The purpose of this reflection is to clarify the categorical imperative and hypothetical imperative explanations raised by Kant, and also raise some criticism to this ethical theory. Immanuel Kant explains the categorical imperative as an ethical behavior that one must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421). This is almost self explanatory, for what Kant argues that an action is morally permissible only if that action can become a law that everybody must follow. In understanding this concept it is also important to understand exactly what Kant means by the term categorical and imperative. Kant describes an imperative as “the formula of the command” (4:413) and all imperatives are expressed through “an ought” or duty (4:413). An imperative is then something like a command; a command that occurs through pure reason with respect to empirical data. An imperative can then come in two forms which are categorical and hypothetical. A hypothetical imperative is a command of “practical necessity” (4:414) and does not really pertain to moral obligatory actions. The second imperative is categorical and this means that the action is “objectively necessary…without any reference to another end” (4:414). With the categorical type of an imperative in mind, it is easier to understand what is meant by a hypothetical imperative.
Since a categorical imperative is something done without any regard for the end result, then the hypothetical imperative is something done out of a means for an end. A hypothetical imperative has a goal or aim for itself and focuses on the end result. Kant was not necessarily against the hypothetical imperative but did not see it as an explanation for moral duties. Morality is something that is a component of the will and the will does not focus on the aftermath of an action but instead on the action itself. Moral duties would have to come from an action not depended on the end result. The action would have to be “good in itself” and “necessary” (4:414) for it to be morally permissible. The categorical imperative is therefore the foundation of the will for morality since it comes from a sense of duty irrespective of the end result.
To decide which actions are morally permissible Kant specifically states the one must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421). The best way to understand this is through an example Kant provides. Kant argues that it goes against the categorical imperative to tell a lie. To tell a lie goes against the “universal law of nature” (4:422) because it ends up being a contradiction in itself since promises would not mean anything. This is why telling a lie is morally wrong, because a person is ‘willing’ a contradiction, and then results in doing human nature harm because everybody would start promising with no intention of fulfilling their promise. In other words, somebody is using somebody else as a means by telling lies to foreword their own personal gain which goes against the categorical type of imperative. The categorical and hypothetical imperatives are very important and to distinguish one from the other is crucial since this is one of Kant’s most influential arguments and something he keeps coming back to. I believe this to be a strong ethical argument because it attempts to establish an ethical theory of morality based upon pure reason rather than an argument based upon an ends justifies the means approach. The only problem I see with it is determining what exactly is done out of duty and seeing if that action can be deemed a universal law. A classic example is when a killer comes to someone’s door with the clear intention of killing their family, and the killer asks where the family is. Should the guy tell the truth? Or should he tell a lie? I think that the man should tell a lie and save his family; I don’t believe however that lying should be a universal law. These are all things to keep in mind when reading further into Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals”.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Ed. Allen Wood. New
York, Vail-Ballou Press, 2002.