Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act the Way You Want Others to Act

 

The categorical imperative is a moral principle which denotes that you should “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”, meaning that you should act a certain way only if you’re willing to have everyone else act the same way too.

For example, when it comes to relationships, the categorical imperative means that you should avoid being rude to people, unless you want everyone to be rude to each other.

The categorical imperative was proposed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his 1785 book “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals”. There, Kant argues that the categorical imperative is a moral principle that is absolute, meaning that it should be followed by all rational beings and that following it should be seen as a goal in itself.

The categorical imperative is one of the best-known moral principles to ever be formulated, and can be useful in a variety of contexts, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the categorical imperative and about concepts related to it, and see how you can use it yourself in practice.

 

Examples of the categorical imperative

An example of the categorical imperative is that you should not make a promise that you intend to break later, unless you’re willing to have everyone else do the same.

Other examples of the uses of the categorical imperative appear in various domains. For instance:

  • When it comes to business, a salesperson should not deceive customers, unless they believe that all salespeople should do the same.
  • When it comes to medicine, a nurse should give not give patients low-quality treatment, unless they believe that everyone should be treated that way.
  • When it comes to the environment, a person should not litter, unless they were willing to have everyone else litter too.

In addition, the following is a comprehensive example of the categorical imperative, which shows how it can be implemented and explains the rationale behind it, as proposed by Kant himself:

“When I am in a tight spot, may I not make a promise with the intention of not keeping it?

…I ask myself: Would I be content with it if my maxim (of getting myself out of embarrassment through an untruthful promise) should be valid as a universal law (for myself as well as for others), and would I be able to say to myself that anyone may make an untruthful promise when he finds himself in embarrassment which he cannot get out of in any other way?

Then I soon become aware that I can will the lie but not at all a universal law to lie; for in accordance with such a law there would properly be no promises, because it would be pointless to avow my will in regard to my future actions to those who would not believe this avowal, or, if they rashly did so, who would pay me back in the same coin; hence my maxim, as soon as it were made into a universal law, would destroy itself.

Thus I need no well-informed shrewdness to know what I have to do in order to make my volition morally good. Inexperienced in regard to the course of the world, incapable of being prepared for all the occurrences that might eventuate in it, I ask myself only: Can you will also that your maxim should become a universal law? If not, then it is reprehensible, and this not for the sake of any disadvantage impending for you or someone else, but because it cannot fit as a principle into a possible universal legislation…”

— From Immanuel Kant’s 1785 “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” (based on the Allen W. Wood 2002 translation)

Finally, a relevant concept that illustrates the value of the categorical imperative is the tragedy of the commons. This describes a phenomenon whereby the collective action of individuals, who are each acting in an independent and self-interested manner, ends up being detrimental to them all, generally by exhausting or spoiling a shared resource. A common example of this occurs in cases of commercial overfishing, where each individual tries to catch as many fish as they can, and thus they end up depleting the entire fish population. Here, implementing the categorical imperative can solve this problem, because it prompts individuals to consider the consequences of their actions when performed on a collective scale.

 

How to use the categorical imperative

To implement the categorical imperative, ask yourself “would I be willing to have everyone else act the same way?” before acting a certain way, and then base your actions based on the answer to that. Furthermore, to help yourself do this properly, there are several additional things you can do:

  • Ask additional guiding questions. For example, you can ask yourself “how would I feel if I saw someone else act the same way?”. When doing this, you might also benefit from creating psychological self-distance, which will help you assess the situation in a more honest and rational manner. This means, for example, that instead of asking yourself “how would I feel if I saw someone else act the same way?”, it might be better to ask yourself “how would you feel if you saw someone else act the same way?”.
  • Visualize everyone else acting the same way. For example, if you’re about to act a certain way toward someone, try to visualize what it would look like if everyone acted the same way toward each other, and particularly toward you or toward someone that you care about.
  • Consider the outcomes of everyone acting the same way. For example, try to consider all the potential outcomes of everyone else acting the same way, in both the short-term and the long-term.

