In Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy, an imperative that presents an action as unconditionally necessary (e.g., “Thou shalt not kill”), as opposed to an imperative that presents an action as necessary only on condition that the agent wills something else (e.g., “Pay your debts on time, if you want to be able to obtain a mortgage”). Kant held that there was only one formally categorical imperative, from which all specific moral imperatives could be derived. In one famous formulation, it is: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Seealso deontological ethics.
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The categorical imperative is the central philosophical concept of the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and of modern deontological ethics. Kant introduced this concept in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Here, the categorical imperative is outlined according to the arguments found in his work.
Kant thought that human beings occupy a special place in creation and that morality can be summed up in one, ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. He defined an imperative as any proposition that declares a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary. A hypothetical imperative would compel action in a given circumstance: If I wish to satisfy my thirst, then I must drink something. A categorical imperative would denote an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation:
He expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the moral philosophy of his day because he believed it could never surpass the level of hypothetical imperatives. For example, a utilitarian would say that murder is wrong because it does not maximize good for the greatest number of people; but this would be irrelevant to someone who is concerned only with maximizing the positive outcome for himself. Consequently, Kant argued, hypothetical moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as bases for moral judgments against others, because the imperatives they are based on rely too heavily on subjective considerations. A deontological moral system based on the demands of the categorical imperative was presented as an alternative.
The faculty of desire in accordance with concepts, insofar as the ground determining it to action lies within itself and not in its object, is called a faculty to do or to refrain from doing as one pleases. Insofar as it is joined with one's consciousness of the ability to bring about its object by one's action it is called choice (wille); if it is not joined with this consciousness its act is called a wish. The faculty of desire whose inner determining ground, hence even what pleases it, lies within the subject's reason is called the will (willkur). The will is therefore the faculty of desire considered not so much in relation to action (as choice is) but rather in relation to the ground determining choice in action. The will itself, strictly speaking, has no determining ground; insofar as it can determine choice, it is instead practical reason itself.
Insofar as reason can determine the faculty of desire as such, not only choice but also mere wish can be included under the will. That choice which can be determined by pure reason is called free choice. That which can be determined only by inclination (sensible impulse, stimulus) would be animal choice (arbitrium brutum). Human choice, however, is a choice that can indeed be affected but not determined by impulses, and is therefore of itself (apart from an acquired proficiency of reason) not pure but can still be determined to actions by pure will.
- Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 6:213-4
For a will to be considered "free", we must understand it as capable of affecting causal power without being caused to do so. But the idea of lawless free will, that is, a will acting without any causal structure, is incomprehensible. Therefore, a free will must be acting under laws that it gives to itself.
Although Kant conceded that there could be no conceivable example of free will, because any example would only show us a will as it appears to us — as a subject of natural laws — he nevertheless argued against determinism. He proposed that determinism is logically inconsistent: The determinist claims that because A caused B, and B caused C, that A is the true cause of C. Applied to a case of the human will, a determinist would be arguing that the will does not have causal power because something else had caused the will to act as it did. But that argument merely assumes what it set out to prove; that the human will is not part of the causal chain.
Secondly, Kant remarks that free will is inherently unknowable. Since even a free person could not possibly have knowledge of his own freedom, we cannot use our failure to find a proof for freedom as evidence for a lack of it. The observable world could never contain an example of freedom because it would never show us a will as it appears to itself, but only a will that is subject to natural laws imposed on it. But we do appear to ourselves as free. Therefore he argued for the idea of transcendental freedom — that is, freedom as a presupposition of the question "what ought I to do?" This is what gives us sufficient basis for ascribing moral responsibility: the rational and self-actualizing power of a person, which he calls moral autonomy: "the property the will has of being a law unto itself."
Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law set by the categorical imperative. Because the consequences of an act are not the source of its moral worth, the source must be the maxim under which the act is performed, irrespective of all aspects or faculties of desire. Thus, an act can have moral content if, and only if, it is carried out solely with regard to a sense of moral duty; it is not enough that the act be consistent with duty, it must be carried out in the name of fulfilling a duty.
Kant divides the duties imposed by this formulation into two subsets:
Every rational action must set before itself not only a principle, but also an end. Most ends are of a subjective kind, because they need only be pursued if they are in line with some particular hypothetical imperative that a person may choose to adopt. For an end to be objective, it would be categorically necessary that we pursue it.
The free will is the source of all rational action. But to treat it as a subjective end is to deny the possibility of freedom in general. Because the autonomous will is the one and only source of moral action, it would contradict the first formulation to claim that a person is merely a means to some other end, rather than always an end in his or her self.
On this basis, Kant derives second formulation of the categorical imperative from the first.
By combining this formulation with the first, we learn that a person has perfect duty not to use itself or others merely as a means to some other end. As a slaveowner would be effectively asserting a moral right to own a person as a slave, he or she would be asserting a property right in another person. But this would violate the categorical imperative because it denies the basis for there to be free rational action at all; it denies the status of a person as an end in himself. One cannot, on Kant's account, ever suppose a right to treat another person as a mere means to an end.
The second formulation also leads to the imperfect duty to further the ends of ourselves and others. If any person desires perfection in himself or others, it would be his moral duty to seek that end for all people equally, so long as that end does not contradict perfect duty.
Because a truly autonomous will would not be subject to any particular interest, it would only be subject to those laws which it makes for itself. But it must also regard those laws as if they would be binding to others, or they would not be universalizable, and hence they would not be laws of conduct at all. Thus Kant presents the notion of the hypothetical Kingdom of Ends of which he suggests all people should consider themselves both members and heads.
We ought to act only by maxims which would harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends. We have perfect duty not to act by maxims that create incoherent or impossible states of natural affairs when we attempt to universalize them, and we have imperfect duty not to act by maxims that lead to unstable or greatly undesirable states of affairs.
Although Kant was intensely critical of the use of examples as moral yardsticks, because they tend to rely on our moral intuitions (feelings) rather than our rational powers, this section will explore some interpretations of the categorical imperative for illustrative purposes.
...he cannot possibly will that this should become a universal law of nature or be implanted in us as such a law by a natural instinct. For as a rational being he necessarily wills that all his faculties should be developed, inasmuch as they are given him for all sorts of possible purposes.
But even though it is possible that a universal law of nature could subsist in accordance with that maxim, still it is impossible to will that such a principle should hold everywhere as a law of nature. For a will which resolved in this way would contradict itself, inasmuch as cases might often arise in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others and in which he would deprive himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he wants for himself.
Kant denied that such an inference indicates any weakness in his premises: telling the truth to the murderer is required because moral actions do not derive their worth from the expected consequences. He claimed that because lying to the murderer would treat him as a mere means to another end, the lie denies the rationality of another person, and therefore denies the possibility of there being free rational action at all. This lie results in a contradiction in conceivability and therefore the lie is in conflict with duty.