Kant: morality, autonomy and the categorical imperative

autonomy-suiteKant famously holds that all moral laws are derivable from, and reducible to, what he called the categorical imperative. Kant describes the categorical imperative as:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

– Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

In simpler terms, the categorical imperative is a type of command thats jurisdiction is universal. Kant juxtaposes the categorical imperative with hypothetical imperatives. The hypothetical imperative has no universal applicability as it relies upon a persons wants or desires (i.e. it is a contingent or conditional imperative). For example:

Categorical imperative: Borrowed money must be paid back as if borrowed money were universally never remitted then the practice of lending (and the good that comes with it) would not be possible.

Hypothetical imperative: To obtain money, I must work.

An important part of the Kant’s moral edifice is the freedom of the human will. Kant rejects determinism and rather understands the will as free insofar as it can affect causal power (i.e. choice) without being caused to do so in a deterministic sense. But Kant faces a problem, because the idea of something acting without a cause is incoherent. His solution is to say that the free will acts under laws that it generates itself.

Note Kant’s radical departure from the natural law of medieval philosophy. According to natural law, what is good for a substance depends upon its nature (i.e. internal principles of change that govern its actions). Furthermore, in no way can man be considered the source of the nature that fixes his ends. Whereas for Kant, what is good for man is determined for man by man. The Kantian view of man is that of an autonomous self-legislator that is an end in himself, as opposed to the medieval view of a heteronomous agent that ultimately finds its good in an end outside itself.

Such is the pervasiveness of the Kantian moral revolution that terms like “human dignity” and “mutual respect” are the currency with which debates about moral and political issues take place in our contemporary western culture.



2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Kierkegaard is commonly called the father of modern existentialism; yet, if he is its father than Kant is certainly the grandparent. After all, it was Kant who changed the ethical landscape with his anthropology of autonomy and man as an end in himself. […]


  2. […] that because there is no essence or nature to man, he is free to do as he pleases. This similar to Kant’s thesis of man as self-legislator, and in contrast to a natural law thesis under which man’s nature determines what is good for […]


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