What is the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative?

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The categorical imperative states that, in order to act morally, we should will that, whatever act we carry out, would apply universally, i.e. at all times, in all places, and under all possible conditions. Otherwise, according to Kant, we cannot say that we are acting morally, no matter how much...

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The categorical imperative states that, in order to act morally, we should will that, whatever act we carry out, would apply universally, i.e. at all times, in all places, and under all possible conditions. Otherwise, according to Kant, we cannot say that we are acting morally, no matter how much we might try to convince ourselves that we are.

So let us take one of Kant's examples, that of making promises. When we make a promise, we should agree to keep it. In doing so, we will that everyone else at all times and under all circumstances should also keep their promises. If we make a promise without intending to keep it, then we are effectively willing that everyone else will do the same. Under those circumstances, making promises will become utterly meaningless, as no one will ever have the slightest intention of keeping them.

Of course, Kant understands that in practical situations it's often necessary to break promises. Let's say, for example, that a violent criminal on the run makes me promise not to tell the police I've seen him. Kant is not seriously suggesting that we should keep our promise in such a situation. He's simply saying that if we did break our promise, we wouldn't be acting morally as it would not be possible to universalize the breaking of promises, for the reasons we've already given. What this shows us is that Kant's moral philosophy is primarily concerned with the form of morality rather than its substance.

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The categorical imperative is an idea of Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher from the late 1700s.  It is, in his view, a moral law that applies to all people at all times.  Kant formulated three ways of expressing the categorical imperative.  The universal law formulation is the first of these formulations.

In the universal law formulation, Kant says that we must think about why we are taking a given action.  We have to formulate a rule that is guiding our actions.  If our acts are moral, they must be guided by rules that we would be willing to make into universal laws.  In other words, when making a decision, you have to make up a rule that tells you what to do and you have to be able to honestly and correctly say that you would be willing to have that rule govern everyone in all situations.

So, let us say that my wife and children are starving and I have to decide whether to steal a loaf of bread from a store to feed them.  I first have to determine what rule it is that allows me to steal.  I might say that my rule is that everyone should take what they need from others.  But surely that would make a terrible universal law.  I might say that the rule, then, is that everyone is entitled to steal from another if A) it will do no great harm to the other and B) it is absolutely necessary for the one stealing.

If I am willing to have that law apply to everyone in every situation, then my action is moral.  This is the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative.

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