The Paradox of the Categorical Imperative

President Rodrigo Duterte, the current President of the Republic of the Philippines, is sick. I don’t know to what extent. Watching him live on national television again for the first time when I was back home for the holidays gave me an idea that he’s not healthy anymore. Cracking voice, drooping eyes, unstable breathing — it all leads to him being unfit to be the macho man that he is perceived to be.

No one knows whether it’s fact or fiction, whether he’s really sick or dying. I know one thing however; I would be happy if it were true. I won’t be celebrating like the crazy sociopath that he is now, but I know I wouldn’t be sad either. His fall, despite the negative gravity that being happy for it brings, would save an entire nation — that I know.

But it is not the right attitude either, and I also know that. That’s hypocrisy I’m willing to consider.

I remember in our Philosophy class at the Ateneo, my professor once asked, “Had you been alive during Adolf Hitler’s time before the Holocaust, with the opportunity and means to do so, in full knowledge of what he was going to do, would you have put a bullet through his head?” Almost in unison, the class said, “of course.” In my head then, there was no other option. I would want him dead before he could kill anybody.

My professor said no. Because in Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, wishing ill upon someone, even to the point of causing his death, despite the capacity of evil that he has, is not a valid universal moral option. Categorical Imperative. “Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, daß sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.”

“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law.”

It is only valid if and only if you can accept it as universally good. Our perfect duty is to follow these rules, this code of conduct to represent the goodness of the universe. The gist of it is to do things which you can accept if done unto you. Reverse of God’s Golden Rule.

That’s why I oppose death penalty. Why I believe you can’t stop violence with violence. An eye for an eye is not victory. No one wins a war. Justice isn’t served with capital punishment. The list could go on as to why I stand firm with Kant’s Kategorischer Imperativ. It is indeed the easy way to go around being good; it hurts no one.

One must ask, to what extent? Sure, you can’t just paint the world and the concept of morality as black and white. Good vs Evil. I still don’t know the answer if you’d ask me now whether it is bad to steal food for hungry people. But I know I would.

My perfect duty would be to oppose stealing. But I know I wouldn’t be able to sleep either if I knew I had the chance to save more people — and I chose not to. Just because of a universal law. It’s a loose paradox, a contradiction of values whereas when you try to do what you ought to be good, you are, at the core of it, not following the universal law of being good.

It was not the last time that I was asked the same question. In a separate Philosophy class, there was a twist. “If you were Hitler’s mother and you knew the instant you had him in your belly that he’d grow up to be the cruel Führer that he was, would you have aborted him?”

I would.

I would put a bullet through Adolf Hitler’s skull had I been presented with the opportunity to do so before he could commit his crimes during the Holocaust. I would steal food for hungry people if it meant keeping them alive.

I am willing to break my perfect duty for my moral duty. And it is in my free will to put this value at the behest of my morality.

But I would not put a bullet through his head had it been after the war. It would not have saved anyone. I have this constant thinking that sometimes, despite the clear ground rules, the world is just a blob of gray. A balance of black and white, not fighting against, but rather stirred with each other. Justice or injustice, we must do what it takes to know the right balance between these values.

It is a sequence of morals, of levels of importance to which we are indebted to. In this case, do we value more our perfect duty, or do we value more the lives of the people we could have saved given an opportunity?

This ambiguous conflict resonates well with Duterte’s perceived demise. If he were to truly die anytime soon because of natural causes (with it, comes the injustice of his regime), should we be happy at the very least? Should we oppose not a call to celebrate but an acknowledgement of victory over something evil?

And if someone were to kill him in broad daylight with the intent of saving an entire nation, do we vilify the killer? Or do we praise him? For the assassination of a Filipino leader? For saving the future of an already compromised nation? I wish getting rid of evils in the world is much easier than snapping out what we perceive as wrong.

I wouldn’t know the answer until it happens, and if it does happen, I’d like to continue my day, knowing full-heartedly that although it’s unclear whether it was for justice or not, injustice has been put on a halt.

I will not pray for Rodrigo Duterte’s death.

I will not wish for him to die.

But it is my moral duty to hope for an end to the injustice that his existence brings. And if it takes an eternal conflict inside my head to figure out the best way to understand the paradox of his imaginary death, I’d take my chances.