The Categorical Imperative

Understanding a key tenet of the Kantian philosophy

Published - December 16, 2021 10:52 am IST

Few moral precepts parallel Immanuel Kant’s concept of the Categorical Imperative (CI), in terms of their influence on the modern notion of the person as an autonomous individual; worthy of dignity, respect and treatment as an equal. It underpins our legal and commonplace ideas of regarding all persons as bearers of fundamental and inalienable rights, which constitute the locus of contemporary democratic politics and citizenship.

CI forms the fulcrum of Kant’s moral doctrine set in the context of the 18th century German idealist tradition. It is premised on the essential capacity of all human beings, as rational persons with the autonomous exercise of free will. To Kant, the singular appeal of the motivation to duty is its sole preoccupation with respect for the moral law. The conception of CI is elaborated in three distinct propositions in three separate works; the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals , the Critique of Practical Reason and TheMetaphysics of Morals . All of them must necessarily be read in conjunction. The first posits that : “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” That is to say, if a person believes that he ought to act in a particular way, he must believe that another person would act in the same manner in a similar circumstance. Maxims are rules of conduct that free, rational and self-governing agents give themselves; their force derives from free-will, rather than from any external authority.

The second postulate of CI runs thus: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of another, in any case as an end withal, never as a means only.” There is a strong resonance of these formulations of CI in several ancient religious precepts. Kant recognised the similarities in his own conception and in the Golden Rule formulated by Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

The final strand in CI is the stipulation: “Act as a member of a Kingdom of Ends,” implying a union of individuals forged by common laws. Kant draws on several examples to illustrate why rational persons would not countenance certain types of behaviour as universal laws. For instance, breaking promises could hardly win universal backing because that would inevitably lead human beings to lose faith in making promises. Similarly, the act of suicide would amount as a contradiction of the basic impulse of self-preservation to its very opposite. Again, the wrongfulness of not helping someone in need is its incompatibility with one’s own requirement for assistance and support. Critics have held that Kant took a narrow and instrumental view of human nature in the above examples, to the neglect of finer sensibilities. On a more sympathetic reading though, these instances merely drive home the irrationality of consenting to break promises from the standpoint of rational persons.

The moral duties that issue from a categorical imperative are distinct from conduct that persons normally pursue to satisfy their human desires and inclinations. Kant describes these under the rubric of what he calls hypothetical imperatives. Kant stresses that the latter are governed no less by imperatives or commands and man’s capacity for the exercise of his rational will. But these are purely conditional and necessarily linked to goals and objectives persons antecedently set for themselves. Kant differentiates two types of hypothetical imperatives: the problematic and the assertoric. The former refers to an end state that is possible but not necessarily one that persons strive towards. In the latter case, actions are pursued to fulfil natural desires such as happiness. Finally, the wants and desires that persons ordinarily seek in the course of their lives may not even qualify as hypothetical imperatives, insofar as they remain indeterminate. At the risk of over-simplification, the hierarchy of moral motivations in the Kantian system may be dubbed as unconditional duties and instrumental and negotiable responsibilities.

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