The Categorical Imperative
For Kant, the purpose of the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals is very narrow: it is nothing more than
searching for and establishing the supreme principle of morality. (247) That's the CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE.
It is the principle that underlays moral experience.
Kant is asking himself how moral experience, making distinctions between those things we want and those things
we ouht to do, is possible.
The CI is an a priori condition.
It is not derived from moral experience, it is the condition of moral experience.
Analogous to the theoretical ø, the forms of the intuition and understanding precede and make possible our
empirical knowledge. they are not derived from experience. they are the conditions of experience.
The task is to establish the principle of morality purely without any other conditions or considerations of physics
or anthropology etc. It must be established purely on the basis of reason alone.
How is it our reason constitutes the world of action in order to make morality possible.
That project tends to get misinterpreted. The analysis in the the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals is
meant to be pure, not empirical! it has nothing to do with how we decide what we ought to do in particular
situations. the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals doesn't tell us what to do, it tells us the principle that
makes moral experience possible a priori, universa▯y and necessarily. Shows us what can count as duty. What it is that
can count as duty is unconditioned. and it holds universally for all ﬁnite rational being. changing circumstances and
particularities does not change what is duty.
the categorical imperative serves to deﬁne in principle what can count as duty.
the CI does not tell us what we ought to do in particular situations.
the categorical imperative is, strictly speaking, not a principle of action.
the principle (CI) is derived purely without considerations of the physical world.
It is not a rule for deciding without questiona nd without doubt in every particular situation how to act. it is the
prinicple of duty. it deﬁnes duty as such.
It does not unequivocally tell us how to act in every situation.
Kant says explicitly, twice in the foundations of the metaphysics of morality, the principle itself is not derived from
experience but in fact you have to develop your power of judgement through experience to know how this
principle is to be applied in particular circumstances.
since this principle is derived purely and not empirically, this principle holds not just for human beings but for a▯
ﬁnite rational beings. but in the course of makign that point he says the application of this principle speciﬁcally to
human beings in particular situations requires anthropological knowledge (meanign empirical knowledge of our
human nature as physically embodied).
you can't approach this text like kant is giving us a principle telling us what to do in any circumstance. all he's doing
is identifying the principle of duty. how it is applied is not pure. It requires maturity, experience, anthropological
knowledge. So the objection to kant that he is purly a formalist is somewhat misplaced. The formalism is the
foundation for morality, but it doesnt decide what it is you ought to do in every circumstance.
the real moral problems are not those where you have a choice between evil and good, where you already know the
diﬀerence and already know the right thing to do. the really icky moral problems are those situations where we are
bound by duties but we are ﬁnite and limited beings. choosing one means not fulﬁlling another. you must choose
the best of alternatives, and you can only do that by making a judgement. you can't do morality it in a formal way. you can do the moral but have no moral worth in your action ie when you do duty for duty's sake, this is good. but
if you are just being moral for a calculating way, ie not cheating your customers so that they keep coming back,
there is no moral worth in this, nor is it immoral.
the holy will's action is following law for the sake of the law out of the necessity of its own nature, but in being
unable to do otherwise, the holy will's action is not moral per se.
Kant says at one point that our reason can't pose questions that our reason cannot answer. This seems like the
opposite of the beginning of the critique of pure reason. his general principle is that the questions derive from
reason and reason itself is the only thing that can answer these questions. on one hand we are obligated to bring
about the highest perfection but we cannot bring it about. ther eis a sense that we recognize in moral experience
that we are faulted and that is the character of moral experience, and it is a fault because we are obligated to realize
moral perfection, but because of our ﬁnitude we cannot act on every duty. but if our reason recognizes that then
our reason must have the solution: the fault is redeemed not in knowledge but in justiﬁed moral belief (glaube)
based on the aﬃrmation of the highest good in the postulate of God and immortality.
two things to say about this argument:
- this is not a proof of the existence of God. he is proving that the belief in God's existence is the necessary
condition of making sense of our moral experience and our existential rift in our ﬁnite rational being unable to
meet its own moral standards. but this is no claim in knowledge of the existence of god but just the necessity of
- existentially we ﬁnd ourselves in a rift: we are caught between two duties and we are ﬁnite and have to choose and
whichever we choose we fall short because we are obligated by all these duties. and the other rift: the spirit is
willing but the ﬂesh is weak. i always lapse.
Kant thinks that there is moral experience a priori, so the CI can't be proved empirically but transcentally in the
same way that the theoretical ø is, explained in terms of an a priori principle that precedes and makes possible that
form of experience—moral experience. what kant is doing here is not theoretical in his sense. it is not a matter of
objective knowledge about human beings or freedom or morality, it has to do with my experience and
understanding not as an observer of the world but as an agent compelled to act in the world. For Kant it seems
perfectly obvious that we as agents are compelled to act in the world. we have to make choices. that is our way of
being. someone might say that theoretically that is false: what seems like a free choice is actually determined. we
can give causal 'objective' accounts that are strictly deterministic of human experience and action, but that account
does not hold weight in people's actual experience. the most hardcore determinist still has to choose in the world,
and still chooses within the categories of freedom, even if they believe objectively that choice is an illusion. Even if
you wanted to just stand there and wait to be determined, that too is a choice. Whatever theory I hold about
human behaviour, I am compelled to choose, and there is nothing I can do to absolve me of making the choice.
This is a fact of our experience. This fact is what Kant is hoping to understand. We must understand the prior
condition for this situation prior to any question about what choices are right or wrong. or why be moral at a▯. Kant
thinks: Where we start thinking is in terms of our understanding and experience as agents in the world. We as
agents in the world do make a distinction between the actions we perform with respect to our inclinations and
desires (which has it