The categorical imperative is the central philosophical concept in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Introduced in Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, it may be defined as a way of evaluating motivations for action.
According to Kant, human beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in one ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. He defined an imperative as any proposition that declares a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary.
Hypothetical imperatives apply to someone dependent on them having certain ends:
- if I wish to quench my thirst, I must drink something;
- if I wish to acquire knowledge, I must learn.
A categorical imperative, on the other hand, denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation:
- Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
Kant expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the popular moral philosophy of his day, believing that it could never surpass the level of hypothetical imperatives: a utilitarian says that murder is wrong because it does not maximize good for those involved, but this is irrelevant to people who are concerned only with maximizing the positive outcome for themselves. Consequently, Kant argued, hypothetical moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as bases for moral judgments against others, because the imperatives on which they are based rely too heavily on subjective considerations. He presented a deontological moral system, based on the demands of the categorical imperative, as an alternative.
Famous quotes containing the words categorical and/or imperative:
“We do the same thing to parents that we do to children. We insist that they are some kind of categorical abstraction because they produced a child. They were people before that, and theyre still people in all other areas of their lives. But when it comes to the state of parenthood they are abruptly heir to a whole collection of virtues and feelings that are assigned to them with a fine arbitrary disregard for individuality.”
—Leontine Young (20th century)
“The political core of any movement for freedom in the society has to have the political imperative to protect free speech.”
—bell hooks (b. 1955)