In addition, note that although the categorical imperative is primarily used when considering future actions, it can also be used when assessing your past actions. Doing this can be beneficial, for example, if you want to judge whether your past actions were morally right or wrong, and when it comes to deciding what you want to change about yourself as a person.

 

Encouraging others to use the categorical imperative

In some cases, it can be beneficial to encourage other people to use the categorical imperative. To do this, you can use any combination of the following techniques:

  • Explain what the categorical imperative is.
  • Explain the rationale behind the categorical imperative.
  • Give relevant examples that illustrate the use and importance of the categorical imperative.
  • Encourage the use of the categorical imperative directly (e.g. by saying “you should use this principle”).
  • Ask questions that prompt the use of the categorical imperative (e.g., “how would you feel if everyone acted the way you intend to act now?”).
  • Encourage the use of techniques that facilitate the use of the categorical imperative, such as visualizing the outcomes of other people acting the same way.

 

Formulations of the categorical imperative

Kant presented three main formulations to the categorical imperative, and included an additional variant for the first and third formulations, in order to make them more intuitive and easier to apply, so there are in total five formulations of the categorical imperative. These formulations include the following, as listed in the Allen W. Wood 2002 translation of Kant’s 1785 “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals”:

  • The first formulation, known as The Formula of Universal Law (FUL)- “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”.
  • A variant of the first formulation, known as The Formula of the Law of Nature (FLN)- “So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature”.
  • The second formulation, known as The Formula of Humanity as End in Itself (FH)- “Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means”.
  • The third formulation, known as The Formula of Autonomy (FA)- “The idea of the will of every rational being as a will giving universal law” or “Not to choose otherwise than so that the maxims of one’s choice are at the same time comprehended with it in the same volition as universal law”.
  • A variant of the third formulation, known as The Formula of the Realm of Ends (FRE) and sometimes also as the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends “Act in accordance with maxims of a universally legislative member for a merely possible realm of ends”.

The best-known of these formulations is the first variant of the first formulation, known as The Formula of Universal Law.

Nevertheless, it may be useful to consider these formulations together when guiding one’s actions. As Kant says:

“…one does better in moral judging always to proceed in accordance with the strict method and take as ground the universal formula of the categorical imperative: Act in accordance with that maxim which can at the same time make itself into a universal law. But if one wants at the same time to obtain access for the moral law, then it is very useful to take one and the same action through the three named concepts and thus, as far as may be done, to bring the action nearer to intuition.”

— From Immanuel Kant’s 1785 “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” (based on the Allen W. Wood 2002 translation)

 

Criticisms of the categorical imperative

Various criticisms have been raised toward the categorical imperative, including objections to the concept of the categorical imperative as a whole, as well as issues that were raised regarding certain aspects of it. These criticisms include the following:

  • The ‘need for an authority’ criticism. This criticism, proposed by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer suggests that “an ethics of imperatives… requires an ‘authority’ from which commands can issue, but if there is no authority within a human being from which the categorical imperative can issue, it can only rest ‘on the presupposition of the human being’s dependence on another will that commands him and announces reward and punishment to him, and cannot be separated from that’”. In addition, Schopenhauer proposed other criticisms of Kant’s work, such as that the categorical imperative is driven by egoism, when it should be driven by compassion.
  • The ‘inability to deal with evil’ criticism. This criticism suggests that the categorical imperative leads to issues such as powerlessness in the face of certain predicaments. Such issues are evident, for instance, in an example from Kant’s essay, “On A Supposed Right to Lie for Altruistic Motives”, which he wrote in response to an article by French philosopher Benjamin Constant. In this example, Kant states that if someone were asked by a murderer for the whereabouts of an innocent victim that they intend to kill, then it would be morally wrong to lie to the murderer, since it is wrong to lie.

