If only we knew the correct course of action in all trying ethical situations. In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant puts forth an overarching code of morality, which he believes may help resolve ethical impasses. Kant champions two central notions: the Hypothetical and the Categorical Imperatives. These imperatives drive us to make ethical decisions, but they do so for different reasons. A “hypothetical” imperative, as Kant puts it, can be changed based on what one’s respective desire is. In other words, one can simply change what he should do by deciding that what he should do is not what he wants to do. In doing this, said person allows his desires, which can be corrupted, to govern ethical decisions. On the other hand, the “categorical,” imperative is much more specific, just as categories are specific. Kant says that this imperative cannot be changed, even if the desire of the individual is not in accordance with the imperative. The imperative is encapsulated in the following: “I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (14). This sentence marks the first time Kant defines his Categorical imperative. Essentially, he says a universal law cannot be a law unless it promotes and sustains societal constructions. In order to check if something is a universal law, we can ask ourselves the following question: could the world live by this “law” continuously without imploding and without destroying itself? If the answer is yes, then whatever in question could be considered a “universal law”. Kant correctly asserts that there is no goodness implicit to the world, nor is there any goodness in the singular and often varying ethical tenets of individuals; even so, Kant’s universal moral framework operates most successfully on an individual level, which occurs when people act in accordance with their duties, so as to promote his categorical imperative, which is ultimately espoused as a single principle, not determined or affected by the whims of the individual; these caprices are wicked shards of the human desire, and they exist conditionally, comprising the arguably less-important hypothetical imperative.
The Hypothetical imperative exists in our world, but it is wrong. Kant says: “We like to flatter ourselves with the false claim to a more noble motive; but in fact we can never, even by the strictest examination, completely plumb the depths of the secret incentives of our actions. For when moral value is being considered, the concern is not with the actions, which are seen, but rather with their inner principles, which are not seen” (19). Kant claims that people try to shape their motives to justify actions, and he argues that this is wrong because morality is objectively true and is independent of human control. We “flatter” ourselves with self-righteous motives, which allow us to sit back in idle dishonesty, too lazy to challenge the easy-to-condone pockets of transient treachery that pass us by on a daily basis, testing our moral discernment. These packages of malevolence add up, though, and once they are unwrapped, the evil mental trappings of the human mind are unleashed. Without some sort of widespread code of honesty, the insidious and pestilent roots of immorality poison the virgin soil of the earth. People will never be able to rightly examine their motives for action, because motives are strictly internal and unable to be reconciled or checked by others. However, that is why Kant devises a code of universal moral action: he believes that with some external guide, people will more correctly adhere to the goodness that should in reality course through the veins of the body of humanity as regularly as blood courses through the tightly muscled form of a virile jaguar. In addition, the Hypothetical Imperative is duplicitous; it has many faces, we can look nowhere with certainty, like in a house of mirrors; we stare coldly into our own faces, and the dark reflections of vile dishonesty tear back at us in black stares of icy death. Kant says: “If I think of a hypothetical imperative in general, I do not know beforehand what it will contain until its condition is given. But if I think of a categorical imperative, I know immediately what it contains. For since, besides the law, the imperative contains only the necessity that the maxim should accord with this law, while the law contains no condition to restrict it, there remains nothing but the universality of a law as such with which the maxim of the action should conform. This conformity alone is properly what is represented as necessary by the imperative” (29-30). Kant essentially discusses the treacherous nature of hypothetical imperatives; they can never be stamped out; they change form quickly as running water, elusive and amorphous. On the other hand, the Categorical imperative is intransigent, immutable. It should be easy to recognize the truth here, but for some it is not.
