What is the Categorical Imperative?

He Categorical imperative of Kant's ethics Is a supreme principle of morality that pretends to be an autonomous command, independent of any religion and ideology, self-sufficient, universal and capable of protecting human behavior.

It was first proposed by Immanuel Kant in his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Published in 1785. In it he maintains that the foundation of the categorical imperative principle is implicit in the moral practices and reasoning of all individuals and through it can be unconditionally identified moral duties accordingly.


It is essentially a principle of free will and autonomy of the will, that is, as free will we must be governed by this principle. It proposes to act according to the"maxims"(moral norms that determine what should or should not be done) that we personally may want to be universal laws.

The maxims are simply the reasons why someone acts and makes decisions according to morality but the role of the categorical imperative is to help us determine if those motives that drive us to act or to decide are good or bad.

It should be borne in mind that in speaking of moral imperatives (orders, desires, impositions), specifically in the"categorical"character, it is considered intrinsic that they must be affirmed or denied in their totality, there can be no conditions or average terms, Or accepted as is or is not accepted. The object or purpose of the imperative must have an end in itself.

Rational norms can be established in two ways: the first establishes a behavior necessary to achieve a particular purpose and it is here that we find the form of the hypothetical imperative and on the other side we find the prescription of a necessary behavior established as absolute and unconditional which is the Which is called categorical imperative.

Immanuel Kant

He was born in Königsberg, Prussia (today Kaliningrad in Russia) on April 22, 1724 and died on February 12, 1804. He was one of the most important philosophers in Europe and even, according to some, is the most important philosopher.

In his last years of life he published a series of important works in his tireless commitment to human freedom, collaborated in the history of humanity and philosophy with his excellent contributions about ethics, human dignity, moral conceptions or rationality.

One of his most outstanding writings was Critique of Pure Reason ( Kritik der reinenVernunft ) Where one inquires about the very structure of reason.

Origin of the concept

According to Kant, the creator of this principle, the foundations of human morality must be based on reason itself and not simply by a divine authority and from this derives the other human obligations.

This precept promotes and ensures that the human being must be able to determine the moral maxims that must be followed categorically independently of any religion or ideology.

By the categorical imperative unconditional demands are established, opposed to the hypothetical imperative, which makes conditional demands.


A hypothetical imperative is one that expresses a duty conditioned to the fulfillment or not certain circumstance, under the condition of a hypothesis.

It requires us to do or not do certain action, but under the assumption of some condition. It is instrumental and makes us understand that if we want something we must make it possible and provide the means for that end to be fulfilled.

On the other hand, the categorical imperative has the characteristic of being unconditional and absolute, without exceptions or need for external justification.

For example: if you decide that you have to learn to play piano, the hypothetical imperative demands that you do everything necessary to learn and fulfill your purpose and to achieve that then one solution is to take piano lessons. But, in case I no longer want to learn to play piano because I was not so interested after all, the imperative no longer requires me to take piano lessons.

This principle establishes a course of action subordinated under the assumption that the person has an end or a goal and wants to achieve it, but in the case that you no longer have the interest, you no longer have any obligation or duty.

It is entirely rational, when someone wants to achieve his goals he does everything possible so that his goals are met, unlike someone irrational.

Formulations of Kant's Categorical Imperative

Kant established five formulations referring to the categorical imperative, which are complementary to each other and not alternatives, that is, they are linked and linked together to form a consistent moral system.

- Universal law formula :"Work only according to the maxim for which you can at the same time want it to become universal law".
- Formula of the law of nature :"Work as if the maxim of your action should be converted by your will into the universal law of nature."
- Formula of the end in itself :"Work in such a way that you use humanity both in your own person and in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means."
- Autonomy formula :"Work so that your will may consider itself as constructing a universal law by its maxim."
- Formula of the kingdom of the ends :"Work as if through your maxims you were always a member legislator in a universal kingdom of ends."

After knowing Kant's formulations, one can conclude that this imperative is not adjusted to the actions, but rather to the"maxims"that lead the individual to execute those actions.

Therefore, according to this principle our actions must be adjusted to moral maxims, these will be the guides that will determine what we would like for the world.

Universality, freedom, duty and goodwill

The categorical imperatives carry with them two possibilities: I must comply with a certain moral maxim or not.

They must always come from goodwill, their aim is to work well and for a better society to become a universal law or nature.

The categorical imperatives are followed because it is our duty to act in this way, it is self-imposed from our rationality and not by some external instance.

To act for duty is to do it in such a way that our actions express the true value of humanity, we are free to decide what we want and according to this principle our actions must be good in an unconditional and genuine way.

For this principle to be practiced, the will to comply with some maxim must already be present in the individual with reasons unrelated to the imperative and this will only be a guide that prescribes the means to achieve them.

Criticisms of Kant's ethics and the categorical imperative

- Formalism : Is the most common accusation, argued by Hegel , J.S. Mill And many other contemporary authors who agree that the categorical imperative is trivial and only a formalism that does not identify principles of duty.

The fact that Kant proposes the demand for universal maxims wants to denote that our fundamental principles will be generic and adaptable to all humanity and there is nothing further from reality, since culture and many other aspects influence the determination of the maxims Morals of conduct, in addition to many other approaches that deny the possibility of applying this principle.

- Rigorism : It is a criticism referring to the proposal of strict and insensitive norms.

- Abstraction : Critics argue that Kant's ethical principles are too abstract to guide some action and therefore can not be applied as a guide to his theory.

Its principles are truly abstract and do not provide useful and viable instructions to be fulfilled because Kant argues that the application of principles to particular cases must involve judgment and deliberation.

There is no automatic way of defining what actions should or should not be done and this abstract form was established by Kant in order for the individual to learn to be able to guide decisions without collateral limitations or pre-established rules.

- Contradictory grounds of obligation : This critique is based on that according to several authors, the ethics of Kant contains a series of principles that can come to conflict.

Within its theories we do not find negotiations or procedures that solve the cases of contradiction between some principles and relevant obligations. The possible solution is to find a way by which action can be taken that satisfies all the limitations, but there are cases where a consensus can not be found and there is the problem and critical basis of the multiple foundations of obligation.

- Place of inclinations : Kant demands to act according to duty but not according to personal inclination and this can generate difficult questions because it may not be a morally valuable action.

- Lack of explanation of wrongdoing : The freedom and autonomy in its totality is contemplated but it does not explain the free and imputable but bad action.


  1. Bowie, Norman (2015). "A Kantian approach to business ethics". Taken from stakeholder.blogs.bucknell.edu.
  2. Galisteo, Esteban (2013). "Categorical Imperative of Kant". Taken from laguia2000.com.
  3. Rivera Castro, Fabiola (2004). "The Categorical Imperative in the Fundamentation of the Metaphysics of the Customs". Journal Article. Taken from revista.unam.mx.

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