“What is Categorical about the Categorical?” Updated 3 September 2012 (7 Pages) – Updated July 2019

Each dimension of appearances must make a contribution if we are to have any experience, much more if we are to consciously comprehend our experience. Critical Idealism maintains that we can have only a truncated grasp of who we are and of our responsibilities in the world if we ignore or minimize the contribution of either dimension. The post entitled “What is Critical Idealism?” provides a suggestion of what must be added to our experience of empirical intuition by a priori synthetic judgment on the part of transcendental consciousness. The primary focus of that post was what Critical Idealism calls theoretical reason or the structures that make it possible for us to understand phenomena, which are driven by hypothetical imperatives. Here we are going to focus on practical reason or those elements above nature, which confront us with categorical imperatives.
Hypothetical imperatives arise out of our situations. They are announced whenever we encounter a protasis (“If I want to …”), and the imperative (the necessity) is articulated by the apodosis (“then I must …). One kind of hypothetical imperatives is technical and governs our accomplishing of a chosen task (e.g., the building of the house). We don’t begin the construction of a house by hanging the roof in the air. It is necessary (imperative) that we first lay a foundation and raise the walls before we construct the roof. However, situation-based (hypothetical) imperatives are not limited to technical imperatives. A second kind of hypothetical imperatives is pragmatic and governs our pursuit of personal fulfillment (e.g., the pursuit of a specific career). If we want to be a lawyer, we wouldn’t go to medical school.

However, our autonomous, creative freedom, which consists of our ability to initiate a sequence of events that nature could never accomplish on its own, confronts us with a very different set of imperatives than those hypothetical imperatives that arise out of our needs in a particular situation. This set of imperatives that are grounded in our creative freedom, not the physical world, is called categorical imperatives. Like creative freedom itself, categorical imperatives must be self-imposed independently of hypothetical projects and pragmatic ends. The very character of a categorical imperative is that it is grounded in our autonomous, creative freedom and not driven by our situation.

Creative freedom and its categorical imperatives are the pinnacle not only of our own individual a priori synthetic judgment that add to and even transform the physical world, but they also constitute an extraordinary set of capacities that we are incapable of identifying anywhere else in our world. Our creative freedom is not driven by blind instinct but by consciously chosen ends, and it would be impossible for us to determine, but we have only the most rudimentary (if at all) indication from other species, whether or not it is possible for another species to self-legislate a moral principle to govern its actions.

Here we run smack into the debate over evolution and morality between Dawkins/Dennet and Midgely. Are moral principles the product of a “selfish gene” that is able to preserve itself by altruistic cooperation with other like-genes in a form of “bottom-up” evolutionary morality, as Dawkins/Dennet maintain? Or do moral principles, particularly altruism, require a social dimension that would constitute a form of “top-down” moral system driven by social interest? Critical Idealism suggests that neither option (“bottom-up” on the basis of genes alone or “top-down” on the basis of social interest) is sufficient to account for morality. In fact, Critical Idealism views neither of these options as actually morality since they are both grounded in hypothetical necessity.

Is Critical Idealism justified in claiming that there is categorical necessity? Critical Idealism readily acknowledges that we can neither prove nor disprove that human beings possess an extraordinary efficient causality that is inseparable from, but not reducible to, the efficient causality of nature. However, when it comes to causal explanations generally, there are no unequivocal proofs or disproofs. This does not mean that we deny that there are causes of experience either physical or transcendental. It only acknowledges that we are incapable of proving or disproving those causal explanations.

Why would we conclude that we did possess autonomous, creative freedom? If we deny that we do, then we reduce ourselves to blind automatons or marionettes. Creative freedom is one of those key indicators of the limits to reason, in this case practical reason. We can neither prove nor disprove that we are free, but the consequences of our denying our freedom would make us non-human. Here again, Critical Idealism identifies necessities in the midst of skepticism. For us to be the species that we experience ourselves to be, it is necessary that we assume our creative freedom.

This assumption of freedom, however, is no blind leap of faith. It is what Kant called the closest we can come to a “fact of pure reason.” A fact, of course, requires empirical proof, and we have just acknowledged that such a proof (or disproof) for freedom is impossible. However, our creative freedom is so crucial to our own self-understanding that it is as if it were an empirical fact. Ferdinand Christian Wolff’s and John Searle’s declaration of a monistic, efficient causality that is exclusively material is as much a speculative judgment as any theological speculation over divine causality. However, Critical Idealism embraces neither camp when it comes to causal explanations. It is our species that constructs causal explanations because we don’t have direct access to causes, and we construct causal explanations critically when we approach them without metaphysical dogmatism and in light of what is necessary in order for us to experience, know, and act as we do.

