Kant’s Categorical Imperative And The Golden Rule: What’s The Difference?
Our Common Sense View of Morality Examined
One of the greatest philosophers in modern history, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), derived his first formulation of the Categorical Imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, expressed in the Formula of Universal Law which states,
Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
A maxim is a subjective principle that guides our actions, and the morality of any action can be formally tested by asking if it can be universalised without contradiction.
I see this universalisation principle as two-fold in that, first, it rests on the notion of “what if” everybody else does it, and second, that an action is morally good only if you would like it done unto you. The second notion is, prima facie, in agreement with the Golden Rule, but this is not to say that the Golden Rule can be extracted from the Categorical Imperative or that this ancient moral principle is implicit in Kant’s Moral Law.
Indeed, because Kant’s law of the autonomous will — the acting in accordance with one’s moral duty — is central to his formulation of the Categorical Imperative, it is opposed to the heteronomous nature of the Golden Rule — the acting in accordance with one’s desire. If there are perceived similarities between the two, I argue that this perception is a matter of interpreting both moral principles through a generalised account, qua a moral principle. This, perhaps, is to perceive them in the broadest sense, and one that is in accord with common sense morality. My concern here, however, is to explain how, and why, the Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule are fundamentally different while appearing to be similar as universal principles of morality.
One such interpretation, that the Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule as espoused in the Bible are not antagonistic, is given by S.B. Thomas in Jesus and Kant: A Problem in Reconciling Two Different Points of View (1970). Thomas argues that the latter takes on an existential form in the person of Jesus, while the former provides the rationale upon which morality is constructed. Kant has famously objected to all heteronomous principles as “spurious principles of morality”, so to consider his Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule as “two sides of the same coin”, as Thomas puts it, would seem to be either pushing the analogy too far, or missing the point in Kant’s attempt at deriving a morality out of pure reason.
Yet, Thomas suggests that the Categorical Imperative “provides the rationale ‘form’ of a decision-making procedure that a Christian would follow anyway.” This is because Jesus, as the model of Universal Man, is the expression of the Kantian morality grounded in the purely rational will, and it is through the life and teachings of Jesus that the Moral Law is made concrete in its existential form. Thomas suggests that by putting the Christian perspective ahead of the Categorical Imperative, acts that are qualified as moral according to the Kantian standard simply become intuitive because they exist as part of Christian ethics. This is how moral decisions, which are merely theoretical at the Kantian level, “simply take care of themselves”, as he says.
From this perspective, it seems that the Categorical Imperative has become otiose. There is only the Golden Rule! However, undermining the Categorical Imperative is not what Thomas sets out to achieve. He intends to show that what Kant says about morality is no different from the conduct of Jesus and his pronouncements of the Golden Rule. By placing God, rather than the autonomous will, as the commander of the universal law, he intends to demonstrate that the Categorical Imperative is the Golden Rule stripped of its religiosity.
Perhaps, there is a point to Thomas’ argument, granted that Kant’s metaphysics of morals become empty, and merely theoretical, if it is not realised in its existential form. Perhaps, the problem of Kant’s synthetic a priori will not seem so puzzling if it makes an appeal to a priori truths given by religious faith. However, we are reminded that Kant had strong objections to the heteronomous will, including that which is motivated by religion. He disregarded the idea of a supreme rational being because he assumed that morality should be easily grasped by common sense. He believed in the capacity of ordinary man to rationalise according to the law of non-contradiction.
Further, Kant argued that we do not intuitively know what God’s will is, and since neither can we reason about it, morality cannot be akin to the fulfilment of God’s will. So you see, the Categorical Imperative cannot have an existential form, for that will be usurping his notion of the Holy Will and replacing it with God’s will.
