from the
morality of the men's action if they are indeed acting on the
conviction that it is their duty to do these acts; their concern with
the consequences may be an essential part of their conduct,
necessary for the fulfillment of the obligation they have placed
upon themselves. Now imagine that one of the men is killed before
reaching his destination, while the other is successful; what moral
judgment do we pass upon them? So far as we judge that their
motives were equally good (and of course, as Kant repeatedly
says, we cannot be sure what anyone's motives really are), we
judge them in the same way. Their acts are judged to be equally
moral, in spite of the fact that one succeeded and the other failed.
Foundations of Moral Values - 62

Each did his "best" and what he earnestly attempted and the
motives which led him to do what he did are the proper objects of
moral judgment; what he accomplishes lies to a large extent be-
yond his control.5
What is duty then? A Second Question: What kind of intention makes a
person morally good? Kant’s answer to this question – we ought to do
our duty because it is what we ought to do. In other words, we must act
from the motive of duty.
This answer gives rise to a Third Question: What does it mean for a
person to act “from duty”? Here Kant introduces the notion of respect for
the law. “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.” For
Kant, since dutifulness abstracts from any ends we may desire, it requires
us to comply with the moral law out of respect for it, regardless of any
desires we may have and regardless of anything further we may or may
not achieve. (Sullivan, 1996: 32)
*Transition: The previous discussion attempted to thresh out what duty
means in the context of popular moral philosophy. Now we must examine
"duty" in itself. What is it? (A more positive presentation of what duty

Duty is a command, an imperative

The conception of an objective principle so far as this principle is
necessitating for a will is called a command (of reason), and the
formula of this command is called an imperative. [413]
There are three different kinds of imperatives: (Depending upon what
perspective you are looking, there are either two or three kinds of
Imperatives of Skill: These imperatives include the necessary
measures or means a person must take up to the extent that he chooses
to pursue an end or goal.
For example: A music student who wants to become a concert pianist
has his course settled objectively by the means in fact necessary for
achieving the end. In other words, once a person has chosen his/her end,
there are demands that must be taken up in order to achieve the end.
The form this imperative takes is: "If I want to become a concert
pianist , I ought to . . .", and the person involved would fill in the
necessary means according to his/her knowledge of what produces the
end he/she is seeking.
An imperative is hypothetical (problematic) just because the means
commanded by the end we want to attain are conditioned or demanded
by the same end. Now, the demand loses its sense if and when we
choose no longer to pursue the end we desire.
Imperatives of Prudence refer to the necessary measures or means
that a person out of tact and practicality, must take up if he wants to
attain happiness, a goal which, in Kant's view, all men as a matter of fact
seek by natural inclination.
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 63

In contrast to the first, the imperatives of prudence (which refer to the

general end or goal of all) are more uncertain and unstable because
different counsels may hold for different individuals: it is difficult or even
impossible to be sure wherein a particular individual will find his
happiness, and this will depend partly on what the individual believes to
be necessary for his happiness.
Note too that there is nothing problematic about the search for
happiness as there is about the exercise of a skill which only interests
some people sometimes. But this is also a conditional just because the
action commanded depends upon the further end in view, happiness.
(3)Imperatives of Morality:
There is an imperative which, without being based on, and
conditioned by, any further purpose to be attained by a certain
line of conduct, enjoins this conduct immediately. This imperative
is categorical. It is concerned, not with the matter of the action
and its presumed results, but with its form and with the principle
from which it follows; and what is essentially good in the action
consists in the mental disposition, let the consequences be what
they may. This imperative may be called the imperative of
morality. [416]6

. . . Those which, by themselves, are incumbent on man by virtue

of something intrinsic to the nature of the action being
commanded, independently of any ulterior end or consequence." 7
In contrast to the first two: where the actions commanded gain their
force from men's aims and dispositions and the nature of the world in
which they find themselves, here in the imperatives of morality, the
actions commanded have a binding force independently of all these
things. In other words, the source of the imperative is a priori and pure.
For example: We ought not to tell a lie.
[b] Hence, Kant calls moral imperatives categorical; unconditional. This
commands us to do X inasmuch as X is intrinsically right, that is, right in
and of itself, aside from other considerations--no "ifs," no conditions, no
strings attached. Moreover, since there are no "ifs" to the categorical
imperative, it is independent of any things, circumstances, goals, or
It is for this reason that only a categorical imperative can be a
universal and binding law, that is, a moral law, valid for all rational
beings at all times.
The central question now however is determining where this
unconditional command comes from. For instance, in the imperatives of
skill--the action is command-ed by the aim established by the individual
involved. But for Kant, moral imperatives are independent of such
aims/desires, for which reason--they are categorical.
The problem then: "What is the condition of possibility of the
categorical impe-rative?"
Foundations of Moral Values - 64

