Last Updated 28 Feb 2017

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Category Metaphysics
Essay type Research
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Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe in the mid to late 18th century.  Immanuel Kant advanced the deontological theory with his theory: the categorical imperative.  Deontology is the theory of duty or moral obligation.  Performing that duty is the righteous act in itself, not the act leading to an expected or attempted end.   In other words, the end does not justify the means, but the means is an end unto itself.

"In his theory, Kant claimed that various actions are morally wrong if they are inconsistent with the status of a person as a free and rational being, and that, conversely, acts that further the status of people as free and rational beings are morally right." (Categorical)  Kant believed that to carry out morally right actions was an absolute duty.  He believed there were two types of duty: contingent duties which needed to be carried out only under certain circumstances, and categorical duties which always needed to be carried out because they were based on the general nature of things. (Categorical)  From these categorical duties, Kant created the categorical imperative.

The categorical imperative is comprised of five formulations. The first three were the most famous:

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"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
"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 simply as a means"
"Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends." (Kant ) The first two formulations will be discussed in this paper.  The third formulation seems to merely combine the commands of the first two formulations.

In order to understand the categorical imperative theory, the definition of a maxim must be understood.  A maxim, according to Kant, is a principle or rule that an individual uses when making a decision to act. (Categorical)  Morality and rational demands apply to the maxims that motivate actions. (Categorical)

The first formulation is the Formula of Universal Law.  It holds that one should only act on a maxim that the agent is willing to hold as a universal law.  Also, the law "must not come into conflict with itself." (Categorical)  In other words, if the rule or maxim cannot or should not apply to everyone or if it contradicts itself in any situation, then it should not be acted upon.  If the maxim is rational and not contradictory to itself, then the action should and, in some cases, must be taken. (Categorical)  Kant divided this reference to the duty to act on maxims into perfect duty and imperfect duty.  The perfect duty is to act only on maxims that do not result in logical contradictions when they are universalized.  The imperfect duty is to act only on those maxims that the agent is willing to universalize.  One cannot create a maxim for oneself that he or she will not apply to someone else.

The second formulation is the Formula of the End in Itself.  This formulation holds that one should consider other humans or "rational beings" as well as one's self as an end, never as a means. (Categorical)  This is the opposite of the ends justifies the means theory.  In this formulation, the means are considered an end.  Therefore, the means cannot justify the ends.  If it is wrong to lie, then it is wrong to lie whether the outcome from the lie is good or bad because the lie was the end in itself: the morally wrong action that was taken. This means that a person must apply all maxims to others as he applies them to himself or else the maxims would be contradictory.

There is a strong point made with both formulations, as well as a weakness.  The strongest point in the first formulation is universality.  It makes sense that one should wish to apply all rules and laws to others as they are applied to one's self.  For example, if I were expected by a local law to keep my dog on a leash, I would expect my neighbors to abide by that law also.  Similarly, if I was allowed the freedom to have as many children as I wish, then I should not try to take that freedom from others.  This applies to the second formulation also.  If other rational beings are to be treated as rational beings and not a means to my outcomes, then these rational beings should all hold these same freedoms that I do.

In contrast, both formulations have a weakness.  It is difficult to always judge actions, as they stand alone.  It is wrong to murder.  However, in self-defense, it may be necessary.  If we view a self-defensive murder according to the categorical formulation, it is wrong to murder no matter the outcome, good or bad.  But what if killing an attacker was the only method of saving one's own life and perhaps, depending on the scenario, the lives of others?  Then was it morally wrong to murder?  Would the obligation to save others overrule the principle that murder is wrong?  What is the maxim to act on in this case?  Too many contradictions and shaky situations can arise to dispute the formulation.

The second formulation is easier to practice than the first.  It is sensible to apply the same rules to one's self as to other human beings.  However, because the first formulation requires that particular conditions not apply, it is more difficult to practice the first formulation. Nevertheless, the second formulation supports the first.  If a maxim is contradictory, then it should not be used to make decisions.  Also, as in the second formulation, if a person or action was used as a means and not an end, then it could not be rational or universal which would render it contradictory.  So, one would be morally bound not to use such a maxim to make decisions by perfect and imperfect duty.

In order for the second formulation to be true, the first formulation must exist.  In the first formulation, it is explained that the maxim cannot be contradictory to itself and it must be willingly used universally.  In the second formulation, if a person demands an end for himself, he must demand the same end for everyone else.  Everyone has a moral obligation to seek the same ends for all mankind that he seeks for himself.  For example, if a man seeks the freedom to marry whom he pleases, then he must seek that right for every other man out there, too.  It would be morally wrong for him to choose another man's wife or a woman's husband.

Thus, if the first formulation which specifies universality and uniformity were not true, then the second formulation which expounds universality between human beings would not be true.  Also, if the universality between rational beings was not true, then it would be contradictory to the first formulation which would then contradict itself and then neither would be true.  So, it is conclusive that these formulations must work together to create the standard for moral duty.

All in all, Kant was trying to theorize that actions were not bound morally by consequences or outcome.  He was explaining that actions in themselves were good or bad no matter the outcome because people chose their actions by their sense of moral duty, not by the consequences of their actions.


Categorical Imperative Formulations. Wikipedia. [Online] Available at:       Accessed: 5 /12/2007.

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