Categorical imperatives: Criteria for Moral Maxims

If we assume that we possess a supersensible efficient causality that is never separable from yet irreducible to the efficient causality of nature, then the lesson of dreams in contrast to being awake (see Critique of Pure Reason B 520-521, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics AA III: 290, 154, Metaphysik Mrongovius XXIX: 927) is that efficient causality is governed by rules. Yet the rules that govern the efficient causality of freedom are not the deterministic, blind, mechanical laws of nature. Rather, freedom’s laws must be compatible with freedom: they must be self-legislated and not heteronomous (i.e., they cannot be imposed by any source, divine or natural, beyond or outside of the self). The individual does not have to create the moral principle. Moral principles can come from a variety of sources. Yet, just as no one but the individual can know whether or not s/he has consciously applied a moral principle to her/his action, no one but the individual can legislate a moral principle to govern her/his action. The social order, church, political system, and family can all attempt to legislate moral principles for the individual, but all that can be legislated are civic laws that govern external activities. More importantly, even such civic laws can be just (moral) only if the citizens who have placed themselves under a system of civic law hold themselves accountable to a higher moral law. In other words, one can do everything properly according to the civic law and still be unjust (immoral). Unlike the civic law where the appearance of justice is all that is necessary, the individual holds her-/himself accountable to not merely the appearance but also the reality of the moral law.

If there is no heteronomous list of moral principles to which the individual must necessarily conform, from where does the moral law get its absolute authority? From the individual! How does the individual go about determining that a principle is moral? By applying the three criteria of the Categorical Imperative (found in Section II of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals) and invoking the expectations of what Kant called the three maxims of the understanding (found in “§40 On Taste as a kind of sensus communis” in the Critique of Judgment!

The first criterion of the Categorical Imperative is: act on the basis of a principle that you would want to be universal as if it were a law of nature (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals AA IV: 421). Kant does not say that it can be proved to be universal as a law of nature is universal! If we had to wait until we proved that we will act on the basis of a universal moral principle, we could never act. However, we cannot not act, and our very action confronts us with the demand of a principle to govern that action. Action demands a wager of knowledge. Given the impossibility of a heteronomous moral order and the demand that our own actions require us to invoke principles to govern them, we can invoke the criterion of universality to check-mate our personal interest (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals AA IV: 432). Kant shared with Francis Hutcheson the central conviction that moral decisions have nothing to do with personal interest. Unlike Hutcheson, however, Kant does not anchor morality in consequences (Utilitarian criteria of outcomes for the greatest number) for which Hutcheson developed a utilitarian calculus already before Bentham. Rather, reining in interests have to do with acting on the basis of a moral principle solely because it is right and not because it is going to fulfill some personal interest (including interest in benefits to the greatest number). The universal law criterion of the Categorical Imperative is not a strategy that demands additional criteria (e.g., a utilitarian calculus) to establish the universality of one’s moral principle. What it involves is the neutralization of personal interest in the selection of moral principles. It is primarily a negative criterion, not a positive criterion.

The second criterion of the Categorical Imperative is positive: it asserts that we should treat ourselves and others as ends and never as mere means (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals AA IV: 429). The ground for this criterion is extensively developed in the Groundwork. It is the very ground for morality itself: creative freedom. Human dignity (not worth, which is a category of value based on exchange) is grounded by the capacity of autonomous, creative freedom since freedom is as above commerce as it is above nature, is inviolable, and can never be lost as long as one lives. This criterion does not maintain that we cannot serve as a means for someone else or that someone else cannot serve as a means for our own ends. What it maintains is that we should in all situations never reduce ourselves or the other to a mere means. Hence, this form of the Categorical Imperative provides a positive criterion for the selection of the moral principle upon which the individual will act that leaves it up to the free individuals involved to work out the mutual accomplishment of ends.

The third criterion of the Categorical Imperative can be viewed as first in the order of significance. It maintains that whatever we do, we should acknowledge all other persons as creatively free agents, who also self-legislate moral maxims to govern their actions (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals AA IV: 434). In other words, moral principles cannot be legislated. Moral principles are above the civic law, they can only be self-legislated, and they are the ultimate standard to which even the civic law is held accountable. When combined with the second criterion of the Categorical Imperative, we have as strong a statement as can be made for human beings being ends in a kingdom of ends (i.e., a kingdom of moral principles).

In short, the self-legislation of moral principles does not consist in the creation of moral principles since they constitute the order of laws that govern the efficient causality of freedom. Moral principles constitute a system of ends that have the unique status of having to be self-legislated. We can choose to ignore these systems of law that govern efficient causality, but just as with the laws of nature, so too with moral laws, we ignore the system of order at our own peril.

When combined with the three maxims of the understanding, the three criteria of the Categorical Imperative provide the individual with a moral orientation that in no way compromises her/his freedom. The three maxims are: 1) think for yourself; 2) think from the perspective of the other; and 3) be consistent with your highest capacities (i.e., with your personal dignity) (See Critique of Judgment AA V: 293ff; on consistency with one’s highest capacity of freedom, see Vorlesung zur Moralphilosophie: 180).

The maxim to think for yourself is not a cry to autonomous individualism! Rather, it constitutes the self-expectation to develop one’s reflective judgment (i.e., to seek out concepts where one does not already possess one as would be the case with a determining judgment) on the basis of the recognition of the nature of a priori synthetic judgment that incessantly requires the individual to add things to phenomena in order to adequately understand them. Reflective judgment can never consist in mere memorization or mimicry. It requires that one take personal ownership of one’s judgments in the context of the givenness of the phenomena, never independent of phenomena.

