Categorical imperative

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I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law. ~ Immanuel Kant

The categorical imperative (German: kategorischer Imperativ) is the central concept in the deontological moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Introduced in Kant's 1785 Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, it may be defined as a way of evaluating motivations for action.


  • Poetry is an ethic. By ethic I mean a secret code of behavior, a discipline constructed and conducted according to the capabilities of a man who rejects the falsifications of the categorical imperative.
  • Opinion is steadily inclining towards making the division of labor an imperative rule of conduct, to present it as a duty. ... We no longer think that the exclusive duty of man is to realize in himself the qualities of man in general; but we believe he must have those pertaining to his function. ... The categorical imperative of the moral conscience is assuming the following form: Make yourself usefully fulfill a determinate function.
    • Émile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), G. Simpson, trans. (1933), pp. 42-43
  • Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. ... To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.
  • Suppose I am considering going to a movie. In the States this now costs approximately $10 (depending on where in the country it is). By the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative I have to consider whether the maxim of spending the money on the movie could be willed by anyone, and in particular by someone whose current role in the situation is as a child in, say, Zambia, who might be receiving the $10, which would be enough to keep her alive for a week.
    • John E. Hare, “Ethics and Religion: Two Kantian Arguments,” Philosophical Investigations, vol. 34, no. 2 (April 2011), p. 153
  • “Be up-to-date!” is the categorical imperative of those who scramble for the last bus. But it is an imperative whose cogency I refuse to admit. When it is a question of doing something which I regard as a duty I am as ready as anyone else to put up with discomfort. But being up-to-date and in the swim has ceased, so far as I am concerned, to be a duty. Why should I have my feelings outraged, why should I submit to being bored and disgusted for the sake of somebody else’s categorical imperative? Why? There is no reason. So I simply avoid most of the manifestations of that so-called “life” which my contemporaries seem to be so unaccountably anxious to “see”; I keep out of range of the “art” they think is so vitally necessary to “keep up with”; I flee from those “good times” in the “having” of which they are prepared to spend so lavishly of their energy and cash.
  • Ich soll niemals anders verfahren als so, dass ich auch wollen könne, meine Maxime solle ein allgemeines Gesetz werden.
  • There is ... only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
  • Greatness loves itself, and all healthy instincts decline to flagellate themselves daily with the whip of altruism. What is great must will to do more than its mere duty ; it must give, make others happy, and, be it at the cost of itself, its own wellbeing, its own money or life, it must will to pour forth its blessing over others, to the extent even of self-sacrifice—but not, as Christianity demands, from unegoistic motives; the impulse must come from a sense of pleasure, from overflowing energy, from need of bloodletting, so as to unburden the full heart. All acts then derived from conscience and duty, or done with a wry countenance out of obedience to the Categorical Imperative, seem to the great man, from his point of view, through this very fact contemptible, even as he has an unsurmountable prejudice against men and nations who are always prating of those words, conscience and duty.
    • Oscar Levy, The Revival of Aristocracy (1906), p. 81
  • The subversive character of truth inflicts upon thought an imperative quality. Logic centers on judgments which are, as demonstrative propositions, imperatives, — the predicative “is” implies an “ought.” … Verification of the proposition involves a process in fact as well as in thought: (S) must become that which it is. The categorical statement thus turns into a categorical imperative; it does not state a fact but the necessity to bring about a fact. For example, it could be read as follows: man is not (in fact) free, endowed with inalienable rights, etc., but he ought to be.
  • The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the supreme being for man. It ends, therefore, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all those conditions in which man is an abased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being.
    • Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843)
  • Part of my education was the silence of my parents during the trials of 1935. You must always protest against dictatorship. It is what Immanuel Kant called the categorical imperative.
  • What makes one regard philosophers half mistrustfully and half mockingly is not that one again and again detects how innocent they are – how often and how easily they fall into error and go astray, in short their childishness and childlikeness – but that they display altogether insufficient honesty, while making a mighty and virtuous noise as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched on. They pose as having discovered and attained their real opinions through the self-evolution of a cold, pure, divinely unperturbed dialectic (in contrast to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and more stupid than they – these speak of ‘inspiration’): while what happens at bottom is that a prejudice, a notion, an ‘inspiration’, generally a desire of the heart sifted and made abstract, is defended by them with reasons sought after the event – they are one and all advocates who do not want to be regarded as such, and for the most part no better than cunning pleaders for their prejudices, which they baptize ‘truths’ – and very far from possessing the courage of the conscience which admits this fact to itself, very far from possessing the good taste of the courage which publishes this fact, whether to warn a foe or a friend or out of high spirits and in order to mock itself. The tartuffery, as stiff as it is virtuous, of old Kant as he lures us along the dialectical bypaths which lead, more correctly, mislead, to his ‘categorical imperative’ – this spectacle makes us smile, we who are fastidious and find no little amusement in observing the subtle tricks of old moralists and moral-preachers. Not to speak of that hocus-pocus of mathematical form in which, as if in iron, Spinoza encased and masked his philosophy – ‘the love of his wisdom’, to render that word fairly and squarely – so as to strike terror into the heart of any assailant who should dare to glance at that invincible maiden and Pallas Athene – how much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick recluse betrays!
  • After the end of the Second World War it was a categorical imperative for us to declare that we renounced war forever in a central article of the new Constitution. The Japanese chose the principle of eternal peace as the basis of morality for our rebirth after the War.
  • It turns out that Jesus does not fit the Kantian mold. He is not interested in commending his ethic as though it were for everybody. He is not interested in asking whether everybody can do what he teaches, or whether they will do it, or what would happen if they all did. He just does not ask those questions.
  • What would happen if everyone did it? If everyone gave their wealth away what would we do for capital? If everyone loved their enemies who would ward off the Communists? This argument could be met on other levels, but here our only point is to observe that such reasoning would have been preposterous in the early church and remains ludicrous whenever committed Christians accept realistically their minority status. Far more fitting than "What if everybody did it" would be its inverse, "What if nobody else acted like a Christian, but we did?"

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