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categorical imperative

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I still don't understand the categorical imperative, even though it's so commonly run. Does it say that an action is immoral if once it's universalized it makes the action itself impossible or that once it's universalized it contradicts the original intent of the action? Basically, does it say that a. Lying is bad because if it was universalized, there would be no concept of truth so it's impossible to lie or b. Lying is bad because if it was universalized, there would be no point to lying as no one would believe what you said anyway?


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The categorical imperative is a Kantian concept that boils down to "something is moral if it can become a universal law". If one imagines a world where everyone acts according to this law and said world is chaotic, then this law is immoral. In your example, Kant would find lying immoral because of the second reason; no one would trust each other (in regards to the first option, Kant might have a bone to pick with people claiming to know a truth/Truth, it's been a minute since my last intro to philosophy class lol). Consider the following argument:

  • Lying undermines trust
  • Society cannot exist without trust
  • Therefore, lying harms humanity as a whole

An easy way to answer these arguments is to find a utilitarian counterexample. In the instance of lying, the common counterexample goes as follows.


Knowing that someone is intent on killing your friend, you hide her upstairs; but then he knocks on your door and asks if she is in your house. Your maxim of lying, telling the murderer that your friend has left, seems contrary to the principle of duty; but your telling him the truth seems to make you complicit in your friend’s murder; if you say nothing at all, or if you say “I’d rather not answer that question,” these will be equivalent to telling the truth.

In other words, under the "law" that "one should not lie", you would be forced to out the location of your friend to the murderer, costing their life.

With this in mind, one can create these "universal laws" (or "maxims", to be technical) to easily avoid those kinds of arguments, however. For instance, "One should always lie to murders if it will save someone's life", which is still (arguably) ethical under the categorical imperative, while still avoiding any reasons why broad maxims are bad. This does, however, get into the ideas of perfect and imperfect duties.

I'm not sure what the context of the arguments you're making/responding to are, but this is the gist of it. Here's some stuff that may be of use, I consulted these while writing as well.

https://www.csus.edu/indiv/g/gaskilld/ethics/kantian ethics.htm


Edited by NickDB8

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