Ethical Realism

May 18, 2011

Kant’s Categorical Imperative And the Situation

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 4:09 am

Some people think morality is “absolute” in the sense that the situation has no bearing on what we ought to do. Some people think Immanuel Kant was an absolutist in this sense, and perhaps he was. However, his moral theory—the “categorical imperative”—does not seem to imply absolutism, as many think. I will discuss two reasons people think Kant rejected the importance of the situation for morality: (1) They confuse universality with generality, (2) they confuse hypothetical imperatives with situational ethics, and (3) Kant said we should be honest no matter what. I will then discuss two reasons to think Kant realized that the situation can be relevant to morality: (1) it is pretty much impossible to understand morality without taking the situation into consideration and (2) Kant discusses the importance of harming people and “humanity,” but actions can only benefit people in certain situations.

What is the categorical imperative?

Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative is an understanding about how to determine if an action is right or wrong, and it states, “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” I take this to mean “act only in accordance with reasons that would apply to all similar situations.” A universal law can take the situation into account. For example, “Pay back your debts unless it would be more respectful to not do so,” is an example of a universal maxim. For example, Socrates discusses a situation when you are borrowing a weapon from a friend, and your friend wants the weapon back while in a rage and wants to use it to murder someone. In this case it seems more respectful to your friend to keep the weapon until he or she calms down:

Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.1

My interpretation of Kant is supported by Robert Johnson who makes it clear that the categorical imperative can take into consideration the situation and consequences when he lays out his understanding of the categorical imperative:

First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. 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 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.2

It is clear from above that Johnson thinks “circumstances” can make a difference.

It’s not obvious how to apply the categorical in various situations. Ermanno Bencivenga argues that Kant’s categorical imperative was developed in an attempt to understand and describe moral rationality on the conceptual level rather than a comprehensive moral theory to be used in practical everyday moral reasoning.3 Kant’s theory is incomplete in the sense that it’s not obvious how the imperative can our ought to be applied because we don’t fully understand rationality and we need to know what a rational person can will. Different conceptions of rationality could effect the answers the categorical imperative give us:

Depending on how the concept of a rational agent is articulated, some forms of behavior will be required (or ruled out) by the kind of logical argument indicated above; that is, this kind of argument will prove them (or the avoiding of them) to be a duty. For example, if we expect a rational agent to be constitutionally concerned with maintaining the freedom that defines her as an agent, it will follow that it is contradictory (and hence ruled out) for her to sell herself into slavery, and (in most cases) to commit suicide (possible exceptions might include situations in which the only options are death and slavery.)4

Why do people think Kant rejects the moral relevance of the situation?

1. Moral rules must be universal.

As was mentioned by R. M. Hare, when people insist that there can be no situational considerations of universal laws, we must point out that universality and generality are two different things. Moral laws are morally universal whenever they apply to everyone in the same way—but situational requirements can apply to everyone in the same way. However, moral laws are general when they are simple and apply in many (or all) situations. For example, “never lie” would be a general and simple moral rule. Hare thought that Kant confused universality with generality, but that is not obvious. What is obvious is that many people do seem to confuse the two.

2. Hypothetical imperatives aren’t situational

Categorical imperatives are overriding because they apply to people no matter what their interests or desires are; but hypothetical imperatives depend on our goals. If I’m hungry and I have a goal to eat, then I have a hypothetical imperative to eat. We might say I should eat, even though the “should” here is not a moral obligation—I wouldn’t be doing something morally wrong if I don’t eat for a while longer. The point is that the difference between categorical and hypothetical imperatives aren’t based on our situation. “Hypothetical imperative” isn’t Kant’s term for “situational ethics,” it’s Kant’s term for nonmoral normativity—right and wrong that doesn’t refer to morality at all.

