Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Kant’s categorical imperative is just a reformulation of the Golden Rule. Discuss.

As the centre-piece of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, the categorical imperative is the maxim that rational beings should always act in ways that they can simultaneously will to become universal laws. In other words, imagine the hypothetical world where everyone would perform the same act that you are considering to perform and then pass a judgement on that hypothetical world in order to determine whether you ought to act in that way or not. Let’s take lying as an example of this: if I am considering lying to someone, I must first simulate a world where everyone would be disposed to lying (it’s ironic to note that we already live in such a world). In such a world, it would be impossible to trust anyone since everyone is disposed to lying by default. Hence, human cooperation and teamwork would be severely compromised and this would lead to alienation and isolation of humans from one another. Since this seems like a clearly unfavourable situation, it is evident that lying is not an act which rational agents should be disposed towards. The exact reason for this stems from the agent’s realization that the world in which everybody lies would be an awful place to inhabit. So, the true motivation for this decision is, in fact, egoist as it emerges due to the agent’s self-interest finding itself compromised in a world where everyone is disposed towards lying.

I would like to argue that this maxim is really just a reformulation of the ancient Golden Rule which states: do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. This means every time you are about to act in a particular way, consider what effect such an act would have if it were performed on you. This is almost exactly analogous to the consideration of the hypothetical world where your act became a universal law. Your subsequent judgement about whether this would be a favourable situation/world is an inherently egoistic one as you are assaying whether or not your welfare would be ensured in it. The only difference between the two is that Kant’s maxim tries to disguise the egoism inherent to it by shifting the focus from individuals to society at large. But, can it ever really escape the underlying self-interest which is used to generate the value judgement on the hypothetical society? It is conceivable that an agent who is sufficiently rational and/or selfless may pursue the actions which will result in the greater good even if this comes at the expense of the individual’s welfare. In this way, perhaps, the categorical imperative is more powerful than the Golden Rule as it allows for utilitarian considerations in a way that the latter does not. The Golden Rule is limited to considerations of individual welfare as explicitly stated therein. So, while the categorical imperative is, in the vast majority of cases, to be used as no more than a reiteration of the Golden Rule, it has the potential to be utilised selflessly as well depending fundamentally upon the agent’s degree of egoism.

So, the conclusion to draw from this is that the categorical imperative is not just a reformulation of the Golden Rule as it operates on a larger scope and takes into account the larger impact on society of a particular act whereas the latter only takes into account the impact on individuals. In this way it is preferable to call the categorical imperative a moral descendant of the ancient Golden Rule, adapted to humanity’s growing social consciousness and continuing moral evolution.

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