Samuel Kerstein, in an article titled “Reason, Sentiment, and Categorical Imperatives,” argues that Kant’s categorical imperative can still provide the grounding we need for ethics. As a reminder, the categorical imperative is a reasonable principle that is both absolutely necessary and universally applicable. Thus, all rational agents are morally obligated to do their duty, that is, to live according to the categorical imperative. More generally, this approach falls under rationalism. Kant believed that morality is sufficiently grounded in reason. Through reason, he developed claims concerning a reason-based ethic. Kerstein has summarized Kant’s claims into the following 5 propositions:
1. Philosophical argument rationally compels us to hold that the Categorical Imperative is valid.
2. Part of our constitution as rational agents is to be bound by the Categorical Imperative and to be able to realize that we are so bound.
3. It is always irrational for a moral agent to act contrary to the Categorical Imperative.
4. According to everyday moral thinking, there are categorical imperatives; moreover categorical imperatives can only be demands placed on rational agents by the agents’ own reason.
5. Morally worthy action necessarily involves the use of reason, both as a means taken to discover that the action is required and as a motive for doing it.
Kerstein specifically defends Kant’s Categorical Imperative as framed by the proposition: Never treat rational agents merely as means. Kerstein explains, “Very roughly, this imperative forbids any agent in his interaction with another from behaving in a way to which the other cannot consent and, at the same time, pursuing an end which the other cannot share.” We can see the wisdom in this approach. We embrace the concern for humanity implicit in the proposition. But there is more to say.
First of all, Kerstein spends most of the article (indeed, almost all of the article) deconstructing sentimentalism, about which more will be said later. Because so much time is spent deconstructing sentimentalism, Kerstein is unable to put forward much of a constructive case for the categorical imperative.
Second, because the constructive case is so incomplete, Kerstein leaves us with more questions than answers. He defends only the particular imperative related to not treating human beings as means to another end, which is fine, as far as it goes, but Kerstein acknowledges that “cases come to mind in which treating one person merely as a means seems to be morally permissible, since doing so is necessary to save the lives of many others.”
For the Christian, Kant’s categorical imperative, as well as Kerstein’s application of it, appears to contradict the nature of humanity. While it is certainly true that we would be sinning against the image of God in man if we were to use another person as a means to our own ends, it is not at all the case that human beings are not the means to the end that God is glorified in us. Indeed, St. Augustine taught that our love of neighbor is too small if we love them but do not love them for God’s sake: “He loves Thee too little who loves anything besides Thee and not for Thy sake,” said Augustine.
We might view our children—when we discipline them (in contradiction to the categorical imperative?—as a means by which God is glorified, thereby raising their status above simply being “my child” to, we hope, being “a child of God.” Likewise, we witness to others as a means of glorifying God. As it turns out, the thing Kant feared—humans being a means to a greater end—is the very thing that exalts humanity to its highest heights. Kant, and Kerstein after him, is right to insist on treating human beings (even those in utero we would add) as worthy of respect and just treatment. Surely, human history has its share of abuses. Still, we are not the end for which God created the world. We do have a useful purpose in creation.