Kant’s theory of morality seems to function as the most feasible in determining one’s duty in a moral situation. The basis for his theory is perhaps the most noble of any—acting morally because doing so is morally right. His ideas, no matter how occasionally vague or overly rigid, work easily and efficiently in most situations. Some exceptions do exist, but the strength of those exceptions may be somewhat diminished by looking at the way the actual situations are presented and the way in which they are handled. But despite these exceptions, the process Kant describes of converting maxims to universal laws to test their moral permissibility serves, in general, as a useful guide to and system of ethics and morality.
The Kantian Theory of Ethics hinges upon the concept of the Categorical Imperative, or the process of universalization. Kant describes taking a possible action, a maxim, and testing whether it is morally permissible for a person to act in that manner by seeing if it would be morally permissible for all people in all times to act in that same manner. Thus, Kant says an action is morally permissible in one instance if the action is universally permissible in all instances. In fact, parts of the theory even say that it is one’s moral duty to act on these universalizable maxims, and that people should only act on those maxims that can be universalized.
The stability of Kant’s theory rests not only on the fact that it is completely objective—every action is definitely either morally permissible or not—but also on the fact that the theory is non-consequentialist. Kant truly does not look to the consequences of an action to see whether the action is morally permissible, but rather to the morality of the action itself. Kant assumes that universal morality is inherent in being, thus avoiding complications in trying to determine which actions lead to better consequences. However, Kant does speak of perfect and imperfect moral duties, those duties that respectively do or do not involve qualifications as to the particulars of the situation at hand, thus complicating the issue.
Several objections can be raised to the theory Kant sets forth, but each of them seems to stem from the thought that the theory cannot account for all actions and situations. Certain moral duties, for instance, are brought about by relying on more than just the Categorical Imperative and process of universalization, specifically on the subjective definitions of certain terms and ideas about what is and is not in and of itself moral. Also, one might say that in some situations a maxim that can be universalized is still not morally permissible, while one that cannot be universalized is indeed permissible. In all these situations, though, it seems at least somewhat possible to lessen the objection by taking a closer look at the situation, perhaps by changing or reexamining the maxims behind it.
Curd gives an example of one of these moral duties not derived entirely from the Categorical Imperative—that of the “rugged individualist” who refuses to help as much as he refuses to be helped. The universalization applicable in this situation relies on the assumption that not helping is definitely immoral, which may or may not necessarily be true (202). This rugged individualist seems to follow a maxim to the effect of “I should refuse help and refuse to help.” However, had the universalization of this maxim—“everyone refuses help and refuses to be helped”—been followed by all people up to this point, society would not have been able to function, and because of that, people would have been indirectly harmed, a fairly immoral result. Thus, it can be said that not helping is then not morally permissible. So, although the morality of not helping when help has always been refused may in and of itself be open to moral debate, the universal would be immoral as it still harms people. Looking at the situation differently allows the principles to work. Kant thus seems to be more interested in doing what is morally right rather than deciding which actions are necessarily moral in and of themselves.
The second criticism raised states that some maxims cannot be universalized, yet it does not seem morally wrong to act on them. Curd raises two issues: using contraception during sexual intercourse and removing money from the bank to buy gold at a fixed price. If everyone used contraception, there would be no procreation. If everyone removed his or her money from the bank, the economy would collapse. Curd says then that the process of universalization fails, since using contraception or withdrawing money is not immoral (202). However, aside from the fact many consider the use of contraception to be, in fact, immoral, the original maxims in either case focus on a goal—either on not having a child or on making money. Thus, these issues are contingent on their consequences. A non-moral choice is involved, thus making the issue as a whole not necessarily a solely moral issue. While a maxim such as “I will not murder anyone” rests on morality alone and holds true under the Categorical Imperative, these two examples both require non-moral conditions and choices to be made.
The corollary to the previous objection is that while some maxims can be universally applied, acting on those maxims would not be permissible. Curd provides the example of allowing anyone with a diamond shaped birthmark like Humphrey’s on his left buttock to steal (203). Universalizing this seems to be possible, at least at first glance. However, universalization implies that a maxim be applicable throughout time. No matter how unlikely, perhaps the future will contain nothing other than Humphrey clones. In that case, the maxim cannot be universalized. And again, the conditions presented do not affect the morality of the situation, but rather to whom the morality is applied, thus contradicting the idea of an objective, universal morality.
The main issue with these objections seems to be that Kant’s theory breaks down to some extent in certain situations. However, it becomes possible that by further analyzing the situation at hand, certain allowances can be made. Perhaps then the most convincing argument for the theory, though, is that on a day-to-day basis, Kantian Ethics provides a method for deciding the best, and most moral course of action. And perhaps this is the purpose of moral theory in the first place.