Essay:Kant's Categorical Imperative

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Kant's Categorical Imperative is an ethical principle that states, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." In other words, one should only take those actions that one would desire that everyone take. This is sometimes taught to children in the form, "What if everybody did that?" They are urged to consider the consequences of messy, disruptive and otherwise thoughtless behaviors if rules were broken on a large scale.[1]

A flaw in this argument is that it does not take into account specialization. It would be undesirable if everyone were to specialize in plumbing, because then there would be no electricians, carpenters, etc. It would also be undesirable if everyone were to become a jack-of-all-trades rather than specializing, because then the benefits of comparative advantage would not be realized.

Kant's Categorical Imperative is often invoked with reference to littering. It is true that if everyone littered and no one picked up any of the litter, then there would be litter everywhere. But the few people who specialize in picking up litter make up for the others who contribute to the problem without doing anything to solve it. If there are 100 people who each throw one piece of litter on the side of the road every day, it is enough to fix the problem if one person picks up 100 pieces of litter per day. Arguably, it is not necessary for each person, or even a majority of people, to be thoughtful, considerate and of high moral fiber, as long as there are enough people who work hard enough to clean up their mess.

As a practical matter, it is necessary to plan for the fact that not everyone will always adhere to Kant's Categorical Imperative; or even if they do, they may have different ideas about what sort of behavior it would be desirable for everyone to practice. Thus, in seeking to "do one's part," it is necessary to increase one's share to make up for those who are not pulling their weight if one wishes to achieve a certain goal. Some people give their all and still do not achieve the goal because there is so much shirking going on.

The upshot of this is that if one is, for example, seeking to have a mostly litter-free environment, it may be more efficient to hire a litter cleanup crew than to try to convince everyone that they should adhere to Kant's Categorical Imperative. Usually, people try a little of both. For example, movie theaters tell their customers to dispose of their trash in the proper receptacle, but also hire people to clean up after those who ignore the request.

See also