Imperative Ethics vs. Value Ethics

Gary McGath
Nov 26 · 7 min read

People are used to thinking of morality in terms of commandments. For centuries, religion held the dominant position in deciding what is right and wrong. It still does in many minds. It’s still hard to escape the idea of ethics as a set of “thou shalts.”

The Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant formalized this idea, insisting that moral principles must take the form of “categorical imperatives.” In his terminology, that’s is an imperative (“thou shalt”) statement which is not subject to any conditions and is valid under all circumstances. He offered the following as the Categorical Imperative: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

10 Commandments on tablets in a garden
10 Commandments on tablets in a garden

Why should you follow that dictum? According to Kant, that’s an invalid question. He isn’t saying, “If you don’t follow this principle, you’ll be logically inconsistent” or “you’ll be a hypocrite.” He’s just saying, “Follow this principle.” There is no why.

It doesn’t give much guidance. Adolf Eichmann claimed he was following Kant, with his universal maxim being “Follow orders.” A person can be a perfectly consistent monster. “Kill or be killed,” applied universally, would also be consistent with Kant.

But a deeper point is that if there’s no reason for the Categorical Imperative, there’s no reason to follow it. It’s just a demand like any other. Kant was trying to escape the problem of getting an “ought” from an “is,” but in the end his imperative amounts to “because I say so.”

His approach is grounded in religious morality, whose basis is “because God says so.” Let’s give this approach full credit. It’s not “because God will roast disobedient people in Hell and reward obedient ones in Heaven.” That would just be an argument from power. It’s that God, as the creator of everything, is the creator of right and wrong. It gives morality metaphysical status. Moral laws are as much a creation of God as planets are.

This runs into problems like figuring out what moral laws God supposedly created. I think it’s ludicrous that the creator of the universe (if there is one) originated the principle “Thou shalt not kill, except for gays, witches, people who curse their parents, people in cities you want to conquer, etc.”

Beyond that, we again come to the question “Why?” What does it mean for a divine moral law to be created? We have our own lives to live; are we bound to obey the alleged orders of an alleged creator?

We have to have reasons for our actions. All categorical imperatives, religious or secular, fail to provide any.

Ethics based on values

Proponents of morality by command say the alternative is to do whatever you feel like. But that’s not the only alternative or the rational one. Viable ethical principles have to be assertions, not commandments. They have to be based on values. Their ultimate basis has to be a value which can’t sensibly be questioned.

The ultimate value is human life.

You can choose to reject it, of course. But if you say, “I don’t choose to live,” you’re out of the game. If you say “I don’t choose to let you live” and act on it, I may have to kill you in self-defense. People can disagree on what other principles follow from that, but if they don’t start with the value of life, they’re building a foundation on air.

For example, rather than saying “Thou shalt not steal,” a value-based system of ethics might say, “Productivity is essential to life. Trying to bypass this requirement through theft makes you a dependent on your victims as well as a danger to them. They have to defend themselves against you. Theft is a self-destructive and untenable way to sustain your life, and it’s one you have to fight against when others employ it.”

A related principle is that a happy life is preferable to an unhappy one. People have denied this, to be sure. Religious groups have declared that happiness is sinful, and anything we enjoy is tainted. But this is the result of believing in morality by divine commandment. Promoting misery doesn’t just make people feel bad, it’s harmful to life as such. It discourages productive efforts and encourages suicide.

Imperatives are simpler to learn, especially as children. A parent who repeated that argument against theft to a six-year-old would get back a “Huh?” So parents say “Don’t steal.” But that’s just the first-grade approach to something which is complicated to explain.

Moral Darwinism

Some people try to retain the imperative system by various dodges. Evolutionary ethics is a notable example. It holds that ethical imperatives are built into us by evolution. But the mere fact that we’re evolved to favor some actions over others tells us nothing. If you accept evolutionary inclinations as an ethical standard, you have to take the whole lot. You can’s say that evolved inclination A has the status of a moral principle but evolved inclination B doesn’t.

