The Categorical Imperative


Emmanuel Kant

I really know nothing about moral philosophy. I have always rather inclined to the view that morality is beyond the reach of ‘Western’ philosophy, i.e., philosophy based on rational argument. To repeat a quote I have used before, taken from Jerome Kagan’s The Nature of the Child,

Construction of a persuasive basis for behaving morally has been the problem on which most moral philosophers have stubbed their toes. I believe they will continue to do so until they recognise what Chinese philosophers have known for a long time: namely, that feeling, not logic, sustains the superego.”

But perhaps we need to distinguish between popular morality and universal morality. The latter is rather out of fashion, and, I will argue, this may be one source of our problems. As religion relinquished its hold in the ‘West’, and hence ceased to impose its particular moral uniformity, so popular morality became a relative, or cultural, morality. But this does not mean that the individual became free to assert his own morality with complete freedom. It merely meant that other forces were free to impose their moral hegemony upon you, because moral uniformity within a community arises naturally as a consequence of the discomfort to the individual of holding ‘defective’ opinions. If it is not universal, what then determines this relative morality? Just as the postmodern denial of absolute truth leads to the danger of might-is-right, so cultural morality is in danger of being determined simply by who shouts loudest.

I suspect one can trace much of morality to game-theoretical strategies adopted to implement cooperative behaviours. In my previous post, Emotion and the Pair Bond, I have argued that, in the particular case of altruistic cooperative behaviours, emotion plays the crucial role of providing proximate motivation – consistent with Kagan’s view quoted above.

I was guilty in my previous post of over-simplifying the emergence of cooperative behaviours. Many have noted that, in large groups, tit-for-tat type of strategies are very vulnerable to rogue defectors free-riding at the expense of ‘decent’ citizens. Actually, a certain percentage of non-cooperators can be tolerated in a successful society (indubitably, because it is so). But to keep the number of defectors down to tolerable proportions, severe penalties are needed. Ultimately this will include criminal sanctions. However, the threat of being placed in the dock of a law court is not the front-line deterrent. In fact, not all ‘defective’ behaviour is even criminal. The main deterrents against defection from societal cooperative norms are guilt and shame and social ostracism. People then self-police to avoid these distressing emotional conditions. Again this is in line with Kagan’s perspective that morality is corralled by emotional pressure.

But this is a dangerously vulnerable condition. If societal cooperative norms effectively define what is ‘right’ (or, rather, departure from these norms define what is ‘wrong’) then where does any absolute or universal morality enter the picture? The occurrence of guilt and shame is no guide because these emotions arise merely as effects of social transgression. Under these conditions morality becomes relative – a view which, distressingly, many people have now adopted. But such a view – that morally correct behaviour can be modified simply by manipulating the people’s emotions – essentially morality by fiat – exposes society to totalitarianism. This is, I believe, what has happened.

Matt Ridley, paraphrasing Boyd’s The evolution of reciprocity when conditions vary in Coalitions in Humans and Other Animals (Oxford, 1992), has expressed it thus,

Reciprocal cooperation might evolve, Boyd suggests, if there is a mechanism to punish, not just defectors, but also those who fail to punish defectors. Boyd calls this a ‘moralistic’ strategy, and it can cause any individually costly behaviour, not just cooperation, to spread, whether it causes group benefit or not. This is actually a rather spooky and authoritarian message. Whereas tit-for-tat suggested the spread of nice behaviour among selfish egoists without any authority to tell them to be nice, in Boyd’s moralism we glimpse the power that a fascist or cult leader can wield.”

So it seems that in order to avert, or correct, the threat of a totalitarian take-over of public morality, we need to let our rationality-based, universalist philosophers back into the picture. And whilst I don’t claim any knowledge of the subject, I am aware of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Its usual translation from the German is,

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

My understanding is that this Categorical Imperative is only intended to be a necessary requirement for moral principles, not a condition which is sufficient to demonstrate a principle to be moral. It is a constraint which any moral principle must fulfill, not a guarantee that any proffered principle is truly moral. (Some attempted counter-arguments seem to confuse the two things).