*Recall: Kant seems to liken the problem here to that of the Citique of
Pure Reason. In the CPR, he tried to show how we can be justified in
making synthetic judg-ments a priori, i.e., assert of a certain subject a
predicate which can neither be seen by analysis to be implied in the
subject, nor discovered by experience to belong to it.
Here, in ethics, Kant is also engaged in a similar project. He wants to
show we can be justified in asserting the categorical imperative which is
a priori (universal, unconditional) even if this includes empirical elements.
Moral laws, e.g. "Do not make deceitful promises," are after all
synthetic judgments a priori.
CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE. This is the crux of the matter. In the investigation
of the cat-egorical imperative, Kant hopes to be able to show the
"unconditioned" in confor-mity to duty which sort of defines the morality
of an act.
(1) First formulation of the categorical imperative: the formula of the
universal law (the supreme principle of morality)
(1.1) Just by examining the categorical imperative (in contrast to
hypothetical) one can see that the one, absolute demand is universality.
This is a demand of reason itself. It cannot be that the command of duty
to action is applicable only to one and not all people.
Thus, according to Kant, the categorical imperative could be
Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time
will that it should become a universal law. [421]
Note a: Kant is here simply formulating the categorical imperative,
incorporating, as it were, universality as a necessary element in the
supreme principle of morality. This is, as it were, the form that the
categorical imperative would take. We are not concerned with the matter
(stealing, lying, adultery, etc.) but the form of morality. On the other
hand, its concern for the form is precisely for the sake of getting the
matter right.
Note b: In the Foundations, Kant follows this up with examples of how
the universal law can be applied to concrete situations where there is a
demand to action.
(1.2) Unpacking the universal law:
(1.21) This formulation of the principle of morality summarizes a
procedure for deciding whether an act is morally permissible, i.e.,
whether or not an act contemplated upon is being done for duty's sake.
(1.22) "Maxim": When you are contemplating doing a particular action,
you are to ask what rule you would be following if you were to do that
action. This will be the maxim of the act. The maxim is thus the
subjective principle in the categorical imperative. This is the rule of
action a person follows as part of his own policy of living.
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 65

(1.23) Universal Law: Then you are to ask whether you would be
willing for that rule to be followed by everyone all the time. That would
make it a universal law.
(1.24) Conclusion: To act or not to act: If so, the rule may be followed,
and the act is permissible. However, if you would not be willing for
everyone to follow the rule, then you may not follow it, and the act is
morally impermissible.
(1.3) The Self-defeating Test
This is a follow up on the universalization principle. To help us decide
whether we can consent to others' following the universalized rule, we
need to apply the "self-defeating" test. We must see whether in our
allowing others to follow the rule there is not a contradiction in our action.
When embarking on a certain course of action I must ask: Does the
universalizing of the principle of my action result in a contradiction? If so,
the action fails the test and must be rejected as immoral.8
But it is important to see what is meant here by "contradiction." It is
not a logical contradiction as often as a practical one.
The question posed:
Can I consent to others' acting simultaneously according to the
same rule I use without undermining my own ability to act in
accordance with it?

Let us take an example (Kant's own example [422]):

Example 1: Case of the Deceitful Promise: A man needs to borrow
money, and he knows that no one will lend it to him unless he promises
to repay. But he also knows that he will be unable to repay. He therefore
faces this question: Should he promise to repay to debt, knowing that he
cannot do so, in order to persuade someone to make the loan?
If he were to do that, the "maxim of the act" would be: Whenever you
need a loan, promise to repay it, even though you know you cannot do
Now could this rule become a universal law? Obviously not, because it
would be self-defeating. Once this became a universal practice, no one
would any longer believe such promises, and so no one would make loans
because of them. In other words, my ability to borrow money on the
basis of a (false) promise to repay would be undermined.
Example 2: Suppose someone refuses to help others in need, saying to
himself: "What concern of mine is it? Let each one be happy as heaven
wills, or as he can make himself; I will not take anything from him or even
envy him; but to his welfare or to his assistance in time of need I have no
desire to contribute."
This again is a rule that one cannot will to be a universal law. For at
some time in the future this man might himself be in need of assistance
from others.
Foundations of Moral Values - 66

