The concept of categorical imperative is one of the most important notions of Kant’s practical philosophy. This concept falls under the Kantian project of the foundation of morality. To be precise, Kant does not attempt to create a new morality, but to propose a new formulation of it. From this point of view, the categorical imperative must provide a criterion that makes it possible for any human to differentiate with certainty the moral actions from those actions that are not moral.
Generally, Kant calls “imperative” the formula of a command, that is, the representation of an objective principle that is constraining for the will.
Since the human will is subjected to subjective motives that stem from the sensibility, the actions that are objectively necessary remain subjectively contingent so that their necessity appears for the agent as a constraint. Consequently, all imperatives are expressed by the word “ought” and indicate the relation of an objective law of reason to a will, the subjective constitution of which is not necessarily determined by this law.
Kant distinguishes two sorts of imperatives: hypothetical and categorical. When the imperative expresses the practical necessity of an action only in order to obtain something desirable, the imperative is hypothetical (these are imperatives of skill and of prudence). When the imperative expresses the practical necessity of an action as good in itself and for itself, the imperative is categorical and is a law of morality.
There is no difficulty in regard to the possibility of hypothetical imperatives: The constraint on the will is simply the application of the principle: “Whoever wills the end, wills also the means in his power that are indispensably necessary thereto.” By contrast, the possibility of the categorical imperative presents a real difficulty because the necessity of this sort of imperative does not depend on any antecedent condition or of any consecutive end: This necessity unconditionally connects the will with the law.
To resolve this difficulty, Kant suggests considering if the conception of a categorical imperative would not supply the formula with it. Since beside the law, the categorical imperative contains only the necessity that the maxims shall conform to this law, and since the law contains no conditions restricting it, there remains only the general statement that the maxim of the action should conform to a universal law. Consequently the (first) formula of the categorical imperative is: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
The categorical imperative requires the ability to will that a maxim of one’s action should be a universal law. To clarify this claim, we can take the four examples of maxims-duties (suicide, false promising, noncultivation of one’s natural talents, and indifference to the misfortune of others) that Kant mobilizes. It appears in these examples that a maxim can be raised to the universality of a law, when we can conceive and/or want it without contradiction. Exactly, Kant distinguishes the action’s maxims that cannot without contradiction be conceived as a universal law; these are the action’s maxims that are logically contradictory (these maxims violate strict or rigorous [inflexible] duty, that is, the duty that admits no exception in favor of inclination), and the actions for which it is impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law; these are the actions maxims that are practically contradictory (these maxims violate the laxer, meritorious duty, that is, the duty whose application’s modalities are left for the consideration of the agent). It is the practical noncontradiction, more than the logical noncontradiction, that makes it possible to distinguish the morally defended maxims of the morally allowed maxims (duties). It is thus false to consider, as Hegel does, for example, that the formal identity and the empty logicism of Kant’s morality authorize the universalization of any maxim of action. From Kant’s point of view, it is the will, more than the understanding, that must refuse to be contradicted by setting up certain maxims in universal laws.
From this first formula of the categorical imperative, Kant deduces three other formulae, which “are at bottom only so many formulae of the very same law and each of itself involves the other two”: Act (2) as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature; (3) as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only; (4) as if he were by his maxims in every case a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.
The four formulae of the categorical imperative are complementary. To say that our maxims must always be wanted, with regard to form, without contradiction (logical or practical) like universal laws of nature, to say that they must always respect the human dignity as end in itself or to say that they must always allow the will to represent itself as legislating member in the kingdom of ends, it is to say the same thing.
These four formulae are simply various manners of expressing the law of the autonomy of the will. So, the first two formulae of the categorical imperative privilege the formal criterion of the maxim, its conformity with the moral law, the fact that it can be desired without contradiction (logical nor practical) like an analog of a natural law. It is here that “Kantian formalism” takes shape: The will must be determined by the only form (universalizable) of its maxim, that is to say, by a independent rule of the objects of the will, abstraction made of the action’s matter, of any material motive, by the pure respect for the formal principle a priori of the moral law.
On the other hand, the two last formulae privilege the subjective aspect of the ends, of the matter of the will. By giving to the maxims, morally allowed, for object the rational being as end in himself and as member legislator of kingdom of ends, the third and the fourth formulae underline the concrete dimension of the maxim.
Finally, the formalism of Kantian morality does not mean that our actions should not take place in the sensible world, but only that they should not originate there, that the moral action does not draw its value from the purpose which it reaches, but from the form (universalizable) and the quality (disinterested) of the maxim that determines the will. That being said, Kant does not claim that autonomy must regulate all our actions. Beside the categorical imperative, which provides us a certain criterion to recognize the actions that are moral and those which are not moral, there is place for hypothetical imperatives (technical and pragmatic), which include the inclinations and the human desires, the advancement of happiness.
Moreover, against the charge of formalism generally carried against Kantian morality, it is fundamental to see that Kant’s practical philosophy is not reduced to a simply formalism, that the formal moment, the moment of the foundation, is only the first moment, that before it is to be applied the morality must be founded. The “formal” moment is the condition sine qua non of practical philosophy—only this moment guarantees its objectivity, universality, and apodicticity—but it does not exhaust it: It must be necessarily followed by a second moment, the moment of the application (metaphysics of morals and anthropology).
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