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The Categorical Imperative Applied to a False Promise In the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant seeks to establish the supreme principle of morality (Kant. 392), the categorical imperative, to act as a standard to which actions can be evaluated for their moral worth. Kant believes that actions motivated by personal experience, whether through observation, indoctrination or some other capacity, lack moral worth because such actions are not determined by the conception of moral law. When empirical considerations such as effects, habit, consequence or material objets shape, alter and manipulate the will and thus constitute the foundation for an individual s formation of decisions, moral problems abound. Empirical knowledge upbringing, culture tradition, desire, aim and consequence prevents moral action because it provides grounds for inconsistencies, biases and inclinations to influence the individual s will. Therefore, Kant believes that morality must be separated from the conceptions that develop posteriori, through or after human experience and that moral action must rely on the unalterable element of pure reason.
As pure reason and respect for moral law direct moral action by influencing will and the conception of duty, the separating of morality from aspects of human experience enables individuals to form maxims that allow for their actions to be rightfully willed into universal law, which Kant believes is necessary to determine moral content of actions. Kant s a priori theory of morality addresses the potential problems or contradictions that can arise from universalizing a maxim (i. e. lying promise) when he constructs formulations of his categorical imperative requiring universality in the formation for moral law, retaining autonomy of the will and treating individuals as ends in themselves.
Consequently, making false promises is contrary to the categorical imperative because the universal making of false promises would be impossible because if everyone broke their promises the institution of promising would collapse no one would believe promises or accept contracts that they knew would be broken (442). The importance of universal law in determining the moral worth of an action is evident when making a false promise; a man in need finds himself forced to borrow money. He knows that he cannot repay, but promises to do so anyway. His maxim or moral principle of action, is when I believe my self to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, though I know I cannot. How would things stand if this were a universal law? This law of false promises destroys the entire concept of promises, since no person would believe anyone.
It is thus immoral, since it cannot rationally be universalized. And in fact, reason creates an ideal statement of subjective action. The moral imperative is unconditional; that is, its imperative force is not tempered by the conditional if I want to achieve some end, then do X. It simply states, do X.
Kant believes that reason dictates a categorical imperative for moral action. He gives at least three formulations of the Categorical Imperative: a) Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. (422); b) Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature. (Ibid. ); c) Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only (429). In addition, when we apply the universality test to this maxim it becomes clear that if everyone were to act in this fashion, the institution of promising itself would be undermined. In order for the principle of an action to apply uniformly in this case and others, it must exist independent of the conditions, restrictions or subjectivity of a particular will or circumstance. External influences and internal biases outside of the realm of pure reason vary in each individual and thus cannot act as a maxim of an action if universal adherence and relevance is desired. Moral worth cannot exist in an action that applies to a specific condition for it leads to the formation of hypothetical imperatives, principles that are posteriori and subject to contingencies.
Aspects of human experience can make morality subjective and uniquely different for each individual if empirical knowledge and experience direct the formation of moral principles. By using an assortment of personal experiences and priori knowledge to guide moral action, each individual arrive at a course of action that is best suited to their interests but not universally applicable. Furthermore, empirical principles cannot be used to serve as the basis of moral laws, for if the basis of universality by which they should be valid for all rational beings without distinction is derived from a particular tendency of human nature or the accidental circumstance in which it is fond, that universality is lost (442). Thus, the use of empirical knowledge and experiences interferes with the establishing of moral law to which individuals can turn to for guidance in action because it does not establish a conception of moral or provide a method of evaluation of moral worth. Kant s formula of autonomy addresses moral problems, like a moral promise, that can occur when action is guided by a will that is constrained by influence, empirical knowledge or experience, and lacks governance by pure experience. Kant explains that individuals should act so that [their] will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxim (431).
As individuals are rational beings, they have the will, or the capacity to act according to principle. This right to the autonomy of the will is the essence of humanity (430) and rationality, and must be free to determine action on its own grounds through the use of pure reason. When empirical knowledge is not separated from the motivation for decision and action, pure reason, the element of the mind uninfluenced by the empirical, is unable to fully direct the will. Because Kant recognizes that experience corrupts objectivity and shadows the function of pure reason, he explains that if the will goes outside and seeks law in the property of any of its objects, heteronomy always results. For then the will does not give itself the law but the object through its relation to the will gives the law to it (441).
By eliminating the posteriori reasoning when acting, the individual can avoid inconsistency in action and heteronomy of the will, the imposing of laws from without. Therefore, Kant believes that the autonomy of the will to determine action and act in accordance with universal law justifies the necessity to eliminate the corruptibility and immorality that can come from preconceived, empirical notions of morality and law from the decision making process. Furthermore, conceptions of morality based on experience cannot at as a standard evaluation when making decisions because for each example of morality which is exhibited must itself have been previously judged according to principles of morality to see whether it was worthy to serve as an original example or model (408). The Formula of the End in Itself considers the difficulties in the determining of moral action that result when empirical knowledge and experience lead individuals to treat themselves or others as means to some end.
As rational beings, by nature, are ends themselves (Kant 428), individuals should act so that they treat humanity whether in [their] own person or in that of another, always as and ends and never as a means merely (429). When experience and empirical knowledge that act as motivation for a desired end, the treatment of another individual or the self is dependent on the desired end. Although empirical conditions do not always lead to immoral action, the aim for the end ensures that moral action will not occur because the moral worth of such an action lies in its intent, the good will, and not in the desired result (Kant 394). By prohibiting empirical considerations from determining the desires that result, an individual s humanity remains intact.
Through the formulations of the categorical imperative, Kant devises a standard for the evaluation of the moral worth of actions and brings attention to the potential problems of relying on experience when acting. Although, Kant devises a methodology that s is usable in the ideal, in reality complications arise when attempting to separate experience from reasoning because of the overwhelming influences that empirical considerations place on our reasoning and intellect. Pure reason is difficult to isolate in the mind and even more difficult to use in the realm of nature due to practical considerations such as the desire to avoid hurting others by revealing truth. However, as Kant is concerned with how the world ought to be, his principles concerning the governing of action resound well with the purest sense of reasoning that individuals are able to achieve and individuals to act in a manner that ensures universality of principle, freedom of the will and respect for humanity.
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