In both examples, an important aspect of the self-defeating test is

brought out: a rule can be self-defeating if the point or purpose one has in
mind is defeated by the action's universalization.
Let us take another example:
Consider the following rule: Everyone should obey the civil authorities.
Clearly we can consistently and simultaneously consent to the
universal adoption of this rule. We can without any problem accept the
conditions required to carry out the intention, such as the general
knowledge of and respect for law and authority. We can also accept the
predictable results of successfully carrying out the rule, such as a safe,
peaceful, and orderly society. This rule is not self-defeating.
But consider the alternative rule: No one should obey the civil
We can argue that we cannot consistently and simultaneously consent
to this rule, for the results would be general chaos; pursuit of any goal
with reasonable prospect of security and success would be impossible.
Although, in a narrow sense, continuing to disobey the civil authorities
under these chaotic conditions might be possible, the purpose a person
most likely has in mind by this disobedience (namely, gaining an ad-
vantage over his or her law-abiding fellows) would, no doubt, be
undermined. Thus the rule would be self-defeating.9
It is fairly obvious from these examples, then, what the categorical
imperative (supreme principle of morality) is in view of: it serves to guide
one's conduct by "universal laws." In other words, "my action is moral
insofar as I can say that any man in my place should act in the same
On the basis of these examples, Kant also distinguishes between:
Perfect Duties: admit of no exception in the interests of inclinations.
Examples: Ban on suicide: We are not entitled to commit suicide because
we have a strong inclination to do so. Deceitful promise: We are not
entitled to pay our debt to one and not to another because we happen to
like one better.
Imperfect Duties: we are bound only to adopt the maxim of
developing our talents and of helping others, and we are to some extent
entitled to decide arbitrarily which talents to develop and which persons
to help, i.e., there is here a certain latitude for mere inclinations.
(1.4) Summary:
Two functions of the Categorical Imperative:
First function: The moral law is present in our moral awareness as
commanding our obedience, without any regard for our desires and
inclinations. Thus the first function of the categorical imperative is to
“obligate us to obey it.”
Second function: The categorical imperative also functions as the test
of the moral quality of possible maxims.
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 67

Empirical Content: The ultimate moral norm is a purely formal law,

completely empty of all content. In order to apply to the human
condition, we must supply a context of empirical information. This is
what Kant referred to in the Preface – that moral philosophy has “an
empirical part,” what he calls “practical anthropology.”
Transition to next formulation: The first formula is a completely formal
test, requiring that maxims can be willed as universal laws, that is, as
laws for all rational beings. By contrast, the second is not purely formal,
for it introduces the notion of “humanity”: we are required to respect the
freedom and ability of each person to make his or her own decision.
(2) 2nd Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: The formula of
humanity as an end in itself. [428-429] 10
(2.1) Another characteristic of the categorical imperative: it is
premised on the human being as an end in himself/herself. Kant says:
Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your
own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a
means, but always at the same time as an end.
Kant has claimed that this formulation of "humanity as end in itself" is
but another way of rendering the categorical imperative. Kantian scholars
have wondered long and hard why Kant believed these two equivalent. 11
Could it be that: Every human being, as rational, considers his own
existence as an end; but so does every other human being, on the same
rational principle. Therefore every human being should treat every other
human being as an end.
(2.2) We will pass over this problem and concentrate instead on Kant's
belief that morality requires us to treat persons "always as an end, never
simply as a means." What does he mean to say here?
(a) First, we note that Kant says "Never simply as a means,” not
"never as a means." Obviously, in the intercourse of human life, we
constantly do, and must treat others as means. Every time one person
makes a bargain with another, he relies on the other to do certain things
which he himself desires the other to do, and is so far treating the other
as a means. What Kant insists on is that in treating others as means we
must also have regard for their rights and interests. Hence - "but always
at the same time as an end."
(b) But what does it mean to treat the other as and “end” always?
Perhaps we can begin to answer this question only when we have
answered a prior question: Why should a human being be any different
from other beings and be treated as an end in himself? In other words,
why treat a human being as an end?
(i) The term “end” normally means "something to be brought about,"
or something aimed at and for which one acts. But to regard what Kant is
Foundations of Moral Values - 68

