Duty Is Prior to Happiness
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Immanuel Kant, from Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals
Kem Stone - 26 September 2007
Although I’ve heard the term “categorical imperative” many times, I have always been too intimidated by Kant to
try and get my head around it. But after studying this text, I can see that it is actually far simpler than I had
imagined. Kantian ethics are similar to utilitarianism in that they find their basis in reason rather than divinity, but
Kant’s formula is far simpler than that of Bentham. Rather than taking into account all of the pain and suffering
entailed by a certain action, one must only decide whether he would want to live in a world in which everyone
acted as he did. In other words, before I decide that it would be right for me to do something, I must consider
whether I believe it would be right for everyone to do so for the same reason.
The text begins with a point by Kant that is in direct contrast to Bentham, who believes that it is purely the
consequences of an action that make it right or wrong. According to Kant, what matters most is having a good
will. A good will is the only thing that Kant believes can be called “good” without qualification. The wealthy and
powerful, blessed with the gifts of fortune, are always disdained unless they have a good will—a good will is not
happiness, but the condition of even being worthy of happiness. In the same manner, moderation and self-
control, which are championed by the Greeks as intrinsically good, are actually not so, because a criminal can
exercise self-control just as well as a saint. The most important point is that a good will is good no matter what
the consequences. “Even if it should happen that, owing to special disfavour of fortune, or the niggardly provision
of a stepmotherly nature, this will should wholly lack power to accomplish its purpose…then, like a jewel, it
would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can
neither add to nor take away anything from this value” (189)
The will according to Kant is the faculty to choose, through reason independent of inclination, the good. But in
the case of humanity, the reason does not usually determine the will solely on objective conditions, but also
subjective conditions, or inclinations. If the will is subject to subjective conditions which do not coincide with
objective conditions, the determination of a will according to objective laws is obligation. An objective principle
that is obligatory for a will is called a command, and the formula of a command is an Imperative. There are two
types of imperatives. The hypothetical imperative is a practical necessity of an action as a means to something
else that is willed. The categorical imperative is an action that is necessary as an end in itself.
There are several types of hypothetical imperatives, of which Kant gives examples in order to show how it is
different from the categorical imperative. There are imperatives of skill, which are the actions necessary to most
easily attain solutions to a problem. “Here there is no question whether the end is rational and good, but only
what one must do in order to attain it. The precepts for the physician to make his patient thoroughly healthy, and
for a poisoner to ensure certain death, are of equal value in this respect, that each serves to effect its purpose
perfectly” (191). There is also a whole class of imperatives which serve to an end common to all humanity:
happiness. Anything that is done for the sake of happiness is a hypothetical imperative, because it is not done
merely for its own sake, but for the sake of that ultimate end. In contrast, the imperative of morality is not
hypothetical but categorical, as it commands certain conduct without having a conditional purpose.
For Kant, there is only one categorical imperative: “Act only on that maxim whereby though canst at the same
time will that it will become a universal law” (192). A maxim is the principle on which a subject acts, while a
law is the principle for every rational being on which it ought to act. Thus we arrive at the heart of Kant’s ethical
claim—that an action can only be thought to be right and good if it can be thought to be right and good for
everybody at all times.
Kant offers four examples. First, a man reduced to despair by misfortune who wishes to end his own life acts on
the maxim, “From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring
more evil than satisfaction” (192). If such a maxim were to become a universal law, we would live in a world in
which people would end their lives by means of the very feeling which impels them to improve it. Because this
would be contradictory and impossible to adopt as a universal law, we can see that suicide is wrong.
In the second example, a man borrows money promising to pay it back but knows he will not. Should everyone
make promises without intending to keep them when it is to their own benefit, we would have a universal law of
nature that necessarily contradicts itself—everyone would make false promises, thus rendering the promise
meaningless—and therefore we can see that this action is also wrong.
The third example deals with duty to oneself. A man possessed of a talent which with some cultivation would
make him very useful to society, yet decides rather to neglect the skill and indulge in life’s pleasures, must consider
whether he would have this maxim apply to all of humanity. Clearly, a world in which all people of skill neglected
their talents and instead lived comfortably in self-indulgence would not be a very good one. And therefore we see
that there is a duty to oneself, and to neglect one’s own talents, though not directly harming others, would
nevertheless be wrong.
Finally, the fourth example concerns duty to others. A man who lives in prosperity and sees no reason to use his
means to help the less fortunate must consider whether he would have all men adopt the maxim that everyone
ought to be as happy as nature has made them, and nothing should de done to assist those in distress. “Although
it is possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is impossible to will that
such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would
contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of
others, and in which, by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the
aid he desires” (193).
There are many other actions that fall outside the scope of these four examples, but all fall roughly into two classes
of the principle. There are those actions which are wrong because they are self-contradictory—they cannot even
be conceived to be a universal law of nature, as is the case in the examples of suicide and promise-breaking. And
there are those actions which though one might conceive of them as a universal law, one would never will that it
should be so, as in the cases of duty to oneself or others.
Kant has shown that all duties depend on the nature of the obligation to the same principle, that one must only act
according to a maxim that he would will to be a universal law. When it comes to transgression of duty, “we shall
find that we in fact do not will that our maxim should be a universal law, for that is impossible for us; on the
contrary, we will that the opposite should remain a universal law, only we assume the liberty of making an
exception in our own favour” (194) If we consider this in terms of the categorical imperative, we see that such
transgressions are clearly not permissible, as if all universal laws admitted of exceptions such as we would make
for ourselves, they would not be universal laws at all but merely generalities.
Kant has now given us a full sketch of the categorical imperative, but he has not yet proven a priori that this
imperative exists. He insists that this must be done a priori, as any morality without a firm ground in pure reason
is problematic. Kant warns against thinking of the imperative as deduced from human nature, as is the case with
so many non-divinity-based ethical systems. “Whatever is deduced from the particular natural characteristics of
humanity…may indeed supply us with a maxim but not with a law; with a subjective principle on which we may
have a propension and inclination to act, but not with an objective principle on which we should be enjoined to
act” (194). Any system of morality based on empirical evidence is bound to be prejudicial, as without a firm basis
in objective principles too much room is left for the interpretation of evidence to be formulated according to the
inclinations of whoever is formulating it.
The question is whether the categorical imperative is a necessary law for all rational beings. Kant’s approach is to
determine the necessity of the law according to the nature of the will. “The will is conceived as a faculty of
determining oneself to action in accordance with the conception of certain laws. And such a faculty can be
found only in rational beings. Now that which serves the will as the objective ground of its self-determination is
the end, and if this is assigned by reason alone, it must hold for all rational beings” (195). Kant need only find
something whose existence has absolute worth—an end in itself which could serve as a source of definite laws.
According to Kant, man is this end in himself. A man thinks of himself in such a way, and knows that all others
see themselves in this way as well. Thus it is both a subjective and objective principle that man is always an end in
himself, never a means to a higher end.
In accordance with this principle, we now arrive at the practical imperative, “So act as to treat humanity,
whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only”
(196). Kant shows how this supports the categorical imperative in each of the four examples given previously.
This is not readily apparent in the case of suicide, but it can be argued that in this case one uses oneself as a means
to maintain a tolerable condition of life until ending it. It is completely clear in the case of a lying promise, as the
person to whom the false promise is made is obviously being used as a means to serve the ends of the one making
the promise. It is also not very clear in the case of duty to oneself, but Kant asserts that “there are in humanity
capacities of greater perfection which belong to the end that nature has in view in regard to humanity in ourselves
as the subject; to neglect these might perhaps be consistent with the maintenance of humanity as an end in itself,
but not with the advancement of this end” (197). Finally, regarding duties to others the maxim that one ought
only to advance their own ends without helping others may not be completely inconsistent with the practical
imperative, but would certainly not harmonize with it as would the maxim that everyone ought to endeavour to
forward the ends of others.
