Categorical imperative

20.03.2015 |

Episode #2 of the course “Philosophical ideas that everyone should know”

From the perspective of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, lying is never an option, even when faced with a life and death decision. According to Kant, telling the truth is a foundational part of morality. This focus on duty, along with the foundational absolute imperative, is the basis of the Kantian belief system.

Kantian ethics is a system of ethics based on responsibility, and it has had an enormous influence on other ethical thinkers who have developed his ideas. A categorical imperative is a statement with no conditions. It does not depend on the consequences of the action; it is just a command that should always be followed. For example, there is a general rule that no one should steal. However, some argue that there may be an exception to this rule if stealing is the only way a child will avoid starvation, for example. However, for Kant, there are no exceptions. The rule is that no one should steal, so no one should steal under any circumstances.

Kant’s maxim was essentially “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” As such, an action is morally permitted if it accords with a rule that should apply to everyone on earth. For example, consider a maxim about the permissibility of lying. If everyone were allowed to lie all the time, it would be self-defeating; no one would be able to trust anyone else and society would fall apart. Kant would argue, then, that no one should lie because society would fail if everyone lied.

Kant also argued that people should never treat one another as a means to an end. Instead, each person should be treated as an end in him or herself. As a whole, Kant’s theories are known as a form of “critical philosophy.”


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