A Brief Summary of Kant’s Categorical Imperative

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Immanuel Kant’s take on ethics stands out in stark contrast to the utiliarianist views of Jeremy Bentham. His categorical imperative is a deontological ethical theory, which means it is based on the idea that there are certain objective ethical rules in the world. “Deontology” comes from the Greek word “deon” meaning duty – in other words, deontologically minded philosophers believe we have a duty to act in certain ways, in accordance with moral laws. Kant’s version is possibly the most well known, and relies heavily on his idea that all people are fundamentally capable of reasoning in the same manner and on the same level. Kantianism focuses more on intent and action in itself, as opposed to the consequentialist focus of utilitarianism. One of the primary points of Kantian ethics is, basically, that you must never treat another human being as a means to an end – this idea lies at the core of Kant’s ethical thinking.

First of all, let’s look at some of the foundational theories that Kant based his approach on. Now, Kant was pretty big on something known as autonomy (self-governance). He believed that, unless a person freely and willingly makes a choice, their action has no meaning (and certainly no moral value) – this would be an example of what Kant called heteronomy. So how did he move from this to the concept of a universal, objective moral law that no man had the right to break? Well, an idea that’s central to Kant’s moral laws or duties is that they’re based on reason. Kant thought that every man, if using reason when looking at moral dilemmas, would agree with what he called the Categorical Imperative (the CI). So, while the law is objective, Kant thought that all people could come to understand and agree with it after autonomous reflection.

So how, exactly, does the CI tell us how to act? How does it work? The decision-making procedure of the theory is actually quite straight forward, and one that many people should be able to grasp intuitively (which is exactly what Kant wanted to achieve). Kant thought that when a moral action is being considered, one should ask the following questions; what would happen if I made the maxim of this action a universal law (killing someone who’s insulted you = you must kill anyone who insults you)? Is this universalization possible? Consider the example of killing someone because they’ve insulted you. If everyone did this, we’d swiftly and surely run out of people to kill, and it would no longer be possible to follow the law. Because of this logical contradiction, Kant felt that we have a perfect duty to not kill people. However, are also imperfect duties. An example of this would be giving to charity – it is not a moral necessity that you do this, but you should be praised if you do.

A core aspect of this theory is the concept of intent. To Kant, the actual outcome (the consequences) of a particular action didn’t matter at all. It was the intent that mattered to him. Let’s look at an example. Imagine you’re a murderer walking down the street, and you see a defenseless young man in front of you. It’s dark, and there’s no one else around. You have a knife in your pocket. It would be easy for you to kill him. So, you consider. Maybe, in the end, you choose to let the man live – not because you were worried about acting immorally, but because you didn’t want to take the risk of him screaming and drawing the attention of the police (or something to that effect). In the end, you do not kill. According to Kant, you haven’t acted ethically. You’re action does not make you a better person. This is because when you acted (or, rather, chose not to act), you weren’t considering the action in terms of its morality. You didn’t make a moral choice – you merely acted out of self-preservation. However, if you were to choose not to kill the man because you suddenly realized that it was wrong to kill and didn’t want to act unethically, then you would have acted morally, and would be a better person for it.

One of the advantages of this approach to morality is that it looks more closely at the individual and his choices, rather than the actual consequences of what he does (which, after all, he has no control over). Take this example; a scientist decides that he is going to find a cure for a particular sort of cancer, and spends years trying to accomplish this. Look at his intent – it’s highly moral. But imagine that he accidentally invents some sort of super weapon instead, which eventually leads to the total destruction of entire civilizations. This is not a positive result, but it was not what he wanted to achieve. The utilitarian would say that he is a bad person nevertheless, as he has caused massive amounts of suffering. But it’s not what he wanted to do. Kant’s approach here seems preferable, and much fairer.

