Wednesday, May 29, 2013

95. Conditional imperatives

Conditional imperatives say what one should do to achieve a certain goal. ‘To have success in science one should publish’. By contrast, categorical imperatives are not oriented towards a goal, such as the good life (which I discussed in item 39 of this blog). They also neglect specific conditions of action that might modify or even escape from the imperative. They claim universal validity.

In item 17 I voiced my criticism of universal moral rules. Note that in my criticism of universals I did not reject them. We need universals for logical and empirical inference that we could not do without, not only in science, but in ordinary life. However, I made a plea to see universals as preliminary, as stepping stones to step away from in our cognition. We need them in abstraction, to step away in learning from specific conditions, but they should again be immersed and enriched in other conditions, and in the process they shift and change. In item 31 I developed this into a theory of invention.   

The classic case of the categorical imperative is, of course, the categorical imperative of the philosopher Kant. It has three forms. One is the old maxim (found also in the bible, and in Buddhism) that ‘One should not do to others what one does not want done to oneself ‘. I appreciate the intention of this, and accept it as a principle or heuristic to guide action, a motive, or in short a maxim, which leaves room for exceptions. I would not appreciate receiving a ticket for a soccer match but I would gladly give it to someone who likes soccer.

A second form of the categorical imperative is ‘To act only according to a maxim that I would also like to be a universal rule’. Again, I disagree. It is a good maxim not to lie, but under some conditions lying is humane and wise.

A third form is that ‘I should act such that I treat mankind, whether another or myself, as a goal, never only as a means’. Again, I fully endorse this as a maxim. In fact, it comes close to Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy of the other, discussed in item 61, which inspires me in my proposal of otherhumanism, in item 65. But if a psychopath attacks my children I would not see or treat him either as a means or as a goal in himself. 


In sum, in my view moral imperatives are always conditional upon goals, in particular the good life, and conditions. The contingencies of life are too rich and unforeseeable to be caught in an unconditional imperative.