Climate Change and Individual Moral Obligation. Kant’s Categorical Imperative As a Basis

Seminar Paper, 2020

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0




1. Introduction

2. The Categorical Imperative
2.1 Categorical Imperatives vs. Hypothetical Imperatives
2.2 Maxims vs. Universal Laws
2.3 The “Maxim Test”
2.3.1 Strict duties
2.3.2 Less strict duties
2.3.3 Conclusion

3. “Maxim-Test” of Driving a Gas Guzzler
3.1 Possible underlying maxims of “Driving a gas guzzler”
3.2 Conclusion

4. Application of the Maxim Test
4.1 Virtue of prudence
4.2 Conclusion


1. Introduction

This paper discusses the question whether it is possible to ethically justify an individual moral obligation to act against climate change on the basis of Kant’s categorical imperative. Actions against climate change might include using public transport instead of cars, avoiding travelling by aircraft, protesting for climate justice, supporting environmental organizations, boycotting oil companies, stopping wasteful consumption, refusing having a baby, using sustainable energy forms instead of fossil fuels, passing stricter laws or investing in the development of alternative energy forms.

As an example, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong discusses whether an individual has a moral obligation not to drive a gas guzzler just for fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It is assumed, that this action is neither necessary to fulfil a duty for the society nor that the driver intends to harm anyone with his action. It is an action just for the sake of the individual’s own pleasure. (Cf. Armstrong 2005, 333.) Nevertheless, this action would emit greenhouse gas emissions and these are famously known to be responsible for the human-made part of global warming. Global warming might cause climate changes, including storms, floods, droughts or heat waves. This could be harmful for millions of people and future generations. Armstrong asks whether these “facts about global warming” give the individual “any moral obligation not drive a gas guzzler just for fun on this sunny Sunday afternoon” (Armstrong 2005, 334).

Armstrong and other authors (e. g. Sandberg) argue that it is not possible to derive a moral obligation not to drive a gas guzzler just for fun on the basis of Kant’s categorical imperative (cf. Armstrong 2005, 338; Sandberg 2011, 238). Based on this example, this paper discusses whether respectively how it is possible to justify an individual moral obligation not to drive a gas guzzler just for fun on the basis of Kant’s categorical imperative. At first, (Chapter 2) the categorical imperative is explained in detail and will be separated from hypothetical imperatives. Afterwards (Chapter 3), examples of possible maxims of driving a gas guzzler are tested according to Kant’s maxim-test. In the last section (Chapter 4), it is shown how the result of the maxim test can be applied in specific situations, like driving a gas guzzler just for fun.

2. The Categorical Imperative

2.1 Categorical Imperatives vs. Hypothetical Imperatives

In 1763 – two decades before Kant formulated his “Categorical Imperative” – Kant postulated that the “first reasons of morality [...] are not yet capable of providing all the necessary evidence”. A rule or a reason for the moral obligation has to be found which requires an “action as immediately necessary and not under the condition of a certain purpose”. Acts that are necessary to achieve a certain purpose (e. g. reducing greenhouse gases) “are then no longer obligations, but something like what it would be an obligation to do two crossbows if I want to split a straight line into two equal parts, i.e. they are not obligations at all, but only instructions of skilful behaviour if you want to achieve a purpose.” (Kant 1998, 770f.) Kant then established a moral principle which should meet the requirements of a universal ethical rule by justifying a moral principle which prescribes actions unconditionally and with necessity (“You should do X”) (the categorical imperative) and not merely by a purpose (“If you want X, then do Y”) (hypothetical imperatives). (Cf. Hölzl 2019b, 13ff .; cf. Pauer-Studer 2006, 36.)

Hypothetical imperatives are always constituted by a (material) purpose and are therefore analytical judgments, because the means (e. g. to act environmentally friendly) are already included in the purpose (e. g. gaining personal reputation). In contrast, categorical imperatives are unconditional, since they are established through a (formal) abstraction process. (Cf. Hölzl 2019a, 4) These are synthetic judgments, since the ends only come about through this formal process of abstraction. In contrast, hypothetical imperatives are only practical instructions “to achieve a desired goal” (Pauer-Studer 2006, 36). A categorical imperative is accepted “for its own sake” – e. g. because someone wants to “qualify as a reason” (Zeidler 2016). The categorical imperative is therefore necessary and an a-priori “ought” – delimited from the contingent and empirical “being”. This applies to all reasonable beings and is abstracted from particular interests (e. g. of people) (cf. Kant 2008, 9f.).

