Immanuel Kant: Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant’s first mature work dealing with moral philosophy aims at exposing foundational principles that are to govern human behavior. One of the concepts indispensable from Kant’s metaphysics of morals is that of moral imperative. This essay will discuss the difference between categorical and hypothetical imperatives and provide two examples of each type of imperative. The concepts of will, principle, and reason within Kant’s philosophical framework will also be discussed.

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Kant is convinced that the only human trait that allows for complying with the moral law is goodwill. The philosopher defines goodwill as the faculty of mind that compels an individual to act out of a sense of a moral obligation. Moral obligation rules out practicality and human passions, which lets a person use his or her reason – the faculty based on reliable data, rationality, and logic rather than experience and emotions. Lastly, for an individual to be moral, it is essential to follow the foundational principles – a set of rules that explain what it takes to be a rational being.

Kant gives three formulations of the categorical imperative:

  1. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law (30).”
  2. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end (36).”
  3. “Thus the third practical principle follows [from the first two] as the ultimate condition of their harmony with practical reason: the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislating will (44).”

There is a clear rationale for giving three different formulations for the same law. Together, they convey and develop the idea in the most precise and conclusive way: one should not do what could not be universalized, and at that, humanity in oneself or other people should be an end, not a means. The third formulation states what is required to follow the first two rules: autonomy that makes a person a legislator among the ends.

Therefore, the categorical imperative is a command all human beings need to follow with no regard to any means that they might or might not have to fulfil the prescribed duty. The categorical imperative is unconditional at all times solely on the premise that humans possess willpower and reason. The hypothetical imperative, on the other hand, is conditional and only applies if a person wishes to attain the goal, a prerequisite of which is following a specific rule. The hypothetical imperative takes into account the presence or the lack of means and resources required for compliance.

The same idea can be expressed using the categorical and hypothetical imperative. For instance, Biblical Commandments are prime examples of the categorical imperative: “You must not commit murder,” “You must not commit adultery,” to name two. For Christians, these Commandments are always valid; it is safe to say that they are reasonable from the secular standpoint as well. Now, it is possible to turn the given Commandments into hypothetical imperatives: “You must not commit murder if you do not want to go to jail,” “You must not commit adultery if you do not want to be judged.”

The question arises as to how obligatory following the latter is if a person does not mind the judgment. Further, one wonders as to how moral an individual who only avoids manslaughter for fear of imprisonment is. Thus, according to Kant, moral law cannot be based on hypothetical imperative due to its conditional nature.

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Together, a human being’s duties constitute the supreme unconditional law transcending nations and times and thus, applicable in any situation. The prerequisites for moral judgment are freedom of choice and goodwill. They allow a person to comply with the categorical imperative and take actions based on universal principles as opposed to complying with the hypothetical imperative because it benefits the said person.

Work Cited

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by James W. Ellington, 3rd ed., Hackett, 1993.

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"Immanuel Kant: Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives." StudyCorgi, 13 June 2021,

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StudyCorgi. "Immanuel Kant: Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives." June 13, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Immanuel Kant: Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives." June 13, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Immanuel Kant: Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives'. 13 June.

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