PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday November 19, 2014


The Categorical Imperative rules out a number of different rule. An action that follows any of these rules is immoral:


A.     “For love of myself, I make it my principle to shorten my life when by a longer duration it threatens more evil than satisfaction.” (RTD 61) I.e., I will end my life in order to improve it, i.e., in order to make things better for myself.

·         On Kant’s view, this maxim is contradictory: “One immediately sees a contradiction in a system of nature, whose law would be to destroy life by the feeling whose special office [namely, self-love] is to impel the improvement of life.” (RTD 61) In other words, it is contradictory to try to improve one’s situation by ending one’s own life… that doesn’t make one’s situation better; it ends it! It is like attempting to renovate a house by burning it to the ground.

·         So committing suicide in order to improve your life violates the Categorical Imperative and is immoral.


B.     “When I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know I shall never do so.” (RTD 61)

·         You cannot will that this become a universal law, because such a law would be self-defeating: if everyone followed this rule, then eventually no one would have any reason to believe anyone else was making such a promise in good faith – so people would stop lending money: “no one would believe what was promised to him but would only laugh at any such assertion as vain pretense.” (RTD 61) To will that people follow this maxim would also be to will that people not follow this maxim. So as with the first example, this is also contradictory.

·         So promising to repay a loan when you have no intention of repaying violates the Categorical Imperative, and is immoral.


C.     A man “finds in himself a talent which could, by means of some cultivation, make him in many respects a useful man. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers indulgence in pleasure to troubling himself with broadening and improving his fortunate natural gifts. Now, however, let him ask whether his maxim of neglecting his gifts, besides agreeing with his propensity to idle amusement, agrees also with what is called duty.” His maxim is this: I will “let [my] talents rust and resolve to devote [my] life merely to idleness, indulgence, and propagation—in a word, to pleasure.”  (RTD 62)

·         No rational being can will that this maxim become a universal law or that “it should be implanted in us by a natural instinct.” This is because a rational being will necessarily recognize that any talent a person has, has been “given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.” (RTD 62) “To refuse to develop any of one’s talents would be irrational; it would be failing to take rational means to the achievement of any of one’s [goals], and all of us must have some such [goals].” [1]


D.     “Let each one [i.e., each person] be as happy as heaven wills, or as he can make himself; I will not take anything from him or even envy him; but to his welfare or to his assistance in time of need I have no desire to contribute.” (RTD 62) In other words, ignore the well-being and needs of others.

·         You cannot will that this become a universal law, because as a rational being, you would not want others to ignore your well-being when you are in need: “instances can often arise in which he would need the love and sympathy of others, and in which he would have robbed himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he desires.” (RTD 62)


So the Categorical Imperative implies that you should follow these rules:

·         You should never commit suicide in order to improve your life. [a duty to oneself that is “perfect”—it can never be violated, no matter what]

·         You should never promise to repay a loan when you know you won’t be able to. [a duty to others that is “perfect”—it can never be violated, no matter what]

·         You should cultivate your own talents. [a duty to oneself, but it can be overridden by a competing “perfect” duty”]

·         You should attend to the well-being and needs of others. [a duty to others but it can be overridden by a competing “perfect” duty”]


The first two rules do not allow for any exceptions whatsoever. No matter what the circumstances or the consequences, it is (on Kant’s view) never permissible to violate them. If you ever do either of these things, then you are behaving irrationally, since you cannot will that everyone else do the same.[2]


Kant says, not simply that you must accept The CI in order to be moral, but that you must accept The CI in order to be rational.  If you do not accept The CI, then you are behaving, not just immorally, but irrationally.




Stopping point for Wednesday November 19. For next time, study today’s lecture notes, and finish reading EMP ch.9 (pp.130-135).



[1] Commentators disagree about how best to understand this example. What I have suggested here is the explanation provided by J. Kemp. Here is a longer quotation: “What chiefly distinguishes man from the rest of creation, according to Kant, is his possession of freedom; this in turn depends on his possession of reason, not in the sense that he is capable of theoretical activity, but in the sense that he can set ends or purposes before himself (whereas the rest of creation can merely fulfil passively the purposes of nature). And this gives its point to the expression… ‘For as a rational being he necessarily wills...’. Whatever a man’s private aim or purpose in life may be, the fact that he has such a purpose is a sign of his rationality, even though all men, being imperfectly rational, have some purposes which they would not have if they were perfectly rational, and fail to have some which they would then have. Now any human purpose requires the exercise of some talent or capacity for its fulfilment; for a talent or capacity just is the ability to take appropriate means to given ends. Man’s ability to conceive of purposes would be of no value, and his freedom would be incomplete, if he were not also endowed with the capacity for discovering and adopting the best means for the attainment of those purposes. Hence to refuse to develop any of one's talents would be irrational; it would be failing to take rational means to the achievement of any of one’s aims or purposes, and all of us must have some such aims or (as we should more naturally say) desires. But why, it might be asked, should I not restrict my efforts to developing those talents which will enable me to live a more pleasant life; why should I worry about developing my moral capacities or increasing my ability to help others ? Because, Kant would reply, you are a man and a rational being, and to restrict the development of one’s capacities to those which provide an increase of pleasure for oneself is to put oneself on a level with the beasts, to behave in an inhuman and irrational way. It is because of this that a man cannot rationally assent to being a member of an order of nature in which self-development was universally neglected. Moreover, the use of reason, as manifested in the deliberate cultivation of one’s talents, in order merely to promote one’s own happiness is unlikely to be successful, human nature being what it is: ‘the more a cultivated reason concerns itself with the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the farther does man get away from true contentment.’” “Kant’s Examples of the Categorical Imperative,” Philosophical Quarterly 8 (30), 1958, 63-71, p.69.


[2] The first two principles express perfect duties, ones that must always be upheld. The second two express imperfect duties; one needs not uphold these at every waking moment. Rather, they obligate us to sometimes cultivate our talents, and to sometimes promote the well-being and needs of others.

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