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Contra Kant’s Categorical: A Survey and Brief Critique of Kant’s Moral Theory

Kant’s moral theory begins where his pure[1] metaphysics ends. He aptly grounds the metaphysics of morals on the pure practical reason of his second Critique as opposed to the pure theoretical reason of his first Critique. By most accounts, his moral theory is in opposition to those of Aristotle’s and Mill’s, which are teleological and utilitarian, respectively. Kant coins the most rigid duty-based (i.e. deontological) ethic, which consists of pure practical reason alone. Although his ethic is simple in practicality though not in presentation, a deep discomfort arises in applying it whole-heartedly. This essay will explore Kant’s ethic and give voice to the discomfort.

     I make note that I must be brief in both my exposition of Kant’s ethic and initial critique due to the topic’s scope and complexity. Kant systematically builds his ethic on his previous Critique[s]—of Pure and of Practical Reason— taking for granted certain technical concepts. Because of this, I will have to use certain concepts with either little explanation or avoid some altogether. I hope to minimize such situations.

    I. Deontology: The Kantian Ethic

Before I can critique his moral theory, I must first examine how Kant arrives at his fundamental principle of moral judgements, the famous “categorical imperative.” Kant wants to redeem the common or ordinary views of moral judgements. Thus, he begins his ethical inquiry here, but departs from other moral theories immediately. Kant rejects any notion of moral subjectivity, especially relativism as we understand it today. In doing so, he bases morality in the action, not in its consequences (contra Mill) nor in the character of (contra Aristotle). That is, Kant defines morality as the duty to “do the right thing,” rather than the pursuit of a/the good (Aristotle) or the maximization of happiness (Mill). He turns morality into a thing of duty rather than intrinsic goodness or happiness.

     In looking for “the right thing,” Kant seeks to find that which is good in every instance, without exception. He begins the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by saying, “It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be taken to be good without limitation except a good will.[2] That is, the action of the “good will” is the heart of Kant’s ethic. Morality cannot be based on the outcomes of actions, for they can be bad or good. Nor can it be based on the character of the actor alone, for she has inclinations which can sway her in a bad or good direction and cannot be relied upon in all situations. We have only to look to the antecedent of the action, the motive of acting via will, as defining moral acts. The will is what can be unconditionally and necessarily good. Other things, namely, one’s character and inclinations or her happiness, are conditionally good. Such things are of no worth unless acted by a good will. Hence, the good will is more than just a good—it is “the highest good.”[3] This is the first point of ambiguity that I will address in a subsequent section: the notion of a highest good.

     Now, Kant explains that the only things that are done which are of “moral worth” are done from duty. Things done from duty are driven by the motivation of the good will alone. Duty, as such, is not reliant upon any inclinations, and cannot be swayed by such. Nor can duty be better or worse due to the outcome it produces. In Kant’s language, “duty is the necessity of action from respect for the [moral] law.[4] After removing everything from the common understanding of morality that are affected by all other things, we are left with duty to and respect for a moral law.[5] This moral law is a law of pure practical reason. As such, it is a law inherent in all rational beings and is thus both legislated by and governing over all rational beings.[6]

     We have, just as in the first Critique, removed everything from morality that is not purely rational. Kant summarizes, “nothing remains but as such the universal conformity of actions with law, which is to serve the will as its principle; i.e., I ought never to proceed except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.[7] Universal conformity is the only conceivable basis of action in general. And this is a simple concept, which admits of no exception. Thus, we have a practical test for how to tell whether an action has moral worth. Ethics in this sense is meant to be conceivable to people of a wide range of intellect.

     We must now formulate how we must act according to this universal conformity. That is, in Kantian language, there must be objective principles that the will must act upon in accordance with universal conformity to the moral law. These formulations are called imperatives.[8] There are two types of imperatives: the hypothetical and the categorical. Hypothetical imperatives are usually in the form of if-then statements. They are relative and thus cannot be known or understood prior to a situation in which a hypothetical imperative is in effect. A hypothetical imperative already has some end towards which it is aiming. That is, “if the action would be good merely as a means to something else, the imperative is hypothetical; if the action is represented as good in itself… it is categorical.”[9] The categorical imperative is usually in the form of an “ought” statement and is immediately known, regardless of situation.

     The categorical imperative is the basis of morality.[10] Just as in the first Critique, it must be proven that “it is an a priori synthetic practical proposition.”[11] In doing so, there cannot be multiple supreme principles of morality, but must necessarily “therefore [be] only a single categorical imperative”[12] Oddly enough, Kant gives at least two distinct formulations of the one single categorical imperative.[13] The first is the famous formula of universal law, “act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.[14] A simple reiteration in the form of a practical test would be ‘would it be okay if everyone everywhere held the same maxim?’ The second formula is a bit more vague and not obviously connected to the first. It is the formula of humanity stated as such: “so act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”[15] In other words, treat every rational being as ends as well as means, never only means. I will visit this ambiguity later.

     Kant’s moral theory has great advantages. His moral law rejects consequentialism. Most, if not all, forms of consequentialism are subjective and can admit of evil actions. The phrase “by any means possible” is not a way to arrive at any end. Such a consequentialist maxim can admit of theft, adultery, murder, etc., as long as we arrive at the desired outcome. In this case the means are void of any moral importance. Rather, Kant’s theory stresses that every action is of moral importance, just as every action has a rational motive.

     Further, the most attractive part of Kant’s ethic is that it is rational in the highest degree; it is an ethic of pure practical reason. There are no exceptions to moral duties and there are no desires or emotions that trump such duties. One might recall respect as an emotion that is in relation to duty. But, Kant argues that “although respect is indeed a feeling, it is not one received through outside influence, but a feeling self-produced by a rational concept and therefore different in kind from all feelings of the first variety, which can be reduced to fear or inclination.”[16] Therefore it is not really a feeling at all, but something nobler: “it is simply my rational awareness of the objective law that motivates me.”[17] Such a moral law, admitting of no exception, is both impartial and utterly just. One cannot do the wrong thing for the right reason. Simply, that something is done for the right reason (as long as it is in accordance with the categorical imperative) makes it the right thing.

    II. Concerns:

    a. The Teleology of Deontology

As attractive as it is, Kant’s ethic is not without its difficulties: his vagueness and totalizing formulation of the categorical imperative make his whole ethic insurmountably problematic. First, Kant is virtually silent as to what good is; i.e., it necessitates a teleological goodness that is the perfectly good will. Good itself and good in itself are vacuous terms. As far as Kant is concerned, goodness, morality, rationality, freedom, and humanity are all synonymous. And if one is perfectly rational, she is perfectly good, moral, free, and human. It seems that Kant’s metaphysical theory of morality is grounded on the teleological end of human flourishing, which he happens to equate to pure rationality. The moral law is both within and outside oneself, just as rationality is both within and outside of oneself. Thus, one is duty-bound to legislate and be governed by the moral law that is a product of objective rationality, but which really is the teleological end as the perfectly good, rational, moral, and free will. That is, this moral law is only sensible if there is an idea of goodness—regardless of whether it is knowable—to which it may be evaluated. Kant’s solution is that the self[18] governs and legislates itself by way of the will which is, in its purest understanding, perfectly good and rational. It will be shown that this is yet again teleological.

     There is a similar problem with his notion of virtue and use of language as a means of conveying meaning apart from value judgements. Virtue is dismissed in a footnote to be a vacuous term: “to behold Virtue in her actual form is nothing other than to present morality stripped of any admixture of the sensuous and any spurious adornment of reward or self-love.”[19] That is, true virtue is really Kant’s pure practical understanding of morality. Yet he uses a language of virtue in order to explain the merits and intrinsic worth of doing things out of duty. And he may not be able to avoid this problem; almost every use of language is filled with value judgements that implicate a hierarchy of some sort. For even the phrase “duty for duty’s sake” implies the hierarchal goodness or worth of duty apart from anything else. That is, it is better to do something out of duty rather than out of any other reason. To do one thing over another is a value judgment of some sort. And any value necessitates a hierarchy of values. Therefore, Kant’s theory of deontology is performatively teleological.

    b. An Incoherent Imperative

The categorical imperative appears to be an incoherent principle of pure practical reason. It seems not to be possible to know the law in itself as it pertains to things in themselves. Kant has made this much clear in the first Critique, that the noumenal realm is unknowable. Thus, the categorical imperative is only comprehensible in that we can comprehend that it is incomprehensible. This does not appear to be enough ground upon which to base an entire ethic. Though this may only be due to the difficulty with which Kant is ambiguous concerning the noumenal and phenomenal.[20]

     Regardless, the categorical imperative, as mentioned earlier, is unnecessarily (or arguably necessarily due to its noumenal nature) vague. In which case, it allows for inconsistencies, misuses, and contradictions. Walker gives the example of a maxim of bribery: “if everyone always refused bribes, the practice of bribery could not exist.”[21] This is a performative contradiction. That is, in order for one to refuse a bribe, a necessary condition of the existence of bribery must be in place. If one attempts to use the categorical imperative in this case (it ought be such that everyone refuses bribes), the notion of bribery would become meaningless. If everyone refused bribes, no one would refuse bribes, because there would exist no briber. The use of the categorical imperative in this instance results in the incoherence of the term bribery. In the same way, replace bribery with helping the poor or hungry. The same incoherence would follow. In a similar fashion, mercy and grace are rendered impossible, or at the very least irrational. For example, it cannot be a reasonable imperative that everyone everywhere always gives second chances.[22] Nonetheless, it is utterly important to the human race that we as moral creatures be merciful and gracious, even if done so rarely. The point is, mercy and grace are, in the most common sense, acts of goodness.

     Furthermore, the most often debated inconsistency of the categorical imperative is what to do when two good duties conflict. The most common modern example is whether to lie to the Nazis about hiding Jews or to tell the truth always. On the one hand, there is a duty to help those in need. But on the other hand, there is a duty to always tell the truth. Oddly, both duties are to “treat others the way I want to be treated” and are thus in line with the categorical imperative.[23] Sullivan halfheartedly argues that Kant vaguely tackles this problem with talk about a hierarchy of moral rules.[24] This is at its strongest, unconvincing, and at its weakest, incoherent with the rest of Kant’s philosophy. Ignoring the very fact that a hierarchy of morality is a contradiction to Kant’s project, this situation is indeed at its base a contradiction of two different instantiations of the same categorical imperative. Here as well as in other places, the problem is that “Kant did not clearly distinguish between judging the moral quality of a maxim and judging how to act in a particular instance.”[25]

    c. Rejection of Particularity and Partiality

I raise a third critique: the categorical imperative leaves no space for particularity and partiality. In Kant’s theory, you must always begin in your current particular condition and then universalize. The movement back to the particular is unnecessary in his theory. In the common sense, morality seems to be inherently particular. In this sense, morality ought to be partial: partial to family, partial to situations, and partial to the person. If one is unconvinced of this very basic partiality, take the institution of marriage and the idea of sex. The world would be a moral place if everyone stayed true in their marriage vows. But the world would also, in terms of the categorical imperative, be a moral place if everyone could and did have sex with everyone else. This is taken seriously in Huxley’s dystopian fiction Brave New World, where there are such universalized maxims as “everyone is everyone’s.” Such a world strikes the common human to be detestable, as it renders love as commitment, and its choice, worthless. Sullivan again tries to defend Kant, saying, “other factors being equal, there is nothing morally wrong in giving more weight to the concerns of people to whom we have emotional or familial ties.”[26] This, even if true, is wholly unconvincing. According to this view, it can neither be morally wrong nor right. That is, to give more concern to people we care about is not a matter of morality. Kant’s morality seems to be unconcerned with such ties, yet we want to say that these bonds are good things. Being particular and partial is part of being human.[27] In our most human moments, we act out of particular love, not duty or some universalizable maxim.

[1] This is a technical term in Kant’s philosophy. It concerns the a priori nature of the subject. The word “pure” denotes something like “theoretical”, and also denotes talk of a priori rather than a posteriori knowledge.

[2] I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. trans. and ed. by M. Gregor & J. Timmerman. (2012) 4:393. Unless otherwise noted, italicized and bolded words are in the source quoted.

[3] Ibid., 4:396.

[4] Ibid., 4:400.

[5] Ibid., 4:397-401.

[6] N.B. Kant’s notion of “legislating by” and “governing over” is technical, and he covers this in depth in the later half of the Groundwork, The Metaphysics of Morals, and The Moral Law, but it is mostly tangential to the matter at hand.

[7] Ibid., 4:402.

[8] Ibid., 4:413.

[9] Ibid., 4:414.

[10] Ibid., 4:416.

[11] Ibid., 4.420.

[12] Ibid., 4:421.

[13] N.B. There is much debate in Kantian scholarship over whether there is 1-3 other technical formulations that Kant gives.

[14] Kant, Groundwork, 4:421.

[15] Ibid., 4:429.

[16] Kant, Groundwork, 4:460.

[17] R. C. S. Walker, Kant: Kant and the Moral Law. (1998), 23.

[18] N.B. Again, a technical term. It is not the self in the sense that either Plato or Descartes might formulate it.

[19] Kant, Groundwork, 4:426 footnote.

[20] N.B. Scholars of Kant debate vigorously the ontological difference between the noumenal and the phenomenal. This debate concerns two different interpretations of Kant that impact his whole philosophy: “two-worlds” vs “two-aspects”.

[21] Walker, Kant. 36.

[22] Mercy, here, is assumed to mean something like “to give what is not deserved”, most specifically to give compassion or forgiveness without condition. Similarly, grace means something like “to receive what is not deserved.” The point of without condition is key here. The categorical imperative actually renders things like compassion or forgiveness meaningless.

[23] I have implicitly equated the categorical imperative with what is called the “golden rule” found in many religious beliefs. There seems to be no difference, and Kant himself speaks of the categorical imperative in the same way as this formulation several times in a number of his works.

[24] R. J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics. (1994), 100-103.

[25] Ibid., 103.

[26] Ibid., 80.

[27] One might make an argument here, against Kant, that the categorical imperative renders acts of selfless love incoherent. But this could be expounded upon in another essay.



Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. trans. and ed. by M. Gregor & J. Timmerman. (2012).

C. S. Walker, Kant: Kant and the Moral Law. (1998).

J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics. (1994).

Sorell, T., ‘Kant’s Good Will and Our Good Nature” in Guyer, P. (ed.), Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Critical Essays. (1998).