The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy

The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy

The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy

The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy

Excerpt

Kant contrived to say something new about morality. This remarkable achievement has compelled every subsequent writer on moral philosophy to examine his views even if only in order to refute his errors. The curious thing is that Kant himself makes no claim to propound a philosophical revolution in moral thinking as he did in speculative thinking. He knew, of course, that he was trying to do something which no one had succeeded in doing before--namely, to set forth the first principles of morality apart from all considerations of self-interest and even apart from their application to particular human problems. Yet he maintained that he was only putting forward a new formula for the principle by which good men had always judged moral excellence--even if they had been unable to make this principle clear to themselves or to separate it off sharply from other principles concerned with the happiness of the individual and the benefits arising from the moral life.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of grasping the supreme principle of morality; and because Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (as I call his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten) treats of this topic, and of this topic alone, it is an indispensable book for all who profess to think seriously about moral problems. Yet many readers find it difficult to understand, and the main purpose of my present book is to make understanding easier. This is all the more necessary because--as I believe--a whole series of misinterpretations has become traditional and stands in the way of an unprejudiced approach. It is indeed a strange thing that so many of those who either explicitly or implicitly regard Kant as a great, or at least an influential, thinker, ascribe to him views which can hardly be considered as anything but silly. Thus he is commonly supposed to maintain that no action can be moral if we have any natural inclination towards it or if we obtain the slightest pleasure from its performance; and again that a good man must take no account whatever of the consequences of his actions but must deduce all the manifold duties of life from the bare conception of moral law as such--without any regard for the characteristics of human nature or the circumstances of human life. These doctrines and others equally paradoxical, if they were held by Kant, would not indicate that he had any very profound insight into the nature of morality: they can hardly but suggest that his moral philosophy may be dismissed as negligible, if not diseased. It is my hope to show, by a careful examination of the text, that such interpretations are a distortion of his actual teaching, which is always reasonable, even if it may not always be correct.

From what I have said it will be clear that I regard the proper inter-

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