The prominent moral philosopher Immanuel Kant postulated morality as the product of human reason alone and therefore should be approached rationally. We have desires which will be reached by following hypothetical imperatives: if you want to become a doctor you ought to go to medical school. The “ought” is only necessary to do if we have the desire that it fulfills. In moral reasoning, first we must accept that there are moral absolutes that can be discovered by following the Categorical Imperative which is detached from personal desires. We ought to do good because we are rational beings; there is no alternative, we have a moral obligation to ethical rectitude simply because we are reasonable. The setup of the Categorical Imperative could be seen as a variation on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Kant’s version turns the action into a standard, so when we perform an action, we are following our maxim that we consider to be universal law. We believe others should be allowed to do the same and even wish it to be done unto us; so Kant’s version of the Golden Rule would be: when you do something, its being done by anyone at any time. So before any action, we must ask if it compromises any absolute truth we believe in and if we would want others to do as well. This already calls for basic altruism because no one would make laws allowing harm to be done to them. Only irrational beings would compromise their own moral standards and wish others to do so, so we shouldn’t make any exceptions to these foundations we build morality upon.
The ideal in using the Categorical Imperative is to lead a fully virtuous life uncompromised by immoral behavior but this means having to keep one’s principles in mind before every decision. For example Kant believed it is morally impermissible to lie under any circumstances because doing it even once would sanctify as universal law, and we can’t live in a world where everyone is allowed to lie. One problem with leading life by universal laws is a decision in which a law must be broken for a benevolent purpose, such as in the case of lying to defend someone’s life. Do you break your own rule about lying or protecting human life? Kant would say to tell the truth and allow the consequences to happen without guilt; after all what’s one human life versus the dignity of society? It was not the intention of the person to hurt anyone but only to uphold their own personal morality and the results of doing so is none of his concern; this of course is not a satisfactory answer to such a moral question. Elizabeth Anscombe, a more contemporary moral philosopher of similar ideals, provides a better solution saying that a person’s maxims should be designed to more properly express the person’s ethical beliefs. The person can lie to protect the person in danger without breaking a rule if the rule allows them to lie under the circumstances, so that instead of maintaining the universal law of “never lying” (at the expense of an innocent person) they uphold the law of “lying only to protect human life.” In this way they can live a full moral life with clear maxims that express their true beliefs.
If a majority of individuals were to adopt the Categorical Imperative as a method of moral reasoning, it would have an interesting affect on society as whole. The strong emphasis of the theory is following absolute moral truth, so laws would become vital to the individual. Each person would be called to moral rectitude at all times, so general crime rate levels would plummet. Society would be fairly harmonious as most universal laws would be shared like not killing or stealing, but common moral reasoning would be challenged in conflicts such as war or moral dilemma issues (abortion, capital punishment etc.). People would hold different beliefs on the details of these issues and those who disagree would be hard pressed to compromise because of their immovable principles. That is a common problem in a Kantian society: compromise on the grounds of differing universal laws would be impossible as either would have to breach their standard in order to reach harmony, but he couldn’t by the Categorical Imperative. Therefore a person must have clearly defined morals that coincide with society’s wishes, but that would be a difficult end to fully reach, so an entirely Kantian society is undesirable at the moment.
Immanuel’s teachings on absolute truth are enlightening, and his Categorical Imperative, if followed correctly, can lead to a proper moral life that anyone could agree with. His method of explaining his beliefs may be shifty on the surface (for example his radical defamation of lying could be stated better), but if properly studied and understood, the Categorical Imperative can have a heavy impact on anyone’s personal morality.