- 1: a moral obligation or command that is unconditionally and universally binding
The categorical imperative (German: Kategorischer Imperativ) is the central philosophical concept in the deontological moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Introduced in Kant's 1785 Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, it may be defined as a way of evaluating motivations for action.
According to Kant, human beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in one ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. He defined an imperative as any proposition declaring a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary.
Hypothetical imperatives apply to someone dependent on them having certain ends to the meaning:
- if I wish to quench my thirst, I must drink something;
- if I wish to acquire knowledge, I must learn.
A categorical imperative, on the other hand, denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation:
<blockqoute>Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.</blockqoute>
Kant expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the popular moral philosophy of his day, believing that it could never surpass the level of hypothetical imperatives: a utilitarian says that murder is wrong because it does not maximize good for those involved, but this is irrelevant to people who are concerned only with maximizing the positive outcome for themselves. Consequently, Kant argued, hypothetical moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as bases for moral judgments against others, because the imperatives on which they are based rely too heavily on subjective considerations. He presented a deontological moral system, based on the demands of the categorical imperative, as an alternative.