Definitions

categorical imperative

categorical imperative

categorical imperative: see Kant, Immanuel.

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:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

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.

Nature of the concept

In Kant's view, the nature of a moral act is one which would be the right thing to do for any person in similar circumstances. The capacity which allows us to make moral decisions is called pure practical reason, which should be contrasted with pure reason - the capacity to know; and with mere practical reason - which allows us to interact with the world in experience. Hypothetical imperatives guide action in an instrumental way, or in other words, they tell us about which means will be best to achieve our ends. But hypothetical imperatives do not tell us anything about the ends we should choose. On the other hand, Kant considers the right to be prior to the good. What is right to do cannot be determined with reference to anything empirical or sensuous; rather, they can only be determined by pure practical reason. Reason, separate from all empirical experience, is capable of determining the principle according to which all ends can be determined as moral, and it is this fundamental principle of moral reason which is known as the categorical imperative. Pure practical reason, in determining the moral law or categorical imperative, determines what ought to be done without reference to empirical contingent factors. This is the sense in which his meta-ethical position is objectivist rather than subjectivist; moral questions are determined independently of reference to the particular subject posing them. It is because morality is determined by pure practical reason rather than particular empirical or sensuous factors that morality is universally valid. This moral universalism has come to be seen as the distinctive aspect of Kant's moral philosophy, and has had wide social impact in the legal and political concepts of human rights and equality.

Freedom and autonomy

Kant viewed the human individual as a rationally self-conscious being with "impure" freedom of choice:

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."

Good will, duty, and the categorical imperative

Since considerations of the physical details of actions are necessarily bound up with a person's subjective preferences, and could have been brought about without the action of a rational will, Kant concluded that the expected consequences of an act are themselves morally neutral, and therefore irrelevant to moral deliberation. The only objective basis for moral value would be the rationality of the good will, expressed in recognition of moral duty.

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.

The first formulation (Or First Maxim)

From this step, Kant concludes that a moral proposition that is true must be one that is not tied to any particular conditions, including the identity of the person doing the moral deliberation. A moral maxim must have universality, which is to say that it must be disconnected from the particular physical details surrounding the proposition, and could be applied to any rational being. This leads to the first formulation of the categorical imperative:

  • "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

Kant divides the duties imposed by this formulation into two subsets:

Perfect duty

According to his reasoning, we first have a perfect duty not to act by maxims that result in logical contradictions when we attempt to universalize them. The moral proposition A: "It is permissible to steal" would result in a contradiction in conceivability. The notion of stealing presupposes the existence of property, but were A universalized, then there could be no property, and so the proposition has logically negated itself.

Imperfect duty

Second, we have imperfect duty, which is the duty to act only by maxims that we would desire to be universalized. Since it depends somewhat on the subjective preferences of humankind, this duty is not as strong as a perfect duty, but it is still morally binding.

The second formulation (Or Second Maxim)

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.

  • "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.

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.

The third formulation (Or Third Maxim)

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.

  • "Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends."

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.

Normative interpretation

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.

Deception

Kant asserted that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance. In Groundwork, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back. The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty). With lying, it would logically contradict the reliability of language. If it is universally acceptable to lie, then no one would believe anyone and all truths would be assumed to be lies. The right to deceive could also not be claimed because it would deny the status of the person deceived as an end in himself. And the theft would be incompatible with a possible kingdom of ends. Therefore, Kant denied the right to lie or deceive for any reason, regardless of context or anticipated consequences.

Theft

Kant argued that any action taken against another person to which he or she could not possibly consent is a violation of perfect duty interpreted through the second formulation. If a thief were to steal a book from an unknowing victim, it may have been that the victim would have agreed, had the thief simply asked. However, no person can consent to theft, because the presence of consent would mean that the transfer was not a theft. Since the victim could not have consented to the action, it could not be instituted as a universal law of nature, and theft contradicts perfect duty.

Suicide

Kant applied his categorical imperative to the issue of suicide in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, writing that:

Laziness

Kant also applies the categorical imperative in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals on the subject of "failing to cultivate one's talents." He proposes a man who if he cultivated his talents could bring many goods, but he has everything he wants and would prefer to enjoy the pleasures of life instead. The man asks himself how the universality of such a thing works. While Kant agrees that a society could subsist if everyone did nothing, he notes that the man would have no pleasures to enjoy, for if everyone let their talents go to waste, there would be no one to create luxuries that created this theoretical situation in the first place. Not only that, but cultivating one's talents is a duty to oneself. Thus, it is not willed to make laziness universal, and a rational being has imperfect duty to cultivate its talents. Kant concludes in Groundwork:
...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.

Charity

Kant's last application of the categorical imperative in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is of charity. He proposes a fourth man who finds life fine but sees other people struggling with life. This man ponders about what if he did nothing to help those in need while not envying them or accepting anything from them. While Kant admits that humanity could subsist (and admits it could possibly perform better) if this was universal, he states in Groundwork that:
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.

Cruelty to animals

Although actions with respect to non-rational agents do not have intrinsic moral content, Kant derived a prohibition against cruelty to animals as a violation of a duty in relation to oneself. According to Kant, man has the duty to strengthen the feeling of compassion, since this feeling promotes morality in relation to other human beings. But, cruelty to animals deadens the feeling of compassion in man. Therefore, man is obliged not to treat animals brutally (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, § 17). However, Kant also argued that as animals are not rational beings and humans are, animals are only valued on how much they serve human purposes.

Normative criticism

The Golden Rule

It is often said that the Categorical Imperative is the same as The Golden Rule. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals Kant states that what he is saying is not the same as the Golden Rule; that the Golden Rule is derived from the categorical imperative with limitations. Under the Golden Rule many things cannot be universal. A criminal on the grounds of the Golden Rule could dispute with judges or a man could refuse to give to charity, both of which are incompatible under the universality of the categorical imperative. Kant makes this point when arguing that a man who purposefully breaks a promise is immoral.

Enquiring murderer

One of the first major challenges to Kant's reasoning came from the Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant, who asserted that since truth telling must be universal, according to Kant's theories, one must (if asked) tell a known murderer the location of his prey. This challenge occurred while Kant was still alive, and his response was the essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives (sometimes translated On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns). In this reply, Kant agreed with Constant's inference, that from Kant's premises one must infer a moral duty to be truthful to a murderer.

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.

Questioning autonomy

Schopenhauer's criticism of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals expresses doubt concerning the absence of egoism in the Categorical Imperative. Schopenhauer claimed that the Categorical Imperative is actually hypothetical and egoistical, not categorical. Kierkegaard believed Kantian autonomy was insufficient and that, if unchecked, people tend to be lenient in their own case, either by not exercising the full rigor of the moral law or by not properly disciplining themselves of moral transgressions:

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