This separation of hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives helps to avoid the common “Is-Ought-Fallacy”, which often happens in climate ethics debates. From an ethical point of view, it is not possible to derive a moral obligation out of the “facts about global warming”. The naturalistic fallacy can only be overcome if “the ought” is to be justified otherwise.

2.2 Maxims vs. Universal Laws

Kant distinguishes “maxims” (“subjective principles”), which are constituted on reasons which lie within the circumstances of the world (hypothetical imperatives), and “universal laws”, which are obtained a-priori (categorical imperatives) (cf. Hölzl 2019a, 6). A maxim is “a subjective principle of action“ which “contains the practical rule set by reason according to the conditions of the subject (often its ignorance or its inclinations), so that it is the principle on which the subject acts” (Kant 2014, 46). A “universal law” is an “objective principle” which is “valid for every rational being, and is the principle on which it ought to act” (Kant 2014, 46). Therefore, such an universal law needs to have the following necessary requirements (cf. Kant 2008, 53; Zeidler 2016, 18f.):

- It needs to have an unconditional ("You should do X") structure; and not a conditional structure ("If you want X, then do Y"), e. g. “according to the conditions of the subject” (Kant 2014, 46).
- It needs to be universal, that means that "You should do X" must be “valid for every rational being” (Kant 2014, 46).
- It needs to be regulative, that means that "You should do X" must have a regulative structure so that it can be actually applied as a (moral) rule in particular situations.

In contrast, maxims are subjective principles of the agent, which have been established deliberately (e. g. through self-reflection) as well as unconsciously (e. g. influence of education, peers, culture, zeitgeist). A comparable concept to the term maxim can be found in the psychotherapeutic area. In behavioural therapy psychotherapists speak of the "basic beliefs" of a person: “Basic beliefs are psychological attitudes and values that allow to behave coherently over a long period of time.” (Bonelli 2016) Basic beliefs are “basic assumptions, rules, values and plans that are typical for a person” – somewhat the “life philosophy” of a person. Basic beliefs are “not directly conscious ”, but can be revealed. (Hautzinger 2000, 142) These often unconscious and unquestioned subjective assumptions ultimately become the foundations of our actions. Examples of maxims respectively basic beliefs might be:

"Health is the most important thing in life."

"The freedom of one ends where the freedom of the other is violated."

"You have to love yourself before you can love someone else.”

“Self-determination implies a self-determined death.”

“You should never make yourself dependent on someone.”

"You should not tell lies."

“My body, my decision.”

“Your own interests and needs come before the interests and needs of others.”

“You only live once. So have as much joy and fun as possible.”

Kant also provides some examples of maxims / basic beliefs:

"Suicide is preferable if life threatens more evil in the long term than convenience promises” (cf. Kant 2008, 54)

"If I think I am in need of money, I want to borrow money and promise to pay it, although I know right away that it will never happen." (cf. Kant 2008, 55)

“It is better to pursuit the pleasures of life than to try to expand and improve the happy natural talents and capacities.” (Kant 2008, 56)

“Every man is the only architect of his own fortune.” (Cf. Kant 2008, 56f.)

“Emergency lies are allowed.” (Cf. Kant 2008, 28: “pull me out of [an unpleasant] embarrassment [...] by an untrue promise”)

“I have made it my maxim to increase my wealth by all means.” (Cf. Kant 2015, 734.)

Apparently, there is no “set of rules” with which the underlying maxim of an action can be revealed. A maxim cannot be “read” out of an action as well. Ultimately, each (uncovered) maxim is the result of an individual self-reflection. Therefore, every rational being is asked to constantly question the reasons of their own actions (e. g. to ask deeper and deeper why I really want to act this way and not the other way) and thus, to become aware of the fundamental subjective principles (maxims) which are the basis of one’s actions. (Cf. Hölzl 2019a, 8.)These conscious assumptions or maxims must then be reviewed to see whether they can meet the three necessary requirements (unconditionality, universality and regularity) of an universal law (= the categorical imperative):

“There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou [you] canst [can] at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant 2014, 46)

According to Kant, there is only “one categorical imperative”. The other – quite famous – formulations are only equivalent substitutes (which is often misinterpreted by philosophers). It is also worth to point out that the categorical imperative is not just an “ethical tool”. In fact, it tests the truth of our maxims (e. g: “Is it true that you can pull yourself out of an unpleasant affair by making a false promise?”; “Is it true that suicide is preferable if life threatens more evil than comfort? "). So if the maxim is true, it can also be considered as good.

