Kant’s argues that his Categorical Imperative (CI) or, more properly, his multiple versions of the CI are universal in the sense that they apply to everyone at all times. If the CI actually is universal in this sense, it fulfills one of the major traits necessary for a moral principle (Pojman 7). The vagueness of the CI, however, makes its universalizability hard to assess. To simplify the issue, this paper will examine Kant’s response to Benjamin Constant’s objections to telling a murderer the truth. That examination will expose how the CI falls short of its claim as a universal principle through inevitable contradiction and, working from Kant’s own strategy of consequence-based reasoning, how it fails to universalize across different legal systems.
To assess the categorical imperative, it is first necessary to set out some general information about Kant’s moral thinking beyond the supposed universal nature of the CI. On Kant’s view, the morality of an action stems from the intent of the person taking action to adhere to duty or principle, rather the consequences of the action (Frieser 184, Sandel 132). Kant refers to this as the “good will,” though it reads more as commitment to rationality in assessing the necessity of an action (Goundwork 9-10). The role of the CI in Kant’s moral project is to elevate moral reasoning beyond “contingency,” which can change from situation to situation, to something absolute (Groundwork 24). Having set out these essential elements, Kant’s response to Constant can now be addressed.
In his response to Benjamin Constant’s claim that a person isn’t obligated to provide truthful information to a murderer about where his or her intended victim is loca...
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...orm to the letter of the CI and the duty to truth telling, it does so by effectively gutting the intended spirit of the CI. The apparent maxim this position generate is, “Perform a verbal end-run around moral laws you find inconvenient.” It seems doubtful that such a maxim could survive rigorous scrutiny under the CI’s universalization test.
The categorical imperative cannot be applied universally by all people in all situations. As the analysis of the murderer asking about an intended victim shows, the person answering the question will be forced to violate the categorical imperative with a lie or the truth to the murderer. By employing Kant’s own strategy of consequence-based reasoning in terms of law, it becomes equally apparent that the CI does not universalize across different legal systems without requiring maxims that cannot survive the universalization test.
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