Using the Categorical Imperative To Determine Our Duties

Use the Categorical Imperative to work out
whether or not the following actions are right or
wrong and explain why they would be right or
wrong given Kant’s criteria
[Quick reminder: the 3 criteria of the Categorical
imperative are – 1. the universal law 2. Treat
humans as an end in themselves not a means to
an end 3. Act as if you live in a kingdom of ends]
Helping others
Telling the truth
Mercy killing/euthanasia
Taking drugs
Kant suggests that we can think of there
being a general principle of action, or a
MAXIM, underlying the intention to perform
any act
This is a rule of conduct – a reason why
someone decides to act in a certain way or an
expression of our motive to act
But to be moral, an act must have the
appropriate maxim underlying it – one which
expresses our duty to perform the act
This means that actions to help the homeless, or
to obey your parents, i.e. To be moral, must be
grounded in a maxim such as ‘Always help others
(just because it’s your duty), or ‘Always respect
your mother and father (because it’s your duty).
It cannot be conditional- ‘Always respect your
mother and father (if you want to inherit their
money and property in their will)
Since categorical imperatives are unconditionally
binding, they are equally applicable to all people
because of their status as ‘rational beings’ –
beings which can freely deliberate about their
Kant offers 4 illustrations of the types of duty
that the categorical imperative entails
The types of duty that Kant discusses are
duties to ourselves and duties to others
Within each of these we find there are perfect
duties (ones which have no exceptions) and
imperfect duties (ones which have occasional
Each of the following examples shows how a
particular maxim underpinning an action can
(or cannot) be universalised, so
demonstrating whether or not that maxim is
a duty
Perfect duty to ourselves:
Someone miserable is contemplating committing suicide,
and Kant shows how the categorical imperative entails
that the person has a duty not to commit suicide (no
matter how miserable they are).
Perfect duty to others:
Someone wants to borrow money on the promise that they’ll pay it
back, but they know that they will never be able to afford to pay it
back within the agreed time limit of the loan. Kant believes the
categorical imperative to show that making false promises cannot be
universalised; it cannot be a duty and is morally wrong.
Imperfect duty to ourselves:
Someone with natural talents lets them go to waste because they
are lazy. Here Kant uses the categorical imperative to show that it is
wrong for us to waste our natural talents – we must at least choose
to develop some of them (this is why it is an imperfect duty,
because we can choose to let some of our talents rust).
Imperfect duty to others:
Someone who is doing pretty well in life is considering helping out
other people. Kant shows that although it is possible to universalise
the maxim ‘don’t help others’, it is not possible to ‘will’ this to
happen – because we would not want to be in a situation where we
need assistance and yet no one wants to help us.
In the following scenarios what would Kant say you should do and
what would Hobbes say you should do? Which do you think is the
best course of action?
You promise to take your nephew to the park on Saturday.
But on Wednesday your friend calls up with tickets to a gig
your favourite band are playing on Saturday. Do you break
your promise or not?
You are helping out your auntie by taking her dog Rex for a
walk to the newsagents. Suddenly the dogs fur catches fire
from the flick of someone’s cigarette butt. Rex is in pain but
no water is available, only 2 pints of milk on No.5’s doorstep.
Do you steal the milk or leave it?
You are standing on the roof of a building hauling a piano up
to the 3rd floor. You hear gunshots. A man directly below the
piano is shooting at innocent people. Do you drop the piano
and shoot him or let him carry on shooting?

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