Unfortunately, Kant’s maxim test is often misinterpreted by philosophers. It is important to understand that the maxim test is not about asking what would happen, “if everyone did that” (Sandberg 2011, 238). In fact, it is, firstly (1), about asking whether a subjective maxims can possibly be raised as an unconditional and universal law, and secondly (2), about asking whether a reasonable will could want that the maxim is raised to an unconditional and universal law (Kant 2008, 57).

2.3 The “Maxim Test”

Kant now differentiates two types of Maxim test results: “Strict duties” (prohibitions) and “less strict duties” (commandments).

2.3.1 Strict duties

Strict duties” (prohibitions) to "refrain from certain actions" result if the "generalization of a maxim is unthinkable" (Pauer-Studer 2006, 41), i. e. if the subjective maxims cannot meet the requirements of unconditionality, universality and regularity:

“Some actions are such that their maxim cannot even be thought of as a general law of nature without contradiction; Far from it that one could still want it to be one.” (Kant 2008, 57)

Kant gives the example of a false promise. Someone wants to borrow money, but already knows that he will not be able to pay it back. The maxim of such a person could be: "If I think I am in need of money [out of an emergency], I [out of self-love] want to borrow money and promise to pay it, although I know right away that it will never happen." (Kant 2008, 54f.) This maxim (a false promise out of a personal need) cannot be thought of as a general and unconditional law, since "the general binding nature of a norm is asserted ["I promise something"] and at the same time demands an interest-motivated [...] exception from this standard validity for itself ” (Pauer-Studer 2006, 41).

2.3.2 Less strict duties

In contrast, “less strict duties” (commandments) result from the fact that a maxim can meet the requirements of unconditionality, universality and regularity (so it is at least thinkable), but a reasonable will cannot want that the maxim is raised to an unconditional and general law “because such a will would contradict itself” (Kant 2008, 57).

As an example, Kant mentions the commandment to realize ones talents: One should imagine a person who finds a talent within himself, “which with the help of some culture might make him a useful man in many respects” (Kant 2014, 48). However, he prefers to “indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural capacities” (Kant 2014, 48). The (hedonistic) maxim of this person might be: “I prefer to have as much fun and joy in life, even at the expense of neglecting my natural gifts”. Even if this maxim could become (formally) an unconditional and universal law, a reasonable will would not want that this should be a unconditional and universal law. After all, as a reasoned being respectively as a reasonable will, one necessarily wants all assets to be developed in one and not just the desires and pleasures. Otherwise, a reasonable will would abolish itself, which a reasonable cannot want. (Cf. Hölzl 2019, 10.)

As a second example, Kant develops the commandment to help others: One should imagine a wealthy person who “is in prosperity” and “sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness and that he could help them”. But he doesn't feel like helping:

“What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven pleases, or as he can make himself; I will take nothing from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in distress!” (Kant 2014, 48)

The subjective maxim of this person could be: “Every man is the architect of his own fortune.” This maxim, too, may exist as a universal and unconditional law, but “it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which, by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires. (Kant 2014, 48 f.)

So one cannot want this maxim to exist as a general (natural) law, since a reasonable will would also want it to be helped if it is poor and sick. Such a will cannot deny this to others if it would also want to be helped in the same situation. (Cf. Hölzl 2019, 10.)


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Climate Change and Individual Moral Obligation. Kant’s Categorical Imperative As a Basis
University of Vienna
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moral obligation, climate change, kant, categorical imperative, individual moral obligation, climate ethics, ethics, applied ethics
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Alexander Hölzl (Author), 2020, Climate Change and Individual Moral Obligation. Kant’s Categorical Imperative As a Basis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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