Explain the First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative

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Explain the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative

The first formulation of the categorical imperative states; “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.” Kant invented a phrase, “categorical imperative,” that makes the above point in a different way. He distinguishes “the categorical imperative” from so-called “hypothetical imperatives.” A hypothetical imperative is a directive to the effect that if you wish to achieve such and such end, you must act in such and such way. Hypothetical imperatives are thus concerned with prudential action. For example, if you wish to drive to point A to point B by the shortest route, directions for doing so can be given to you by means of a hypothetical imperative. “If you wish to drive to point B by the shortest route, take roads X, Y, and Z.” On the other hand, the categorical imperative enjoins action without any ifs or without regard to the effect of such an action may have. It enjoins you to do such and such without qualification. It thus lays down a rule that, if followed, will ensure that the person behaving in accordance with it is behaving morally.

All maxims or specific rules of conduct can be judged morally right or wrong according to the general criterion. If universal obedience to a proposed rule would contradict the very purpose of the rule, as is the case for rules that under certain circumstances permit lying, stealing or taking life, then the rule cannot be part of a true moral code. In contrast, a rule such as “Do not make false promises” can in principle be followed without exception and thus qualifies as a moral duty.

This criterion of universalizability, that is, the logical or psychological possibility of requiring universal obedience to a rule of action, was undoubtedly Kant’s most original and important contribution to ethical theory. It expresses more precisely and unambiguously the “golden rule” to be found in all the great religions, and it has been incorporated, in one form or another, in most modern systems of ethical theory. As I have pointed out, Kant means by this statement that a person should always act as if every action were to become a universal law. Thus no person should steal, because if he/she were to steal and if everyone were to steal, then moral relations based upon the possession of private property would become impossible. Similarly with regard telling lies. One should never lie, since if lying were to become universal law, all human relations based upon trust and the keeping of promises would become impossible. In short, the view is that all acts should be entered as if they were to become general laws- this is what the categorical imperative tells us. If an act that one commits can pass the test of thus being universalized, it will be a moral act. Another way of stating such maxims as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is an injunction to us to respect other people because they are rational human beings like ourselves. We should treat others as ends in themselves because that is how we regard ourselves. To treat another person only as a means of achieving what we want is to disregard his/her humanity, to treat a person as a thing and to fail to show due respect for his/her status as a rational human being. Certain criticisms directed against this formulation of the categorical imperative have been based upon misunderstanding. If this version of the categorical imperative is interpreted literally, it might be thought to mean that no one’s interests and desires should be suppressed. But with such an interpretation, the views has the consequence that would conflict between people arise, it would be impossible for the courts to decide between them; for by deciding against one of the people they would be acting against his/her interest. Such an interpretation of Kant’s view would lead to a form of anarchy, thus...
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