Ethics: Categorical imperatives

The concept of categorial imperatives, comes from philosopher Immanuel Kant. A categorical imperative has been explained (Stevenson et al, 2013) as something we know we should do regardless of any competing desires. This is in contrast to hypothetical imperatives, where we will provide a sound argument based on what we desire.

Kant’s categorical imperative, according to Johnson and Cureton (2019), is the respect for the moral law. This is not to be confused with the legal law. For instance, during the time of WW2 a German citizen refusing to torture a Jew at the request of a SS officer, would be violating a legal law out of respect for the moral law.

How to apply this categorical imperative, according to Kant (cited by Johnson and Cureton, 2019), was:

“act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”

What this means is, when deciding on a moral action to take, we would have to imagine a possible world (it does not have to actual) where everyone behaved in the same way, and if that would be a kind of world you would find to be morally permissible. Consider cheating on an exam. In utilitarian terms (covered in last tutorial), you may say it is ok to do because no one else will suffer or lose pleasure, but you will get lots of pleasure by passing the test. However, a world where everyone cheated on their exams, this would be a terrible world to live in. So, you should not cheat on the exam. In standard form a categorical imperative would look like this:

  • 1. I can do a or b
  • 2. If a were to become a universal law, it would be acceptable
  • 3. If b were to become a universal law, it would not be acceptable
  • 4. We should only do things that would be acceptable if they were to become a universal law.
  • Therefore,
  • 5. I should do a and I should not do b

Test questions

Try to apply Kant’s categorical imperative to decide on whether you should do these actions:

  1. Lie on an ex-employees behalf as a referee in order to help them get their new job
  2. Kill someone to save the lives of many others
  3. Give 10% of your pay to charity

I highly recommend the book “Twelve theories of human nature” by Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, which is in the link below. Also, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a good description of the categorical imperative for further reading.

Kant’s moral philosophy:

12 theories of human nature:

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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