3. He said we should be honest, no matter what.

The strongest evidence that Kant dismissed the importance of the situation and consequences was his essay, “On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns” (also known as “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives.”)5 It is here that Kant famously declares that it’s wrong to lie to a murderer who is looking for your friend to kill her when the murder asks if she is hiding in your house. However, it’s not obvious that this essay proves that Kant’s moral theory requires us to ignore the situation for at least two reasons:

First, Kant could have a strange devotion to honesty, perhaps out of prejudice. Such a devotion does not indicate that the situation makes no difference to morality because there might simply be some actions that are wrong in every situation, and they might always harm people more than the alternatives.

Second, it’s not obvious that Kant’s reasoning used in this essay dismisses the situation or consequences. Kant argues that “a lie always harms another; if not some other human being, then it nevertheless does harm to humanity in general” (1). Lies might harm everyone by causing general distrust.

Why think Kant doesn’t reject the importance of the situation?

1. It’s almost impossible to understand morality without considering the situation.

I personally don’t understand how morality could function without considering the situation, and I see reason to reject such an idea. First, consider the simple action of cutting someone. Is that always wrong? No, surgeons have to cut people sometimes to heal them, and surgeons can’t know when or how they ought to cut people without understanding a person’s health problems and how cutting the person is necessary to heal them. It’s wrong to cut people in general, but there are circumstances that override the importance of the harms caused by cutting people, such as when a surgeon is given permission by the patient to do what’s necessary to be healed.

Many people have thought that Kant’s theory is false because it requires us to accept absurd implications, such as the idea that the situation is irrelevant to morality. If we could use the categorical imperative to prove that surgeons shouldn’t cut people to heal them, then we could think the categorical imperative was proven false. Some people use Kant’s “fanatical” devotion to honesty as evidence that Kant’s categorical imperative requires us to accept such absurdities. However, Bencivenga thinks this is often misguided. We think we can use reason to understand the world through natural science and it would be wrong to use past assumptions of the natural world to debunk current scientific findings. We found out that the world is round, and previous assumptions that it’s flat are irrelevant. In the same way a proper use of the categorical imperative can’t be disproven by previous assumptions about morality. We often find out our past assumptions are wrong—or at least less justified than new findings:

Kant’s position on freedom (or duty) does not stand or fall with the ‘derivation’ he has provided of some particular duty; what is crucial to it is rather the (controversial) claim that there is an independent register of conversation based on the rationality of behavior, and that this register, much like the one based on natural explanation, presupposes the existence of a single, coherent, correct account (in this case, of what is rational) that the participants in the relevant conversations are trying to capture.6

2. Kant discusses the importance of harming people and humanity.

Kant doesn’t say that hurting people has nothing to do with morality. In fact, he suggest that lying harms both individual people and humanity. However, what harms people often depends on the situation. I can move my arm in a jerking motion in a forward direction and punch the air. Punching and moving my arm in that motion won’t harm anyone unless they get in the way. Punching isn’t wrong, but punching people can be wrong. Once Kant admits that harming people is relevant to morality, it’s clear that the situation will make a difference to morality.


I don’t know of any Kant scholars think the categorical imperative requires us to ignore the situation we are in, the reasons I have heard in favor of this view are based on misunderstandings, and we have at least two good reasons to think Kant realizes the importance that the situation is applicable to right and wrong. Moreover, I know of no philosopher who actually thinks that the situation is totally irrelevant to ethics and I think it’s clear that it is.


1 See Book I of Plato’s Republic.

2 Johnson, Robert. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 May 2011. (Section 5, The Formula of the Universal Law of Nature.) <>. Last updated 2008.

3 This is supported in Kant’s “On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns,” where he makes it clear that applying the categorical imperative to everyday life requires us to “go from a metaphysics of right (which abstracts from all empirical determinations) to a principle of politics (which applies these [metaphysical] concepts [of right] to instances provided by experience)” (3).

4 Bencivenga, Ermanno. Ethics Vindicated. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. (37)

5 Kant, Immanuel. “On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns” 17 May 2011. Brandon Gillette’s webpage. <>. Originally pubished 1799.

6 Ethics Vindicated. 38

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