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MPA 8300
Leadership Ethics







Overview of The Categorical Imperative:

























































































































































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The ethical theory set forth in Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) “Fundamental Principles and the Metaphysic of Morals” (1987), Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (1995) and “Critique of Practical Reason” (1996) represents what philosophers call “deontological” (or non-consequential) ethics.  This body of philosophical speculation focuses upon the agent’s duty to will that course of action which is intrinsically right in itself (e.g., to tell the truth, to keep one’s promises, to respect life) and to refrain from any course of action which is intrinsically wrong in itself (e.g., lying, breaking promises, or murdering).

 As Kant introduced this concept in his Fundamental Principles, he noted:

Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a Good Will.  Intelligence, wit, judgment, and other talents of the mind, however they be named, or courage, resoluteness, and perseverance as qualities of the temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects, but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, there constitutes what is called character, is not good. (1995, Section I)

The importance of the power of will

In contrast to consequentialist ethics—like utilitarianism, where the consequences determine whether conduct is right or wrong—deontological ethics assert that the consequences of an action have no bearing whatsoever upon whether the conduct is right or wrong.  What really counts is that what an agent wills is good and that the agent’s intentions are good.  That is, an act’s ethical worth depends upon the reason for which the agent performs the act and the agent’s intention for performing the act.  It is not enough that conduct conform to duty; conduct must also be performed for the sake of duty.  Thus, an ethical act is performed out of a concern for what is ethically right, not out of any self-serving motive.  The act is performed just because it is the right thing to do, namely, for the sake of duty.

Take, for example, what many parents tell their children: “Do your homework.”  In response to this dictate, many children ask: “Why should I do my homework?”  The utilitarian rationale offered is: “Because otherwise you will not get good enough grades to graduate or to get a good job.”  What if the child doesn’t give one whit about these ends?  The child may be interested in going outside and playing with his friends.

Is it ethically praiseworthy for the child to be obedient to the dictate because one’s parent demands it?  Or, is it ethically praiseworthy for the child to do one’s homework simply because the child wants to be finished with school and to get a high-paying job?  Or, is it ethically praiseworthy for the child to do one’s homework because he desires to be educated?  If all three options are ethically praiseworthy, what is the most ethical option?

The human being’s power of reason figures prominently in deontological ethics. A proponent of German Idealism, Kant wanted to separate ethics from any hypothetical or empirical speculations where an agent acts upon the injunction “If you want to achieve X, then do Y.”  For example, “If you want to get to Villanova’s campus in the most direct route from the Philadelphia International Airport, then take Route 320.”  Instead, Kant wanted to establish that some imperatives are not hypothetically or empirically binding but binding without qualification and on all human beings in an impartial manner.  These imperatives are not premised with an “If…” clause because for Kant ethics are not a matter of choice but absolutely binding upon agents.  As this regards the previous example, the imperative would be stated: “Take Route 320.”  These a priori categorical imperatives are derived solely through the power of reason and must be followed.  They are not based upon a hypothesis or empirical data nor do they allow for choice.  As Kant noted:

Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to hold [ethically], i.e., as a ground of obligation, must imply absolute necessity; he must admit that the command, “Thou shalt not lie,” does not apply to men only, as if other rational beings had no need to observe it.  The same is true for all other [ethical] laws properly so called. (1987, Section II)

For Kant, the power of reason dictates what constitutes the good and is determinative of human conduct.  The power of reason accomplishes this by controlling the power of will as it acts infallibly in harmony with the power of reason.  The central axis for ethical decision making, then, is an agent’s obligation (or duty) to “will” good conduct as reason dictates what the agent ought to do.  While people typically enact subjective rules (what Kant called  “maxims”) which provide reasons for acting as they do, what is crucial is that these subjective rules be related to an objective system of reasons that are universally binding upon all people.

The "categorical imperative"...

As noted above, the “law of reason” has the nature not of an “If…, then…” condition but of a command or “imperative.”  It is not a hypothetical imperative―like Aristotle’s (1958) virtue―which dictates conduct only as a means to an end and requires only conditional or half-hearted acceptance.  Instead, this command is of the nature of an unconditional imperative which dictates conduct for its own sake (not in order for something else to happen) and requires absolute obedience because human beings are subject to contrary impulses (e.g., the senses).  Accordingly, the categorical imperative specifies ethical conduct―obligatory conduct―through the exercise of practical reason.

