The philosophy of Immanuel Kant has influenced the vast majority of philosophers in some way. In fact, it can be said that Enlightenment philosophy would not be what it is today without his writings. It is widely known that Kant was “stirred from [his] dogmatic slumber” by the agnostic and skeptical musings of David Hume. This skepticism helped frame his metaphysics. Kantian metaphysics, again widely known, is that one can never know the thing as it truly is in itself (the noumena); one only sees the event as it appears to human (finite) knowers (the phenomena). Because of this, one can never make any metaphysical judgments about the transcendent; this includes God. If humans must be agnostics about God, then it seems they must be agnostic about transcendent morality as well. Yet Kant is not content to rest here. He still wants to have a code of ethical behavior which applies to all, and not merely the powerful or certain cultures. This paper will explain Kant’s “categorical imperative” for morality, apply it to homosexual behaviors, examine objections, and provide solutions. Kant’s categorical imperative is a helpful epistemological tool, but is insufficient by itself to show homosexual behaviors are wrong.
Kant’s Categorical Imperative: An Explanation
It is imperative (forgive the pun) to understand what is meant by Kant’s categorical imperative (hereafter CI) in order to understand its application. His moral epistemology will be as universally based as possible, so as to at least have the appearance of being objective. Kant needs this objectivity, since, as he writes, “Everyone must admit that if a law is to have moral force, that is, to be the basis of an obligation, it must carry with it absolute necessity.” Thus, he takes CI to be as close to the noumena as one can possibly get; it is the best result of using phenomena to derive moral rules that seem to comport with our intuitions of right and wrong.
So what is this CI? How shall it be explained? The CI is that one should never act in a manner that could not be applied as a universal law. That is, if one wants to engage in a behavior and consider its morality, try and apply it as a universal rule (e.g., “what if everyone did this action?”). Suppose Jones wants to know whether or not CI would permit him to murder (or, less controversially, to kill his neighbor to obtain his money). CI urges Jones to think about what would happen were everyone to kill his neighbor to obtain his money. Quickly, Jones would realize that this universal law could not obtain. Why? If everyone were to take part in this action, then everyone would be both the killer and the killed, and there would be no one left. Thus, Jones should refrain from killing his neighbor for his money.
This raises a crucial issue in Kantian ethics. An act is moral just in case it could be made into a universal will for action. An act is immoral if it could not be done consistently. T.C. Williams identifies five such principles in Kant (none of which are entirely identical). Two that are relevant here are the following: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law . . . So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxim.” In this case, man has become the measure of all things. However, this is not a complete account of CI. Kant also wanted people to regard fellow persons as ends-in-themselves, rather than merely means to some end. So, while man was the measure of all things moral, he could not simply use people as he saw fit. This was a Kantian safeguard to preserve CI as an avoidance of might-makes-right.
Kant’s intent was to have a purely logical basis or reasoning for his morality, with little or no emotions involved. This can be borne out in two paradigmatic examples of CI. First, consider a positive example. If everyone were to be generous to his fellow man, then generosity would blossom across the world. Could this be lived out consistently? It seems that it could. Thus, generosity that also sees humans as ends-in-themselves fits Kant’s CI perfectly. Second, consider one who wants to commit suicide. If everyone did this, then no one would be left in the world. Thus, suicide could hardly be a universal law (if everyone did this at one and the same time, there would be no one left to fulfill the CI), and thus should be avoided as immoral. For Kant, every human action can fall under the purview of CI, and thus his ethical theory seems to be complete. The next step is to apply this complete CI to homosexual behavior.
Kant’s Categorical Imperative: An Application
The CI as applied to homosexuality must be applied to homosexual behavior, as opposed to “orientation.” Why? First, orientation is typically described as mere desire, or sometimes even as a mere temptation. If this is the case, then CI simply has nothing to say on the matter. CI concerns whether or not a particular action is to be considered morally praiseworthy or blameworthy, and orientations simpliciter do not seem to meet the criteria of being an action. Thus, if CI is to be applied to homosexuality, it will be to the instances of homosexual behaviors. So, suppose a contemporary churchgoer approaches his pastor for counsel, and wishes to know whether or not he may engage in homosexual actions while remaining faithful to objective morality. Suppose further this pastor has been heavily influenced by Kant, and so wishes to consult the CI to find out the answer to his parishioner’s question. What will the answer be?
