Site Map The Secular Morality Project - Towards a Shared Morality

Kant's Categorical Imperatives

A "categorical imperative"(CI) is simply something that we have an unqualified duty to do.

Kant was a (Protestant) Christian but didn't believe that morality should be based on authority. Rather he thought that (a) God had given us the faculty of reason in order to work out for ourselves what is right and what is wrong (and scripture is there to provide worked examples as it were), and so (b) morality is a matter of rational analysis. Many non-believers who do not accept (a) do accept (b), and so Kant's arguments have a wide following.

Kant himself believed that his two CI's were equivalent: if you accept one you have to accept the other; but many who find this connection obscure find it easier to treat them as separate guides.

Kant distinguished morality from kindness: if you help another person because it pleases you to see them benefit, that is usually fine, but it is not moral behaviour: to count as moral behaviour you have to understand that you have a moral duty to help them, whether it gives you a nice warm feeling or no. So this is an example of what is called "Duty Ethics".

CI 1: Act only on that maxim which you can will to be universal law
Like the Golden Rule and Consequentialism, this CI expresses the idea that the key to moral behaviour is not to make a special case of yourself, but it tries to make the Golden Rule more precise. Kant's "universal laws", rules that you conclude would be best if everybody followed, are superficially similar to the rules of Consequentialism, but the criteria for deciding what should be "universal law" are different. You should try to imagine the laws that would be universally recognized in an ideal world of autonomous rational beings.

CI 2: Always treat other people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end
The notable thing about this CI is that the value it expresses is not something that can be measured on a scale: an individual is either treated as an end in themselves or not. This is why Kantian thinking tends to be invoked to justify absolute things such as prohibition of torture, or individual freedom of thought, or universal human rights generally. It tends to exclude consideration of other species (with which we cannot rationally debate), except as a means to an end.