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Examples Clarifying the Categorical Imperative Theory of Morality

Geeta Dhavale May 13, 2019
Categorical imperative is one of the widely studied and appreciated philosophical concept by Immanuel Kant. Insights here.
Morals and ethics have always been questioned, analyzed, and studied by many scholars and philosophers since ancient days. But, the terms themselves are so subjective that no one can completely define them to their optimum. There always remains a scope for debate and doubt, as people have different opinions and interpretation about morals and ethics.
There are many theories put forward, but one of the noted philosopher Immanuel Kant from Germany, made a tremendous contribution to the philosophy of morals. His most prominent works are Critique of Practical Reason and Groundworks of Metaphysics of Morals, and are primarily based on the structure of reason and way of evaluating motivations for actions.

What Exactly is This Theory?

Kant's theory of ethics and morals is also known to be deontological, which means that it is concerned with the morality of duty. This theory concentrates more on the morality of actions, without too much emphasis on the consequences of an action.
According to this, human beings can experience the innate moral duty in the form of emotions like guilt and shame. He believed that morality is a reason or imperative from which all the duties and obligations originate. He said that imperative is a proposition that declares a certain action to be necessary. According to him, it has to be unconditional.
Kant formulated it in three formulations, namely, universal law formulation, humanity or end in itself formulation, and kingdom of ends formulation. In the universal law formulation he says, "Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
Humanity or end in itself formulation says, "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your person or in the person of any other, never simply as means, but always at same time as an end." And in kingdom of ends formulation he says, "All maxims as proceeding from our own making of law ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends."
Based on the given formulations, the definition is: " It is an absolute, unconditional requirement that allows no exceptions, and is both required and justified as an end in itself,." It means that, when a person follows his morals and duties selflessly without hoping for any merit.


Let us take some examples that would help you understand the concept better. Kant said, that to act morally is to perform one's duty, and one's duty is to obey the innate moral laws. He contradicted it with hypothetical imperative, which are conditional. For example, if one wants to be knowledgeable, one must read, or, I shall do X to get Y, etc.
Such imperatives or reasons are not considered moral according to Kant's theory. He said that imperatives are categorical only when they are not associated with any desires, needs, or wants of a person, and they should be universally applicable. For example, let's take 'abusing women' as a statement of moral question.
So, going by the first formulation the maxim could be that, 'it is good to abuse women'. Now, one has to decide if this rule is applicable for everyone. To decide that one must think, 'would it be good for everyone to abuse women?'. The answer would be 'no' by the majority. And hence, this act is immoral.
From the given examples, it is quite easy to understand that this concept has its own drawbacks. For example, if the moral duty has to be universal and obligated, then sacrificing few people for the benefit of majority is also immoral as per his theory.
But it is not practical or feasible in every situation. Other philosophers criticize this approach, saying that punishing an innocent for the benefit of majority is necessary at times, and hence, morals cannot be universalized every time.
Ernest Hemingway's quote is relatable and one could agree with this. It goes, "So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."