First, the CI cannot consider much in the way of motive. Notice that a necessary and sufficient condition of CI is that it can logically be lived out as a universalized rule. It does not matter that one’s motive is not to improve the lot of mankind, or to conform to a duty. So long as his external actions are correct, he is acting morally. While this is a very dubious account, it is an accurate one and will not be criticized much on the grounds of motive.
Second, if the pastor were considering Kant’s day for the CI, he could reason as follows: if homosexual behavior were to be made universal law, and everyone must engage in it, what would happen? It seems that the human race would die out, since homosexual procreation is not possible. The CI critically assumes a commitment to the overall good of humanity, and treating persons as ends-in-themselves. Thus, it seems that on CI, homosexual behaviors would not be permitted. Thus, in this particular scenario, the pastor responds that on Kantian ethics, homosexual behavior is considered to be wrong.
It is also important to note that for Kant and this paper’s application of homosexuality to the CI, one is not engaging in what has been called the hypothetical imperative. Hypothetical imperatives include doing something in order that one may be successful at a particular activity. As an example, if Bob wants to become a better basketball player, then he ought to shoot baskets every day. This ought is clearly not the same as in the CI. This hypothetical imperative is vitally important to be distinguished from CI, for, as Kant remarks, “A principle which is not moral, although it may now and then produce actions conformable to the law, will also often produce actions which contradict it.” Thus it was important that a proposed principle not be merely hypothetical. Kant remarks these hypotheticals, “represent the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to something else,” while the CI “would be that which represented an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end.” Thus, if the human good is an end in itself, and homosexual behaviors would lead to the eradication and dying out of the human race due to a lack of procreation, then homosexual behaviors are impermissible on CI.
Things may not be so cut-and-dried when it comes to the CI and homosexual behaviors, however. First, a question is raised: why should one do what is overall good for humanity? This is not an internal critique of Kant’s CI, but an external one. That is, Kant could respond to this question simply by saying it is an entailment of CI that one does what is overall the best for human flourishing, and he would be correct as an internal matter of his doctrine. However, this is an external critique. If one questions the underlying premise in the first place, what will the answer from Kant be? Why could a moral skeptic not simply shrug off Kant’s ideas?
Interestingly, Kant’s response might be along the lines of a Christian one. C. D. Broad discusses Kant’s defense of an objective morality. He writes, “Kant insists this [the insufficient moral arguments of the past] is not the whole truth about it. Even if there were no traces of design in the material world, we could still use certain ethical facts about human nature as the basis of a moral argument.” For Kant, then, there were intuitive and logical reasons for embracing an objective theory of ethics, and this included human flourishing and good as something intrinsically valuable.
But it is here that the reader should notice something interesting. Either Kant has abandoned the very metaphysic that led him into the CI in the first place or else he must abandon the use of knowing things as intrinsically valuable in themselves. The best Kant can do is say that the phenomena appear to him to be such that humans are intrinsically valuable, and hence one should value overall human flourishing as an end in itself. For anyone who cannot see this, or thinks he has good reasons to reject this, Kant’s CI will not be as appealing as a theory of objective truth.
Another objection concerns bisexual behavior. So suppose the same churchgoer as before returns to his pastor, and is generally inquisitive as to what CI would have to say about bisexual behavior. It seems that considered as a rule, it could be logically applied universally. If everyone engaged in bisexual behaviors, it is not the case that the human race would die out. This is because, inevitably, among the heterosexual unions some pregnancies would occur, and thus the human race would live on. This would indicate bisexual behaviors would be permissible on CI. If such actions were morally permissible on CI, then certainly the “lesser” action of homosexual behaviors should also be permitted. Even if they were not to be, the bisexual case seems to show that CI can be worked around to arrive at homosexual actions becoming permissible in virtue of a complex action.
There are at least a couple of responses to this objection. First, bisexual actions are what can stipulatively be called complex actions. A complex action is a larger classification or category of action that is made up of more simpler, recognized actions. One can see quite easily that bisexuality fits this definition. This is because there is no one bisexual action, but rather a singular bisexual person engaging in a heterosexual action and then a homosexual action. Thus, complex actions are not under consideration in the CI, but individual ones.
Next, if the CI considers only individual actions, then one can note that on bisexuality, it would only be the heterosexual behaviors that are permitted. If the original argument against homosexual actions on the CI goes through, then these individual acts are impermissible. That is, bisexuality is only permissible in the part that concerns heterosexual behaviors. If this is the case, even Kant would say one cannot engage in an impermissible behavior and a permissible behavior, and thereby label the complex of the two permissible. Rather, the permissible behavior is the only part of the complex that is permissible, and the impermissible remains as such. Thus, bisexuality cannot stand as a counterargument against homosexual behaviors on the CI.
Another general objection to Kant’s CI is that there are undoubtedly some actions that are permissible on a Kantian view that would be impermissible on a Christian view. Either Christianity is permissible on the CI or it is not. The Christian behavior of telling people Christianity alone is true is part of Christianity. If Christianity is impermissible on CI, then the action of saying it is impermissible on CI is permissible on CI, while impermissible on Christianity. If Christianity is permissible on CI, then so are at least some other religions. If that is the case, then it is permissible to engage in other religious behaviors than Christianity, which is impermissible on Christianity. Thus, no matter which answer one gives, it seems the CI is incompatible with a full-blown Christianity.
However, general objections do not always get at the heart of the matter. A more specific criticism of the fictional pastor’s answer must be lodged. It is true that, in Kant’s day, were homosexual actions to be universalized in the way that the CI demands, the human race would die out. However, this is not true today. As Dr. Leiderbach pointed out, with today’s technology being where it is, homosexual couples are free to engage in “having children.” These children are more or less “test-tube babies,” with a sperm artificially combined with an egg, and placed in a woman’s womb. If this is the case, then the pastor’s original reasoning for the CI forbidding homosexual actions is mistaken. It does seem to be the case that if homosexual behavior were universalized, the human race could survive. Thus, there does seem to be an objection that succeeds against this specific application of CI after all.
A Proposed Solution
With this in mind, it is important to attempt to develop a solution. It will not do, as with Margaret Farley, to view objective morality as something that runs in accordance with one’s feelings. This attempt to view Christianity and homosexual behavior will nearly always result in a non-biblical account of the permissibility of homosexual actions. Farley also argues, quite well this time, that viewing the legitimacy of homosexual actions should not come in the context of what will propagate the species. “It seems odd to limit the meanings of gender differentiation and sexual activity to physiological functions aimed at preserving the human species.” For her, there does not seem to be a good reason to argue in this manner. While her conclusions seem suspicious, it is true that, even on CI, morality comes down to more than simply a hypothetical imperative of prolonging the species, but as rather morality as good in itself.
While it is true that the CI fails to eliminate homosexual actions as immoral, CI has survived in large part because of how intuitive large parts of it seem to be. This suggests that CI might be an initial condition, or perhaps necessary condition, of coming to an epistemological understanding of objective morality. Stated another way: if one is to navigate the moral complexities of life, he should use his moral reasoning, and CI provides one aspect of that moral reasoning.
In essence, Kant’s CI should be used as an epistemological tool for verification. If we believe we have understood our moral duty in some particular action correctly, we may feel free to apply Kant’s CI and see if it accords. If it does, that provides further confirmation. This approach is helpful, because if the CI cannot provide verification, it does not follow that the moral duty originally discerned is false. This is because the CI is not acting as the arbiter of objective morality, but as a tool. One reason it is important, on a Christian worldview, to contain CI to this role is due to its problematic relationship to the ethics of Jesus Christ. Abdusalam Guseinov argues that Kant objected to the so-called golden rule of Jesus precisely because he thought it could not be applied as a universal law. However, given that Guseinov’s formulation of the golden rule is “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” (emphasis added) instead of, “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you,” it is unclear that Kant’s CI cannot rely on the golden rule. This is because the CI relies on the universalizability principle, and the “as” formulation allows for this, while the “what” formulation relies on an individual’s desires for behaviors toward them.
If the CI should be used as an epistemological tool only, rather than the true measure of objective morality, then this suggests there are other avenues to explore in the epistemology of morality. The CI should be joined by moral intuitions. By an “intuition,” it is not meant that one should merely consult his feelings. Rather, an intuition is a form of a priori knowledge, or knowledge gained independently of any external process or experience with the world. Intuitions can certainly go wrong, but they often provide us with real knowledge of the world. Without them, and without divine special revelation, no one would have any inkling that murder is wrong. Such a scenario is unimaginable, as while cultures may differ as to what constitutes murder, all of them recognize that murder itself is wrong.
In Kantian thought, these intuitions are called maxims. According to Onora O’Neill, “A maxim expresses a person’s policy, or if he or she has no settled policy, the principle underlying the particular intention or decision on which he or she acts.” Thus, the CI does not seek to justify these intuitions or intuitive maxims, but instead relies crucially upon them. This informs the Christian that to rely on CI alone is a mistake; the CI should, at best, be used in concert with strong moral intuitions. This is significant since most Christians have the intuitive sense that homosexual behaviors are wrong, and positively the intuition that sexual relationships are to be between one man and one woman.
Having such intuitive maxims is also necessary because Kant’s maxims (or the maxims of others) may not align with the maxims of Christians. If Kant’s maxims inform the CI, then the CI is only useful insofar as its maxims do not present a conflict between itself and Christianity. For example, on Kant’s presuppositions, “Protecting the freedom of others . . . is therefore a necessary end of human beings.” Were this presupposition to conflict with some point of Christianity (this paper is not trying to argue that it necessarily does), it would have to be either modified or jettisoned. Again, it must be emphasized that the CI does not entail many of these presuppositions or moral intuitions, but rather relies on them. If this is the case, Christians need to bring CI before their own moral intuitions, and use these to inform their moral judgments.
Another solution is to bring both the CI and moral intuitions before the joined bar of sound theology and Scripture. In these cases, while we may come to know what is right and wrong via our moral intuitions, being verified by the CI, these must always be checked against theology and Scripture. If these are verified by theology and Scripture, or if these are permitted by the same, then one may proceed. If they are prohibited by theology and Scripture, then these actions should be avoided.
William Lane Craig answers the question as to whether or not homosexual actions can permissibly take place using these criteria by writing, “God commands us to live chastely and to reserve sexual activity for heterosexual marriage.” Thus, while the debate about the interpretation of Scripture is a topic for another paper, most Christians are in agreement that the Bible forbids homosexual actions. Craig adds, “My point is that our choices about how to live remain the same regardless [of our orientation or how we feel].” Craig’s point is that humans are morally obligated to exercise control over their own behavior, irrespective of feelings, and whether or not it conforms to Kant’s CI.
John Stott takes pains to argue that the idea of homosexual orientation is not one that would have been known in Paul’s day; there just was not a distinction between homosexual desires and homosexual actions. Thus, the conclusion one should draw is that while there is not necessarily a prohibition on homosexual attraction, whether or not there is, there is definitely such a prohibition on the actions in which one engages. Stott further argues that the biblical record (specifically the Pauline texts dealing with homosexuality) mean “‘The most common pattern of homosexual behavior in the classical world.’” For Stott, however, it means not simply this, but primarily this. Taken as a whole, Pauline literature repudiates any homosexual sexual behaviors as immoral and contrary to God’s plan.
If this is all true, then the conclusion of the matter is that not only is there a gap between the CI and Christian morality, but also that there is a problem with CI specifically. This is as opposed to giving up a Christian theory of ethics. This is because, for Kant, ethics was to be an objective issue, not a subjective issue subject to change, whims, or technology. He wrote, “Yet in as far as it [a proposed moral law] rests even in the least degree on an empirical basis . . . such a precept . . . can never be called a moral law.” It has already been shown, however, that homosexual actions would have been considered wrong on the CI in Kant’s day, but permissible today. This seems to violate the objectivity that Kant desired. Thus, this is another reason to reject CI as a full theory and instead embrace a Christian ethic.
