In today’s class we discussed Kant’s categorical imperative and I offered Philippa Foot’s thought experiment, whereby willful suicide could be seen as universally permissible. That if a comrade were severely injured on the battlefield and we were faced with the decision to shoot him or to let him be captured by the enemy, we should, according to Foot, let the decision rest on the will of our comrade. It stands to reason that such a difficult decision, to let somebody exhibit their own free will to die by a merciful gunshot, or to be left to the enemy, must be universal. In other words, Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” is easily applicable. Letting someone decide for themselves whether they should live or die is a decision that can easily become a universal rule.
Then we add to the complication of Kant’s “perfect duties” whereby a perfect duty (a duty without exception) is a duty to not commit suicide. Now is this contradictory with Foot’s battlefield thought experiment (which by the way, is intended to illustrate virtuous behavior when considering euthanasia)? If we take Kant’s categorical imperative on his own absolutist rules, the answer is simply yes, the application of the categorical imperative in the Foot example is contradictory. For Kant, it is our “perfect duty” to not, in any circumstances, commit suicide.
Yet, we might allow for a meaningful amendment by suggesting that Kant simply could not think of every future application of the categorical imperative. It is commonly pointed out that a flaw in Kant’s categorical imperative is highlighted by the problem of dishonesty. For all intents and purposes, the absolution of the categorical imperative would indicate that we should never tell a lie. For instance, when a crazed murderer is looking for an innocent person who has taken refuge in your house, you should not lie when the murderer stops by your house asking you the whereabouts of this person. Most of us would have the conscientiousness to imagine that we’d immediately break Kant’s categorical rule and lie. In this case, it’s easy to see a slight amendment: when a crazed murderer asks you to give up the person you’re hiding, it’s clearly a universal rule that you lie to the murderer. Most people would agree that such a case of lying (as odd as it is) is universalizable.
All of this is to argue that, yes Kant was an absolutist and also it is impossible for him to have anticipated all applications of his theory. On the other hand, I think we can still safely say that both extreme cases, Foot’s virtuous behavior on the battlefield, and lying to crazed murderers are not radical misinterpretations of Kant’s categorical imperative. To be sure, we should be able to amend Kant (or any other philosopher’s ideas) in a meaningful way, provided we do not do so with gross distortions of the original claims. This is not to suggest that we simply change their ideas to meet any of our arbitrary whims, but rather that our changes are thoughtfully and rationally considered in light of evolving and expanding our ethical and philosophical wisdom.
Lastly, I hope to add power to my argument with reference Kant’s famous essay from 1784, “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” whereby Kant proposes the idea that when religious organizations are laying down guidelines, documents, and contracts for future generations to follow, these ideas should not be written or understood in such a way as to be unalterable and unamendable (as indicated in the following quote:)
“But should not a society of clergymen, perhaps a synod or a venerable classis (as it itself names itself among the Dutch), be entitled to bind itself on oath between each other to a certain unalterable symbol, in order to carry such an unceasing guardianship over each of its members and by means of them over the people, and even to perpetuate this? I say: that is completely impossible. Such a contract, which would for always seal to hold off all further enlightenment from the human race, is absolutely null and void; and should it even be ratified by the highest power, by imperial diets and the most solemn peace accords. One age cannot form an alliance and then conspire to put the following into a condition in which it must be impossible for it to enlarge its (especially so very urgent) cognitions, to purge of errors, and in general to step further in the enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, whose original determination consists precisely in this progress; and the descendants are therefore perfectly entitled to it to reject those decisions as unauthorized and taken in a malicious way.”