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The Categorical Imperative

Kant's philosophy introduces a set of maxims by which individuals can use reason to determine whether or not their behavior is moral.

The categorical imperative is the founding principle of Kant's moral philosophy. It refers to an absolute, unconditional requirement that allows for no exceptions. It is both required and justified as an end in itself, and not as a as means to some other end. It's opposite is the hypothetical imperative.

Kant maintains that all categorical imperatives can be derived from a single one known as the Categorical Imperative.

In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1875, Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative in three different ways.

  • The first (called the Universal Law formulation): "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
  • The second (Humanity or End in Itself formulation): "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."
  • The third (Kingdom of Ends formulation) combines the first two explanations: "All maxims as proceeding from our own [hypothetical or subjective] making of law ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends."

    On immorality

    Following Kant's postulates, immorality arises when one veers from the Categorical Imperative, for example, when a person attempts to set a different standard for themselves than for the rest of humanity. Morally permissible behavior is determined on the basis of whether or not a certain action, when applied universally, leads to the end of civilized culture. If it does, it is immoral. If, on the other hand, no one took that given action and as a result civilization was destroyed, then that behavior is morally obligatory.

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