The main problem with the categorical imperative is its rigidity. The famous example that illustrates this is that of a crazed axe-murderer coming to your front door and asking you where your children are. You could lie – many would say you should lie – but imagine if everyone in the entire world lied all the time. If everyone lied, there would be no “telling the truth” and, thus, no real lying. As the law is logically contradictory, you have a perfect duty not to lie. You have to tell the axe-murderer the truth, so he can go and kill your children. Kant was asked about this personally, and he said that this was indeed the case. It would be immoral to lie to the man. He did, however, say that you could also choose to lock your door and call the police. Here’s another example – you’re in a room with a man who’s holding a gun to your mother’s head. You know he’ll shoot her any second. Right next to you, there’s a button. If you press the button, the man will fall through a trap door and land in a spike pit, dying instantly. Your mother will be saved. According to the categorical imperative, this would be the wrong thing to do. You can’t press the button. But if you don’t, your mother will die. It’s in situations like this that strict ethical systems with specific decision procedures tend to fall apart. Morality is simply too complex, too full of exceptions for these theories to ever fully work.

If you have any questions or would like something clarified, please post a comment and I’ll do my best :)

48 responses »

    • Well, it would either have to be a very big drawing or a very clever one! Creating a visual representation of a philosophical theory is rarely easy ^^
      To be honest, I have no idea how you could do it – if you come up with something let me know :D

  1. Can the ethical of Kant’s Categorical Imperative be realistic and practical enough to be applied into a real-life ethical dilemma? It seems impossible, given the rigidity of this rules….

    My problem is that I am unable to draw the link between Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Deontological (Duty-based) ethics.

    I know that CI is a type of Duty-Based ethics. But what if my duty (aka social role) is frowned upon by society.( i.e. say being a prostitute, my duty is to seduce a man, even if he is married), then how is CI still a type of duty-based ethics when
    1) the intentions are bad
    2) If everyone does this, I would not want to live in that type of the world…

    And I am puzzle: is Categorical Imperative even plausible in the first place? It states that: Whatever rule you set up, make sure that everyone can also follow it…is this even possible to today’s complicated world. How can I expect EVERYONE in society to accept my beliefs in order for it to be considered as ethical?

    I would appreciate some enlightenment

    • First of all; thanks so much for commenting!

      Now, I think I can see why you’re finding it hard to come to grips with the whole duty thing. See, when people talk about deontological – or duty-based – ethics, they’re talking about ethical systems based to some extent on the idea that people have a responsibility to act morally. It has nothing to do with other duties, like the duties of your work (as in your example). Ethical duty is more important. The only thing under consideration is ethical duty. So it doesn’t matter that, as a prostitute, it’s your professional duty to seduce people – that has no bearing on your moral duties. The CI would probably say that you have a duty NOT to seduce people in such a way – so the ethically minded prostitute in question would have to quit her job, or find a way to do it without seducing people.

      Ok, so your second question is pretty much what makes the CI fall apart. Kant’s theory was that if everyone just used reason when trying to figure out their ethical duties, everyone would come up with the same rules to follow. This might, potentially, be true, but I’d say it’s very unlikely that people will ever be so unbiased as to be able to do this – we’re humans, not machines. The Categorical Imperative is, as you say, too rigid to be a workable system – it just doesn’t take into account the complexity of human beings and their relationships.

      I hope that makes things a little clearer!

    • I am only answering about the plausibility of Kant’s imperative. if you examine this theory closely, you will realize that it is a copy of what Jesus Christ says in the book of Matthew chapter six verse twelve which says and I quote , “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” …also as put clear in the above text the rule followed in this case is unbreakable just like the commandments. according top me it only works correctly for those people who have a strong willpower of which in this instance Kant calls rational beings who are almost impossible to exist though we all need to work towards that just as we are towards obeying Gods commandments. take into account that we have never questioned the applicability of the Decalogue. i hope I have assisted you

      • Kant’s Categorical imperative is very different from these Golden Rule.

        The Categorical imperative mandates action not because it benefits us nor because it is for greater good, but because it just is so. It is not our desire, it is not our hedonistic nature, but it is the honestly imagined maxim that we follow and that mandates morally right action.
        One thing to keep in mind is that Kant’s ethics is in direct contradiction with consequentialism.

        Following the golden rule is entirely different because it is not a deontological, duty based, moral theory. It can be presumed that an individual is following the golden rule not out of mere duty to act morally, but as a means to achieve an end in which others will treat the individual in the same way.