Duty is an incontrovertible component of the Categorical Imperative. Kant says: “An action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined. The moral worth depends, therefore, not on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition according to which, without regard to any objects of the faculty of desire, the action has been done” (12-13). Basically, Kant says that the end result of an action does not necessarily reflect the volition that may have gone into deciding to commit such an action. The moral volition is all that matters; maintaining good intentions matters more than attempting to fabricate a contrived end. If such an attempt succeeds, then it is often said that the ends justify the means, but Kant would vehemently disagree with such a claim. The Hypothetical Imperative caters more to the idea of creating a special result; it thrives on the if-then framework that dominates the minds of feeble people who constantly ask themselves what they can do to avoid conflict; lacking manliness, people like this are not able to properly contend with the demands of honesty, which originate both within the individual and within the expectations of other people. Kant says of duty: “To secure one’s own happiness is a duty (at least indirectly); for discontent with one’s condition under many pressing cares and amid unsatisfied wants might easily become a great temptation to transgress one’s duties” (12). Kant argues that one must feel happiness with his own life in order to observe his duties. Some poor men cannot act honestly because they are already so entrenched in the dregs of society, and they are desperate in their attempts to rise from the hole that they dug for themselves. These dishonest, impecunious urchins are like the salty filth that lines the inside of the sweaty, tattered baseball caps that they wear to keep the hateful sun off of their beaten bodies. The term “slippery slope” is used to describe the nature of making habits out of dishonest activities. Kant believes that there is a point past which one can no longer exist, for the slope becomes too steep for a man to healthily exist. Like the angle of repose of sand is unquestionable, the point past which a man cannot rightly be exists like a law of nature, causing his conscience to atrophy and languish in laughable attempts to cheat that which cannot be cheated. If a habit is unsustainable, it will soon become blatantly evident that this is so.
Kant believes that duty is doing what is right even when desire says otherwise. He says: “To be beneficent where one can is a duty; and besides this, there are many persons who are so sympathetically constituted that, without any further motive of vanity or self-interest, they find an inner pleasure in spreading joy around them and can rejoice in the satisfaction of others as their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however dutiful as amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth. It is on a level with such actions as arise from other inclinations, e.g., the inclination for honor, which if fortunately directed to what is in fact beneficial and accords with duty and is thus honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem; for its maxim lacks the moral content of an action done not from inclination but from duty” (11). Kant says here that there is a danger in enjoying the fulfillment of duty, for duty should ideally be independent from desire. If we complete our duties with happiness, it is difficult to say whether such completion has true moral worth. Kant uses the words, “inclination for honor,” and he is referring to the idea of an ulterior motive, one that is purely selfish in nature. He thinks that one could enjoy doing something that has the appearance of a duty, but in reality is not; it is merely a manufactured guise used to hide true selfish intentions. In The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, one of the characters, Catherine, goes to her uncle, Ellsworth Toohey, for advice, because she is having misgivings about leading a life of service. For instance, she arranged to have classes in prenatal care at the Clifford House, a fictional nursery. However, she comes to hate her life because she has become so accustomed to receiving appreciation that when she doesn’t get any, she cannot cope; she “demands gratitude,” as it is put. Katie tries to explain her predicament to Ellsworth, and after a long conversation, he puts things very simply: “Don’t you see how selfish you have been? You chose a noble career, not for the good you could accomplish, but for the personal happiness you expected to find in it” (375). This ties directly into what Kant says about duty. Duty can be masked by service; in reality, the primary service being done is to the carnivorous ego, which feeds on the prospect of its advancement. Catherine thought she was doing the right thing by devoting herself to a life of selflessness, but truly she did so only to satiate her own dastardly hunger for self-righteousness. Ellsworth goes on to elaborate about how a true martyr, a true contributor to the world community, stops wanting anything. He does his duty solely because it is true, good, noble, and exalted, not for any other anticipated end. This, Kant argues, is the highest form of goodness. However, it is dangerous to openly commend such probity in a person, because if the person hears compliments for his good work, he will realize that he does the correct thing only to positively affect his image.
In conclusion, Kant advocates the concept of an objective and immutable moral reality, which is even applicable today. If an action can be considered a law of society, then has moral worth. Lying, for instance, is unsustainable and has no moral worth because it undermines itself. When we lie many times, we preclude ourselves from lying any longer because people will no longer believe anything we say. In this sense, the habit of lying is self-destructive. It prevents the smooth operation of society and undercuts collective progression and sustenance of communities. On the other hand, trust, which is shattered when a person lies, can exist forever; it is eternal and does nothing to prevent the advancement of a place where people thrive. We should endeavor to trust and be trusted, for worlds are built on trust.
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