Essay: Kant Claims That the Categorical Imperative

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Kant claims that the categorical imperative will lead us to objective, universal and necessary rules which we will know a priori. In other words it is a universalist theory yet we are morally autonomous -we make the decisions. If everyone is morally autonomous and makes his or her own moral decisions, why is this not a subjectivist position?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote at a time when there were two divergent philosophical 'camps.' Some rationalist philosophers, in the tradition of Descartes, believed that human beings were capable of knowing truths a priori or solely based on cerebral, rational analysis, without reference to actual experience of hands-on tests of knowledge in the real world. Another word for this view of rationalist, a priori knowledge is that of deductive reasoning, or proceeding from generalized principles to reach specific truths. An example of this might be that 'all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.' Kant, however, believed that subjective perceptions could interfere with the human capacity to make moral decisions.

The opposing philosophical camp Kant was responding to with his line of analysis was that of empiricist philosophers who denied the ability to know anything a priori, and insisted humans could only gain knowledge a posteriori, or after testing that knowledge in the real world. Extreme empiricists believed that nothing could be known from generalities, and every specific situation had to be tested -- taken to the extreme, even turning on the faucet would be an experiment, and someone could only state definitively that the water would work after it was turned it on, not assume from previous experiences that it would work. We might function in the real world on the assumption that what happened in the past would be true in the present, but this was not an objective form of absolute truth according to the empiricists. Moral decisions thus had to be made on a case-by-case basis, rather than based on absolute moral principles. Kant rejected such radical subjectivity, just as he rejected the rationalist's absolute belief in the human capacity to know everything through rational analysis.

Kant attempted to create a bridge between these two overviews, stating that we can know some things only through experience and validating the scientific method of testing things in the real world -- but Kant also stated that other things could be known a priori, and these moral commands must be obeyed as if the decision-maker was setting moral law for all time. This is why Kant's great treatise is called a Critique of Pure Reason. Kant was criticizing the idea that pure reason alone was enough to know what was true, but his categorical imperative also assumed that there were certain types of moral imperatives that must be obeyed as absolutes. Of course, because we possess free will, we are free to ignore these imperative moral commands from we deduce. Also, we may reason imperfectly or incorrectly given our innate subjectivity as moral actors. But… [END OF PREVIEW]

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