6 Categorical Imperative Examples (Kant’s Ethics)

categorical imperative definition and example

The categorical imperative is a central concept of Kantian deontological moral philosophy. It was introduced by Immanuel Kant in his 1785 work Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

The categorical imperative is a way of evaluating motives for action.

In the original formulation, Kant invites us to:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 30).

Kant holds that this is the fundamental principle of our moral duties.

Four Formulations of Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Kant offers four formulations of the categorical imperative.

All of these formulas are, according to Kant, essentially equivalent. There are different interpretations of this claim. The most straightforward interpretation seems to be that following or applying each of the below formulas would generate the same duties (Allison, 2011).

1. Kant’s first formulation

Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative states that you must:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 30).

Many take this formulation to be a decision procedure for moral reasoning.

This is how Kant wants us to act:

  • First, formulate a maxim that justifies your proposed plan of action.
  • Second, formulate that maxim as a universal law of nature that makes every rational agent act in the same circumstances the same way as you are going to act.
  • Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in such a world.
  • Fourth, consider whether you could rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world. If the answer is yes, then your action is morally permissible (Johnson & Cureton, 2022).

There are different ways to fail this test. If your maxim fails only the third step, you have a “perfect” duty not to act by that maxim since it results in a logical contradiction when universalized.

For example, the notion of stealing presupposes the existence of personal property, but if the maxim “it is permissible to steal” were to be universalized, there could be no private property. The maxim fails the third step.

If your maxim fails only the fourth step, you have an “imperfect” duty that requires you to admit exceptions. If your maxim passes all the steps, acting on it is morally permissible.

2. Kant’s second formulation

The second formulation is known as the Humanity Formulation:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 36).

This formulation is more intuitive since using human beings merely as instruments instinctively feels wrong to us.

3. Kant’s third formulation

The third formulation is known as the Autonomy Formulation and includes

“the idea of the will of every rational being as a will that legislates universal law” (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 38).

Kant doesn’t state this as an imperative, but we can see how it could be formulated in that way: “Act so that through your maxims you could be a legislator of universal laws” (Johnson & Cureton, 2022).

This differs from the first formulation because it conceives of lawgivers rather than followers.

4. Kant’s fourth formulation

The fourth formulation is known as the Kingdom of Ends Formulation. Kant speaks of a “kingdom of ends” or a “systematic union of different rational beings through common laws” (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 39).

This formulation claims that we must “Act in accordance with the maxims of a member legislating universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends” (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 43).

Our moral obligation is to act only on principles that could earn acceptance by a community of rational agents each having an equal share in legislating principles for their community.

Categorical Imperative Examples

1. Deception

According to Kant, lying and deception are, under all circumstances, forbidden. This is because if lying were to become a universal action, the concept of trust would no longer exist.

The existence of deception presupposes the existence of trust, so the maxim “it is permissible to deceive” fails the third step because it involves a contradiction.

The premise “it is not permissible to deceive,” however, does not involve a contradiction.

2. Theft

The maxim “it is permissible to steal” could never become a universal law because that would involve a logical contradiction.

The concept of stealing presupposes private property, but if stealing was everywhere and always permissible, private property would not exist. Hence this maxim fails the third step.

The maxim “it is not permissible to steal” involves no such contradiction and is, therefore, a categorical imperative.

3. Suicide

In the Groundwork, Kant discusses the example of a man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes who is considering taking his own life (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 30).

Now we may ask whether this could become a universal law. Kant formulates the maxim as follows: “from self-love I make as my principle to shorten my life when its continued duration threatens more evil than it promises satisfaction.”

This maxim, according to Kant, gives us a contradiction when it is universalized. This is because destroying a life because of the very same feeling (self-love) that stimulates the desire to continue living is, Kant thinks, a contradiction.

4. Breaking Promises

Another example Kant discusses in Groundwork is about a man who wants to borrow money, knowing well that he will never pay it back.

Kant formulates the man’s maxim as follows: “when I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to pay it back, although I know that I can never do so” (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 31).

Could this maxim become a universal law?

Kant claims that it could not.

The universality of such a law would obsolete the practice of making promises. If anyone could break a promise, no one would take promises seriously. This maxim, therefore, could not become a universal law.

The maxim “never break a promise,” on the other hand, does not involve any such contradiction and is, therefore, a categorical imperative.

5. Idleness

The third example Kant gives in Groundwork is about a man who indulges in pleasure and doesn’t bother cultivating his talents.

This does not, unlike the examples above, give us a logical contradiction by making some practices untenable.

But, Kant claims, the maxim that makes a man spend his life in idleness could never become a universal law.

Kant justifies his position by claiming that all rational beings necessarily will that all their faculties should be developed (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 31).

This, like most philosophical claims, is open to many objections because the premise isn’t self-evidently true.

Cultivating one’s talents wouldn’t involve any such contradictions and does therefore pass the test of a categorical imperative.

6. Selfishness

The fourth example in Groundwork is about a man who does not think he must contribute to the well-being of others.

This is how Kant formulates this man’s maxim of action: “Let everybody be as happy as Heaven wills or as he can make himself; I shall take nothing from him nor envy him; but I have no desire to contribute anything to his well-being or to his assistance when in need” (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 32).

What would happen if such a maxim were to become a universal law? No logical contradictions would arise from this.

But Kant thinks it is still impossible to will that such a principle should hold in all circumstances as a law of nature.

Such a will would contradict itself because one would often need the love and sympathy of others.

Conclusion

The categorical imperative is the central concept of Kantian deontological moral philosophy. It was introduced by Immanuel Kant in his 1785 work Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

There are many formulations of the concept, but they all refer to the same law. The categorical imperative is a way of formulating and testing moral maxims. Categorical imperatives are moral commands that apply to all human beings unconditionally.

References

Allison, H. (2011). Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary. Oxford University Press.

Johnson, R., & Cureton, A. (2022). Kant’s Moral Philosophy. In E. N. Zalta & U. Nodelman (Eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/kant-moral/

Kant, I. (1993). Grounding for the metaphysics of morals ; with, On a supposed right to lie because of philanthropic concerns. Indianapolis : Hackett Pub. Co. (Original work published 1785) http://archive.org/details/groundingformet000kant

Tio Gabunia (B.Arch, M.Arch)
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Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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