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Kant and the Categorical Imperative Essay

The possibility of the existence of right and wrong has been a subject of discussion among philosophers for centuries and many theories have been presented to answer the question of whether morals exist. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the great German philosopher is one who has contributed profoundly to the world of philosophy and especially in regards to his thought on the subject of morality. Kant disagreed with Hume that morality is objective and not subjective. Kant wanted to propose a pure moral philosophy, one of absolute necessity and independent of all human feelings, because if it not so, it will not be absolute and binding upon every person. The purpose of morality is to affect our behaviour and that it is reason that makes humans moral and not feelings or preferences. We shall explore some of the a priori foundations of morality paying special attention to Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ and what exactly this was designed to solve in moral theory.

To have moral worth, an act must be done in the name of one’s duty, the moral worth of this act is taken from the principle from which it’s determined, not from what it aims to accomplish and that duty is necessary when one is acting out of respect for the law. A shopkeeper giving the buyer the right amount of change because the law states one must not steal, this is an example of a legal action because rules are being followed but for the wrong reasons. A shopkeeper returning the correct amount of change because it belongs to the customer is an example of a moral action because the action is being done for the right reasons. Kant adopts the view of morality as an ‘unconditional ought’, as opposed to a ‘conditional ought’ By this he means that one should perform an act without considerations of the merits that that act may produce, in comparison with acting in order for something else to happen. This implies that acts that are moral are those that are done without being done for the sake of the merit or reward that they may bring to the person.

Kant claimed that moral behaviour does not guarantee the attainment of happiness; rather that good will is crucial for actually deserving happiness. “Nothing in the world–indeed nothing even beyond the world–can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will” (Kant 1964 p.27). By the ‘good will’ Kant means that a good will is not good because what it performs or what it effects but that it is simply good in itself. The good will is the will which acts out of respect for the moral law and from freedom, but actions such as these, if motivated by selfish or emotional factors, will then have no moral worth. There is a great deal of stress placed on the intention behind the act, consider giving money to charity for the sake of helping out, without any need for any ego gratification or such self-serving purposes, this is an instance of “good will”.

Kant’s most well known contribution to ethical discussion is the categorical imperative. There are three key propositions that form the basis of Kant’s ethics. They are: act only on that maxim (principle) through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law, act in a way that you never treat humanity as a means to an end and that you act as if you were a lawmaker member of a kingdom of ends. These three principles form the categorical imperative. For Kant the source of moral justification is the categorical imperative. It presents a method to determine whether or not an act may be considered to be morally correct. An imperative is either categorical or hypothetical. Kant writes, “If now the action is good only as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical; if it is conceived as good in itself and consequently as being necessarily the principle of a will which of itself conforms to reason, then it is categorical . . . .” (Kant 1989 p.31)

As humans we all have subjective impulses – desires and inclinations that may contradict the dictates of reason. These desires, whether they are material objects or gratify us in a sexual or psychological way, may in fact contradict the dictates of reason. Therefore we experience the claim of reason as an imperative, a command to act in a particular way. Kant views a person to be most free when they can overcome their temptations and it is this freedom that helps us make sense of morality.

The categorical imperative emphasises the means for completing an action and places little meaning on the end result of an action, whereas the hypothetical imperative places much emphasis on the end result of an action. It is an imperative because it dictates what we should do, disregarding our desires. As rational beings we are guided through life by laws and principles, in the form of an imperative which simply orders us “you must do this” regardless of any desires which we may have. Hypothetical imperatives apply to us if we have a particular desire, “go to university if you want to become a philosopher”.

An act becomes imperative when it ought to be applied to everyone, hence the basic statement of the categorical imperative being to act only on maxims that you could will to become universal laws of human nature (Kant).

A categorical imperative would command you to do X inasmuch as X is intrinsically right, that is, right in and of itself, aside from any other considerations–no “ifs,” no conditions, no strings attached . . . a categorical imperative is unconditional (no “ifs”) and independent of any things, circumstances, goals, or desires. It is for this reason that only a categorical imperative can be a universal and binding law, that is, a moral law, valid for all rational beings at all times. (Miller 1984 p.462)

Immorality then would be to make exceptions for ourselves by acting only on maxims that we cannot universalize out of our own will. It is those who act in such a way and then expect others to act different to our way, who are immoral.

The categorical imperative acts as a formula for universal law; by stating the prerequisites that an act must have to be considered moral, it presents a comparison for people to be able to see if they are acting morally, this being to act only on principles that you could will to become universal laws by which all who wish to act morally must comply with. It determines whether any act is right or wrong, so to do the opposite would be contradictory and
this would then be an act that is not morally correct. An example that Kant puts forward in “Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative,” (1989) to depict this is of a man who is in extreme despair and contemplating suicide. By taking his own life he would be universalizing the principle that in order to love himself he should end his life (by doing this he is trying to improve his life by ending the despair he is feeling). Killing himself would in fact do nothing to improve his life because he would have no life at all! So you see how these contradictory acts undermine those that may be classified as morally right.

Although Kant’s categorical imperative has been widely read and accepted by some it has had criticism. Some philosophers have thought of it as absolutist, being too ‘black and white.’ But when thinking of humanity and society in which we reside, looking at morality according to the categorical imperative allows a standard rule for everyone to follow. If it was alright for some people to steal and not others this we could not call a moral and fair society. There needs to be a rule or comparison so that what acts are right and what are wrong may be differentiated from each other and the wrong acts then dealt with accordingly.

Some have asked how only an action which one had no desire to do could ever have any moral worth. This to me does not seem to be what is trying to be expressed in Kantian ethics. It is not the desire per se that makes an act immoral, I think it seems that it is more the fact of this desire being the reason the act is conducted in the first place. If the act is done to fulfil a personal desire or attain that which one desires, then the act is immoral, but if the act is done for the good of the act in itself, for example donating money to an orphanage because one desires to help, then this is still what Kant would regard as a morally right act.

Although Kantianism has had a profound effect on some people, producing many elaborations, translations and thought, for some it is not feasible once placed together as a whole. Kant had some very profound ideas but looking at society tody I would think he was definitely on the right thought pattern. Society and we as humans, with our impulses whether good or bad, need a clarified ethics to follow to help us separate what may be considered right and wrong in a moral sense, and it must be fair and the same for everyone, this is what Kant’s categorical imperative has done by creating a universal law or ‘rule of thumb’ for morality.


Kant, I. 1989 “Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative.” ed. Serafini, A.

Ethics and Social Concern, the categorical imperative. New York: Paragon House


Kant, I. 1964 Groundwork and the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Herbert J. Paton, New

York: HarperCollins.

Miller, Ed. L. 1984 Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy, 3rd ed.

Colorado: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

http://sguthrie.net/kant.htm (accessed on 12/10/04)

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