Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and its Conceptual Application in Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

[Posted 17 June 2020 - Anthony Hui - Introduction to Political Philosophy]


Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and its Conceptual Application in Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a notable German philosopher who had a lasting impact on political philosophy along with crucial contributions to philosophy as a whole, embodied by the honorary term “Kantianism” or “Kantian” philosophy. Generally, Kant firmly believed in the importance of Reason as the basis of our actions as human beings rather than self-interest. He also believed that “the human mind was capable of making moral decisions by either Reason or Emotion” and therefore forming a conclusion. This theme of moral decision/action making would be addressed by the uniquely Kantian concept called the Categorical Imperative, “a basic moral principle” from his famous 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. This concept stemmed from Kant’s “desire to overcome emotion through reason” and his belief that “reason and emotion [were] opposite principles” that conflicted with each other. Ultimately, Kant believed that the Categorical Imperative would allow humans⁠—sentient and rational beings⁠—“to have a better understanding of how to rise above self interest and come to moral conclusions when we are confronted with a moral decision.” Kant had Three Versions of the Categorical Imperative, but for the sake of the essay, there will be an emphasis on the First and Second Versions⁠. In simple and thematic terms, the First Version deals with Reason and the Second Version with Respect between human beings. The First Version states “Commit no action, which could not be considered a universal law for all human beings.” Here, Kant elucidates the theme of decision/action making by emphasizing how we should act and think with our Reason, rather than with emotion or a conscience, when committing an individual action. He believes that with one’s Reason, one is able to determine whether a law is irrational, like “all people must steal” and deem it immoral because it is irrational. Ultimately, Kant’s First Version of the Categorical Imperative serves as a basis for determining what humans should not do rather than telling us what we must do. The Second Version of the Categorical Imperative can be stated as “Always treat all rational beings with respect for their ideas, values, and beliefs.” Unlike the First Version, the Second Version deals with what one should do when confronted with a moral dilemma or decision and the subsequent action taken to reach a conclusion. This statement is simple and rather self-explanatory of determining human action, though Kant mentions certain exceptions and caveats. For instance, he believes that “Respect involves only peaceful solutions to problems” and human beings have no duty to respect groups that harm and invoke destruction to others such as terrorist groups. Furthermore, we do not have to agree with the ideas of others but just have the respect of another person’s ability promgulate his/her beliefs. Altogether, Kant's notion of the Categorical Imperative has had a highly influential effect both in the past and to this very day. From a historical standpoint, the Kantian Categorical Imperative can be conceptually applied to the political philosophies, actions, and beliefs of the Indian Mahatma Gandhi and the American Martin Luther King Jr and holistically examined by their noteworthy works—the former’s Satyagraha and the latter’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is considered by scholars as a lawyer, anti-colonialist, and Indian nationalist who had a significance in spearheading the independence movement of India, from the prized “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire to becoming a free and independent state in 1947. His early and prolific career as an attorney in Apartheid South Africa, where the population was separated into three races of Whites, Browns, and Blacks, sparked his interest in protest and demonstration towards the class system and the government while enhancing his perspective on race and class structure at home and abroad. Importantly, this early experience led him to develop his theory of “nonviolent” protest which would be implemented in his Indian homeland. Collectively, these lifelong experiences as a young attorney and Indian nationalist led Gandhi to have his two great projects in life, which was “freedom for India as an independent nation and gaining the respect for all citizens of the new nation, regardless of caste,” notions that are developed in his own political philosophy called “Satyagraha” or translated as “Soul Force” or “Love Force.” Satyagraha is the idea of confronting one’s oppressors such as individuals or the nations, not with violence but with active nonviolent resistance. Gandhi argued that violent opposition will only lead to an increase in reciprocal violence and will lead to little goal accomplishment over time. Additionally, Gandhi in his Satyagraha delineates between the disfavorable passive resistance and the favorable active nonviolent resistance, the latter which will be explained with application of the Categorical Imperative. Nonetheless, regarding the disfavorable passive protest, Gandhi states that passive resistors “do not understand the full value of the force” and that “the use of [passive] force requires the adoption of poverty in the sense that we must be indifferent whether we have the wherewithal to feed or clothe ourselves” and ultimately, “all passive resistors, if any at all, were not prepared to go that length” (Caste 204). Furthermore, these passive resistors “came without any conviction, often with mixed motives, less often with impure motives” such as those who, while engaging in struggle, “would gladly have resorted to violence” (Caste 204). Through these excerpts, Gandhi sets the standard that passive resistance is not truly nonviolent as one that adopts it still (and has) resorted to violence such as taking up arms and fighting—a fundamental difference with Gandhi’s belief in Satyagraha. Passive resistance also appears to lack the true “conviction” or fervor to accomplish a goal because its practitioners seem to be clouded with other mixed and impure motives that would undermine its effectiveness. Finally, passive resistance underscores the “indifference” of the people, which means that the oppressed person should accept the injustice of the oppressors without any actions, a thought reinforced when he states that “In politics, [passive force’s use] is based upon the immutable maxim that government of the people is possible only so long as [the people] consent either consciously or unconsciously to be governed” (Caste 203). Of course to him, the “government of the people” refers to the British Empire/Crown, which oppressed the minority, whether the Browns and Blacks of British South Africa or the Indians of India. Ultimately, Gandhi’s preference of using active nonviolent force over passive force is espoused in his political philosophy of Satyagraha, which is captured by the work of the same name. Bearing his overarching political philosophy in mind, Kant’s Second Version of the Categorical Imperative can be applied to Gandhi and his philosophy in Satyagraha. In very simple terms, Gandhi is a large proponent of Respect, where a person engaging in Satyagraha (person’s role is “satyagrahi”) only uses active nonviolence to show the enemy respect in their confrontations and not to fight back or attempt to defeat them. This Respect stems from the principle of Love, a fundamental tenet of Satyagraha. To reinforce this Respect-Love connection, Gandhi argues that “Satyagraha proceeds on the active principle of love which says, ‘Love those that despitefully use you. It is easy for you to love your friends’” and that a “satyagrahis object[ive] is to convert, not to coerce, the wrongdoer … [and] act naturally and from inward conviction” (Caste 205). This quote emphasizes Gandhi's objective for every Indian protestor, which is to use nonviolent love and understanding, stemming from one’s “inward conviction,” to bring positive change and action rather than embarking on violence and coercive force. In other words, Satyagraha is “not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent” with violence but to use Respect as a nonviolent method of conversion (Caste 205). Additionally, Gandhi directly references the idea of Respect with his section, “(E) Respecting the Adversary,” which directly elucidates the application of the Second Version of the Categorical Imperative to his Satyagraha. Here, he states that the the Indian satyagrahi “requires a detached state of mind … [which] is absolutely essential” as “three-fourths of the miseries and misunderstandings of the world will disappear, if we step into the shoes of our adversaries and understand their standpoint” (Caste 206). Therefore, our business is “to show them that they are in the wrong and we should do so by our suffering” and that we should “be ever courteous and patient with those who do not see eye to eye with us” and that “we must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies of the country” (Caste 206). These excerpts directly underscore the Kantian Second Version of the Categorical Imperative because Gandhi believes that Respect must be given by the oppressed and “self-suffering” Indians, towards the viewpoints and beliefs of the “adversaries” or the British Government. More specifically, Gandhi and his Satyagraha’s nonviolent approach involves the oppressed to show that the oppressor is wrong by allowing themselves to suffer because “reason has to be strengthened by suffering and suffering opens the eyes of understanding” (Caste 206). All in all, this “understanding,” a fundamental tenet of Satyagraha, is the Respect that is used towards the different beliefs and values of the oppressor and the oppressed. Finally, it would be only with Respect and active nonviolence in which Indian independence could be achieved and that the oppressed Indians could have their colonized chains broken from their British masters.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a Christian minister and most importantly, an American civil rights activist and spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Dr. King, just like Gandhi in South Africa, fought racism and discrimination which was further exacerbated with the dejure and defacto segregation in the United States. Dr. King was influenced by Gandhi with the idea of peaceful protest and demonstrations, which Dr. King conducted via marches, rallies, and gatherings across cities from Atlanta, Georgia to Washington D.C. Within the milieu of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and the political philosophy espoused by Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Kant’s Second Version of the Categorical Imperative, reminded again as “Always treat all rational beings with respect for their ideas, values, and beliefs,” is conceptually evident and applied. For instance, Dr. King states how he had “hoped that the white moderate would understand the present tension [e.g. demonstrations and protests] is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality” (Caste 218). This statement is an example of Kant’s Second Version of the Categorical Imperative where there should be an element of Respect between all human beings regarding their ideas, values, beliefs. He further argues that with necessary nonviolent protest and direct action—which are “not the creators of tension” but instead actions that “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive”—there will be peace, stability, and order between all people. Overall, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, an open letter written when Dr. King was in jail, is a powerful work of American literature that embodies the spirit of the monumental Civil Rights Movement, as it not only underscores the reason for active and continued direct action of the African Americans but also interprets whether a law is just or unjust, and its application towards the oppressed and the oppressors. Furthermore, Dr. King was not a proponent of gradualism, the idea of not protesting but waiting for the rest of the nation to come to the conclusion of equal rights for all; instead, he was an ardent supporter of active and direct protest, as he believed that the key goal of “freedom[,] is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; [but] it must be demanded by the oppressed” (Caste 215). In an essential manner, he summarizes that “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro … and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice” (Caste 219). In closing, Dr. King’s vision has had a lasting influence to this very day, where social grassroots movements (e.g. Chicano Movement, Reproductive Justice, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, etc.) arising from the common citizen drive towards change and reform. And consequently, people today have continued to study and heed the political philosophy of Dr. King worldwide as they fight and act for what they believe and stand for.

Kantian ethics - Wikipedia

Immanuel Kant (German) - 1724-1804 CE


Mahatma Gandhi - Wikipedia

Mahatma Gandhi (Indian) - 1869-1948 CE


Martin Luther King Jr. - Biography - NobelPrize.org

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (American) - 1929-1968 CE


Source and Reference Texts:
  • Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Critique of Practical Reason, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch
  • Gandhi: Satyagraha
  • King: Letter from a Birmingham Jail