Kant now only must show that the principle that every rational being is an end in itself is arrived at a priori and not
through experience. This is apparent first because it is universal in its application to all rational beings even if
experience is incapable of determining anything about them. And secondly, it is not a subjective principle that
presents humanity as an end to men, but is “an objective end which must as a law constitute the supreme limiting
condition of all our subjective ends” (197). Because it is a universal and objective principle, it must therefore
spring from pure reason, and is immune from any claim that it has been arrived at prejudicially.
A final point of great importance that Kant makes is that the will of every rational being is universally legislative.
When a person decides what is right for himself, he decides what is right for all humanity. “Thus the will is not
subject to the law, but so subject that it must be regarded as itself giving the law; and on this ground only
subject to the law (of which it can regard itself as the author)” (198). This is an extremely influential idea, and can
be found in the work of many philosophers including Sartre, who claims in his work on existential ethics claims
that there is no definite human nature, but that every human being refines the definition of human nature by how he
or she chooses to act.
There are two points which Kant concludes on. First, the categorical imperative as a basis for morality is not
something that needs much philosophical examination to arrive at. Indeed it is perfectly appealing to common
sense that one ought to act in such a way as he would have all others act in the same circumstances. For this
reason the knowledge of what every man is bound to do is within the reach of every man.
The second point which he makes later is that this principle is not the same as the Golden Rule—that one ought to
do unto others as one would have done unto oneself—and this is for three reasons. Unlike the categorical
imperative, the Golden Rule does not contain the principle of duty to oneself. Second, it does not contain the duty
of benevolence to others, as many would gladly consent to not receive aid from others in order to free oneself
from the duty of giving aid. Finally, it does not contain duties of strict obligation to one another, as one might
argue against a judge who punishes him on the grounds that he would absolve the judge of punishment if their
positions were reversed. The Golden Rule is a principle based on preference as opposed to duty, which is why it
cannot be a universal law as is the case with the categorical imperative.
My first reaction to the categorical imperative as a basis for morality was very positive. It certainly seemed to be
an excellent rule of thumb for determining the rightness or wrongness of an action to consider whether it ought to
be a universal law for everyone to act in the same manner. It has the same advantage of being based in reason
rather than divinity that utilitarianism enjoys, but it does not suffer from many of the flaws of the latter. One need
not apply a cold calculation of the consequences of an action in terms of the pleasure or suffering it will bring
about, but only consider whether one would desire to live in a world in which everyone acted the same way for
the same reasons. There would be no danger of allowing an evil for the sake of a greater good, just as long as
one would not will that it be a universal law for people to do evil in the present with the intention of bringing about
a future good. Without relying on God or an abstract formula, we have solid justification to condemn murder, lies,
and selfishness and to praise truth, altruism, and living a healthy lifestyle.
However, after more careful consideration I began to see many problems with the Kantian system as a sole basis
for ethics. The most obvious problem is that it does nothing to resolve disagreements of how people ought to
behave. One may believe that it ought to be a universal law to bury the dead and another that it ought to be a
universal law to burn them. How is the categorical imperative to resolve such a dispute? Though it may in itself
be an objective principle, it still leaves too much room for subjectivity in determining how the principle ought to be
The other problem is that it suffers from the same counter-intuitive consequences of other duty-based ethics.
Kant has simply replaced an obligation to God with an obligation to man, but our morality is still based on duty
rather than any solid principle of goodness. If I endeavour to feed the hungry, ought I to be praised for acting on
my spirit of generosity, or merely for satisfying my obligation to help others? There is far more to the ideals of
right and wrong, it seems, than the categorical imperative allows for.
And so as with the other ethical systems I have examined, I would conclude that the categorical imperative is
worthwhile to keep in mind when making moral judgments, but could not serve to form the basis of a complete
system of morality by itself. We may justify or condemn a certain action according to the consequences of its
maxim being adopted as a universal law, but we can not stop there and declare that all actions are either right or
wrong according to this one shallow principle.