“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” (Immanuel Kant, Epitaph)
In the Metaphysic of Morals Immanuel Kant proposed what he considered to be the rational basis of all morality, which he called the Categorical Imperative. It is usually stated in the form “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. It is sometimes compared to the principle, found in most of the world’s religions, known as the Golden Rule, most familiar to us in the biblical saying “Do unto others as you would be done by”. However, the Categorical Imperative is a more complex proposition, laying out the psychological and methodological process for justifying a particular action:
First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your proposed plan of action. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, and so as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances. Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this new law of nature. If it is, then, fourth, ask yourself whether you would, or could, rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world. If you could, then your action is morally permissible (Johnson and Cureton, 2022).
The Categorical Imperative is not directly derivable from, but is certainly related to and compatible with, Kant’s general metaphysics, known as transcendental idealism. Kant stood at the confluence of two streams of epistemological thought, continental rationalism derived from Descartes and British empiricism, particularly that of Hume and Berkeley, both of which he considered only partial accounts of the nature and acquisition of knowledge. Kant held that knowledge consists of the rational mind imposing order on the experiential input of the senses through an apperception of the phenomenon as it appears, but that the underlying reality, referred to as the ‘thing-in-itself’ transcends such appearance. Unlike Hume, for whom issues of morality and aesthetics were mere subjective personal preference, Kant applied this metaphysical principle of the rational correlate, in the case of morality and aesthetics for a rational component of sensations, feelings and actions.
There have been many criticisms of Kant’s approach to morality, for example that it either creates an empty formalism or overprescriptive duty-based rules. Mill in proposing the Utilitarian principle stated in opposition to Kant that it was the greatest happiness of the greatest number that constituted the basis of moral decision. The utilitarian principle is frequently – if somewhat cynically – considered to underlie political decision-making (or political opportunism, depending on your point of view). It is the Kantian principle, though, which has had arguably the greater impact on contemporary social morality and politics through the notion of universal human rights. I will consider the philosophical basis in the categorical imperative for universal rights and argue that, ultimately, this is not a proper basis for social morality and that it should be replaced by a morality founded on a concept of transcendent individualism.
The problem with the Kantian formulation is twofold. First, it is certain that when he expressed the categorical imperative as the basis of morality, Kant would not have foreseen the multiplication of human rights we see today, as it was intended as an expression of the principles of ethical reasoning rather than a justification for substantive social goods. There is in the development of various human rights charters an overinterpretation of what Kant meant by a “universal law”. Kant was establishing a guide for individual action based on reason, within a context of the maximisation of freedom in an enlightened culture; fundamentally, he was engaging in a thought experiment: if I have an inclination to a particular course of action, would it be acceptable if everyone chose the same course of action? Assuming the answer was yes, then if it became a law mandated on everyone, specifically the willer of such universalisation and enforcement, that would create no moral conflict for the willer. There is no sense that Kant intended that his formulation of the categorical imperative should lead to an actual attempt to establish a universal legal framework binding on all humanity. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental weakness in the formulation of the imperative that makes such an outcome possible. It lies in the concept of the universalisation of the individual will without the mediation of the actual social groupings and institutions to which we all belong. Moral decision-making is typically carried out with the tacit consent of the people among whom we move and to whom we belong. Absent this mediation, the state and global institutions with law-making powers have, in the misreading of Kant, a philosophical justification for imposing moral statutes on populations, which are often unenforceable or enforced arbitrarily.
Second, Kant could assume the context of a culture in which Christian, specifically Protestant, virtues were embedded and shared by the overwhelming majority of the population. Were we to apply the categorical imperative to a non-Christian culture with different values, the result could be the justified universalisation of practices inimical to the values of an enlightened society. For example, an individual in an honour culture in which female chastity and moral probity is highly prized and universally accepted by the powerful could find justification in the categorical imperative for the honour killing of a woman who brings shame on the family. The example is extreme, but as Western countries have become less Christian, more morally liberal, multicultural and identitarian, cultural practices that are overwhelmingly considered barbaric by the public, such as female genital mutilation, are now being championed by a liberal minority as expressions of cultural authenticity under the rubric of the human right to cultural identity and diversity. We are seeing increasingly that the new generation of group rights are in conflict with the older established human rights. Which takes preference seems to depend on who can manifest greatest lobbying pressure to force changes in the law.