Kant argues the existence of the categorical imperative by focusing upon the power of will.  This power is a faculty that determines how an agent must act, that is, as the will intends a desired “end.”  As Kant noted in the Fundamental Principles:

Reason, therefore, relates every maxim of the will as giving universal laws to every other will and also to every action toward itself; it does not do so for the sake of any other practical motive or future advantage but rather from the idea of the dignity of a rational being, which obeys no law except that which he himself also gives…


He is thus fitted to be a member in a possible realm of ends to which his own nature already destined him.  For, as an end in himself, he is destined to be legislative in the realm of ends, free from all laws of nature and obedient only to those which he himself gives.  Accordingly, his maxims can belong to a universal legislation to which he is at the same time also subject….Autonomy is thus the basis of the dignity of both human nature and every rational nature.  (1987, Section II)

Only an end in itself can serve as a universal principle binding for all rational beings.  But, for Kant, a human being―and, indeed, every human being―is an end in oneself and must, in all conduct, whether directed for the benefit of self or others, be respected.  From this arises the supreme practical principle, as the highest ground for ethical decision making, from which all dictates of the will are derived.  And once derived, this principle functions as the “categorical imperative."  Obedience must follow due to the agent’s respect for the categorical imperative.

In his Fundamental Principles for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant (1987) discusses the categorical imperative in terms of three different laws:

  • The Universal Law: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  That is, agents should only enact conduct that should be universally binding upon all human beings (that is, there cannot be one rule for one person and another rule for everyone else).  Stealing (or, for that matter, killing, lying, and so on) fail this test because, Kant argues, an agent must first deny the existence of property rights and, by so doing, then must also deny that the agent himself can own property.  Hence, the act of stealing is logically self-defeating.
  • The Humanity (or “End in Itself”) Law: “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.”  For Kant, each human person is an end in and of itself, not a means to an end.  Human beings have purposes, hopes, and plans and the ability to formulate and act on their purposes, hopes, and plans.  An agent must not allow one’s purposes, hopes, and plans to interfere with any other person’s purposes, hopes, and plans because one’s nature as a rational being is what makes the agent special; so also every human being is a rational being and deserving of respect.  Therefore, Kant argues, the agent must regard all human beings as ends in themselves rather than means to one’s personal ends which are, after all, no more important than anyone else’s ends.
  • The Kingdom of Ends Law: “All maxims as proceeding from our own [hypothetical] making of law ought to harmonise with a possible kingdom of ends.”  As an agent enacts the conduct dictated by reason through the power of will, that conduct ordinarily would not be idiosyncratic to that individual but would be similar to that enacted by others forming, as it were, a “universal” imperative binding upon all human beings.  A man obviously violates this principle if he intentionally misleads a woman into falsely believing that his intention is to marry her in order to obtain sexual favors that he otherwise would not be granted if he stated his true intention.  Conversely, a woman obviously violates this principle if she leads a wealthy man to believe that her interest is more in him as a person than in his fortune which she foresees once they are married as providing for everything she wants.

The categorical imperative, then, denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement upon human beings.  It allows no exceptions, and is both required and justified as an end in itself.  The categorical imperative cannot be a means to some other end.

Human beings, however, can resist, disobey, or obey only reluctantly the dictates of reason due to contrary sensory impulses that impede the power of will.  Unethical conduct emerges, then, when an agent is disobedient to the categorical imperative (e.g., when the agent attempts to set a standard for oneself other than that which reason requires of every human being).

Perhaps Kant’s most frequently cited example of the categorical imperative is his second example where demonstrates how unethical conduct involves an agent’s contradictory conduct.

In this example, Kant describes a person who is short of money and intends to take out a loan, promising to repay it but actually has no intention of doing so.  Applying the categorical imperative to this agent and the situation, a logical contradiction is readily apparent because, were the breaking of promises to be universal law, no person would ever agree to a promise.  For Kant, this and any other such logically contradictory conduct is unethical.

Once again, Kant’s ethical theory hinges upon the concept of a good will.  That is, nothing can be “good” unless it is willed and that emerges either from duty or by conforming to duty (to do the good, for example, by respecting the dictates of reason).  Why?  Because, for Kant, the good is found only in a good will, that is, an agent who acts not from natural inclination but from duty.  Only conduct performed from duty has ethical worth.  Even conduct performed in the line of duty but not from the motive of duty has no ethical value because it lacks that which gives the conduct its ethical quality which is nothing other than respect for the law.  For Kant, this quality is synonymous with duty.  As he noted in the Fundamental Principles:

The [ethical] worth of an action does not lie in the effect which is expected from it or in any principle of action which has to borrow its motive from this expected effect.  For all  these effects (agreeableness of condition, indeed even the promotion of the happiness of others) could be brought about through other causes and would not require the will of a rational being, while the highest and unconditional good can be found only in such a will.  Therefore the pre-eminent good can consist only in the conception of the law itself (which can be present only in a rational being) so far as this conception and not the hoped-for effect is the determining ground of the will.  This pre-eminent good, which we call [ethical], is already present in the person who acts according to this conception and we do not have to expect it first in the result. (1987, Section I)

While everything in nature works according to laws, only human beings―as rational beings―have an idea of law and can consciously conform their conduct to law.  This capacity is the power of will (which, for Kant, is synonymous with practical reason).  The law binds the power of will as a dictate or command and can be stated as an imperative expressing what one ought to do.  The will of every rational being, by commanding respect for each human being as an end in itself, lays down a law.  This law is a law unto itself, autonomous, and subject to no external lawgiver; hence, it is a categorical imperative.

The categorical imperative establishes the primacy of reason and elevates the dignity of the human being as a free, supreme, and independent being as one responds to the dictates of reason.  Kant tolerates no ethical egoism because the categorical imperative forbids any conduct motivated by self-interest or even a patina of self-interest.  In contrast to the assertions of utilitarian philosophers, the consequences of one’s conduct matter but not because human beings are ends in and of themselves.  Instead, what matters is an agent’s willed obedience to the dictates of law apprehended by the power of reason.  The agent does what is right not only because it is right but also for the right reason.  The law is binding because the agent imposes it upon oneself, what Kant called the “autonomy” of the law in the Fundamental Principles:

Reason, therefore, relates every maxim of the will as giving universal laws to every other will and also to every action toward itself; it does not do so for the sake of any other practical motive or future advantage but rather from the idea of the dignity of a rational being, which gives no law except that which he himself also gives….


He is thus fitted to be a member in a possible realm of ends to which his own nature already destined him.  For, as an end in himself, he is destined to be legislative in the realm of ends, free from all laws of nature and obedient only to those which he himself gives.  Accordingly, his maxims can belong to a universal legislation to which he is at the same time also subject….Autonomy is thus the basis of the dignity of both human nature and every rational nature. (1987, Section II)

Take, for example, Kant’s own speculations about suicide and sympathy.

A person refuses to commit suicide despite the fact that his life is wretched, filled with disappointment, and misery.  This conduct, if motivated by duty (for example, to preserve life at all costs, to provide for one’s family members), possesses ethical value.  But, if this conduct is motivated by other considerations (for example, squeamishness about the actual act of killing oneself), it possesses no ethical value.

What about people who are down on their luck or mistreated because of race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation?

For Kant, an agent may respond out of feelings of sympathy or compassion for these persons.  He notes: “There are spirits of so sympathetic a temper that, without any further motive of vanity of self-interest, they find an inner pleasure in spreading happiness around them and can take delight in the contentment of others as their own work.”  However, such conduct has no ethical worth, Kant asserts, because the sympathy or compassion extended is performed out of an inclination or feeling instead of a sense of duty.  The agent who helps people who are down on their luck or mistreated out of a sense of duty and without any feeling of sympathy of compassion is ethically superior.

Although this insight is seemingly counter-intuitive, there really is something superior in the conduct of an agent who, despite one’s feelings to the contrary, does something only because it is the right thing to do.  Isn’t it easy to praise the person who acts spontaneously out of feelings of sympathy or compassion?  Yes it is.  But, Kant argues, there really isn’t anything ethically praiseworthy in this person’s intentions.  Isn't it more praiseworthy, Kant would wonder, when an avowed racist and member of the Klu Klux Klan steps in to stop the mistreatment of a minority than when a uniformed member of the State Troopers steps in?  The agent who does what is right not only because it is right but also for the right reason is ethically superior to the agent who only does what is right but whose reasoning is tainted by self-interest.

The critics...

Kant is roundly criticized by moral theorists in particular because, in making every human being an end in itself, Kant has made each human person a law unto and an end in itself, autonomous and independent of any higher authority.  Reflecting Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought, what Kant accomplished was to deify the human being by emancipating him from God as the Supreme Being.  And, by so doing, Kant cast aside any moral theory based upon the conception that God is the Ultimate End of human existence, the Highest Good, and the Supreme Law Giver.  Instead, the human being―through the power of reason and the power of a good will―is capable of determining for oneself what the good requires.

More importantly, Kant’s focus upon the power of will and the human being’s duty to will what reason dictates overlooks the dynamic interaction of intellect and will central to Thomas Aquinas’ approach to natural law.  Moral theorists point out that the power of reason does not enact law, but only voices and proclaims it as the enactment of a higher power (e.g., God, the state).  Furthermore, these moral theorists assert that it is not from the voices proclaiming the law that the law derives its binding force; instead, the law derives its binding force from the power of the intellect as the human being grasps the law voiced by a higher power, reasons its universality and binding force, and then orders the will to follow its dictates obediently.  Reflecting Enlightenment thought, Kant wanted to demonstrate not a hypothetical or empirical imperative but a categorical imperative, one grasped not by acquiescing the power of reason to a sovereign but by using to power of reason to determine what one’s duty involves.

There is yet another problem presented by the categorical imperative, that is, it is not universality and necessity of a law that determine what an agent must will, as Kant argues.  Moral theorists note that what attracts the will and motivates it to act is the goodness of the object grasped by the intellect and that the power of reason directs the will to enact.  For the human mind, by its nature, desires and is predisposed to the good.  The desire for perfect happiness―the Supreme Good―grasped by the mind cannot but be desired and embraced by the power of will, that is, unless contrary sensuous impulses supervene, rendering the power of will impotent.  However, Kant’s denunciation of the pursuit of happiness as the origin of ethical conduct ineluctably leads to ethical paralysis because the agent becomes a slave to the categorical imperative, that is, the agent is not free to embrace the good as good in and of itself and, then, to order one’s life according to it obediently through the power of will.

Lastly, the categorical imperative is inconsistent.  According to Kant, the highest lawgiving authority is the power of will.  Yet, the will is itself subject to the dictates of reason.  Is not the categorical imperative then dictated not by the power of will but by the power of reason?

Consider the case introduced by Van Wyck which deals with the issue of an action that can be described in two different ways and thus conform to different policies:

I can describe the same behavior as conforming to the policy “I will eat supper at 6 p.m.,” or as conforming to the policy “I will eat supper whenever I choose to do so providing that doing so does not interfere with any other responsibilities.”  In our industrialized society it would be impossible for everyone (including police officers, airline pilots, etc.) to conform to the first policy, but there is no problem in conforming to the second.  If I describe what I am proposing to do by referring to the first policy, it would seem that my act would violate the Categorical Imperative, but if I describe what I am proposing to do by referring to the second policy, there is no violation.  Nevertheless, the act is the same in either case. (1990, p. 82)

It was Benjamin Constant, the Swiss philosopher, who voiced the most powerful criticism in the form of a question: Is an agent obligated if asked to tell a known murderer the location of his prey?  Since the categorical imperative requires obedience to truth telling rather than just prohibits the telling of lies, the agent must tell the known murderer the truth.  Even stating “no comment” does not work since an agent cannot will that everyone would always respond to all questions in such a manner.  Furthermore, would it not be more ethically virtuous according to Kant's categorical imperative for that individual to state to the murderer "I know where your prey is but I will not tell you" and to accept whatever consequences flow from that decision?  Yet, doesn't intuition tell us that it makes more sense to claim ignorance and, after the murderer moves on, to notify the police?

Kant’s real intellectual adversary was Aristotle (1958) who argued the practical nature of ethics in his Nicomachean Ethics and whose approach had held sway for so many centuries.  Aristotle asserted that conduct leading to greater happiness is what identifies ethical behavior, when happiness understood in the sense of bringing the human being to greater perfection as a rational creature (eudaimonia).  Wisdom is the ability to envision the right thing to do in concrete circumstances and to learn to do this through practical experience.  This is how an agent becomes wise, that is, virtuous.  Whereas Aristotle was interested in “character” and was responding to the question “What sort of person should I be?”, Kant was interested in a universally binding ethic and was responding to the question “What should I do?”  And, in response to this question, Kant argues that any action taken for a deliberate end, whether it be happiness or some other goal, is ethically neutral.  For him, ethics must be comprised of universally binding imperatives.

What is at stake for Kant is human freedom.  If the power of will is nothing more than a facilitator of predetermined ends, which Aristotle asserts (e.g., to be virtuous), human freedom is limited (i.e., an agent is only free to do what is virtuous).  But, the categorical imperative allows an agent to determine what is ethical and to will it.  What is ethical, then, is known a priori and determined through the power of reason.  Thus, Aristotle’s ethical imperatives are entirely hypothetical, not based upon reason, and an agent engages in conduct because one only wants or desires something with a hoped for end in sight.  For Kant, ethics must be founded upon reason not desire and hope.  Lastly, Kant’s ethics is far more egalitarian than is Aristotle’s.  Ethics are not the privy of the rich, leisured class but arise spontaneously from within all human beings; ethics are not taught and learned but derived through the power of reason and obedience to the power of will.

Summing up...

In sum, Kant argues that an agent’s duty transcends human experience as the duty becomes the idea shared by all rational beings who embrace the idea objectively.  Ethics exist universally because human beings―precisely because they are rational beings―share the same idea, namely, that ethics exist a priori to experience.  Ethics, then, is a matter of discovery not invented or imitated.  Kant views the agent as composed of reason and will.  Emotions are not part of the agent’s composition as an ethical agent; instead, emotions present a proximate threat to the agent's autonomy because emotions may make the agent subject to them.  At the same time, Kant’s conception of duty is not equivalent to following orders or unthinkingly obeying the law.  Instead, an agent performs an act not only because it is the right thing to do but also performs the act for the right reason.

Kant’s speculations keep ethical conduct free from the taint of self-interest, from the allure of reward and the fear of punishment, from reducing ethics to a mere means instead of an end in itself, and from the mercenary motive of living an ethical life only if it pays off in some good other than the ethical good.  Kant also safeguards the individual’s freedom, autonomy, and personal dignity so that human beings live under orders imposed by no one, thus solving the dilemma concerning how one can be governed by law and yet not be enslaved to the lawgiver.  By eliminating emotions in the process of ethical decision making, Kant upholds “respect” both for oneself and for others as primary when one engages in conduct required by the categorical imperative.  Interestingly, Kant uses the example of punishing a criminal to make this very point.  It would be insulting and disrespectful if society did not punish a criminal because the act of punishing a criminal demonstrates respect for that person’s freedom and autonomy while it also holds that person responsible for one’s freely-willed acts.  Anything less would be to demonstrate a lack of respect for the criminal as a person!


Aristotle. (1958). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.).  In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (pp. 158-274). New York: Washington Square Press.

Kant, I.  (2001).  Lectures on ethics.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I.  (1996).  Critique of practice reason (T. K. Abbott, Trans.).  New York: Prometheus Books.

Kant, I.  (1995).  Ethical philosophy: Grounding for the metaphysics of morals and metaphysical principles of virtue (J. Ellington, Trans.).  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Kant, I.  (1987).  Fundamental principles of the metaphysic of morals (T. Abbott, Trans.).  New York: Prometheus Books.

Van Wyk, R. N.  (1990).  Introduction to ethics.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.