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Kant's categorical imperative and the golden rule


To: Julian P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's categorical imperative and the golden rule
Date: 16 April 2007 11:46

Dear Julian,

Thank you for your email of 6 April, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Is Kant's Categorical Imperative any Advance on the Golden Rule?'

First, the really difficult bit. I found the discussion of noumenal freedom extremely difficult. This was one of the ideas that most impressed me when I first read the Groundwork as a 1st year philosophy student - because of its baffling obscurity and the promise of a glimpse into the ultimate nature of reality. But I didn't see anything here to convince me that Kant has not got the account of the relation between the two worlds which we inhabit - the world of causes and the world of reasons - hopelessly wrong. The real culprit seems to be the cosmological antinomy which sets us looking for the realm of freedom/ reason in completely the wrong place: the unknowable world of noumena.

Freedom is 'outside space and time' in the way that the laws of logic are outside space and time. A person can, of course, be motivated to be more logical by learning the laws of logic just as they can be motivated to be more ethical by learning the categorical imperative. But the question, Is this logical? or Is this morally rational?, or the decision to draw a logical conclusion or act in a morally rational way is independent of the description of a world of causes and effects simply because we recognize such a thing as 'right', 'wrong', 'valid', 'invalid', 'true', 'false' - as, arguably, we must do.

What has Kant overlooked? He sees the incoherence of transcendental solipsism (applying the refutation of idealism without recognizing the necessity for a 'something' that appears). His solution is to go outside experience altogether, neglecting the possibility of an alternative solution which recognizes the primacy of 'we' over 'I', and the conception of the subject as a 'being in the world'.

If Kant had not developed the theory of phenomena and noumena in his theory of knowledge, would there have been any motivation whatsoever to posit a noumenal realm simply as the necessary 'third term' in order to establish the validity of the categorical imperative? As a first year student, I didn't know anything about Kant's theory of knowledge. All I knew (or thought I knew) was, 'This is not the only reality and moral freedom proves it'. And that thought is true, but not in the way Kant believed.

The first thing I would do in answering this question is ask, 'advance' in what way? You have tried hard to motivate the discussion of freedom by suggesting that Kant's advance is theoretical, raising necessary questions quich the golden rule does not. So it would be hard for an examiner to dismiss the discussion as irrelevant. But I don't think that it is what the question really asked for.

(I can understand that you want to include much more in your essay - you are not just answering the question - because this is work you need to do to prepare for the exam. However, I have to consider this as an attempt to answer the question set, and not another question.)

Kant thinks that the categorical imperative is an advance on the golden rule because it gives the right answer to the question what we should do in every case, whereas the golden rule does not. But does it? And if so, why?

Although you've helpfully offered statements of the golden rule from three religious traditions, you haven't really gone into the question of what the golden rule means, or could mean. R.M. Hare, in his argument for preference utilitarianism (as the only possible 'non-fanatical' basis for moral decision making) distinguishes different levels of generalization, depending on how much we retain of our own beliefs and principles when we put ourselves in the place of another. (Thus, e.g., Mill's utilitarianism fails the fanaticism test because he insists on making judgements about the relative value of different pleasures.)

How would you evaluate the categorical imperative against strict preference utilitarianism? You can't accuse the preference utilitarian of 'dealing with morlaity on a 1-1 basis', nor of relying on 'gut feel' (because we are not allowed to make any judgements about the value of one preference against another), while we have no independent way of deciding what our principles of justice should be in advance of deciding between the two competing methods for making moral decisions.

You need to do a lot more in unpacking what the golden rule means or could mean, as well as what it meant for Kant. I suspect that Kant is far too cavalier in his dismissal of the golden rule. He could have said, 'I'm going to tell you what the golden rule really means and explain where it comes from,' but he didn't. So while, on the one hand he relies on our intuition that nothing is good without qualification except a good will as evidence for his theory, his view of the golden rule seems to be that it is a mere philosophical error.

Another way to approach the golden rule is from the question which you do briefly consider, the relevance of our feelings and desires to moral decision making. To truly put oneself in the place of another requires a kind of knowledge which is only given to someone who is capable of emotion and feeling. Our emotions can be a guide to how things are, in the sense that someone who lacks the requisite feeling is rendered incapable of making necssary discriminations (this relates to the issue of the connection between moral properties and secondary qualities discussed in the literature).

A point to make about the three formulations of the categorical imperative is that they display an increasingly teleological element. As you argue, initial objections to the original formulation are apparently defeated by the other formulations. But how is this possible? How is it possible to get any content whatsoever from a purely rational principle? At some point nature has to make an appearance, in order for the moral legislators to have something to legislate about. In his late work, Kant does go a lot more into the nature of politics and the requirements for realizing a kingdom of ends, in a way which brings him (or so it has been claimed) a lot closer to Hegel.

All the best,