The categorical imperative is the main ethical theoretical construct of the famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is considered a significant contributor to modern philosophy and a major influence of contemporary thought. [1]

Kant's metaphysical and epistemological philosophical contributions—such as, for example, that experience is the basis of all knowledge [2]—have had profound influences on many thinkers to follow him. Whole schools of thought, such as phenomenology, have their roots in Kantian thinking.

Kant was a deontologist in the strongest sense. Consequences did not matter—it was the will, or "maxim," behind an action that decided its moral nature. Categorical Imperative is a monistic normative theory due to its a single fundamental obligation, principle or rule (intentions of actions rather than consequences—which are, for this purpose, described as maxims)[3].

It is important to discuss Kant and his definition of moral agents as rational beings. In Kant’s theory, the basis of morality is reason. He is concerned with moral law with the end objective being humanity. By relying on the universality of reason, Kant’s theories are concerned with a moral society where dominant structures are insignificant and where equality and autonomy rule [4]. Rational agents, as defined by Kant, are ends in themselves. Kant’s theory works when the motive of all actions is above our personal interests and we operate as rational beings, guided by logic and reason over ego.

The categorical imperative is a moral absolute. It is expressed in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in three distinct formulations.

In the first formulation of the categorical imperative, Kant is giving content to morality, defining what is right and wrong. He describes it as a “compass” that one can use to know the way to distinguish between good and evil [6]. He suggests that we should "act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law [7]." An act is wrong if its maxim cannot be willed (by others and yourself) into becoming universal law. Whatever can be universally agreed to is what is right or wrong without contradiction
.
To apply the categorical imperative, Kant relies on logic and for the maxim behind the action to be universal, not the outcome of the action. Kant's rules are absolute, and without exception, no matter what the consequences might be. If the universal law states that lying is not permissible, then it is not permissible to lie, ever—even when telling the truth to an inquiring murderer means the imminent death of an innocent friend hiding in your house. You are resolved of responsibility for the outcome because you accepted the maxim of universal law (moral principle) that states one must always tell the truth. [8]

According to Kant, there is a distinction between duties and their rationalization. Perfect duties, such as lying, should not be violated as they contradict universalization and become illogical. Perfect duties are morally binding. This is best served with the example of stealing another’s property. If someone decided to steal, thereby willing it into universalization, said property would not exist for anyone to steal. [9]

In contrast, imperfect duties can be violated. They are not morally binding but actions that are praiseworthy. Failure to oblige an imperfect duty does not make one immoral. [10]

If the Categorical Imperative prescribes that we act in a way that our actions can be willed into universal law, without being motivated by personal interests or prudence, why would a rational person be motivated to follow it? Kant's second and third formulation of the categorical imperative offers motivation to conform to universal laws—treating rational beings as ends rather than means (mutual respect), and autonomy of will.


In his second formulation, Kant says that we should treat other rational beings as ends in themselves, never as a means to an end. He is saying that the identity of a person is tied to the rationality of their actions, not their ego (being motivated by their desires or inclinations). A person’s rationality is definitive of what we are made up of, our absolute worth. The motivation of actions to conform to universal laws is our respect for our own self-identity as rational beings. To be rational human beings is to submit ourselves to universal laws, respecting others as much as oneself. [11]


Kant's third and final formulation of the categorical imperative is the principle of autonomy–the autonomy of will [12]. Essentially, it outlines that every rational being is able to reason through to the necessary conclusions to act morally, as a "maker of laws in the kingdom of ends" [13] This principle of autonomy essentially allows the first formulation of the categorical imperative to hold. Kant considers the ability to obey the universal law you will into existence, the ultimate freedom.


Together, the three formulations of the categorical imperative spell out a test for the morality of a given action—essentially, if the maxim or motivation behind the action can be conceived as a universal law, if it doesn't violate the dignity of a rational being, then it passes the test and can be considered morally permissible. [14]

The categorical imperative offers impartiality and fundamental respect for persons in and of themselves as individuals, which have come to be known as its key contributions to what matters in moral decisions. Not unlike the The Golden Rule,
they are guideposts for directions in our lives. However, the Golden Rule is not to be confused with categorical imperative as it is different in that it asks people to behave how they would want done unto them for the benefit of themselves. The categorical imperative asks for goodwill on behalf of all.

One could without hesitation reasonably will that all CEOs be forthright and accept responsibility for product contamination, for example, as Michael McCain did in the listeriosis outbreak caused by products of Maple Leaf Foods, and such an action certainly seems to respect the dignity of human beings.


Kant has certainly offered us a moral guidepost in the categorical imperative—but it has also drawn criticism. Some critics suggest that a theory cannot be normative and universal as the two are contradictory[15], others suggest that it is logically remiss as it imposes restrictions on those who lack the sense to evade them[16] Others suggest that its strict focus on valuing rational beings seems to exclude respect for animals or the environment[17], unless the animals or environment can be manipulated for human benefit.

Such difficult questions suggest that the categorical imperative's main contribution seems to be at the general and theoretical level—as guideposts, rather than as literal criteria. It has been seen, in many respects, as similar to The Golden Rule in its equality and fundamental respect for persons. In our professional and personal lives, it is difficult to argue with Kant's belief. As we plan our actions, we should consider what the situation might be if every human being acted how we intend to in a similar situation, and the extent to which our actions respect individual human dignity.

1. Wikipedia Page: Categorical Imperative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative

2. Kant's philosophical development. (2008). Retrieved September 28, 2008, from Stanford University, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Web site: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-development/

3. Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, p. 181.

4. Snir, I. (2010). The new “categorical imperative” and adorno’s aporetic moral philosophy. Continental Philosophy Review, 43(3), 407 – 437

5. Wood, A. (2006) The good without limitation. In C. Horn & D. Schönecker. Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Gmbtt & co.

6. Kant, I. (1953). Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. (H.J. Paton, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1785).

7. Kant, I. (1953). Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. (H.J. Paton, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1785).

8. Kant, I. (1797). On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives. In L.B. White, Ed., (1976) Immanuel Kant: Critique of practical reason and other writings in moral philosophy. New York: Garland.

9. Rice, S., Trafimow, D., Hunt, G., & Sandry, J. Generalizing kant`s distinction between perfect and imperfect duties to trust in different situations. The Journal of General Psychology, 37(1), 20 - 36

10. Rice, S., Trafimow, D., Hunt, G., & Sandry, J. Generalizing kant`s distinction between perfect and imperfect duties to trust in different situations. The Journal of General Psychology, 37(1), 20 – 36

11. Melnick, A. (2002). Kant’s formulations of the categorical imperative. Kant-Studien, 93(3), 291 – 308. Direct Link

12. Melnick, A. (2002). Kant’s formulations of the categorical imperative. Kant-Studien, 93(3), 291 – 308. Direct Link

13. Kant, I. (1953). Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. (H.J. Paton, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1785).

14. Pojman, L. P. (1995). Ethics: Discovering right and wrong. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, p. 146.

15. Moore, A.(1953). A categorical imperative? Ethics, 63(4), 235 - 250 Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2378522

16. Scarre, G. (1998). Interpreting the categorical imperative. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 6(2), 223 – 236. Direct Link

17. Jeff Sebo, Animal Liberation Front website: http://www.animalliberationfront.com/Philosophy/A%20Critique%20of%20the%20Kantian%20Theory.htm