What began as a philosophical justification for the process of the moral decision and action of an enlightened individual has become the philosophical underpinning of liberal collectivism and some bad law achieved through judicial activism. We are seeing increasingly that, rather than achieving broad social justice, such laws are creating social divisions over conflicting rights. However, rather than abandoning the categorical imperative, which was a historically important step in justifying reason as a universal value in the Enlightenment, I believe it can be reinstated as a hermeneutic principle for theory in general: does it meet the criterion of universal applicability? In the case of moral theory, does it meet the criterion of equal justice?
Kant’s theory in its time served as an important yardstick for social morality and basis for the advance in civil liberties and human rights in the modern period. But it is doubtful that it has similar relevance today, in a time of information overload, the ubiquity of digital platforms that supply, filter and selectively suppress information, increased surveillance and manipulation of populations, and governments that, as we have witnessed over the past two years, can arbitrarily suspend human rights. Issues of individual liberty, social solidarity, trust in social institutions, human value and moral decision-making need to be rethought through from the ground up. There are two crucial focal points in this re-evaluation: a rethinking of the concepts of individualism and of the social contract.
In championing the individual, the Enlightenment left in its wake the recurring problem of how the freedom of the individual can be reconciled with the fact and necessity of social being. The answer of philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau was the social contract, which asserted in some form or other that individuals surrender their freedom and live under law and social obligation in order to enjoy the benefits of human society. Putting to one side the vast differences in how these philosophers conceived human nature, the main problem with social contract theory is that purports to describe something that does not in fact occur. Individuals do, of course, naturally in the course of life consciously enter into contracts, such as marriage and employment, whereby they accept limitations on their personal freedoms in exchange for something considered personally valuable. But no one born into social bonds, whether of the family or the society at large, ever makes a conscious commitment to surrender their freedom in order to enjoy that society. Either the issue of freedom is not relevant to natural sociality, or the opposite is true, that people try to break free of unhappy bonds. While people may seek to break actual contracts, this does not imply that all social bonds, which may under certain conditions be broken, are contracts.
Humans, like all mammals, perhaps all living things, are inherently social. This fact, well established in the scientific literature, is a repudiation of Hobbes’ view of the social contract in particular, that individual humans are selfish and violent and must come under the sway of an absolute state in order to live peacefully together. However, it is also true that the size of the natural community for which we are biologically adapted is around 150 people. Therefore, for societies with much larger populations to exist, there must be forms of organisation beyond the natural bond. While primal and remote human communities tend to be self-organising and result in largely egalitarian social structures, historically large societies were governed by a powerful elite, which attempted to maintain its power in perpetuity, even over generations, through a ruling ideology, resulting in what we call a collectivist culture.
The sins of collectivist cultures are many and well-attested. They are without exception societies with gross inequalities, not only of wealth but of every form of privilege and benefit. They are without exception oppressive societies in order that the injustice of gross inequality and privilege be maintained. In such oppressive systems power and the maintenance of power becomes an end in itself, so self-evidently justified that the tradition of sporadic justification is mere showcasing. They are societies in which fear is the cement which binds, which applies to the powerful as well as the powerless. They are intellectually and economically stagnant societies, or quickly become so after an initial burst of fervour if they come into being under the auspices of a revolutionary vanguard. Modern China is frequently touted as an exception to this, except that its economic dynamism coincided with the insulation of its entrepreneurial classes from the Communist Party, a dynamism which is now faltering as the Party increasingly reasserts its grip.
Individualist cultures have proved their superiority in many ways over collectivist cultures. With their emphasis on freedom and the rule of law they have proved to be at the forefront of creative endeavour, technological and economic innovation, improvements in the quality of life and prosperity, and with the creation of large middle classes, greater equality than has hitherto existed. Their democratic electoral systems have allowed the peaceful transfer of power. Yet there is one clear area in which collectivist cultures are perhaps superior to individualist cultures and that is in the sense of belonging. Individualist cultures are essentially amoral and are paradoxically at their strongest when there is a sense of shared identity through such things as nationhood or religion. As these things have weakened in the individualist cultures of the West, we are seeing increasingly a bifurcation of collective identity, on the one hand among the wealthy and professional elites an attraction to big government and globalist and internationalist structures and, on the other, a retrenchment to nationalism and localism among the working classes and those outside the cosmopolitan centres.