We have many tendencies which probably are partially evolutionary in origin. These tendencies include having sex, following the group’s demands, and getting physically aggressive when provoked. If evolution is our ethical guide, doing those things is “right.” It’s just another version of “Do what you feel like.”

Just as bad is the idea that ethics is determined by the society you live in. It leads to some interesting verbal gymnastics. In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer writes, “Male ownership of females, for example, was once thought to be moral and is now thought immoral. The change happened not because we have discovered this as immoral but because our society (thanks primarily to the efforts of women) has realized that women should have rights and opportunities denied to them when they are in bondage to males.” He rejects the idea of “discovering” moral principles but then immediately says a society can “realize” one. He says that “morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures.”

What his view comes down to, though he struggles not to say it, is that morality is whatever society approves of. If it approves of owning females, it’s moral within that society. If not, it isn’t. If one person cries out that something is immoral and society disagrees, then he’s wrong unless and until the prevailing opinion changes. It’s even “moral” to burn him as a heretic, if that’s what society favors.

Life as the standard

We can choose to do things or not, regardless of any moral code. All that ethics can do is show that our choices are or aren’t consistent with the value of life. If we choose actions that ruin our own lives, we suffer the consequences. If we choose ones that hurt others, they will fight back or avoid us to the extent that they can.

There are many areas of disagreement over what the standard of life as a value implies. This doesn’t mean it’s all subjective, and we should give it over to God’s commandments, evolutionary inclinations, or majority rule. There are also disagreements and errors about how to be healthy. European societies once widely believed that making people lose blood was a good treatment for many illnesses. People have acted on seriously mistaken ideas about health, but that doesn’t mean health is just “a human construction influenced by human cultures.”

Internalizing principles as imperatives

One thing is true which gives plausibility to the imperative approach. We internalize moral principles as imperatives. In fact, we do that with all kinds of principles. If we had to work out every decision from scratch as we made it, we’d be paralyzed. We’d let immediate convenience overrule fundamental considerations. This applies whether the principle is “be honest” or “use a password that’s hard to guess.” As I mentioned earlier, children learn imperatives before they learn the reasons.

The problem comes from the claim that the imperatives are the reasons. That amounts to the Eichmann morality: “Follow orders.” The only remaining question is which authority to obey without question.

A counter-argument

But — the advocates of imperative ethics counter — what if someone can get away with bad things? Imagine, as Plato suggested, that you had a ring of invisibility that let you commit crimes under people’s noses. What assertion, what consequences, would dissuade such a person? Only a categorical imperative would be of any concern to a person in such a situation. The One Ring doesn’t exist, but people with great power seem able to get away with anything. What about them?

This is an important question. Giving a full answer would take another whole essay, but I can’t just brush it aside. I’ll offer two brief answers.

First, power doesn’t necessarily mean security or a happy life. Tyrannical rulers have always lived in fear that someone else would try to get rid of them and take their power. It’s common for them to grow suspicious of everyone, to the point that they see plots where there aren’t any. They know it’s them against everyone else.

Second, the imperative approach to ethics doesn’t convince them. In practice, it usually turns into an attempt to threaten consequences such as divine punishment. This works only as long as they think there is divine punishment. Hitler was nominally a Catholic all his life, but there’s no indication he ever worried about Hell or hoped for Heaven. Persuading potential dictators that they would be happier and better off as leaders of free people strikes me as a more effective way to change their minds.

Most of us implicitly realize that right action has a lot to do with living safely and happily. We just need to get away from the idea that ethics and morality are external, arbitrary demands imposed on us. If we recognize that they should be rational principles for living, getting along with others, and enjoying life, we can be free of a load of nonsense.

Gary McGath

Written by

Freelance writer, lover of liberty, music, and cats. Computer geek. Other interests include bicycling, history, philosophy, and science fiction.

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