By: Arjun Verma
Immanuel Kant was a German Enlightenment philosopher whose ideas still profoundly impact philosophy today. The Categorical Imperative can offer guidance on questions of social justice and politics.
What did Kant believe?
Kant believed that morality must originate from humanity’s capacity to reason. Kant uses reason to justify the core tenet of his ethical philosophy: the Categorical Imperative.
This has a few formulations.
First, all moral laws must be universalizable. Because of his faith in our rationality, Kant argued that moral laws must not be dependent on circumstance. For the same reason that 2 + 2 always equals 4 due to our reasoning, morality would also always be applicable. When deciding how to act, people should determine whether that act would be good if everybody did it. For example, stealing is not able to be universally applied because it loses its benefit if everyone can always steal.
Second, people should be treated as ends in themselves. Kant reasoned that because people were reasoners, it was necessary to treat them as intrinsically valuable. Using people merely as a means to an end disrespected their humanity and was not universalizable.
This idea that there was no situation in which consequences of our actions could justify violating moral principles created a new line of ethical philosophy, known as deontology, of which Kant was the father.
How can his ideas be applied?
Kant’s ideas may be centuries old, yet they revolutionized philosophy for a reason and thus still do have important lessons for modern society.
First, the idea of universalizability forces us to reconsider whether our actions are truly ethical or not. If we are simply justifying them because we believe that nobody else will notice or that it’s permissible if only we do it, then Kant asks whether we should actually intend to take that action. That model where people can always make exceptions for themselves breeds tension and breaks trustworthiness. This can happen on the small scale with friendships and breaking promises, but it can also happen on a large scale. For example, many politicians who were staunchly advocating for mask mandates and strict regulations were themselves violating their own guidance. They were criticized for this, and it shows how exceptions can break rules.
Second, Kant teaches us that we all have the ability to rationally decide to act. Even if sometimes we act impulsively, there still is some rationality within us. It’s important to not dismiss somebody as not worth it based on one action that they may have committed. People are defined by their ability to be rational, so people should be given chances to exercise that.
Third, he reminds us that everyone has human worth. Whether it be police violence or cyclical poverty or workplace exploitation, society is filled with examples of people not respecting others’ dignity. Even if we want something, we have to remember that other people also have their goals and wishes that they want to be fulfilled. It’s simply unethical to allow our own ambition to impede on the freedom of others. That’s why it’s important to treat others with respect and dignity.
Overall, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative may seem overly abstract, but when applied to the real world, it can have valuable lessons.
Arjun is a current high school junior. He is a captain of his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.