        It is also important to note that the Golden Rule existed in many forms thousands of years before Jesus or the writing of the New Testament. First in the laws of reciprocity in Hammurabis code (1700’s BC) and later popularized by Conscious, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” (500 BC). In this context it is especially important to note that the Golden Rule came before the authors of the Bible chose to include it, because it’s religious affiliation seems to add yet another “end” to the mix. One might treat others in a morally “right” way not only because he wants to be treated by everyone else in this way (this is one end), but also to be a good Christian in order to get into heaven (a second end). Kant’s categorical imperative calls for people to do the right thing solely because it is their duty, not to acquire either of these ends. This is where the Golden Rule differs, especially with regard to it’s Christian affiliated adaptation.

      • Kant states in “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” [4:430 German Notation]:

        “Let one not think that the trivial quod tibi non vis fieri, etc. [What you do not want to be done to yourself do not do to another] could serve here as a standard or principle. For it is only derived from that principle, though with various limitations; it cannot be a universal law, for it does not contain the ground of duties toward oneself, nor that of the duties of love toward others (for many would gladly acquiesce that others should not be beneficent to him, if only he might be relieved from showing beneficence to them), or finally of owed duties to one another, for the criminal would argue on this ground against the judge who punishes him, etc.”

        Here Kant is distinguishing his principle from the so-called Golden Rule of the Gospels: ‘‘Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them’’ (Matthew 7:12; cf. Luke 6:31).

    • Got really confused when I saw this, as I can’t recall ever being told that Kant talked about any specific three imperatives. The only thing I can think of is the three formulations of the categorical imperative. Basically, Kant came up with three versions of the CI, the third and final being the most advanced and fleshed out. The Wikipedia article gives a decent idea of what it looked like at each stage. I must say, though, that I’m not entirely sure this is right – as said, never heard of “the three imperatives” before! Sorry I can’t be more certain, I know how frustrating it is when the internet won’t give you a clear answer :S
      Are you my sister’s friend Ari, by the way, or is the name just a coincidence?

      • The three formulations are:
        The univeral law formulation – In which Kant captures the concept that a maxim will work for everyone who it is applied to. Showing us thatwe cannot treat a human in the cicumstance as an individual or treat them that way. Basically, If they follow the rules properly you can’t be offended by the duty they followed because it is their duty.

        Secondly- The end in itself formulation – Which occurs when people try to use ‘Maxims’ ( rules to suit themselves, this formulation states that we must not treat others as if they do not have their own life, we must respect that they do. E.g. It may be my duty to give maybe a few pennies I have to spare to charity but a homeless man cannot DEMAND that i do so because I am not a means to his end and e must respect that.

        Finally- The Kingdom of Ends formulation- an apparent combanation of the fist two emphasising that we are not just creators or legislators of the moral law but we must all try to remain lawful subjects of the maxims or laws we make. In layman’s terms – We can all make a maxim which is universable and does not treat others as a means to an end but we must abide by the laws we make.

        However, I dont know if you mean this or do you mean other than the Categorical if thats the case the other two are the hypothetical and the disjunctive imperatives.

  2. Thanks for your post, this is super helpful.

    I was hoping you maybe help clarify an idea I’ve been struggling with.

    Kant states that the Categorical Imperative contains:
    1. the law
    2. the necessity that the maxim conform to the law

    How would you relate this with your post above?

    Also, can the CI still have examples attached to it even though it doesn’t have any condition limiting it?

    • I’m glad you liked it!

      Man, it’s been a while since I studied Kant but I’ll see if I can help. So, what you’re saying is Kant thought that the CI both provides a law and shows that this law must be followed, is that right? Basically, Kant’s thinking was that the reasoning made to arrive at the CI would show any rational person both how to tell the difference between right and wrong, and the moral necessity to choose to act right.

      I would say that any ethical theory can have examples attached to it – otherwise it wouldn’t be a very good ethical theory. It could never be applied practically if you couldn’t imagine using it in different circumstances.

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  4. Thank you, this was most helpful as I have struggled for a while to understand the concept. I have been given a scenrio to write about yet I still don’t full understand how to answer it. This is it:

    You witness a car crash. The wreckage is burning, but you may be able to save one of the two passengers. To your horror, you realise that one is your father and the other is a famous cancer specialist on the brink of a breakthrough. Who do you save?

    Please help!

    • I am glad you found this helpful!

