Immanuel Kant’s philosophy about moral judgment as a categorical imperative and unsupported hypothetical imperative is argued by Philippa Foot who defends the moral judgment as hypothetical imperative, while J.L. Mackie confronts Kant’s categorical imperative criticizing it as lacking objective validity. Whereas Foot sustains that moral judgments can be inherent as hypothetical imperatives, Mackie demonstrates that the lack of objectivity in moral judgments leads to an inconsistency in Foot’s argumentation.
Besides criticizing the difference between the hypothetical imperatives and the categorical imperatives, grammatically marked through “should” versus “ought”, in his essay “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” Foot further contradicts Kant’s theory according to which the moral judgments cannot be hypothetical imperatives. Accepting Kant’s philosophy the hypothetical imperative submits to a condition that generates a personal end that might seem selfish, Foot (158) reputes the idea that all the ends towards which hypothetical imperative emerge towards selfish scopes. The philosopher argues that individuals can engage in good doing because they want to help, or because they associate with a cause, expecting no recognition for their good deeds (Foot 165). The philosopher further interprets the distinction between the hypothetical and categorical imperatives, questioning the actual moral value that the categorical imperative holds compared to the hypothetical imperative in Kant’s philosophy. Through a logical thought process, Foot finds that the moral categorical imperative can be less valuable than the moral hypothetical imperative in terms of moral action, explaining that the former defines a behavioral set that shaped a moral rule or code of actions with which people comply as moral beings. On the other hand, the moral hypothetical imperative implies a condition for acting morally right, which should entail a personal or a group benefit. The morality of the hypothetical imperative – driven actions stands in the fact that the sought purpose is likely to generate positive benefits for one or more people, hence conforming to the utilitarianism philosophy, according to which actions that result in the happiness of the many are morally right (Mill 19). The limits of Foot’s argument on the moral hypothetical imperative is that one’s intended end for acting morally right can result in harming others, at which point the utilitarianism perspective on morality is contradicted and the hypothetical imperative solely serves selfish purposes, disregarding moral considerations.
Engaging in moral judgments implies either a hypothetical or a categorical imperative, although most moral judgments have categorical imperative value, as Mackie states in “The Subjectivity of Value”. What seems to be a school of thought that is defending Kant’s philosophy according to which the moral judgments cannot be hypothetical imperatives, questions the validity of the categorical imperatives. Mackie underlines the unclear demarcation line between the hypothetical and categorical imperative in terms of moral judgment, by exemplifying the case of the individual who decides not to teach to elementary school because he feels sexually attracted by children. The philosopher indicates that although there is a personal end to this decision, the moral judgment is categorical imperative, because the author of the judgment will not benefit from the result of his action, meaning he will not enjoy happiness from acting morally. This is moral judgment is paradoxically, because although the author of the decision making will not end up being happy about the result of his moral judgment, many other actors (the children, the parents, the community) will be free of pain because nothing wrong happened to the children, again, supporting the utilitarian ethics (Mill 10).
Mackie’s (29) thought in relation to the Kantian moral philosophy advances to the point of sustaining that no categorical imperative element is objectively valid. He argues that the categorical imperative moral judgments are action – directed and conditioned by the agents’ desires, unlike the objective values that he frames as absolute, hence, they do not have an objective value (Mackie 29).
The lack of the objective value in the categorical imperative moral judgments that disturbs Mackie is supported by Foot’s (166) logic, as the latter states that individuals do not engage in categorical imperative moral actions, unless they are conditioned by a self – interest or justice. Mackie and Foot’s premises interact as they both find that moral judgment with categorical imperative value that indicates what one ought to do is not intrinsic, but taught and assimilated as a result of living in society (Mackie 29; Foot 165). Foot (164) even considers that the moral categorical imperative is simply a “social etiquette”, as individuals comply with what is socially perceived as morally right and try to avoid what is socially considered as morally wrong, assimilating and further applying these concepts in their moral judgments actions. The decisions to act morally or judge morally are reflections of taught behaviors and not of pure, absolute inclinations towards acting morally correct, which, according to Mackie (29) demonstrates that Kant’s categorical imperative is subjective. Nonetheless, Foot (165) is more cautious in his affirmations, not denying the fact that there can exist unconditioned moral judgment, driven by inherent virtue, when the agents are not legally conditioned or directed by a personal goal but only feel it is right helping others. However, Foot (166) considers that this is an attribute of the hypothetical imperative moral judgment, as he associates the categorical imperative with the social etiquette, with values that are inherited and not inherent, whereas the hypothetical imperative can exist outside the social codes of moral standards. In contrast, Mackie (30) denies that moral judgments can be objectively validated, arguing that they can be disqualified as objective by either wrong premises, an invalid argument or subjectivity of the authority.
The moral subjectivity that consolidates Mackie’s thesis starts from the idea that there is no moral distinction between individuals that praise and practice altruism compared to those that follow their self – interest, or between supportive and unsupportive people. However, Foot (166) mentions one aspect that might make the difference between morality and immorality in terms of hypothetical imperative, which is one’s duty to adopt the ends of the moral man. Whereas Foot associates the adoption of a duty towards morality as an attribute of the hypothetical imperative is a contradiction, as she previously stated that such adoptions are part of a social etiquette. As this circular philosophy returns to the point that questions the validity of moral judgments, Mackie’s position according to which categorical imperative are lack the absolute objectivity value, his statement can be further extended to the hypothetical imperative moral judgments that Foot defends.
The “duty” argument makes Foot’s thesis inconsistent, as the philosopher supports an idea that she previously challenged in relation with Kant’s work, meaning the “social etiquette” value of the categorical imperative moral judgments that also characterize the “duty” element. In this context, Mackie’s demolition of Kant’s categorical imperative as having no morally objective value is extended to Foot’s moral judgment hypothetical imperative.
Foot, Phillipa. Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives. The Philosophical Review. Vol. 81, no. 3, pp. 157 – 173. 1972. Print.
Mackie, J.L. Chapter I – The Subjectivity of Values. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Penguin Books Limited. 1990. Print.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London: Parker, Son, and Burn, West Strand. 1863. Print.