Kant is an 18th century German philosopher who wrote the book Groundwork for metaphysics. The book deals with his theory that morality is a priori synthetic (a priori is a statement that is knowable without reference to any experience and synthetic means having truth or falsity can be tested using experience or the senses) and that moral decisions should be taken with a universal view to one’s duty to mankind as a whole. He laid out his ideas about the categorical imperative in this book.
An imperative is a statement of what should be done. The philosopher Hume said that you can’t get a ‘should’ statement out of an ‘if’ statement.
This means that experience can only give us hypothetical imperatives (not moral commands to the will – they are ‘if’ statements and do not apply to everyone and you only need obey them if you want to achieve a certain goal, for example, ‘if’ you want to be healthy then you should exercise and eat a balanced diet).
A categorical imperative is a ‘should’ statement, but it is not based on experience, and doesn’t rely on a particular outcome. According to Kant, categorical imperatives apply to everyone because they are based on an objective a priori law of reason (an objective law is something that is factually true).
The categorical imperative is one principle with three formulations: The Universal Law, treat humans as ends in themselves and act as if you live in a Kingdom of Ends.
The natural law is to “act according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” and what it says is that everyone should universalise their maxims without contradiction – for an imperative to be categorical or deontological it must consist of principles that can be applied in any situation.
This basically means that before you do something you should ask yourself if you would like everyone in the same situation. If not, then you are involved in a contradiction and what you are thinking of doing is wrong because it is against reason. Kant uses the example of a suicidal man as an example: A man feels sick of life and wants to commit suicide. His maxim is that from self-love I want to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure.
He asks himself whether he would universalise this law, his answer is no because it is humans’ duty to stimulate the furtherance of life and to destroy life would contradict itself and therefore is entirely opposed to the supreme principle of duty. The second principle is to treat humans as ends in themselves: “so act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, never solely as a means but always as an end”.
Kant argues that all humans are searching for the summam bonum (a state in which human virtue and happiness are united). Kant believes that we all have an immortal soul and because of this immortal soul, humans deserve special treatment and that we should seek happiness as long as this happiness does not infringe on other humans ability to seek happiness and this means that we should not exploit others or treat them as things to achieve an end, as they are as rational as we are.
To treat another person as a means is to deny that person the right to be rational and independent judge of their actions. It is to make oneself in some way superior and different. An example could be having a sexual relationship with someone – if you have only have sex with someone because you want something from them and not because you love them. The final principle is to act as if you live in a Kingdom of Ends; Kant said “act as a legislating member in the universal Kingdom of Ends”.
This means that everyone should act as every other person were an ‘end’ – a free, independent agent. Kant believed that each person is independent and moral judgements should not be based on any empirical consideration about human nature, human flourishing or human destiny. What this means is that every individual has the ability to understand the principles of pure practical reason and follow them. Pure practical reason must be impartial and so its principles must apply equally to everyone.
An example of this is if you’re trying to decide if it would be justified to kill someone who was threatening your family – using Kantian principles – you should not kill them. Acting according to the third principle (and taking the first and second into account) murder can obviously not be universalised or humanity would be wiped out, and killing the man threatening your family is treating him as a means (to saving your family) rather than an end: a human seeking summum bonum.
In conclusion, there are three different formulations for Kant’s categorical imperative: The Universal Law, treat humans as ends in themselves and act as if you live in a Kingdom of Ends. Together these three formulations seek to allow humans to make moral decisions which do not infringe the happiness of others but also allow us to progress to perfection.