The categorical imperative was German Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) way of devising a set of requirements that a maxim (or motivation) has to pass through in order for an action to be considered a moral obligation. It was his attempt to formulate a general and universally applicable principle by which pure practical reason could distinguish right from wrong (1).
For Kant, moral duty can be understood through using reason, and because reason is universal (for human beings) it is a reliable and reasonable basis for a moral theory. And because moral law is a truth of reason, all rational creatures are bound by the same moral law. When a categorical imperative can be established it then becomes a person’s moral duty to carry out the action under any circumstances. Why does Kant call this maxim the “categorical imperative”? It is “imperative” because it is a command that is addressed to agents (human beings), and it is “categorical” because it applies unconditionally and universally without reference to any ends or ulterior motives that human beings might or might not have. Kant states the categorical imperative in at least three ways:
1. “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (2).
2. “Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature” (3)
3. “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only” (4)
The golden rule (which says to treat others as one’s self wishes to be treated) is strongly implied in all three stipulations. The main contention of the first two is that an individual should only act and behave towards other human beings with the end in mind or expectation that such an action and behaviour essentially become a universal law which could be applied back to the individual himself. If the individual does not desire an action or behaviour to become a universal law that would apply back to himself then he ought not engage in that action or behaviour towards other people. It would also follow that should ones desire an action or behaviour to become a universal law (such as to act towards others in love and/or with a passion for justice) then he or she should engage in that action or behaviour. Should one tell a lie? If one applies the categorical imperative then one should not tell a lie. Why? Because the individual telling the lie does not wish to be lied to himself, and therefore does not desire lying to become a universal law. Similarly, according to the third stipulation, if one does not wish form him or herself to be treated as a means to an end, and prefers being treated as an end, then he or she should not treat others as a means to an end. It is because of Kant’s idea of moral duty and the categorical imperative that he is deemed to have promoted a deontological theory of ethics.
1. Thompson, M. 1995. Teach Yourself Philosophy. p. 152-153.
2. Kant, I. 1998. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited by Mary Gregor. p. 31.
3. Kant, I. 1998. Ibid. p. 31.
4. Kant, I. 1998. Ibid. p. xxii.