The Categorical Imperative by Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher. He lived his entire life in the city of Königsberg (today Kaliningrad) and was a professor at the local university. He is most famous for the categorical imperative.

The categorical imperative is a moral law, at least according to Kant. He received the idea as he was on a summer walk and saw a couple of young swallows which had been thrown out of their nest, and consequently had died, by their mother. The mother had done this to prevent the others from starving (there were few insects that summer). Kant was astonished by this instinct and called it a rational cycle of nature. After this experience, Kant was convinced that the human could create a law of reason which would lead her in the same infallible and lucid way as the instinct which made the swallow kill her kids. Thus he created the categorical imperative. It is absolute, rational and universal. In other words, it is governed by reason, there is no room for feelings, typical enlightenment thinking.  It is based on rational thinking and asks for the motivation of our deeds. There is also a hypothetic imperative which is purely practical, as opposed to the moral categorical imperative.


There are several formulas for the categorical imperative:

There is the basic formula: “Act according to those maxims which you want to be a universal law”

The natural law formula: “Act as if thy deed was to become, by thy will, a law of nature”

The mankind formula: “Act so you use mankind, including you as a person and also everybody else as an end, and never simply as a means“

The Kingdom-of-ends-formula: “Act so that you, by your maxims, always serve as a legislative link in the common Kingdom of Ends”

Let us try an example on which we can apply the categorical imperative to see if it is morally wrong:

A man in need of money thinks about borrowing money and realizes he will have to promise to repay even though he knows he cannot.

Now first we must rearrange this into a maxim, as we are not interested in the deed itself but rather the motivation. So if we rearrange this into a maxim, it will look something like this:

“Every time I need money I lie to enable myself to lend money from others.”

Now if we apply any of the formulas, say the natural law formula, we evoke a question:

Do I want that there shall be a law that says that people, every time they are in need of money, should lie to enable them to lend money from others?

If I ask myself this question, I will by rational thinking come to the conclusion that if this is to become a law than I would be asked and to lend people money, and consequently lied to. Besides, nobody would lend anybody money anymore.  



We could also apply the mankind formula: Consequently, we would have to ask ourselves if this behaviour is using the person as a means or an end. Clearly, it is using the person as a means, because had he known that the borrower would not be able to pay back the sum, he would hardly have parted ways with his money.  Using somebody as a means would be when you steer a person towards an action which she normally would not have carried out

What if we use another example?

A married woman is strongly attracted to a man other than her husband (we can formulate it vice versa as well of course) and considers adultery.

Rearranging into maxim:

“Whenever I feel attracted to someone else than the other part of my marital relation, I yield to infidelity”

Natural law formula:

Do I want that there should be a law that says that people in a marital relationship should yield to infidelity whenever they feel attracted to a person who is extramarital?

Now, this is especially interesting as this adds culture as a variable. But in a western culture, I would say:  No I do not. Because, when rationally thinking, I must ascertain that others would have to commit adultery towards me, whenever they are attracted to another person. Do I want this? No I do not, as, in a relationship, it would not matter how faithful I am.



A thing one must consider when reading about the categorical imperative is that is based upon Kant’s moral views, which were very similar to the general moral view of the time and the place he lived in. If the categorical imperative would have been created by someone else, in a different age and in a different location it most certainly would have looked very different. A question remains though:

Is the categorical still applicable to us in these modern days?

I would partially say “yes” and partially “no”. “Yes” because you can always be aware of it when making a decision. “No” because it has never been entirely applicable to us, humans. We have feeling and we are rarely the masters of them, but rather slaves. You cannot simply assume that everyone will act rationally as there are feelings which always will prove to be superior to rationality when making decisions.

What do you think?


//Baloo Peinkofer



Postat av: Sebastian C

Really interseting!

I believe, as you say, that you cannot apply this to every situation, as we are humans and we are often controlled by our feelings. It is quite interseting trying to figure out how these laws would have looked like if he had lived during the Romantic era, or any other era that followed our feelings instead of science. I personally do not think that these laws had existed then.

Again, good work!

2011-04-14 @ 15:59:51
Postat av: Baloo Peinkofer

No, probably not. In the series which the entry is mostly based, Kant does actually ask the rhetorical question: "How can you create a moral law, using your heart?"

2011-04-14 @ 17:18:49
Postat av: gbybcr

2011-08-16 @ 11:35:51

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