Kants Categorical Imperative, Essay Example

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Kant sets up the categorical imperative as the rule which would bridge the gap between subjective and objective determinations of the subject, the gap that makes up the essence of human freedom, by making the former conform the latter. That is, it gives the form of what it would look like to have one’s subjective motivation completely determined by his or her objective determinations. If one defines the expression of subjective motivations as “maxims” (they tell an individual what to do in a particular case), and if one defines the expression of objective determinations as universal laws (that exceed the individual subject, indeed which hold, as Kant repeats, for “all rational beings”, not just humans), then to make objective determinations one’s subjective motivation means to consider one’s individual maxims as universal laws.

Kant called maxims “subjective” that hold only for one person or subject and that may be based on that person’s ignorance or desires. Subjective maxims, however, can be raised to the level of objectivity, even though they take into account special features such as time, place, and personal relationships, as long as they conform to the norm of objectivity, the categorical imperative. If everyone is morally autonomous, why is this not a subjectivist position?

The model of individual put forward by the ‘reflective’ version of the double order of desires theory seems to solve the problem of the relationship between autonomy and values, which appeared irresolvable after abandoning a Universalist rationalist approach. This problem arises from two conflicting elements. On the one hand the existence of ‘values’ implies individual autonomy. For to say that something (freedom, dignity, well-being, etc.) is a value is to say that it is value for somebody under some circumstances: this only makes sense under the assumption that people value it autonomously. For interests and needs to rise to the ranks of values, subjects’ valuing them must reflect their authentic personality. On the other hand values are characterized as such precisely by virtue of stable inter-subjective recognition.

The subjectivist position leads to a deadlock: either the claim that autonomy is a value “is an objectively correct decision or it is not. If it is, then there is at least one moral assertion whose claim to validity does not rest on its being accepted by a moral agent. If it is not, then no criticism can be made of a moral agent who refuses to accept it”. But once autonomy is defined as the capacity for critically assessing ‘values’, not only are these taken to be socially constituted but also the vicious circle seems to turn into a hermeneutic circle and the autonomous individual may become the ground of moral, political, and social order. What legitimizes a wish, a rule, a value, is it’s having being rationally weighed in the light of cultural tradition, it’s qualifying as the ‘product of autonomous reflection’.

Clearly, on a relativist approach this conception of autonomy could not provide liberalism with a firm ground, let alone a secure anchoring of rights. In each cultural tradition an autonomous individual’s reflection would have different starting points leading to different conclusions.

A percept that cannot be universalized cannot also be unswerving with the laws of nature. Kant believed that we can arrive at moral principles solely through the correct use of reason. Morality, therefore, is whatever is discovered in the laws of nature. This is not a subjectivist position; rather it is a universalistic one in which the ultimate good is that of peaceful and commodious living.

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