Additional criticisms of the categorical imperative have also been proposed by other philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

However, there are two important things to note regarding these criticisms. First, many of these criticisms have themselves been criticized and refuted in various ways. Second, despite these various criticisms, there is often agreement that the categorical imperative nevertheless has some value as a guiding moral principle.

From a practical perspective, this means that while the categorical imperative can be a useful concept to implement, you should use it with care and consideration, generally while taking other relevant considerations into account.

 

The categorical imperative vs. the golden rule

The golden rule is a moral principle which denotes that you should treat others the same way you want to be treated yourself. This principle, which plays a prominent role in many philosophies and religions, predates Kant’s work substantially and is also similar to the categorical imperative, so a common criticism of the categorical imperative is that it is the same thing as the golden rule.

However, while the golden rule and the categorical imperative are similar, these two moral principles are different from one another, since the golden rule states that you should treat others the way you want to be treated yourself, whereas the categorical imperative states that you should act the way you want everyone else to act.

As such, these two principles can lead to different outcomes. For example, the categorical imperative could direct you to avoid throwing trash in the street if you don’t want others to do the same, while the golden rule wouldn’t play any role in this situation, since your behavior isn’t directed at another person.

Kant himself addressed the distinction between the two principles, and mentioned three main objections to the golden rule as a moral principle: that it doesn’t provide duties toward oneself, that it depends on personal tastes or desires, and that it doesn’t state duties to toward which one is strictly obligated.

Nevertheless, it may be beneficial to use the golden rule in conjunction with the categorical imperative, for example in cases where it helps guide people’s actions more effectively because it prompts more empathy from them.

 

Additional information

Maxims and imperatives

The concepts of maxims and imperatives play an important role in the Kantian philosophy relating to the categorical imperative.

Because various interpretations have been proposed for these terms, and particularly for the concept of maxim, the present article focuses only on what Kant himself stated on the topic. Specifically, Kant starts by stating the following:

“A maxim is the subjective principle of the volition; the objective principle (i.e., that which would serve all rational beings also subjectively as a practical principle if reason had full control over the faculty of desire) is the practical law.”

— From Immanuel Kant’s 1785 “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” (based on the Allen W. Wood 2002 translation)

Later, he expands on this as follows:

“A maxim is the subjective principle for action, and must be distinguished from the objective principle, namely the practical law. The former contains the practical rule that reason determines in accord with the conditions of the subject (often its ignorance or also its inclinations), and is thus the principle in accordance with which the subject acts; but the law is the objective principle, valid for every rational being, and the principle in accordance with which it ought to act, i.e., an imperative.”

— From Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Furthermore, Kant also expands on the concept of imperatives, by stating the following:

“The representation of an objective principle, insofar as it is necessitating for a will, is called a ‘command’ (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an imperative.

All imperatives are expressed through an ought and thereby indicate the relation of an objective law of reason to a will which in its subjective constitution is not necessarily determined by that law (a necessitation). They say that it would be good to do or refrain from something, but they say it to a will that does not always do something just because it is represented to it as good to do.

Practical good, however, is that which determines the will by means of representations of reason, hence not from subjective causes, but objectively, i.e., from grounds that are valid for every rational being as such. It is distinguished from the agreeable, as that which has influence on the will only by means of sensation from merely subjective causes, those which are valid only for the senses of this or that one, and not as a principle of reason, which is valid for everyone.”

— From Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

 

Hypothetical vs. categorical imperatives

When it comes to understanding the categorical imperative, it is useful to understand the difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, based on Kant’s work:

  • A hypothetical imperative is a moral law that depends on some end goal or condition. An example of a hypothetical imperative is “do not be rude, if you do not want others to be rude to you”.
  • A categorical imperative is a moral law that is absolute and unconditional, meaning that it does not depend on a particular end goal. An example of a categorical imperative is “do not be rude”.