      I’m assuming that you’re supposed to respond to this scenario as a Kantian? The key thing to keep in mind is that you can’t use people just as a means to an end; people are ends in themselves (so you couldn’t kill baby Hitler just because that would save thousands of Jews, according to Kant). After that it’s a question of putting together a maxim, some kind of rule or principle that underlies the action you’re considering. Using the baby Hitler example, the maxim would be “killing babies that will commit genocide when they grow up”, and then you need to ask yourself what the world would be like if that were a moral rule (i.e. “you must kill any baby that will grow up to commit genocide”). If the maxim could work as a rule, then actions based on it will be morally right. So you need to figure out what maxim you can create to deal with this situation.

      I hope that helps :)

    • Okay, so, the way I understand Kantian ethics is that it’s all based on rational thinking. Kant thought that we should examine the maxims upon which we base our actions, and try to determine whether they were rational. To do this, we need to imagine what would happen if the maxim were applied as a law that everyone has to follow. If you do this for lying, there would be no such thing as “telling the truth” (because everyone’s lying all the time), but then you can’t really say that people are lying, so it’s logically impossible to have such a law. Therefore, the maxim isn’t rational, and this means we have a Categorical Imperative not to lie. And because Kant thinks that all humans are rational and capable of arriving at the same conclusions about different maxims, he felt that they would themselves apply the CIs as laws. In other words, since we’re rational, we’ll choose to follow moral duties established through rational thought.
      I hope that helps, but please don’t trust me explicitly – I’m not an expert by any means. Kantian ethics is extremely complicated and I only have a rudimentary understanding of it at the moment!

  5. Pingback: Reason, Duty and Morality. What to choose? | meetap

  6. Hey I was wondering what would Kants view be on someone who reveals Government information in the case of Edward Snowden? Would he approve of what Snowden did? or would he disapprove ? Your summary was GREAT by the way!

    • Hi Alex,

      I’m glad you liked the post, it means a lot to me to hear that people are finding this blog useful! So, what happens if you apply the categorical imperative to the Edward Snowden case? The maxim that his action was based on would be “release confidential government information” and the rule you’d get from that is “you should release confidential government information.” But if everyone released confidential government information, there’d be no such thing (because the whole concept of “confidential” government information would disappear). So Kant would’ve said that we have a perfect moral duty not to do what Snowden did. However, Kant was also strongly against using people as a means to an end, which is clearly what the US government was doing. So he wouldn’t have approved of Snowden’s actions, but he wouldn’t have been too happy with the other party, either.

      I hope that was helpful :)

      • Definitely , great to know someone out there knows what they are talking about 😄! Thanks , its more clear to me now after you explained it. Now one last question. Would Mill also agree with Kant on the decison of snowden leaking the secret information? Or not? Because in a way i believe Snowden is acting in a way to maximize the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. So wouldnt Mill agree that Snowdens actions were justifiable in that he was trying to maximize the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people?

      • That’s an interesting question! It’s difficult to say, of course, but I think I agree with you. Mill was a strong supporter of free speech and was opposed to censorship and paternalism. As far as the morality of it is concerned, utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory and as such isn’t concerned so much with what Snowden hoped to achieve; to see whether a utilitarian like Mill would say that Snowden did the right thing you’d have to figure out whether his actions really did increase people’s happiness more than it decreased it.

  7. Yeah it all depends on the outcome of the situation. Anyways , thank you for your help ill definitely be back if i have questions and I will share this with fellow class mates, im sure they will find this interesting and helpfull!

  8. I asked you before what would Kant think in the case of Edward Snowden and I was curious about how Kant would use his practical imperatives to view the case

    • I’m not sure what you mean by practical imperatives – are you referring to his hypothetical imperatives? The hypothetical imperatives only apply to non-ethical decisions (“you should act in such and such a way if you want to be happy”, for instance), so I’m not sure if Kant would’ve used them at all in this case, since Snowden was making an ethical decision.

    • Hmm, he was definitely more concerned with a person’s intentions than the utilitarians, but he did feel that if you didn’t act according to the categorical imperative you could be “blamed” of acting unethically.

  9. How are you? I enjoyed your view on this. I was wondering if you could think of a certain philosopher out of Plato, Augustine, Leibniz, and Deachart and tell me how one of their views differ. I am having a hard time with this.