Two words in the above statement of the Categorical Imperative need explanation: “will” and “universal”. It is enough for my present purposes that “universal” is taken to mean “applicable to everyone”. Thus, a principle of equality is implicit in the Categorical Imperative. The word “will” can be taken to mean “what you would want to be the case”.

A couple of examples might help clarify how the Categorical Imperative operates. Take the proposed moral principle, “killing people is acceptable”. To be universal this must apply also to yourself. But you would not want this to be the case. Hence such a principle fails the test.

Contrast this with the proposed moral principle, “it is acceptable to execute a criminal found guilty of murder after a fair trial”. It is now perfectly possible for you to want this to be the case, applicable even to yourself, because you would never commit a murder – and you accept that you, too, would deserve this harsh punishment if you did. Consequently this principle passes the test of the Categorical Imperative. This does not mean that the principle is moral, by the way, only that it’s morality is not ruled out by this necessary-but-insufficient test. (Nor is it necessarily my opinion, I hasten to add).

The burden of this post is that Identity Politics, by its nature, fails the Categorical Imperative.

I have long known that Identity Politics is driven by an assumed “hierarchy of indulgence (or victimhood)”. Despite that, it is still rather shocking to see an example of it written down explicitly. A case in point occurred in a piece in The Huffington Post on 14/11/16 by Polly Neate (CEO of Women’s Aid), Yes, Men Need Support For Domestic Abuse. No, Domestic Abuse Is Not Gender-Neutral. She was responding to a piece in the Telegraph by Michael Malone, an author. The title of Malone’s article, which so enraged Ms Neate, was “Until we treat male and female domestic abuse victims the same, we’ll never be rid of it“. (Malone was writing following the publication of his novel, A Suitable Lie, the theme of which is female-perpetrated partner violence. I recommend the book, by the way). There is much to disagree with in Polly Neate’s article, but the paragraph which I wish to expose to the test of the Categorical Imperative is,

“…when we talk about violence against women, the response, “but all violence is wrong” simply misses the point. Just as the response, “but all lives matter”‘, when made to Black Lives Matter protesters is itself racist, the riposte “treat all victims the same” is sexist.”

I disagree. The above view is an error of moral relativism.

Let’s deconstruct this in steps.

Suppose a certain group mounts a campaign against what they perceive to be an injustice meted out to black people by virtue of their race. Does this pass the Categorical Imperative test?

Answer: yes, of course.

Why? Because the complaint being made is that the Categorical Imperative is being violated, namely its ‘universal’ aspect, because black people are (they claim) being discriminated against compared to other races. Since the logic of their complaint is that the Categorical Imperative is being violated (i.e., black people are being discriminated against), their complaint therefore passes the test that it is, in principle, morally based.

Be careful. I am not saying that their complaint is necessarily valid. Their perception of discrimination may or may not withstand scrutiny. They may be wrong. The justice of their case must be judged on its merits – but that is a separate matter from the morally-based nature of the complaint itself.

Now consider a second group which reacts to the first group by opining that the complaints being raised by the first group are also applicable to other races and hence that the first group’s campaign is invalid. Does this pass the Categorical Imperative test?

Answer: yes, of course.

Why? Because the complaint being made is again that the Categorical Imperative is being violated, in this case by the campaign of the first group, namely its ‘universal’ aspect, because black people and non-black people are (they claim) being treated the same, not differently. Since the logic of the second group’s complaint is that the Categorical Imperative is being violated by the first group’s campaign, their complaint therefore passes the test that it is, in principle, morally based.

Again be careful. I am not saying that the second group’s complaint is necessarily valid. The facts of the case may support the claim that black people are discriminated against – in which case the second group’s claim fails. But that is a separate matter from the essentially moral nature of the second group’s complaint itself. Being factually wrong is not the same as being morally wrong.

(Aside: In practice, of course, examination of the merits of such claims will invariably reveal that the matter is far more complicated. In particular, the monolithic treatment of “black people” and “non-black people” is itself an aberration of Identity Politics. Examination is likely to reveal a multiplicity of socio-economic factors which contribute to the issues in question and which dominate race as determinants).

