Kant's various formulations of the categorical imperative (2007)

The categorical imperative, in essence, is an ethical code of living. A deontological methodology, focusing in great attention to the action itself, rather than the consequence.

It helps us to make clear which actions we are obliged to do, and which are forbidden. The categorical imperative is within the frameworks of certainty: you “ought” to do something, it is an imperative:

“It demands that we act in a certain way, and this is the only demand which, as the term “categorical” specifies, is valid without qualification”

                        [2], Hoffe p.145

And so, the categorical imperative is a tool to help us live morally, act morally, be a good human being.

Morality is prescriptive according to Kant, and so the awareness of moral behaviour brings about the awareness of doing something. An alternative to the categorical imperative is a hypothetical imperative: “if I want x, I must do y”. This type of system depends on certain conditions and needs to be fulfilled, and is not a prescribed action. For Kant, these are not moral.

Kant put forth many principles and guides around the categorical imperative. Today definitions and truths can still be disagreed,

“others view the categorical imperative as a test for compliance with duty….others accuse Kant of completely ignoring all utilitarian consequences of dutiful action.”

                        [2], Hoffe, p.145

To clear some things up, a solid foundational place to start would be about the categorical imperative and universal law. A categorical imperative can only be so if it applies in every situation, without exception. It has to be right for everyone, not just me:

“act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law”

                        [1], Teale, pg. 154

According to Kant, the reason why this must be a universal principle is to not allow any exception that may jeopardise the principle. An example here may be about stealing, if someone steals to eat, then by his action, he is permitting other people to steal for their own ends.

A second principle Kant gave the categorical imperative is surrounding treating humans as ends. Kant says you can never use another person to get your own way. In this way he disagreed with utilitarians: regardless of the number of people, you cannot exploit the minority for the sake of other people (the majority) wanting to do something. Kant said:

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other. Never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

                        [2], Hoffe, p.148

And so, Kant said, we each have the freedom to exercise our own individual efforts, capabilities and wants. But we have to be mindful, and make sure what we want does not impose on another, and prevents their happiness. We must make sure we allow the freedom for other people as well as ourselves.

The third principle Kant gave the categorical imperative is acting as if we live in the kingdom of ends:

“All maxims proceeding from our own making of law ought to harmonise with a possible kingdom of ends as a kingdom of nature.”

                        [2] Hoffe, p.148

This is to say, we have to act as if us and other people are the ends. We all should be treated as ends. One cannot say “I will do x but everyone else has to do y.” It has to be an equal end, as otherwise it would not be possible to live in society.

The problem with Kant’s categorical imperative, is it seems to have gone to an extreme of an obligation of moral duty and behaviour. Whilst acknowledging its great use as a system for taking out theft, murder and violence, it struggles to answer topics with hard decisions, such as abortion and euthanasia.

Another problem is that of universality, as ethical problems are so diverse, some can be complex with many factors involved. Distinctions such as murder by self defence and murder with intent are very different, and must be addressed, but fail to do so in the categorical imperative. Another example is that, if it is wrong to steal in every case, what about a person who is to starve to death, is it still wrong for him to steal?

“The point emerging here is that Kantian formal universality is being transformed into particularity, a general rule to specific instances.”

                       [3] Harrison- Barbet, p.197

However, the theory does give a good groundwork approach for looking at and analysing ethical problems. It is a complete and thorough thought out theory. It greatly emphasises each of our value; our individual worth, by treating humans as ends. It means we can’t be exploited. 



[1] A.E Teale                                       Kantian Ethics, Greenwood Press, 1979.

[2] Otfried Hoffe                                Immanuel Kant, State University of New York Press, 1994                         

[3] Anthony Harrison- Barbet             Mastering Philosophy Second edition, Palgrave, 2001