E.W. Hirst, in The Cateogrical Imperative and the Golden Rule (2009), elaborates on this difference when he concludes that one of the differences between the Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule is their “dependence on Religion”. This is because, within the precepts of the Golden Rule, coherence between the principles of universal impartiality and interpersonal love can only be achieved through an inclusion of the concept of God. He says that for interpersonal love to be universal, it has to be subject to God’s universal and divine love, one that is elicited from the Christian doctrine of neighbourly love.
This reformulation, however, is not an attempt to extract the universalisation principle from the Golden Rule, the corollary of which is to render the Categorical Imperative a secular version of Hirst’s interpretation. On the contrary, it clearly demonstrates that it is unwise to do so because the Categorical Imperative does not admit of the concept of God while the Golden Rule seems to be reliant on it for a notion of impartial and universal love. Likewise, Kant denies that any Christian ethics can be interpreted from the Categorical Imperative.
Like Thomas, Hirst gives an interpretation of the Golden Rule that includes the notion of God. Yet, there is little doubt that the Golden Rule has a universal appeal and moral strength, even without the conviction of divine love. In its various formulations, it has persisted throughout the history of mankind, and is widely adopted by different societies and cultures. The dictum to “do to others as you want others to do to you” is easily grasped and has a universal application. This is consistent with Kant’s idea that “moral principles must hold universally, for all rational beings.”
The problem is, Kant denied that any empirically based principles can be universalised, for these issue out of human nature, such as the pursuit of happiness and self-love. Rather, what necessarily binds all rational beings are moral principles that are perceived a priori. Hence, moral laws cannot be derived from empirically based principles.
The distinction between rule and law will make this clear. While the former is grounded in the empirical, the latter is an a priori concept of pure reason. As such, although the Golden Rule is universal in appeal and may be construed as a practical rule by Kant, it cannot be a moral law on par with the Categorical Imperative. As a law, the Categorical Imperative forms an ideal and it is arguable whether Kant intended to relate this noumenal sense of morality with the phenomenal realm of lawfulness emanating out of nature.
C.D. Broad thinks that, as a Moral Law, the Categorical Imperative may be interpreted as being applicable to the physical realm of human nature upon which rules may be tested. M.G. Singer thinks it necessary that the Categorical Imperative be applied to the heteronomous details of this world, while others, like Bruce Aune, make a similar stance through an interpretation of Kant’s passage in the Critique of Practical Reason which states
“We are therefore allowed to use the nature of the sensuous world as a type of an intelligible nature, so long as we . . . only apply it to the form of lawfulness in general . . .
Duke University Professor Allen Buchanan, however, is sceptical of these positions, and argues that there is no suggestion, in this passage or elsewhere, that “laws prescribing nature’s purpose”, or teleological laws, inform the rational. Not only does this void the universalisability test, as he argues, it commits Kant to a heteronomous morality. Buchanan suggests that Kant relies on “deep but empirical facts” rather than teleological laws, and refers to a passage in which Kant says that
“so far as it leans in the least on empirical grounds . . . may be called a practical rule but never a law.
These debates center around the issue of the applicability of Kant’s Moral Law to the sensible world, a world inhabited by rational beings driven by self-interests and social benefits. At a deeper level, they question the nature of morality in general, and the implication of a quasi-scientific construction of morality on an ancient principle that has, for centuries, worked well as a moral code.
Thomas has argued that a respect for the Kantian Moral Law is no different from a reverence for God, the universal law-giver. Any difference between the two is a matter of perceiving one moral principle as metaphysical and descriptive, and the other as phenomenological and normative. His perspectival account depends, first, on a reformulation of the Golden Rule to include the impartiality of judging which he takes on account of Jesus’ injunction to “judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1). In this way, it is not man who is the judge of his own and his neighbour’s actions but God, in the noumenal realm, who prescribes the moral law.
However, if moral acts, according to the Categorical Imperative, are the expression of the noumenal realm, as Kant would suggest, then moral acts, according to the Golden Rule, are the expression of the phenomenal realm, not of Religion.
