Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was a German philosopher and is considered one of the central figures in modern philosophy.


Kant believed that people’s actions should to be guided by moral laws, and that these moral laws were universal. He held that in order to apply to all rational beings, any supreme principle of morality must itself be based on reason. Even if a person’s is doing good should and it cause harm, the good will behind the efforts is still good. According to Kant, Our focus should be on what we ought to do. Our sense of “ought to” is called dutifulness. , what we want to do is of no significance.

Kantianism is based on the premise that rational beings can use logic to explain the “why” behind their solutions to ethical problems. What matters is the motivation behind the act and not the consequences.The 4 possibilities of actions based on Kant’s intention/motivation vs. consequences are

  • good intentions, right act (you did the morally right thing and you get credit for it)
  • good intentions, wrong act (you did the morally wrong thing but you are not to be blamed for it)
  • bad intentions, right act (you did the morally right thing, but you don’t get credit for it)
  • bad intentions, wrong act (you did the morally wrong thing and you have to take the blame for it)

So for Kant, the blame or credit we attach to one’s intentions and the rightness and wrongness of what one did are separate and independent.Kantianism aligns with the intuition of many people that the same morality ought to apply to all people for all of history. These guidelines allow us to make clear moral judgments. For example, one such judgment might be: “Sacrificing living human beings to appease the gods is wrong.” It is wrong in North America in the twenty first century, and it was wrong in South America in the fifteenth century.

Kant states that “all people are created equal.” because it holds that people in similar situations should be treated in similar ways, and his theory delivers a moral agenda to fight discrimination.Finally his theory is summarised as a good person is someone who always does their duty because it is their duty whether they enjoy it or not.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

A categorical imperative denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.  He gives the highest honour for the categorical imperative because it became universal law that can be applied to any and every one. Kant is saying that simply willing that our moral rule become a universal law produces a logical contradiction. His categorical imperative ensures that we aren’t doing these acts in mimic of others (like God), but rather in line with one universal law.

The 3 Categorical Imperatives stated by Kant are as follows:

  • Act only according to thatmaxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.  It states that one should choose our ‘codes of conduct’ only if they serve perfect / imperfect duty and are good for all. Perfect duties are blameworthy if not met and are the basic requirements for a human being. An example of perfect duty is the avoidance of suicide.
  • 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. This states that we should not use humanity of ourselves or others as a means to an end. An example of the second maxim would be that of slavery.
  • Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends. This states that we should consider ourselves to be members in the universal realm of ends. We should consider our actions to be of consequence to everyone else in that our actions affect not only ourselves but that of others.
  • Kant’s system, neglects to identify or, rather, to justify the existence of the moral law.
  • It neglects the value of nature

Difference between hypothetical imperative and categorical imperative

Imperatives are formula of a reason that determines the will of the action. Imperatives can be expressed in terms of what ought to do. All imperatives are communicated by doing an action conferring to the standard of a will that it will provide a good ending in anyway. If the end action is good, as a mean to something it is hypothetical imperative. On the other hand, if the action is good according to itself than it is considered a categorical imperative.

Kant holds that a categorical imperative is the fundamental principle of our moral duties because it is a command that exercise our wills in a particular way, not to perform some action or other. It is categorical in nature because we possess rational wills, without reference to any ends that we might or might not have.

A hypothetical imperative is a command that also applies to us in virtue of our having a rational will, but not simply in virtue of this. It requires us to exercise our wills in a certain way given we have an origin willed an end. A hypothetical imperative is thus a command in a conditional form.

Kant’s notion of good will

According to Kant, the one unconditionally good thing is a good will despite all encroachments. When we act, consequences of our actions lies beyond our control, but the will behind the action can be controlled. People with good will often accomplish good deeds, but producing beneficial outcomes is not what makes a good will good. A good will is good in and of itself. Even if a person’s efforts at doing causes harm and fall short, the good will behind the efforts is still good. Since it is the only thing that is universally good, the proper function of reason is to cultivate a will that is good in itself. Kant also explains good will that, it is absolute and “to be esteemed incomparably higher than anything which could be brought about by it in favour of any inclination or even of the sum of total inclinations.

E.g. Kant stated that the kind act of the person who overcomes a natural lack of sympathy for other people out of respect for duty has moral worth, whereas the same kind act of the person who naturally takes pleasure in spreading joy does not.

Kant’s view on the origin and importance of moral knowledge

Kant laid the foundations in Critique of Pure Reason (1781) about moral of knowledge. It stated about the moral of knowledge as one of the two things that filled his mind with new and increasing admiration, apart from the starry heaven above him. Kant tried to show that both the laws of nature and morality are grounded in human reason. He is often thought to have define, nature and freedom, the realm of what is and that of what ought to be.

The Basis of Moral Knowledge
  • The mission of moral philosophy is to determine how we are able to arrive at principles of behavior that are binding upon all people.
  • Kant did not believe that induction was a suitable method for determining these principles since that would simply tell the people do behave not how they ought to behave.
  • For Kant the moral judgment, “we ought to tell the truth” is arrived at in the same way as the scientific statement, “every effect has a cause.”
  • These judgments are derived from reason not experience. According to him, theoretical reasoning brings the category of causality whereas, practical reason brings the “ought to be”.
  • He states that in science and in moral philosophy the concepts should go beyond any particular facts like science, practical reason employs a priori judgments.
  • The basis of obligation must not be sought in human nature or in the circumstances of the world but a justified argument in the concepts of reason.

Kant’s Postulates of Morality

The three postulates of morality are given by Immanuel Kant. In detail they are

Immortality of the Soul

Kant states in his critique, “the belief in God and another world is so interwoven with my moral sentiment.” The postulate of immortality was that the belief in immortality has to be based on the moral disposition and not one hope of future rewards. Kant bases his first argument for immortality. As ‘nothing is purposeless’ each organ into the world has its own specific claim that human life as whole is an end not in this life but in a future life. The moral arguments for the immortality of the soul as stated by Kant:

  1. The highest good is a necessary object of the will.
  2. Holiness, or complete fitness of intentions to the moral law, is necessary condition of the highest good.
  3. Holiness cannot be found in a sensuous rational being.
  4. The highest good can be made real.

Kant also makes it clear that the postulate of immortality is that which cannot be known but can only be thought and furnish us with only practical and objective truth that can give rise to action-motives worthy of achieving highest good.

Freedom of the Soul

Freedom is one of the postulates, which is considered as logically possible and practically useful and it is the key stone of the whole architecture of the system of pure reason and even speculative reason. Freedom provides a conception of ourselves which motivates us to obey the moral law. As freedom of will can’t be given empirical or theoretical evidence, Kant’s thought on freedom of the will can be seen to pass the following phases.

  • Human actions are those that have internal rather than external causes.
  • Human actions which are not dictated by deterministic laws of nature cannot be proved.
  • Human freedom’s existence can be proved and thereby proving that moral law applies to us.
  • The freedom of will form the undeniable fact of our religion.
  • Kant says that freedom desires both itself and the freedom of others.
The existence of God

The God postulated by Kant is not the God of religion. The postulate of God is a need or requirement of our moral consciousness or a moral necessity which is subjective and no way connected to the consciousness of our duty. The divine will is the motive to action, not ground of it. The possibility of the existence of a certain object is explained by this hypothesis explained appropriately as a faith and indeed a faith of reason.

Kant stresses that the properties of Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omnipresence can be assigned to God to play his moral role of guaranteeing the possibility of the highest good. God is not a metaphysical concept, original being, that functions in the thinking of a moral agent and exercise a real influence on his/her actions.

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