As such, the difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives is that a hypothetical imperative depends on some condition, whereas a categorical imperative does not. This means that hypothetical imperatives should only be obeyed if you wish to achieve some specific goal, whereas categorical imperatives should always be obeyed, regardless of your goals. For example: “Do not steal if you want to stay out of jail” is a hypothetical imperative, while “do not steal” is a categorical imperative.

As Kant himself states:

“Now all imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former represent the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to attain something else which one wills (or which it is possible that one might will). The categorical imperative would be that one which represented an action as objectively necessary for itself, without any reference to another end.

Because every practical law represents a possible action as good, and therefore as necessary for a subject practically determinable by reason, all imperatives are formulas of the determination of action, which is necessary in accordance with the principle of a will which is good in some way. Now if the action were good merely as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical; if it is represented as good in itself, hence necessary, as the principle of the will, in a will that in itself accords with reason, then it is categorical.

The imperative thus says which action possible through me would be good, and represents the practical rule in relation to a will that does not directly do an action because it is good, in part because the subject does not always know that it is good, in part because if it did know this, its maxims could still be contrary to the objective principles of a practical reason.”

— From Immanuel Kant’s 1785 “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” (based on the Allen W. Wood 2002 translation)

Note that when Kant proposed the concept of hypothetical and categorical imperatives, he argued that there is only one categorical imperative:

“Finally, there is one imperative that, without being grounded on any other aim to be achieved through a certain course of conduct as its condition, commands this conduct immediately. This imperative is categorical. It has to do not with the matter of the action and what is to result from it, but with the form and the principle from which it results; and what is essentially good about it consists in the disposition, whatever the result may be. This imperative may be called that of morality

The categorical imperative is thus only a single one, and specifically this: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

— From Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

 

Types of duties

In his discussion of the categorical imperative, Kant draws distinctions between several types of duties.

First, Kant draws a distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. Simply put, a perfect duty is one that must be followed, as it “permits no exception in the interest of inclination”, while an imperfect duty allows some latitude, as “the law cannot specify precisely in what way one is to act and how much one is to do”.

In addition, Kant also draws a distinction between positive and negative duties. Simply put, a positive duty is an action that one should perform, such as cultivate talent, while a negative duty is an action that one should avoid, such as stealing.

Finally, Kant also draws a distinction between duties that we have to the self, and duties that we have to others.

 

Contrast with other philosophical theories

Kant’s philosophical views are encompassed in the philosophical theory called Kantianism. Kantian ethics in general, and the categorical imperative in particular, are deontological, meaning that they’re based on the idea that actions can be inherently right or wrong (or alternatively permissible, required, or prohibited), based on some rules, independently of their consequences.

Deontology is often contrasted with consequentialism, which suggests that the morality of actions is determined by their consequences, so that actions are morally right if their consequences are more favorable than unfavorable. In addition, deontology is often contrasted with utilitarianism, which is a type of consequentialism that suggests that actions are morally right if their consequences are more favorable than unfavorable for everyone, meaning that actions should seek to generate the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

Both deontology and consequentialism are types of normative ethics, which are ethics that are concerned with determining which actions are right and which are wrong, or which actions should be permitted and which should be forbidden.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The categorical imperative is a moral principle which denotes that you should “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”, meaning that you should act a certain way only if you’re willing to have everyone else act the same way too.
  • An example of this is that you should not make a promise that you intend to break later, unless you’re willing to have everyone else do the same.
  • To implement the categorical imperative, ask yourself “would I be willing to have everyone else act the same way?” before acting a certain way, and then base your actions based on the answer to that.
  • You can use additional techniques to help yourself implement the categorical imperative, such as asking yourself further guiding questions (e.g., “how would you feel if you saw someone else act the same way?)”, visualizing everyone else acting the same way, and considering the outcomes of everyone acting the same way.
  • To encourage and help others implement the categorical imperative, you can explain what it is, provide examples that illustrate this concept and its importance, ask guiding questions, and encourage the use of other relevant techniques, such as visualizing the outcome of everyone acting a certain way.