  10. …BRIEF summary? If this is brief, I’d hate to think what the full theory is like :( Thank you, though, this was a good read! I’m starting A Level Philosophy and Kant is in it, apparently

    • Hey Ashley,
      Good to hear you’re taking Philosophy – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :) To be honest, I could probably have kept it a bit shorter, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything important. If your A levels are anything like my IB experience, you’ll probably not cover much more of his philosophy than what’s contained in this post.

    • I don’t think he would. Applying the CI, it looks like he’d conclude that we have a perfect duty not to engage in civil disobedience; if everyone did so, there would be no such thing as civil disobedience, because there would be no concept of civil obedience. Therefore, holding the maxim “people should engage in civil disobedience” is irrational.

  11. Hey,

    I really liked your blog! However, I need some help on how to use the Categorical imperative in a certain situation. How can I use the CI in a scenario, where a friend sees you on a long line and wants to skip so that they don’t have to wait on the line? Would there be a contradiction of will if I allow my friend to skip me ?

    Thanks!

    • Hey Abrij!

      I’m glad you liked it :) This is a bit of a tricky one, but I think that ultimately the CI would give you a favourable answer; the maxim “I must allow my friends to skip ahead in a line with me” is not logically contradictory, so at the very least you wouldn’t have a “perfect duty” to not let your friend skip ahead with you. Don’t know if that would make the people standing behind you any less annoyed, though ;)

      • But surely that IS highly contradictory? If we followed the formula of law could we not say that when universalised, it would mean that everyone would allow their friends to skip the queue, and then the whole idea of a queue would be destroyed? Same with breaking promises. If we universalised it to say that we could all break promises then the whole premise of a promise would break down.

      • Hmm, I definitely agree with you when it comes to promises. However, as far as queue’s are concerned, seeing as a lot of the time people aren’t in situations where their friends would want to skip ahead to them, it wouldn’t make the notion of a queue entirely void. It would just change it a little.

      • Having studied a little more Kant, I feel like I should add that Kant would definitely have thought you have an imperfect duty not to let your friends skip ahead with you. You get an imperfect duty when you could not psychologically wish for the maxim to be true at all times – and considering the psychology of human beings, I doubt you’d wish it was a universal maxim that people should let their friends skip ahead with them in a queue when someone in front of you was joined by a group of friends.

        An imperfect duty is still something Kant thought we had to follow, provided it didn’t conflict with a perfect duty.

  12. Hey, its awesome what you are doing! Still a bit confused with the first and second categorical imperatives. If I were to apply it to the movie “Schindlers list,” Schindler makes a dramatic transition from this business seeking man to one that believes that it is morally wrong to treat the Jewish populations in such a cruel and unjust way. How would I associate the decisions that he makes to help the Jewish workers with the first and second categorical imperative. What throws me off most is “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” If you could dumb this down for me, I would appreciate it!

    • Alright, I’ll see if I can clarify this further. Essentially, Kant thought that there were two kinds of duties: perfect and imperfect duties. When you’re considering a particular action, there’s generally a maxim that you can extract from that action. A typical example is lying and the maxim “you should lie”. When we make this maxim a universal law, we make it something everyone should do, all the time. In other words, we get the law “you should always lie”. But it’s not possible for us to want this to be a universal law, because such a law is illogical; if everyone always lied, the very concept of a lie would be destroyed because lying is only possible if people sometimes tell the truth. This sort of logical impossibility leads to a perfect duty, in this case to not lie. Imperfect duties are what we get when you couldn’t psychologically wish for the maxim to be a universal law. As an example, consider the universal law “you must never help people”. This is logically possible. We can imagine a world full of dicks who never help each other. But if you lived in that world and found yourself needing help, it would not be psychologically possible for you to want that to be a universal law (you’d want someone to help you!). You have to be able to wish for the maxim to be a universal law all the time, not just when it suits you. Now, as far as Schindler’s concerned, things are a little more straightforward. The Nazi’s did not treat the Jews as ends in themselves; they did not respect their autonomy. A Kantian wouldn’t need to refer to the CI to explain the wrongness Schindler became aware of – however, as I’ve shown, Kant also thought we have an imperfect duty to help each other. Does that help at all?

  13. Just a random passer byer, I’m taking an Ethics online class and your blog really helped me understand the material so thank you kind stranger!

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