The maxim to think from the perspective of the other involves more than merely developing a sense of empathy for the other’s situation. It includes, more importantly, the recognition that judgment invokes a sensus communis, a common process and activity of judging that emphasizes the communal nature of understanding. Again, this maxim is a dramatic check-mate to mere individual autonomy that in principle rejects society and tradition. Proper understanding of, and action in, the world requires a perspective of totality that is grounded in the assumption of universal capacities (e.g., of theoretical and practical reason) that all conscious/rational beings share.

Finally, Kant made clear in his Vorlesung zur Moralphilosophie (180) already in 1775 that the maxim of consistency is formulated in terms of humanity’s extraordinary capacity of freedom in conformity with humanity as a kingdom of ends. In other words, the maxim does not mean that we should blindly hold onto a system of convictions merely because the system is consistent. Mere consistency can be consistently wrong as Habermas suggests with his notion of “systematic distortion.” Rather, we should be consistent with our understanding of human dignity.
Kant’s moral philosophy allows us to be human and does not expect the impossible (i.e., perfection) from us. He suggests that remorse has a constructive role to play in morality since it drives us to do better the next time (see Critique of Practical Reason AA V: 97-100). What our freedom and self-legislation of moral principles mean, however, is that we come into this world with a set of capacities and inclinations that need to be exercised rather than their determining our nature and character from the get-go. The task of the community is to encourage and assist every individual in the exercising of her/his highest capacity of creativity and responsibility. Our inability to guarantee this process even under the conditions of mutual encouragement is what allows Kant to speak of a central role of religion in our becoming human. This aspect of Kant’s work is what prohibits our reducing of his to a mere “moral” philosophy. He called his work philosophical theology, which is a theme of another post.

An additional constitutive element is raised by the theme of perfection (or the unreasonableness of our realization of perfection). With the exception of the Kant’s moral theory, moral theories from Plato and Aristotle to Utilitarianism are concerned with consequences, not with acting on the basis of a moral principle merely because it is right and regardless of the consequences. The most succinct formulation of this revolution in moral theory is found in Section I of the Groundwork. Practical reason focuses on that over which the individual has control; not on those things over which we have no control. All forms of consequentialist ethics require the possession of an omnipotence and omniscience that it is impossible for the individual to possess. We cannot control nor can we know all of the consequences of our actions that we would have to control and know in order to base our moral status on consequences. What we can control is the moral principle on which we choose to act. Kant calls this ability to act on the basis of a moral principle merely because it is right and not because its consequences will satisfy some interest: duty. It is obvious that this notion of “duty” is not that of an obligation to one’s country, to one’s employer, or even to one’s family. These latter notions of duty are entirely heteronomous and are driven by self-interest. They have nothing to do with Kant’s notion of autonomous duty grounded in our creative freedom. Duty for practical reason is established by the individual’s silent, internal wrestling with the moral principles s/he selects to guide one’s action. In other words, contrary to heteronomous duty, no one but the individual can know whether or not s/he has “done her/his duty.”

Kant places duty above happiness. That by no means suggests that the moral life is grim and depressive. On the contrary, there is no experience of satisfaction comparable to the realization that one has acted on the basis of a moral principle merely because it is right – and not because it is going to satisfy one’s interest, even the interest of happiness. However, the motivation for morality is not even this satisfaction. We can only experience this satisfaction if we have first acted on the basis of proper duty. Having acted out of duty, then, makes one worthy of whatever satisfaction/happiness one might experience as a consequence of acting out of duty. Once again, what matters in practical reason is not the consequences but the exercising of one’s moral capacity. An investigation of Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of mere Reason will demonstrate further the importance of moral effort over any and every kind of divine assistance without denying the possibility of such assistance.


Kant’s works are cited according to the Akademie Ausgabe (AA) [Academy Edition] of the Königlich Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaft [Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences]. The exception is the Critique of Pure Reason, which is cited according to the pagination of its two editions:  the 1781 First Edition (A) and the 1787 Second Edition (B). An example:  Kant, The Critique of Judgment AA V: 431-432 refers to the Academy Edition Volume V: page #s 431-432. Translations into English of Kant’s works often have the AA pagination in the columns. Unless otherwise indicated, translations of Kant’s works come from the Cambridge University Press (CUP) edition.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. AA V: 165-485. 1790.

______. Critique of Practical Reason AA V: 1-164. 1788.

______. Critique of Pure Reason. 1781/1787.

 ______. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals AA IV: 385-463. 1785.

______. Metaphysik Mrongovius. Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR Band XXIX: 747-1047. 1783.

______. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics AA IV: 255-383. 1783.

______. Religion Within the Boundaries of mere Reason AA VI: 1-202. 1793.

______. Vorlesung zur Moralphilosophie. (1774/1775). Edited by Werner Stark and Manfred Kühn. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.