As we in the West abandon the institutions of shared identity (or much the same, the institutions abandon their original raison d’être), there is a way to re-establish a moral framework for society. It begins with a recognition of both the autonomy of the individual and of the universality of human nature and desire. Kant, in his own time, foresaw this potential, but from too abstract a perspective and without recognition of the mediating role of social institutions between the individual and the universal. But Kant did recognise the responsibility of the individual in their own enlightenment, something that we need to build on today. The development for the last two centuries of the benefits of mass society, such as universal education, mass employment and welfare, universal healthcare, the police force, energy and transport infrastructure and the global supply chains for food and goods that supply the needs of a consumer society, have, as an unfortunate consequence, made us individually less resilient and more dependent on the expertise and specialisation of others. I am not advocating that we can or should necessarily abandon those things; however, we need to recover, or certainly reinforce, the idea that it is individuals who are ultimately responsible for their own acquisition of knowledge, health and well-being, defence of the person and property, the creation of social bonds, and care for the environment in which we live. ‘Society’ is not responsible, merely an environment of resources and opportunity. This is what at base is meant by transcendent individualism.
Transcendent individualism, though, as the name implies, extends beyond the immediate sphere of the individual’s concerns into the role of the individual in social institutions. Because we mostly rely on various institutions for our livelihoods and social services, a type of Faustian bargain has been agreed, whereby in exchange for a wage or mandatory tax, tacit permission exists for institutional corruption and arbitrary authority to take root and become entrenched, and severe social, professional and economic costs of opposition to such systemic abuses. Corruption can take a number of forms, such as misuse of position and public money, but also inefficiency, loss of viability and ideological takeover. Laws protecting whistleblowers have been strengthened in recent years in some jurisdictions, which is an improvement but missing the point; such laws are essentially shifting power from one institution to another and augmenting the power of government in the process (witness the anti-corruption drives that often accompany the rise to power of an authoritarian figure). The key to institutional change lies in the willingness of the individual to both resist corruption and arbitrary authority and to negotiate reform. This is not to advocate the type of class-war antagonism that leftists have typically advocated but to assume a sense of ownership and managerial function in whatever role one occupies; in other words, to take responsibility for the good of the whole and not allow one’s powers and creativity to be dictated by position or the imposition of hierarchical expectations.
At the same time, the moral obligation upon every one of us in regard to our fellow human beings, is to recognise the commonality of fundamental desires among all people, whoever they are, wherever they are and, indeed, at whatever time they lived or will live in. Those desires are rather small in number: to live in peace without suffering, to have a place to belong and people to love, to have something to believe in and something to contribute. When we speak of freedom, it is inextricably linked to the ability to realise these desires. For those who hold power of whatever sort, particularly the power to shape circumstances for others (which is most of us in some capacity), that obligation is greater: to establish the conditions – such as providing the care, services or opportunities – that allow those desires to be realised. It is, though, above all to recognise that the limits of legitimate power end in equipping the individual to forge their own destiny.
This is a lesson that needs to be carried into government. Over the past few decades ostensibly democratic governments have been amassing and centralising powers. This is always purportedly in the cause of the greater good, a litany of dissembling that the citizens have been content to allow, as it relieved them of the necessity to assume any personal responsibility for the state of affairs, unaware that this has led to the emergence of corrupt, inefficient and even malign government. The maturation of democratic governments – this is, after all, what we desire, not their replacement by authoritarian ones – will have arrived when such a form of the ‘social contract’, as described in the preceding paragraphs, emerges, in which the writ of government ends where the ability of the individual in relation to others to govern themselves begins. In practice, this means the diffusion of power downwards to as local a level as possible, the creation of a culture of greater self-reliance, resistance to arbitrary and absolute power, and negotiation between more peripheral (localised) levels and those closer to the centre on the solving of problems and securing the common good.
Such a view of social morality, I believe, also meets the challenge of the hermeneutic repurposing of Kant’s categorical imperative in establishing a benchmark of universal applicability and equal justice. At a theoretical level it can be applied to every level of society and to every culture. It can, as such, be applied as a moral critique of every empowered entity from government down to oneself, including as a critique of the societies of the past. In recognising the universality of human basic desires and the necessity of power (by whomever and wherever held) to implement the conditions for the realisation of these desires, it also embodies a principle of equal justice.
Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming.