Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 3 Ethics

Categorical Imperative


  Immanuel  Kant  
The Categorical Imperative Immanuel Kant An Ethics of Duty   

For Kant the basis for a Theory of the Good lies in the intention or the will.  Those acts are morally praiseworthy that are done out of a sense of duty rather than for the consequences that are expected, particularly the consequences to self.  The only thing GOOD about the act is the WILL, the GOOD WILL.  That will is to do our DUTY.  What is our duty?  It is our duty to act in such a manner that we would want everyone else to act in a similar manner in similar circumstances towards all other people.

Kant expressed this as the Categorical Imperative. 

Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law. 

For Kant the GOOD involves the Principle of Universalizability!  

Kant argues that there can be four formulations of this principle:

The Formula of the Law of Nature: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature."

The Formula of the End Itself: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."

The Formula of Autonomy: "So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims."

The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: "So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends." 

Never treat a person as a means to an end.

Persons are always ends in themselves.  We must never use or exploit anyone for whatever purpose. 

Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason wanted to find a basis for ethics that would be based on reason and not on a faith in a god or in some cold calculation of utility that might permit people to be used for the benefit of the majority.  Kant thought carefully about what it is that all humans would find reasonable as a guide for human conduct.  People think it wrong to kill, lie, steal, and break promises.  Why is this so.  Kant arrives at the idea that humans think these acts wrong because they cannot will that others would do these things because it would mean the end of civilized life, perhaps even the life of the actor contemplating the right way to behave.  One can not will that people lie all the time for that would mean the end to human communications if we could not trust what was said to be true most, if not all, of the time.  Kant thought that there would be perfect and imperfect duties. 

Perfect Duty is that which we are all obliged to do all of the time. 

e.g., no killing, no physically harming others, no lies, no theft, no breaking promises 

Imperfect Duties are those which we should do as often as possible but can not be expected to do always.         e.g., be charitable, loving,




Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's%20Ethics


The Categorical Imperative in the Twentieth Century

Categorical Imperative

Catholic Encyclopedia

The Categorical Imperative is NOT the Golden Rule

With the Golden rule you are to:   Act as you would have others act towards you. 

The Golden Rule Around the World

The same essential golden rule has been taught by all the major religions (and philosophies) of the world going back approximately 3500 years.


HINDUISM (Vedic religion from c. 13th century BC)

Do not to others what ye do not wish done to yourself...

--This is the whole Dharma, heed it well.

The Mahabarata, cited in Das, 1955, p. 398.


ZOROASTRIANISM (c. 12th century BC)

Human nature is good only when it does not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self.

Dadistan-i-Dinik, 94:5; in Müller, chapter 94, vol 18, 1882, p. 269.


BUDDHISM (c. 6th century BC)

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

   Udanavargu, 5:18, Tibetan Dhammapada, 1983.


JUDAISM (c. 10th? century BC)

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary; go learn it.

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a, as cited in Glatzer, 1969, p. 197.


JAINISM (c. 6th century BC)

In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief,

regard all creatures as you would regard your own self.

Yoga-Sastra, cited in Bull, 1969, p. 92.


CHRISTIANITY (c. 1st century AD)

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Luke 6:13

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.

Matthew 7:12


CONFUCIANISM (c. 6th century BC)

     Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.

Confucius, Analects, 15:23, 6:28; Mahabharara, 5:1517,

in Confucius, The Analects, 1992.


ISLAM (c. 7th century AD)

No one of you is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself.

The Sunnah (from the Hadith), publ. 1975.


SIKHISM (c. 15th century AD)

Be not estranged from another for, in every heart, Pervades the Lord.

Sri Guru Granth Sahib, in Singh (trans.) 1963, p. 250.


Gregory IX to French bishops concerning the attitude of Christians towards the Jews:

"Est autem Judćis a Christianis exhibenda benignitas, quam Christianis in Paganismo existentibus cupimus exhiberi"

(Christians must show towards Jews the same good will which we desire to be shown to Christians in pagan lands)

In a Brief dated 6 April, 1233


BAHÁ'Í (c. 19th century AD)

Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not. This is my command unto thee, do thou observe it.

     Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic 29


Why should willingness to be on the receiving end of like action make it permissible? If masochists are willing to suffer others' sadism, would that make sadism right? More generally, can acceptance of being on the receiving end of like action legitimate anything?

Kant's improvement on the golden rule, the Categorical Imperative:

Act as you would want all other people to act towards all other people.

Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law.  

The difference is this.  With the Golden rule a masochist or a sadist would be justified in causing or receiving pain.  This is not what the Kantian Principle would support. 

From Don Berkich:

" Some  make the mistake of thinking that the First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative is but a badly worded version of the Biblical "Golden Rule"--Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Golden Rule, as Kant well knew, is a deeply misguided ethical principle. To see this, consider the following somewhat salacious example.

The Horny Martin Example




Suppose that Martin is 20 year-old college student. Suppose further that Martin has never been out on a date. The woman of his dreams finally agrees to go out with him. So Martin gets all dressed up and takes her out to a nice dinner, after which they drive up to Lookout Point. And...





Martin does unto others as he would have done unto himself,




with disastrous consequences.




Because the same result cannot be obtained by application of the Categorical Imperative, it follows that the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative are not extensionally equivalent. "

VIEW:  Humorous example of how the golden rule might appear to apply but on careful thought does NOT serve as adequate guide for conduct.  clip from "Wild Hogs"

Glossary of Kant’s terms 



1. The theory applies only to rational agents.  It would not apply to non-humans or to humans who are not rational, e.g., humans with brain malfunctioning, illness or persistent vegetative coma.  

2. The theory cannot resolve conflicts between duties:

a.     between two perfect duties

b.     between a perfect duty and an imperfect duty  

How would a person resolve a conflict between two perfect duties such as never tell a lie and avoid harming someone?  What if telling the truth were to harm someone?

How would you resolve the conflict between the perfect duty, say to keep a promise to pick your friend up with you auto at a certain time, and an imperfect duty, say to stop on the way to pick up your friend in order to give CPR to someone, a stranger, and save that stranger’s life? 

3. A clever person could phrase the maxim to be universalized in such a manner as to permit almost anything.  By placing qualifiers on the maxim or peculiar definitions on terms a clever actor could satisfy the categorical imperative and yet be acting in a manner otherwise not consistent with it. 

What if someone were to promise to be faithful to his mate and not have sex with another woman.  Then that person engages in oral and anal forms of physical interaction leading to orgasm and yet thinks that the promise was not broken because the meaning of “sex” did not include those forms of interaction.

 Kant’s law and criticism

Kant’s links


bullet The Moral Law Immanuel Kant by Professor Manfredi -
bullet IEP Duties and Deontology -
bullet Categorical Imperative -
bullet Kant at Faith net
bullet German Idealism -
bullet Kant, Immanuel -- Metaphysics -
bullet A Priori
bullet The Ethics of Duty: Immanuel Kant heinmann's chapter on Kant -
bullet What is the Best Way to Live? - Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, by Ralph Wedgwood -
bullet What is the Best Way to Live? Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, by Ralph Wedgwood -
bullet Kant VPhilosophy 433, History of Ethics by Darwall, Winter 1998
bullet A Critique of the Kantian Ethics by Michael Huemer Spring, 1993 -
bullet 1. Critique of Kant in Schopenhauer's Thesis: On the Basis of Morality Copyright © 1996 Andreas Wißmiller


bullet Kant, Immanuel: The Critique of Practical Reason, trans. by Thomas Abbott (text in Sweden)
bullet Kant, Immanuel: The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. by J. M. D. Meiklejohn (text in Sweden)
bullet Kant, Immanuel: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. by Thomas Abbott (test in Sweden)
bullet Kant, Immanuel: The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, trans. by

There are other theories.  We shall move on to examine them.

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents