The Categorical Imperative is the central concept in Kant’s ethics. It refers to the “supreme principle of morality” (4:392), from which all our moral duties are derived. The basic principle of morality is an imperative because it commands certain courses of action. It is a categorical imperative because it commands unconditionally, quite independently of the particular ends and desires of the moral agent.
Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative in several different ways but according to the well-known "Universal Law" formulation, you should "…act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it be a universal law." Since maxims are, roughly, principles of action, the categorical imperative commands that one should act only on universal principles, principles that could be adopted by all rational agents.
An imperative is a command (e.g. “shut the door!”). Kant thinks that imperatives may be expressed in terms of there being some action that one ‘ought’ to do. For example, the imperative “Be quiet!” may be expressed as: “you ought to be quiet.” Kant distinguishes two types of imperatives: categorical imperatives and hypothetical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives have the general form, “If you want Φ then you ought to do Ψ.” “If you want to lose weight, you should not eat chocolate,” is an example of a hypothetical imperative. Refraining from eating chocolate is something that is required of one insofar as one is committed to the end of losing weight. In this respect, the imperative commands conditionally: it applies only on the condition that one shares the end for which the imperative prescribes means. To the extent that this end is not one that is required (and someone may say, “losing weight is really not that important!”), one is not required to perform the actions instrumental to it. One can escape what is required by the imperative by giving up the end.
In contrast with hypothetical imperatives, which depend on one’s having particular desires or ends (such as wanting to lose weight), categorical imperatives describe what we are required to do independently of what we may desire or prefer. In this respect they prescribe behavior categorically. A categorical imperative has the general form, “Do A!” or “you ought to do A.” Kant argues that moral rules are categorical imperatives, since the content of a moral prohibition is supposed to apply quite independently of our desires and preferences. Consider, for example, the moral rule “You shall not murder.” This moral rule has application quite absolutely. It does not include any condition such as “You shall not murder if you want to avoid punishment,” or “You shall not murder if you want to be a moral person.” The categorical applies quite independently of out desires and preferences. We cannot escape its force insofar as we are moral agents.
According to Kant, moral rules are categorical imperatives. Furthermore, Kant thought that all our moral duties, substantive categorical imperatives, depend on a basic requirement of rationality, which he regards as the supreme principle of morality (4: 392): this is the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative, as opposed to categorical imperatives, substantive moral rules, is the basic form of the moral law.
An analogy with the biblical Golden Rule might help to make the relation between categorical imperatives and the Categorical Imperative somewhat clearer. In Mathew 7:6, Jesus Christ urges that “all things … that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them: this, in fact, is what the Law and the Prophets mean.” In this text Jesus makes two important claims: firstly, he prescribes the Golden Rule as a regulating principle for how we conduct ourselves; secondly, he says that the Mosaic Law and declarations of the prophets may be summed up in terms of this rule. Jesus may be understood here as maintaining that the Golden Rule is to be employed in helping us identify what actions we ought to perform, and also, to justify particular moral rules. Taking first the point about identification, Jesus’ suggestion is that whenever one is unsure about whether to pursue a particular course of action, he may employ the Golden Rule to ascertain whether this course of action is correct. This is to identify certain courses of action as morally permissible and impermissibly. Secondly, with respect to justification, the Golden Rule may be used to justify the moral codes expressed in the Mosaic Law because it is the fundamental principle upon which Jewish moral codes are expressions. The Golden Rule is a fundamental moral principle that may be used to explain why particular moral rules apply (e.g., those of the Mosaic Law).
The categorical imperative is significantly different from the Golden Rule, but the relation between it as a basic moral principle and higher order moral principles is the same. It may be employed in similar fashion to identify and justify particular moral rules, or what might be called, substantive categorical imperatives. First, with respect to identification, as we shall see below, the categorical imperative may be used as a decision procedure in identifying certain courses of action as permissible and impermissible. Secondly, with respect to justification, Kant thinks that the categorical imperative underlies all commonly recognized moral laws, such as those prohibiting telling lies, those requiring beneficence, forbidding murder, and others. Since these moral laws can be derived from the categorical imperative, these moral rules may be justified with reference to that basic moral principle. The categorical imperative then explains why our moral duties, whatever they might be, bind us as rational moral agents.
Kant attempts to derive our moral duties from the very concept of a moral rule or moral obligation. Kant argues that moral obligations are categorical imperatives. Since categorical imperatives apply to rational agents without regard to their particular ends and purposes, they cannot be explained in terms of what a person has self-interested reason to do. A categorical imperative applies to moral agents independently of facts about their own goals, and desires; it prescribes nothing other than “obey the law!” The essential property of a law is universality. The laws of physics, for instance, describe the behavior of all physical properties of the universe. Similarly, moral laws are universal in scope in that they are universally applicable, applicable to all rational beings. (Of course, moral laws are not descriptive of how things actually operate but prescribe how rational agents would act insofar as they are rational.) From this line of thought, Kant infers the basic principle of morality, the categorical imperative, which says that one should “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421). This version of the categorical is often called that formula of the Universal Law of Nature.
A maxim is a principle of action, or a policy prescribing some course of action. The maxim of an action gives the principle upon which an agent acts. It specifies the reason for which a person acts. Since the categorical imperative requires that the maxims upon which we act be capable of becoming universal laws, this is equivalent to the requirement that we act for reasons that are universally acceptable. We ought to act for reasons that could be adopted by all. A maxim that could consistently be adopted by all rational agents is said to be universalizable. Taking into account this equivalence, the categorical imperative may be formulated as follows: Act only according to maxims that are universalizable.
The categorical imperative in its Universal Law formulation—“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”—may be used as a decision procedure, to test the permissibility of maxims. If a maxim fails the universalizability test, then acting on this maxim is forbidden. Conversely, if a maxim passes the universalizability test then it is permissible for one to act on this maxim. Kant holds that the notion of consistency is central to the concept of universality and argues that a maxim passes the universalizabilty test only if it can be consistently willed as a universal law. The Categorical Imperative, used as a decision procedure, and employed to test maxims for permissibility, is essentially then a logical test, and involves calculating whether the maxim could be consistently (without contradiction) willed as a universal law. This encapsulates Kant’s conviction that ‘willing’ is governed by laws of rationality so that there is something deeply irrational about wrongdoing.
The basic steps in testing maxims for consistency are the following. First, formulate your maxim for the proposed action. Secondly, generalize this maxim so that it is formulated as a universal law that determines the behavior of all rational agents. This is to imagine that one’s proposed maxim is one that all other agents adopt and must adopt as a maxim. Thirdly, check to see whether the generalized maxim can be conceived as a universal law. If this is possible, check to see whether it can be consistently willed as a universal law. It is morally permissible to act on a maxim only if it can be consistently willed as a universal law—in other words, it passes all the aforementioned steps. Another way of putting this point is to say that universalizability of a maxim is both necessary and sufficient for the moral rightness of acting on this particular maxim.
This procedure may be illustrated in concrete detail by examining Kant’s well-known example of a lying promise. Kant imagines someone who is in need of money and knows that he would be able to acquire some by borrowing with a promise to repay, a promise he knows that he will not be able to keep. The question is then whether this person should make a lying promise in order to secure the money. In Kant’s own words, “May I not, when I am hard pressed, make a promise with the intention of not keeping it?” (Gr. 18/402) Following the steps outlined above, Kant argues that we are able to demonstrate that acting on the maxim of a lying promise is morally impermissible.
Firstly, formulating the maxim for the proposed action, the man in Kant’s example would be acting on something like the following maxim.
[M] Whenever it is to my advantage do so, I shall make lying promises to obtain what I want.
The next step in testing the permissibility of the maxim requires that we imagine a world in which this maxim were generalized, that it were be one upon which all agents acted. Generalizing M, we obtain,
[GM] Whenever it is to anyone’s advantage, he shall make lying promises to obtain what he wants.
Kant argues that [GM] cannot be conceived as a universal law. His reasoning seems to be that if everyone were to adopt the maxim of false promising, trust would break down to such an extent that one would no longer be able to make promises at all. This implies that the generalized maxim of false promising [GM] could not function as a universal law and the maxim is internally inconsistent. The categorical imperative requires one to test the moral quality of a maxim by considering whether it is possible to will one’s proposed maxim [M] together with its generalized version [GM]. As we have already seen, [GM] is internally inconsistent: in a world where everyone lied all the time, there could be no promise making. This generates a contradiction in our will because one cannot will to make a lying promise in a world in which there were no promises. This is to conceive of a world in which one has promised, and yet, there are no promises—and this is something which cannot be rationally willed.
Lastly, it is important to note that Kant is not saying that we should ask whether it would be a good or bad thing if everyone did what the man in his example is contemplating. Kant is not a utilitarian. Rather, his point is that the maxim of making false promises cannot be consistently willed with a universalized version of that maxim. There are various ways of interpreting the practical contradiction that arises in this sort of case, but I shall refer to this as a contradiction in conception. One’s proposed maxim cannot be conceived together with its generalized version.
There is a second way in which a maxim might fail the universalizability test, which does not involve a contradiction in conception. Even if one can consistently will one’s maxim together with the universalized version of the maxim, one cannot consistently will this maxim because it conflicts with something else one must will. To illustrate this, consider Kant’s example of someone who, when his own life is flourishing acts on the maxim of simply ignoring those who are in need. Following the steps as outlined about, the rule, or maxim that this person would be following in failing to help others in need may be formulated as follows:
[M] Whenever I am flourishing, I shall give nothing to anyone else in need.
The next step requires the deliberating agent to enquire whether the maxim may be conceived as a universal law
[GM] Whenever anyone is flourishing, then he will give nothing to anyone else in need.
Clearly this maxim can be conceived as a universal law and does not involve any contradiction in conception. A person could consistently will GM and M: it is possible to conceive of this maxim with its generalized form without contradiction. However, Kant says that it is nonetheless irrational to will M. His reasoning seems to go through the following steps. Firstly, insofar as we are rational then we will he means to our ends. Secondly, we are not independent and self-sufficient creatures. We need the help of others achieve some of our ends or the ends of our loved ones, which are our ends insofar as we love them. If one wills M and GM, one would be willing something that goes against us satisfying our ends. But this is irrational—it conflicts with a fundamental principle of rationality So M cannot be rationally willed a universal law of nature, although it can be rationally conceived as a law of nature (Sullivan 1989, 179).
Kant argues that the principles of human duty can be justified with reference to the categorical imperative. But moral duties do not bind us in exactly the same way. Kant claims that two sorts of duties may be distinguished: perfect and imperfect duties. Perfect duties are negative and strict: we simply are forbidden from doing these sorts of actions. Examples of perfect duties include “Thou shall not murder” and “Thou shall not lie.” By contrast, imperfect duties are positive duties: they refer to what we are required to do, rather than refrain from doing. Imperfect duties are not strict in that they do not specify how much we ought to do to. Although one, for example, ought to act beneficently as far as possible, the “as far as possible” is left indeterminate: not every action that fails to measure up is wrong; there is more leeway in meeting one’s imperfect duties.
Kant argues that the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties corresponds to the two possible ways in which a maxim may fail the categorical imperative test. Roughly speaking, as we saw in the last section, a maxim may fail the test by generating a contradiction when conjoined with its universalized form (contradiction in conception), or when conjoined with other maxims which one must will (contradiction in will). The maxim of an action that violates a perfect duty always generates a contradiction in conception. This maxim then specifies a moral rule that is a perfect duty. A maxim that violates an imperfect duty generates a contradiction in will.
In addition to the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties, Kant believes that ordinary moral thinking recognizes another basic distinction within our moral duties. This is the distinction between duties to oneself and duties to others. Kant provides four examples to illustrate how the categorical imperative may be used in this fashion to test maxims for moral permissibility, which include specification of perfect duties to self and other, and imperfect duties to self and other (4:422). The examples illustrate that the categorical imperative can be used to generate all commonly recognized duties. Kant’s examples include a perfect duty to ourselves—not to commit suicide—an imperfect duty to ourselves to develop our talents, a perfect duty to others not to lie or make false promises, and an imperfect duty to others of beneficence.
Kant provided several formulations of the categorical imperative and claimed that they were all equivalent. Commentators disagree about exactly how many distinct formulas Kant recognizes. In addition to the Universal Law of Nature formula discussed above, it is widely agreed that Kant elaborates three others: (2) The Humanity Formula (3) The Autonomy formula and (4) the Kingdom of Ends formula.
In its best known formulation the humanity formula is: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Gr. 66-67/429). The humanity formula is closely linked with the idea of respecting persons. This formula makes clear one of Kant’s deepest disagreements with consequentialism, which does not place any ‘in principle’ limitations on what it is permissible to do to a person: anything is permitted, so long as the consequences are good enough. In contrast, Kant argues that human beings are ends in themselves, which means that they have value that is intrinsic, absolute, incomparable, and objective. Kant argues that every human agent possesses this sort of ultimate value, and gives it a special name: dignity. When Kant says that human beings are ends in themselves, he means that they have dignity and the appropriate response to dignity is respect. The humanity formula of the categorical imperative prescribes, then, that we respect persons because they possess dignity. We do so by treating persons as ends in themselves, that is, treat them in ways that acknowledge their fundamental value or dignity.
The third formulation of the categorical imperative is “the Idea of the will of every rational being as a will that legislates universal law” (4:432). This is not formulated as an imperative, but may be transposed into imperative form as, “Act only in such a way that your maxims could serve as legislations of universal laws.” This formula is closely correlated with the Universal Law formulation but places emphasis on the capacity of rational agents to legislate the moral law. The capacity of rational agents to legislate the law for themselves is at the heart of human dignity.
The fourth, “Kingdom of Ends” formulation of the categorical imperative, states that we must “act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends” (4:439). The Kingdom of Ends formulation has proved influential in contemporary debates especially in the political philosophy of John Rawls.
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