In this paper, the CI has been explained in Kant’s theory of ethics in describing the phenomena that occurs in human experience. The CI was then applied to homosexual actions in an effort to ascertain whether or not such actions would be considered morally permissible, with the result that, in Kant’s day, homosexual actions would be morally impermissible. Several objections were lodged against this view, including at least one successful objection stating modern technology has made it the case that the universalizability principle of the CI is satisfied, and now homosexual actions would be considered permissible.
A proposed solution was offered, accounting for the CI as a useful epistemological tool subject to our moral intuitions. These intuitions are in turn subject to sound theology and the Bible. Sound theology and the Bible indeed condemn homosexual actions, and this gives the Christian good reason to abandon the CI and not side with homosexual behavior. Finally, the CI cannot account for a truly objective morality, since the permissibility of homosexual actions changed from one era to another. This paper argued that Kant’s categorical imperative is a helpful epistemological tool, but is insufficient by itself to show homosexual behaviors are wrong. If this is the case, then one must always submit to the bar of Scripture if he is to be called a Christian.
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Craig, William Lane, and Joseph E. Gorra. A Reasonable Response. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.
Farley, Margaret. “Same-Sex Relationships and Issues of Moral Obligation,” in Anglican Theological Review. Vol. 90, No. 3. (2008:), 541-47.
Guseinov, Abdusalam. “The Golden Rule of Morality,” in Russian Social Science Review. Vol. 55, No. 6 (2014:), 84-100.
Hoffe, Ottfried. Immanuel Kant. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Kant, Immanuel. Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, 5th ed. Trans. by T.K. Abbott, Christina and Fred Sommers, eds. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 2001, 167-81.
O’Neill, Onora. “A Simplified Account of Kant’s Ethics,” in Applied Ethics: A Multi-Cultural Approach, 4th ed., Larry May, Shari Collins-Chobanian, and Kai Wong (eds.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005, 44-50.
Stott, John R. W. Homosexual Partnerships? Why Same-Sex Relationships are not a Christian Option. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985.
Willascheck, Marcus. “The Non-Derivability of Kantian Right from the Categorical Imperative: A Response to Nance,” in International Journal of Philosophical Studies. Vol. 20, No. 4 (2012:), 557-64.
 Immanuel Kant, trans. by T.K. Abbott, “Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative,” in Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, Christina and Fred Sommers, eds. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993), 168.
 Ibid., 171.
 T. C. Williams, The Concept of the Categorical Imperative: A Study of the Place of the Categorical Imperative in Kant’s Ethical Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 129).
 Allen Wood, Kant’s Moral Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1970), 45.
 Ibid., 49.
 This is dubious precisely because we intuitively take someone to be acting better if he has a proper motive. So, suppose two persons, A and B, both save a drowning person. A does it because he wants fame, and B does it because he wants only to save the person. B is acting better than A due to desire. Kant has some responses available, concerning persons as ends in themselves, but it remains that motive is on the back burner.
 Otfried Hoffe, trans. by Marshall Farrier, Immanuel Kant (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1994), 147.
 Kant, 169.
 Ibid., 173.
 C. D. Broad, Kant: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 316.
 Personal communication with Dr. Mark Leiderbach (comments on original submission of outline for this paper).
 Margaret Farley, “Same-Sex Relationships and Issues of Moral Obligation,” in Anglican Theological Review. Vol. 90, No. 3. (2008:), 542.
 Ibid., 544.
 Abdusalam Guseinov, “The Golden Rule of Morality,” in Russian Social Science Review. Vol. 55, No. 6 (2014:), 92.
 Ibid., 94.
 Onora O’Neill, “A Simplified Account of Kant’s Ethics,” in Applied Ethics: A Multi-Cultural Approach, 4th ed., Larry May, Shari Collins-Chobanian, and Kai Wong (eds.) (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005), 45.
 Marcus Willascheck, “The Non-Derivability of Kantian Right from the Categorical Imperative: A Response to Nance,” in International Journal of Philosophical Studies. Vol. 20, No. 4 (2012:), 558.
 Ibid., 559.
 William Lane Craig and Joseph E. Gorra, A Reasonable Response (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013), 346.
 John Stott, Same-Sex Partnerships? A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1998), 25.
 Ibid., 28.
 Kant, 169.