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`Always tell the truth and Always keep your promises' Kant's Categorical Imperative.

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Introduction

`Always tell the truth and Always keep your promises': Kant's Categorical Imperative Paul Grosch and William Large 'Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within' (Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, p. 260). For Kant there are scientific laws which govern the natural world, and moral laws which govern the social world. Or, more specifically, there is one moral law which governs the social world: the categorical imperative. As we shall see, there are three main formulations of it: And what particularly concerns us in this paper is the relationship between the moral law, or the categorical imperative, and the two maxims which may be derived from it, namely: Always tell the truth and always keep a promise. Kant's Moral Theory Kant's moral philosophy is basically deontological. That is to say it rests on the notion of duty or obligation (Greek - 'deon': duty or obligation). The argument is that we should conduct our affairs out of strict duty to the moral law. Kant wrote three major works on moral philosophy: * Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785. * Critique of Practical Reason, published in 1788. * The Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1797. The Good Will The Fundamental Principles is the most comprehensive of Kant's moral arguments. The text begins with an account of the Good Will: 'Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a Good Will' (p.9). In other words only a person's mind and their motives for acting can be called good. Everything else is effectively morally neutral. And so, a good act is one driven by a Good Will or a pure mind. A knife or a nuclear device are, in themselves, morally neutral. ...read more.

Middle

To obey the moral law is, therefore, only to obey my own rational will. Here, freedom and necessity are identical. In the case of the butcher who sells for profit, necessity is the monetary law of the public market-place not the moral law of the inner rational will. Truth-Telling and Promise-Keeping After giving the first formulation of the categorical imperative in the Fundamental Principles, namely the 'Formula of the Universal Law', Kant goes on to offer four concrete examples (pp.39-41) of the way in which certain maxims may be logically derived from the moral law. The examples, in turn, are about: * the irrationality of suicide. The resulting maxim would be 'Do not commit suicide'; * the irrationality of breaking a promise. The resulting two maxims, as we have already stated, can be summarised thus: 'Always tell the truth' and 'Always keep a promise'; * the irrationality of squandering one's natural gifts and talents, resulting in the possible maxim: 'Cultivate your talents to the full'; * the irrationality of refusing help to those clearly in need which may be expressed in the following maxim: 'Always try to help those who are worse off than yourself'. As it is the second example which is of particular concern to us it is worth quoting the passage in full: "Another (person) finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him, unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a definite time. He desires to make this promise, but he has still so much conscience as to ask himself: Is it not unlawful and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way? Suppose, however, that he resolves to do so, then the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I can never do so. ...read more.

Conclusion

Well, for Aristotle (in the Nicomachean Ethics), and also for MacIntyre, human beings start life as potentially good persons; they only become actual good persons by deploying the moral and intellectual virtues, those qualities of mind and character help them build worthwhile and happy lives. This, then, is their purpose or telos: to cultivate the virtues so that they may be able to live out their supreme good which, for Aristotle, as for many others, is happiness. This automatically leads onto MacIntyre's next criticism which is that Kant has elevated human reason above and beyond any other human quality or characteristic. As such, Kant's single-factor theory is wholly unbalanced. What of the remaining 'virtues' or 'human excellences'? Moreover, MacIntyre argues that Kant effectively ripped ethical conduct and moral reasoning from everyday contexts in which they find their real meaning. The position taken by both Aristotle and MacIntyre is one which sits squarely between Kant and Hume. For Kant we abide by the categorical imperative out of duty and obligation with no regard for our own feelings or desires; for those of a Humean disposition we would, no doubt, adopt the hypothetical imperative which allows us (within the bounds, perhaps, of good taste) to gain the object of our passion. The Kantian is driven by the autonomous will; the Humean by the heteronomous will. For Aristotle and MacIntyre it is not a question of one or the other, but both/and. The Aristotelian virtue of phronesis or practical wisdom allows us to balance self-interest (the dual package of the heteronomous will and the hypothetical imperative) with the interests of others (the combination of the autonomous will and the categorical imperative). In the case of our butcher, for example, the self-interested motives governing the increased profit, greater custom and so on are as important as the pure, rational and obligatory duty to obey the moral law. However, even taking into account all of the criticisms of Kant's moral theory it still remains as one of the most powerfully argued and carefully presented justifications for belief in the existence of certain rational moral principles. ...read more.

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