Now for the most important point,

Suppose a third group – the Identity Politicians – claim that the second group is racist. Does this pass the Categorical Imperative test?

Answer: no.

Why? Because it fails the test of universality. The claim is being made that the second group is racist against blacks based upon the claims that the first and second groups have made. But this fails universality because, if ‘black’ and ‘non-black’ were swapped in the descriptions, the third group would be obliged by universality to claim the second group (now black-supporting) was racist against non-blacks. But we know that the Identity Politicians would not do so. This lack of reciprocation (universality) exposes what, in truth, we already know about the Identity Political mindset: it is based upon a hierarchy of indulgence (or victimhood or privilege). This hierarchy is fundamentally opposed to the principle of universality.

Again care is needed. The Identity Politicians fail the Categorical Imperative test because their contention fails universality. This has nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of the case which the first or second groups might be able to make. If, after detailed examination, one were to conclude that the first group are right, black people are indeed being discriminated against, the Identity Politicians still fail the Categorical Imperative test because their claim was not based on such considerations (and the factual falsity of the second group does not mean they are racist – just mistaken). And it is also possible that detailed examination would reveal the second group’s claim to be valid – in which case the seriousness of the Identity Politicians’ failure to respect universality is manifest in the unjust accusation of racism against a group merely pointing out an error in the first group’s claim.

Indeed – and this is the most pernicious aspect of the Identity Politicians’ claim – the very accusation of racism (or sexism) is intended to deflect attention away from a detailed examination of the factual merits of the claims of the second group. Instead, the third group is attempting to close down any debate before it starts. They insist that the second group is racist (or sexist) simply because of their lower ranking on the hierarchy of indulgence/victimhood than the first group.

And the plot thickens if the first group makes the same claims as the third group.

You may replace ‘race’ throughout with ‘sex’.

So the cry that “all lives matter” is not racist, even if made as a riposte to Black Lives Matter protesters. And “treat all victims the same” is not sexist even if made as a riposte to Polly Neate. And, whilst the prevalence and severity of domestic violence against men is not as suggested by Ms Neate, the number of victims is not the point in any case. Would we justify campaigning to stop violence against white people on the grounds that black people are only a small minority?

A topical example is the film, The Red Pill. Negative review after negative review, and screening ban after screening ban, have been carried out by people who have not seen the film – because their accusations of misogyny can, in their minds, be made simply based on ranking in the victimhood hierarchy. White males are not permitted to criticise feminism. This is contrary to the hierarchy. No examination of the merits of their arguments is to be contemplated. Indeed, the concept of ‘merit’ is inappropriate in such a case. The hierarchy has been established in the Identity Political mind as an emotional matter, enforced publicly by shaming defaulters.

This same Principle of Inequality runs through all Identity Politics. So, in the Corston Report we find “equality does not mean treating everyone the same”: some animals are more equal than others.

Identity Politics is immoral.

Unfortunately the Identity Political mindset is overwhelmingly dominant in our media and in our political classes. This has come about because public morality has become divorced from universal morality and because a manipulated public morality is stabilised by the strong social prohibition against ‘defective’ behaviour which is the concomitant of a cooperative species.

6 thoughts on “The Categorical Imperative

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  5. AJ

    There is much that I agree with. Morality can be analysed but not established on through purely rational means. Game theoretic concepts give useful insights into altruism and the mechanism by which cooperative behaviours can arise and be maintained.

    I find Polly Neate’s arguments to be morally repugnant, both because of the overt sexism she uses to support female victims but not male but also because she exposes everyone including women to a higher risk by denying the well established reality of domestic violence. This prevents the exploration of approaches based on the generational, mutual and symmetric nature of much violence.

    The problem with using universalism is that it is easy to cast sexist rules as universal using conditional clauses. An example of a defensible rule like this is those people who are best suited to fight may be conscripted at times of war. A DV example Polly Neate’s could use is those victims of DV who are physically weaker than their partner should be supported.

    1. William Collins Post author

      Yes, I take your point. You may well be right. It’s not easy to get morality surrounded, as it were. But at least the obligation to phrase a policy in universal terms must make the conditional clause explicit – and hence provides a basis for debate/dispute.


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