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What is the categorical imperative?

categorical imperative

The term categorical imperative is closely associated with philosopher Immanuel Kant. He sought to create a basis for morality that was both universal and unconditional. Further, Kant wanted his moral foundation to be entirely based in reason and resistant to selfishness. The main formulation of his “categorical imperative” was “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

In other words, Kant’s categorical imperative says we should choose actions only if we are comfortable with the same action being mandatory for all other people. This means asking the question, “What if everyone always did what I’m about to do?” If that seems like a good thing, then Kant would say you ought to act accordingly. If not, then Kant would say you ought not act in that way. Under that principle, choosing to lie would be immoral because, if everyone always lied, society would collapse. If everyone always told the truth, society would flourish. Therefore, the categorical imperative would say, “One ought never to lie; one ought always to be truthful.”

Kant’s hope was to ground ethics in a single principle. This statement would be a singular moral foundation: the categorical imperative. Of course, Kant recognized the complications and nuances such an idea entailed. Among these difficulties are that situations are intensely contextual—details matter, so a broadly defined action is difficult to universally endorse or condemn. Likewise, Kant’s view creates an “always” or “never” binary when some actions are more easily understood using a “sometimes” approach. His own writings extensively explored these issues and their limitations, all of which are beyond the scope of a single article.

The categorical imperative is a form of deontological ethics: the view that ethical behavior is rooted in a “duty” to an external standard. Kant’s approach suggests that the only proper motivation for action is the fulfilling of the duty; otherwise, the act is grounded in an inappropriate impulse. The main problem within deontology is debate over what authority is used to determine a duty, resulting in competing loyalties and motivations.

Scripture provides a parallel to the categorical imperative in the form of what Jesus called “the greatest commandment.” In Matthew 22:37–38, Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5 and declares, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” In a sense, loving God is the most fundamental, universal, unconditional obligation of all creation. Every other ethical statement is an application of that principle (Matthew 22:40). A more practical version of this same idea was given by Christ in Matthew 7:12, known as the “Golden Rule.”

In the sense of suggesting all morality can be generalized in a single statement, the basic idea behind the categorical imperative is not unbiblical. Jesus implied that very concept. Likewise, the Bible indicates that motives matter independently of acts themselves (Matthew 6:1–2). However, Christ cements moral decision-making in an unchanging and perfect God (Matthew 5:48; Mark 3:35; John 14:15). Kant ties ethics to fallible human reason (see Isaiah 55:8–9; Jeremiah 17:9; Proverbs 14:12). Ultimately, we must ground moral decisions in God’s revealed Word (2 Timothy 3:16), natural evidence (Romans 1:18–20), and the influence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Galatians 5:22–25), rather than seeking “pure reason” as a basis for ethics.

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What is the categorical imperative?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022