saying here about human beings in this sense is to land ourselves in

(ii) Perhaps, we can take Kant initially as saying that to treat people as
ends is "to treat people as beings who have ends." That is, I should not
treat human beings as mere means to my own ends, because I recognize
that they themselves have ends of their own. And they have ends,
because they are free, rational and autonomous agents; they can act in
accordance with purposes and principles, they are persons, not things. 12
(iii) Human beings are not like things. Kant says elsewhere that the
value of human beings “is above all price.” What does he mean?
Because people have desires and goals, other things have value for
them, in relation to their projects. In other words, mere "things" have
value only as means to ends, and it is human ends that give them value.
That is, things have value only insofar as someone or other happens to
regard them as valuable, either for their utility or for emotional reasons.
Things, then, have a price, determined by what people will give and take
in exchange for them.
For example: If you want to travel about, a car will have value for you;
but apart from this desire the car will have no value.
(v) If categorical imperatives are to be possible at all, then, there must
be something of intrinsic and absolute value, worthwhile just for what it
is. That is of course the human being.
Persons are “objective ends” – that is, they absolutely should be
regarded as having worth, whether or not they also are desired as
contributing to anyone’s happiness. Persons are “self-existent” ends,
having worth simply because they exist.
Human beings have "an intrinsic worth, i.e., dignity," because they are
rational agents – that is, free agents capable of making their own
decisions, setting their own goals, and guiding their conduct by reason.
Because the moral law is the law of reason, rational beings are the
embodiment of the moral law itself. The only way that moral goodness
can exist at all in the world is for rational creatures to apprehend what
they should do and, acting from a sense of duty, do it. Thus, if there were
no rational beings, the moral dimension of the world would simply
It makes no sense then to regard rational beings merely as one kind of
valuable thing among others. They are the beings for whom mere
"things" have value, and they are the beings whose conscientious actions
have moral worth. So Kant concludes that their value must be absolute,
and not comparable to the value of anything else.13
It follows from all this that rational beings must be treated "always as
an end, and never as a means only."
(vi) A deeper implication: the beings we are talking about here are
"rational" beings, and "treating them as ends-in-themselves" means
respecting their rationality. Thus we may never manipulate people, or
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 69

use people, to achieve our purpose, no matter how good those purposes
may be.
For example: Borrowing money from a friend (Kant's own example).
The idea of treating your friend as an end is allowing him to make up his
own mind.14
In the end, the imperative to treat humanity as an end always is
grounded on the human being: he is not only material, part of the causal
chain of cause and effect in nature (phenomenal realm). He is also a free,
spiritual being who constitutes a kind of rupture in that physical chain of
cause and effect. Moreover, the human being has the capacity and the
dignity to posit for his action ends or goals that truly issue from him, as
rational being. The human being, as rational will, wills himself as end.
(3) 3rd formulation: Law of Autonomy: Act always on that maxim of
such a will in us as can at the same time look upon itself as making
universal law.
This formulation focuses on the fact that it is every individual who
legislates. Recall: In the first formulation, the rational human being,
acting in conformity to the unconditional exigencies of reason, decrees
that his maxim become a universal law. In the second formulation, the
rational human being is an end in himself because he is rational, and to
be treated as one is itself a demand of his rationality.
In both formulations, we cannot but notice that as rational will the
human being himself legislates the universal law. Hence – the third
formulation: the law of autonomy:
Note: In contrast to the first formulation, here law is legislated for
everyone; in the law of autonomy, law is legislated by everyone. In
obeying the moral law an individual obeys a law which he recognizes.
Morality, therefore, only demands what the human being ought to
demand to himself/herself and of others as rational will.
(1.5) Limits of the Categorical Imperative
(1.51) The Categorical Imperative is implausible. As a principle
governing the universality and hence absoluteness of moral rules, it does
not seem to be plausible. It says, after all, that moral rules (imperatives
of duty), without exception, hold in all circumstances.
But let us look at the rule against lying (Case of the Inquiring
Murderer). There are other absolute moral rules, but this seems to have
been Kant's favorite case.
Kant's arguments: the prohibition of lying follows straightaway from
the categorical imperative. We could not will that it be a universal law
that we should lie, because it would be self-defeating. . . .
In argument form:
You should do only those actions that conform to rules that you could
will to be adopted universally;
Foundations of Moral Values - 70

If you were to lie, you would be following the rule "It is permissible to
This rule could not be adopted universally, because it would be self-
defeating: people would stop believing one another, and then it would do
no good to lie.
Therefore, you should not lie.
Elizabeth Anscombe (in Journal of Philosophy, 1958) summarizes the
problem thus:
Kant's own rigoristic convictions on the subject of lying were so
intense that it never occurred to him that a lie could be relevantly
described as anything but just a lie (e.g. as "a lie in such-and-such
circumstances"). His rule about universalizable maxims is useless
without stipulations as to what shall count as a relevant de-
scription of an action with a view to constructing a maxim about it.
But lies are never simply just lies! They are always lies "in such-and-
such circumstances." Moreover, the difficulty seems to arise in step (2).
The crucial point is that there are many ways to formulate the rule; some
of them might not be "universalizable" in Kant's sense but some would
be. [Main contention here: It is possible to specify more than one rule.]
For instance, our maxim could be: "It is permissible to lie when doing
so would save someone's life." We could will this to be made a "universal
law," and it would not be self-defeating.
In general, the central difficulty in Kant's whole approach in the
Categorical Imperative seems to be this: for any action a person might
contemplate, it is possible to specify more than one rule.
(1.52) Response to Objection
We are tempted to make exceptions to the rule against lying because
in some cases we think the consequences of truthfulness would be bad
and the consequences of lying good. However, we can never be certain
about what the consequences of our actions will be; we cannot know that
good results will follow. For instance, as Rachels writes:
After you have honestly answered the murderer's question as to
whether his intended victim is at home, it may be that he has
slipped out so that he does not come in the way of the murderer,
and thus that the murder may not be committed. But if you had
lied and said he was not at home when he had really gone out
without your knowing it, and if the murderer had then met him as
he went away and murdered him, you might justly be accused as
the cause of his death. For if you had told the truth as far as you
knew it, perhaps the murderer might have been apprehended by
the neighbors while he searched the house and thus the deed
might have been prevented. Therefore, whoever tells a lie,
however well intentioned he might be, must answer for the
consequences, however unforeseeable they were, and pay the
penalty for them....
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 71

To be truthful (honest) in all deliberations, therefore, is a sacred

and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited by no
Problem: Kant seems to assume that although we would be morally
responsible for any bad consequences of lying, we would not be similarly
responsible for any bad consequences of telling the truth.
(1.53) Also, the Categorical Imperative is untenable, implausible in the
light of conflict cases. This is true especially with regard to choice
between two goods! Reason demands that we be able to weigh which
good is higher. Kant does not seem to have room for this.
For example: (Dutch Fishermen in World War II)
During the Second World War, Dutch fishermen regularly smuggled
Jewish refugees to England in their boats, and the following sort of
thing sometimes happened. A Dutch boat, with refugees in the
hold, would be stopped by a Nazi patrol boat. The Nazi captain
would call out and ask the Dutch captain where he was bound,
who was on board, and so forth. The fishermen would lie and be
allowed to pass. Now it is clear that the fishermen had only two
alternatives, to lie or to allow their passengers (and themselves)
to be taken and shot. No third alternative was available; they
could not, for example, remain silent and outrun the Nazis.
This kind of conflict seems to show that it is untenable to hold that the
categorical imperative is absolute.
(1.54) Response
A possible response to this problem of conflict of duties is discussed by
Roger J. Sullivan in his book, An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics. Sullivan
points out that Kant was actually preoccupied with the crucial conflicts
that occur between duty and inclination. If Kant had to resolve the conflict
between two duties, he would point out the following: First, “wide duties 15
may be satisfied in any number of ways. So in case of a conflict between
two positive duties, we might simply fulfill each of them at different times
or ways.” But in the case of a conflict between a narrow obligation and a
wide one, “perhaps we might fulfill the narrow obligation and simply look
to fulfill the wide duty in another way at another time.” 16
The more difficult problem occurs when both duties in conflict are
narrow duties. For example, we may be able to avoid harming someone
only if we tell a lie. What is my duty in this case?

Kant did confront this problem but only once and then only in a
very summary fashion. Morality is based on reason, and reason
cannot impose practical contradictions. . . . Therefore, he argued
that, even when there is a conflict between moral rules, at any
given moment we can have only one duty. A genuine conflict
between duties, a conflict such that we have a duty to try to act at
the same time on incompatible rules, cannot arise. ‘Two conflicting
Foundations of Moral Values - 72

rules cannot both be necessary at the same time,’ he wrote; ‘if it is

our duty to act according to one of these rules, then to act
according to the opposite one is not our duty and is even contrary
to our duty.’ Therefore, he continued, it is not correct to say either
that our duties can admit of exceptions or that one duty can be
more pressing or more obligatory than another; all moral
obligations are absolute. (Sullivan, 100)
Thus, there can only be one “ground of obligation” when our moral rules
conflict. And always, the stronger ground of, or basis for, an obligation
prevails. An analogy here will help.
We have seen how Kant likened the laws of the moral world to the
laws of the natural world: they both hold universally and without
exception. When a bird takes wing, its flight is not an exception to
the law of gravity; that law still holds. The bird’s flight is possible
because other natural laws override the law of gravity by giving
“lift” to the bird’s wings. Similarly, in the case of conflicting rules,
following the one with the stronger ground does not constitute
following an exception to the other, which still obligates us but is
overridden on this occasion. (Sullivan, 101)
To present a concrete example of how one duty can have a stronger
ground, imagine a person who is obligated to perform two different
actions simultaneously by the same moral of intending to keep one’s
She has promised to meet another person, fully intending to do so,
but finds out, just before the appointed time, that her husband has
had a heart attack and has been taken to the hospital. Unless
there are other morally contravening considerations, clearly she is
entitled to judge that her prior marriage vows have such moral
weight that her sole obligation at that moment is to her spouse.
When she acts on that decision, she is doing everything she is obli-
gated to do. She may regret having to reschedule the ap-
pointment, but she need not feel morally guilty about it. The other
party to the appointment may feel irritated at being
inconvenienced, but he in turn has no good reason to judge her to
be morally blameworthy. (Sullivan, 101-102)

