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Daniel Sportiello | Friday, February 25, 2011

Imagine that you want to go to Chicago.

You cannot, of course, simply will yourself into the Windy City: there are steps that you must first take. Since you are at the University of Notre Dame, you know that if you want to go to Chicago, you ought to drive west.

Your life — indeed, everyone’s life — is ruled by such rules: if you want to end your hunger, you ought to eat, and if you want to end your exhaustion, you ought to sleep. If you want to arrive at class on time, you ought to wake an hour beforehand, and if you want to impress your teaching assistant, you ought to read the material before you arrive. If you want to achieve this, more generally, you ought to do that.

Kant called such rules hypothetical imperatives: they command you — but only so long as you happen to have the relevant wants. Like all imperatives, they are normative: they indicate not what you will do but, rather, what you ought to do. But, in this case, what you ought to do — that is, your means — is determined by what you want to achieve — that is, your end: you will not achieve a given end, the world being as it is, unless you take a certain means. And your motivation for taking said means just is your desire to achieve said end. Should your end change, the relevant hypothetical imperative no longer applies to you.

You might expect that all imperatives are thus hypothetical — but Kant would remind you of what most take to be a crucial exception: morality. You ought not lie. You ought not steal. You ought not kill. None of these imperatives references a condition. While hypothetical imperatives satisfy your wants, moral rules command you regardless of your wants.

Kant called such rules categorical imperatives — and they should, he thought, strike you as deeply mysterious. What rule could command you, could determine your behavior and yet not itself be determined by your wants? Set aside, for a moment, the problem of motivation. Even assuming your willingness to obey moral commands, what could determine their content, if not your wants? Why, for example, ought you refrain from deceit, from theft, from murder rather than from, say, driving?

A categorical imperative, Kant answered, is like any imperative a rule. But unlike a hypothetical imperative, what a categorical imperative commands you to do cannot be determined by anything outside itself — that is, by your wants. Yet what a categorical imperative commands you to do also cannot be determined by nothing at all, for then it would just be an arbitrary demand, not a rule. What a categorical imperative commands you to do must, therefore, be determined by the categorical imperative itself — that is, by the very fact that it is an imperative.

A categorical imperative, in other words, commands only itself. It is the imperative that you always act according to imperatives, the rule that you ought always to act according to rules — or, in Kant’s words, the law that you “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” The moral rules of your acquaintance are derived from this categorical imperative as special cases.

Consider, for example, the moral rule against lying. Imagine, Kant suggests, that you are tempted to borrow money with the promise to repay even though you know that you will not be able to do so. That you ought not do so is immediately clear. If all made such lying promises when it suited them, no one would trust the word of another and the very institution of promising would collapse, thus making impossible the lie that you are tempted to make. If you lie, in other words, you will be presupposing a rule against lying, even as you violate it. And this — making yourself the single exception to a rule to be truthful — is clearly a violation of the categorical imperative, the rule that you always act according to rules.

What a categorical imperative commands you to do is clear. But what motive could you ever have to obey it? Well, Kant answers, all action is for the sake of some end, and usually the end is the satisfaction of some want. But while hypothetical imperatives command according to the satisfaction of wants, categorical imperatives do not. If moral action is even possible, if it is possible to obey a categorical imperative, there must be an end that is, mysteriously, not outside you at all. That is not the satisfaction of some want.

The motive for following the categorical imperative, then, is just you yourself — that is, the rational actor, the human being. While all other ends have value only relative to some want, human beings are the very condition for that relative value — and thus the only ends with absolute value. In Kant’s words, you ought “so act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” And this is, Kant insists, just another perspective on the categorical imperative — as is clear from the example of lying. When you make a false promise, you treat other human beings, the very conditions for relative value, as though they themselves had only relative value, as mere means to your ends.

The full extent of the categorical imperative, Kant argues, only becomes clear from considering these two perspectives together. Assuming that morality is even possible, you ought always act lawfully — and do so out of respect for human beings, including yourself. And thus you must act so always to respect human beings as lawgivers onto themselves — as both rulers and subjects in a “kingdom of ends.”

You must, in other words, act always as a citizen — as someone with rights commanding respect, respecting the rights of others in turn.

By this point, you have probably overshot Chicago.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI at 1 p.m. on Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.