This dichotomy, moreover, does not suggest that the two offer similar rules, albeit with different origins, or even at different levels. To “do to others as you want others to do to you” suggests partiality while to will that a maxim become a universal law is to submit oneself to a universal standard.
The mistake Thomas makes of justifying the Golden Rule in terms of the universalisation principle leads him to perceive them as two sides of the same moral coin. However, the Golden Rule, even if it is interpreted as spiritual, is nothing more than an empirically based moral principle. On that account, no universalisation principle can be induced from it.
What this demonstrates, then, is that the fundamental difference between the Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule is in their concept of morality in relation to the self and others.
Kant believed that, as rational beings, man possesses an autonomous will which is the transcendental freedom to act according to pure reason. This is the proper ground of the Moral Law, and upon which all other moral principles may be derived.
On the other hand, the Golden Rule is based on the concept of human beings as egoistic, who must live and co-operate with other self-interested members of the community for their own social benefit. The irrational emotion is the reason why the Golden Rule has become a sensible part of human morality.
As James Q. Wilson argues in The Moral Sense, if we view morality as arising out of the senses, it presents itself as a convention that is no different from other human sentiments, such as greed and lust. This view is supported by Hume who proclaims that the principles of justice arise “as a human convention”. This is how morality operates within the individual — as an instinct which requires an innate capacity for guilt and empathy, not Reason.
Thomas is right in interpreting the Christian version of the Golden Rule as administering a sense of guilt which he sees as the undercutting of all other principles. But he may be wrong in making the connection between that and the Categorical Imperative by assuming that Jesus’ teachings undercuts Kant’s moral principles in this way.
Rather, what Wilson and others of the Hobbesian tradition have shown is that, by contrast to the rational consideration that Kant’s moral principle is derived from, the underlying principles of the Golden Rule are one of self-love and reciprocity. According to Kant, any empirically based principles are ultimately based on the principle of self-love.
Reciprocity is the psychological game at the heart of the Golden Rule, and the idea is reflected in its many forms and interpretations.
A closer examination of the rule in its various versions will attest to this.
In primitive cultures, the Yorubas of West Africa have the saying “He who injures another injures himself”, while those of the Moroccan tribe say, “He who has done something will have it done to him” and “What you desire for yourself you should desire for others”. Confucius gave the negative form, referred to as the Silver Rule, as “Do not do unto others what you would not they should do unto you” and summarised the practical rule with just one word — “Reciprocity”.
Clearly, these maxims reflect a morality that calls for a prudence of self-interests so as to avoid harming others or to bring benefit to others in as much as the agent acts upon this judgment. It involves the notion of reward and punishment, and the expectations of return. The Golden Rule works on the assumption that agents have the ability to reflect upon their own actions as concrete examples of how others should be treated. The result is a natural formation of social order.
Kant, on the other hand, rejected that psychology should be relevant to his formulation of the moral law since a perfectly good will is one that is self-determined. Indeed, when Kant rejected the suggestion that the Categorical Imperative can be extracted from the Golden Rule, he was rejecting the very idea of reciprocity at the heart of the rule. This is because reciprocity places a restriction on the autonomous will.
Hirst expands upon this fundamental difference when he points out that the Golden Rule is essentially interpersonal while the Categorical Imperative is uni-personal. He suggests that any reference to other persons in the universalisation principle is merely utilized as a way of testing what the morally right thing to do is.
Kant gave some examples, like promise-breaking and neglecting to help others, to show how the test might work in actuality. He argued that one cannot universalise the borrowing of money without the intention of repaying because that will undermine the institution of promise keeping. What he aimed to show was that the determination of duties as right or wrong is dependant on the universalisation test, not on love or empathy for others.
This was how he came to derive his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, the universal imperative of duty which reads,
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.