This case shows how one duty has stronger ground. Note that the other
duty is not denied as a duty. What is affirmed is that there is one duty
that must be performed. (And so the perform the other, albeit also a
duty, will be acting contrary to duty.
In conflicts, then, the stronger ground of obligation should prevail.
“Since it is a requirement of reason that we not be simultaneously bound
by two conflicting duties, then, in Kant’s theory, once we conscientiously
decide where out duty lies, the other rule is regarded as not actually
obligating us here and now” (Sullivan, 104).
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 73

(1.5) Another Look at Kant's Basic Idea

(Despite insurmountable difficulties, what makes Kant's categorical
imperative so attractive and influential?)
(1.51) The categorical imperative is binding on rational agents simply
because they are rational – in other words, a person who did not accept
this principle would be guilty not merely of being immoral but of being
But in what sense is it irrational to reject the categorical imperative?
The basic idea seems to be this: A moral judgment must be backed by
good reasons–if it is true that you ought (or ought not) to do such-and-
such, then there must be a reason why or why not.
For example: I may think that I ought not to make a promise I know I
cannot fulfill, else trust is destroyed. But if I accept this as reason in one
case, I must also accept it as reason in other cases. It is no good saying
that I accept this reason some of the time, but not all the time; or that
other people must respect it, but not I.
In other words, moral reasons, if they are valid at all, are binding on all
people at all times. This is a requirement of consistency; and Kant was
right to think that no rational person could deny it.
Hence – the influence of the categorical imperative. It is one moral
principle that sees to it that the moral act or what one ought to do is
binding upon all without exception on the basis of duty itself. (Problem:
There is a too strict identification of reason with consistency.)
(1.52) Another Implication:
A person, under the categorical imperative, cannot regard himself as
special, from a moral point of view: he cannot consistently think that he is
permitted to act in ways that are forbidden to others, or that his interests
are more important than other people's interests. (This is what we
discussed before as the demand for impartiality.)
For example: I cannot say that it is all right for me to eat your food and
then complain when you eat mine.17
(2) An important question: What explains the unconditional and
categorical – hence the absoluteness of the moral imperative?
Kant's formulation of the question goes, "Why should rational freedom
realize or be true to itself?" "Why must the human being take his
existence seriously?" "Why be moral?"
We come to a boundary limit of philosophical experience. For Kant,
the categorical imperative, a fundamental "rational fact" of human
experience, is the given, part of experience – immanent in the human
being's self-awareness as a rational, finite being. Philosophy can only
base its reflections on human experience. But to ask about the "reasons
behind this fundamental fact itself . . . is to go beyond . . . the reach of
philosophical reflection."
In other words, Kant seems to have been imprisoned by his own
system: his division of the world into one we experience, and this we can
Foundations of Moral Values - 74

know on the one hand, and a noumenal world which is beyond our ability
to know.
But Kant then transforms the question into: What may I hope for?
IV What May I Hope For?

Given the assumed fact that the human being lives in a dichotomous
world, "is there hope for some ultimate unity that would make sense of
this broken, dual world?"
This poses the question of the human being's final end, a unity of the
empirical world with the ends and ideals of the moral world. Is the
human being hopelessly caught in between this dichotomous world? 18
Note: We would normally go about seeking a solution for the question
of unity in some "intrinsic final end" in organic beings or one ultimate
purpose of the empirical world (world as a whole!), but paradoxically, our
experience (empirical) does not bear this out:
"Organisms eventually die" and give way to the operations of nature;
and the world as a whole appears to be the playground of pure chance
and the operations of blind, mechanical forces.
Kant's Solution "... lies in the moral imperative itself, for it alone
provides us in all of human experience with something that is absolutely
necessary, though only in a moral sense."
Hence, we see Kant being consistent: the question of the human be-
ing's/thing's final end cannot be a matter of some end or object annexed
or affixed from the outside.
Man alone, or more exactly, the community of human persons, in
their dignity as free, spiritual beings and ends in themselves, are
the necessary final ends of all human action and of the empirical
Meaning: The end of everything seems to be for Kant the demand of
morality itself. (Like: the act seeks an end beyond but in its own
fulfillment). And since the demand of morality (which is a demand of
rationality) is posited by the human being himself, then the end is "a
recognition and the realization of human persons as ends in themselves."
For Kant -
the necessary final end and purpose of all things and of all human
striving is the realization of the civil society, a state of laws, where
each human person is protected in his dignity and freedom as an
end in himself and guaranteed access to a minimum of material
goods as befits his dignity as a human person.20
But even this historical action of the human community is not enough
to close the dichotomy between the two worlds. In the end -
there must be a future life for man, hence personal immortality. . .
. Furthermore, . . . ultimately, there must be a Supreme Being, a
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 75

