Explain the First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative

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Explain the First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative

By | October 2011
Page 1 of 3
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...