Here, Kant referred to individuals as ends in themselves by virtue of their existence as rational beings. He agreed that perfect duties towards others and the self, derived from this second formulation, was a good reflection of the command to “love thy neighbour as thyself”. However, love in the Kantian sense is to be taken precisely as an expression of “practical love”— the practice of categorical duties towards others and self — not of what he referred to as “pathological love” — that which arises out of the sentiments. Kant’s only concept of love is one of impartiality and the acting out of a respect for the Moral Law.
For this reason, many have argued that the connotation of love and neighbour in the Golden Rule, if the interpersonal nature of the rule is to be preserved, may run counter to Kant’s concept of “practical love”. By interpreting the Golden Rule in a universalised form, however, Neil Duxbury defends it as a principle of fairness, which he submits, requires a detachment of desires.
However, reciprocal relationships consist of treating others as “means” rather than “ends”, and this is implicit in the rule. In the field of anthropology, the point about reciprocity as a strategy for group coherence is reiterated in the conclusion drawn by Richard Alexander. He says,
“the rules of morality and law alike seem not to be designed explicitly to allow people to live in harmony within societies but to enable societies to be sufficiently united to deter their enemies.
To “love thy neighbour” in the Golden Rule sense works as a social mechanism for group unity simply because it is impractical and impossible, in the sensual world, to love everyone equally and impartially. Therefore, rather than teaching universal love, the Golden Rule teaches unity. As Hirst concedes, “The Golden Rule relates to persons, and involves the idea of unity.”
When critics allude to this limitation of the Golden Rule, they question the discrepancy between universalisability and impartiality in forwarding the “Law of Love”. Thomas has tried to resolve this discrepancy by proposing that one puts the religious or existential perspective ahead of the Kantian or theoretical perspective. However, we have seen how this is a gross misinterpretation of the Categorical Imperative.
Certainly, any attempt to reconcile the two aspects of the Golden Rule inevitably leads to an account of impartial love in the form of the divine nature, as Hirst has conceded in his “coherence theory”. Even English Philosopher T.H. Green’s (1836–1882) defence of the Golden Rule as preaching a unity of wills seems problematic because, as Hirst argues, “the object of coherence is more than the “wills” of other men, that is too abstract a conception.”
Such a difficulty in eliciting a universalised account rests in the heteronomous details of the rule, and surely, there is no need for any futile attempts to reformulate it into a theoretical law. Thus understood, the precept to “love thy neighbour” ultimately precludes others who are not deemed as belonging to the tribe, society or nation. Hirst calls this “co-operative egoism”.
Finally, despite the irreconcilable differences between the Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule, the two are often inferred as speaking the same truth but in different forms, one philosophical, the other empirical.
This apparent similarity rests on their basic appeal to the common sense. For Kant, this is the ability of ordinary, rational beings to figure out what is required of them to act morally. Thus, he thought that “no moral theory requiring an elite of learned or technically trained leaders to settle moral issues could be acceptable.”
Similarly, the Golden Rule assumes that each person knows, from his own experience, what kind of behaviour is acceptable. Otherwise, social order cannot be maintained and the consequence will be non-cooperation among members of society. Hence, despite its vagueness and impartiality, there is an intuitiveness to the rule that sees to its universal application. For this reason, the Categorical Imperative is often viewed as a reformulation of the Golden Rule into a more rigorous form, but often to such an extent that it presents itself as a universalised principle.
Philosophers have considered several reformulations of the Golden Rule that seek to reinforce a morality based on the law of universalisation. Thomas takes an existential stance while Hirst invokes God’s love in his assimilation of the impartial and interpersonal aspects of the rule. Detachment from desire, as proposed by Duxbury, is the requirement for impartiality if the rule is to be treated as a principle of fairness. Yet, these fail to meet the Kantian standard of morality that is the Categorical Imperative.
The Categorical Imperative is set within the larger framework of Kant’s system of philosophy. An understanding of his metaphysics of morals is crucial in regarding his acceptance of what constitutes true morality. The aim of this discussion has been to reveal much of the differences resulting from these perspectives, and the similarities that persist despite of that.