Supreme Good . . . Source of all nature, who would provide us the

ultimate ground for hoping in the final unity of the demands of
morality and the empirical realities of the world of nature. 21
Thus Kant ultimately is led to the fundamental question: the Source
and Lord of all – but as a hope that makes sense of our experience of the
demands of morality in a world that "appears" mechanistic. Unless I
necessarily hope in personal immortality and the existence of a Supreme
Being, I will never make any sense of my experience. And unless there is
freedom, our experience of the categorical imperative remains without
ground and source – since experience makes it appear that everything is
"mechanistically" determined. But Kant would have us insist that these
are not matters of experience and knowledge. Rather they are necessary
implications demanded by our absolute, categorical moral imperative.
We may well wonder: Why doesn't Kant go all the way and say these
exist, are real, and not merely postulates of reason? After all, they make
a difference in experience and thus help to mold our experience, i.e., they
enable us to experience things.
It would seem that Kant is a victim of his own system! But let us
reiterate Kant’s point: the categorical imperative ultimately demands for
its rationality the existence of a supreme Being, personal immortality,
freedom, all the regulative ideas of reason. These cannot be known; they
are not part of sense experience. But we can hope – and we must hope
or else we cannot make sense of our moral experience.
We must not only hope. We must also act as if through our actions we
are bringing about a kingdom of ends.22 Through this action we can bring
about the unity of our dual, broken world.

V Conclusion and Summary

According to Kant, then, the various rules of morality are based upon a
Moral Law that is pure and a priori. It is pure in that it does not contain
concepts borrowed from experience of the world and based upon natural
inclinations, and it is a priori in that it is necessarily valid always and for
The Categorical Imperative gives expression to this Moral Law by
indicating its applicability to all persons, its equal recognition of all
persons and its free acknowledgment by all persons. It is not in itself a
prescription for particular actions, but violations of particular moral rules
can be shown to go against it.

*Add Notes:

Source and origin of the categorical imperative

Foundations of Moral Values - 76

(1) For Kant, the human being as freedom is one who belongs to an
ideal world of reason, a kingdom of ends, as well as one who belongs to
an empirical world of physical determinism.

(1.1) Explanation: When the actions and choices of human beings are
regarded as events in the spatio-temporal world they must be subject to
empirical laws, and hence they cannot be free but must be determined.
For example: If we adopt the position of theoretical observers trying to
explain human beings' actions, then inevitably we regard some act, say,
of malicious lying as the act of a person whose heredity, education and
environment made it certain that he would act in this way. (Empirical
An yet, we impute this person's offence to him and blame him for it.
When we do this, we are no longer explaining his action as a psychologist
might, but are considering it in the light of practical reason. (Perspective
of practical reason)
As a natural event his act was inevitable, but nevertheless he ought
not to have done it. If he ought not to have told this lie but nevertheless
did, it must have been possible for him to have refrained from telling it,
and since all the natural impulses and desires and circumstances brought
it about, some non-natural motive must have been available to him to
enable him to desist from the lie.
Thus – Kant claims "another causality, that of freedom" must have
been able to alter his conduct, even though in fact it did not.
In other words – Kant considers that everything a person does is in
principle subject to scientific explanation in terms of natural causes, and
is hence determined. This is how the person appears to an observer. But
in spite of this the person is held responsible for his actions, and this can
only mean that he could have acted differently, and this, in turn, means
that reason, "another causality," could have initiated a different series of
actions without itself being an effect of any previous cause.
The practical attitude involved in the imputation of responsibility
presupposes that the will is free to initiate actions which, when looked at
from a purely theoretical point of view, can be fully explained as effects of
causes, and might, furthermore, be predicted with certainty.23


Readings: Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals,

trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964), 80-107.
Josef Velasquez, “Commentary on Selections from Kant’s
Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Ch. I-II.
Suggested Readings:
James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (McGraw-Hill, Inc.,
1986), 117-138.
Ramon Reyes, Ground and Norm of Morality (Ateneo de Manila University
Press, 1989), 55-76.
Kant: Categorical Imperative - 77
A priori forms: the universal and necessary in knowledge; that which the mind
contributes to knowledge. See Reyes, 56.
Phenomena: An unknown and unknowable x which 'affects' our senses with
something which is 'transformed' into objective reality by being 'subjected' to
certain forms--on the one hand to the forms of sensibility, and on the other hand,
to the forms of understanding.
To understand the distinction, just remember that things (in our experience) are
always spread out in space and time. But space and time are a priori forms
contributed by the mind. Is it possible to imagine things outside space and time,
hence, in themselves, independently of what the mind contributes?
References to Kant will be by the number provided by the edition issued by the
Royal Prussian Academy in Berlin.
Note the definition of terms here: "Unconditioned" – in every condition;
"conditioned" – under certain conditions.
from Lewis White Beck, Kant Studies Today (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1969).
Essentials here: (a) enjoins conduct immediately; (b) concerned with form, not
matter, consequences.
Reyes, 60.
A completely rational agent acts only on maxims that are both self-consistent
and consistent with one another. To test maxims of conduct, then, we need to
ask, Is this a maxim that a purely rational agent can adopt? Or alternatively,
could this maxim function as a law for a community of rational agents legislating
not only for themselves but for all other such agents as well? (Sullivan, 36)
C. E. Harris, Applying Moral Theories (Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth Publishing
Company, 1992), 157-159.
Read text; go directly to explanation of text.
Kant held that, despite the addition of the notion of “humanity” in the second
formula, the two formulas are “at bottom the same,” the second being but a
different way to “represent” the first (see 436-7). The very fact that the first
formula is a principle of reciprocity, requiring that maxims be capable of being
universal law, means that it does implicitly recognize that rational beings all have
objective, intrinsic worth (434). The second formula restates the requirement of
justice by insisting that we may not act in ways that deny respect to anyone,
ourselves included, and thus it generates the same moral judgments about the
requirements of justice as the first. (Sullivan, 66)
Richard Norman, The Moral Philosophers, 94 ff.
That is why the expression “Everyone has her price” denigrates a person so
viciously. What the second formula stipulates is that we may not regard or treat
others or allow ourselves to be treated only as instrumentally valuable, merely as
means to satisfy someone’s desires, merely as a source of pleasure. We may
never renounce our right to respect, and we ought never to act so as to reduce
ourselves or others to the status of mere things. Persons demand respect just by
being persons, and that means not acting on a rule that treats any person merely
as a thing. (Sullivan, 69)
Digression: Theory of Punishment (serves to clarify Kant's notion of the human
being as end in himself/herself.)
Re: Punishing criminals for the good of Society: for Kant, incompatible with
human dignity since it has us calculating how to use people as means to an end
and this is morally impermissible.
Re: Rehabilitation: is actually no more than the attempt to mold people into what
we think they should be. As such, it is a violation of their rights as autonomous
beings, who are entitled to decide for themselves what sort of people they will
For Kant, punishment should be governed by two principles:
(1) People should be punished simply because they have committed crimes, and
for no other reason;
(2) Punish the criminal proportionately to the seriousness of his/her crime.
Problem: Does this view of punishment jibe with Kant's imperative to treat a
human being as an end in himself/herself?
For Kant, treating someone as end in himself/herself means treating him/her as a
rational being who is capable of reasoning about his/her conduct and who freely
decides what he/she will do, on the basis of his/her own rational conception of
what is best.
In the light of the categorical imperative, what a rational person in effect
proclaims when he/she decides to do something is that this conduct be made into
a "universal" law.
Thus, when a rational being decides to treat people in a certain way, he/she
decrees that in his/her judgment this is the way people are to be treated. Thus if
we treat him/her the same way in return, we are doing nothing more than
treating him/her as he/she has decided people are to be treated.
By associating punishment with the idea of treating people as rational beings,
Kant gave the retributive theory a new depth.

“Negative duties specify what is morally forbidden and require us to limit our
pursuit of happiness by the demands of morality. Kant described negative duties
as narrow, strict, rigorous, and perfect, for any action violating them is morally
wrong (421n, 424). We may never, for example, violate the respect owed another
person, regardless of the reasons we may have for wanting to do so. . .
“Positive duties also obligate us absolutely – just as seriously as negative duties.
We may not be indifferent to or ignore them, for eventually we would have to
contradict the maxim allowing everyone to ignore them (423-4). Yet Kant
described them as wide, limited, and imperfect obligations (424).
Roger J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics (Cambridge University Press,
1994), 99.
Note: This implication, as far as Kant's basic idea is concerned, is good and true.
But he seems to go too far when he claims that rules are absolute. All it takes is
that when we violate a rule, we do so for a reason that we would be willing for
anyone to accept were they in the same situation.
Cf. Reyes, 64-66.
See Kant [433-434]
H. B. Acton, Kant's Moral Philosophy (London: St. Martin's Press, 1970), 45-46.