Immanuel Kant

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Kant's formulations of the categorical imperative

Summary:

Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative has three main formulations: the formula of universality, which requires that actions be universally applicable; the formula of humanity, which mandates treating people as ends in themselves and never merely as means; and the formula of the kingdom of ends, which envisions a community where all individuals act according to maxims that could be universal laws.

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Summarize Kant's two formulations of the categorical imperative.

There are, as you say, two formulations of the categorical imperative.  The first has to do with the motives for a person's actions.  Here, Kant says that the categorical imperative is the rule that one must 

Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

In other words, you need to look at the rule that you are following when you act.  If you could accept that rule being a universal rule for all people, then your act is moral.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative refers to the people affected by one's actions.  It says that you must

Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.

This means that you must never treat any human (or group of humans) as a simple tool.  You must always treat them as if they matter for their own sake rather than for the sake of whatever good they can do for you.

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What is Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative?

Introduced by German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 1785 book Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, the first formulation of the categorical imperative—also known as the principle of the law of nature—is based on the Kantian principle of universalizability:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.

Kant basically means that we should all act in a certain way for a specific reason or motivation, if, and only if, we're willing to accept that every other rational agent can and should act the same way for the same reason. We can act on maxims only if those maxims can become universal laws, or we are willing to see those maxims be widely and universally practiced as well.

Take, for example, the decision to cheat on an exam or on a significant other. By making this choice, we open a door which allows others to make the same choice for the same reasons; we must accept the idea that everyone else can and should cheat on an exam or on a significant other if they so choose. With Kant's universalizability in mind, we should avoid cheating if we don't want everyone else to cheat too.

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What is the humanity formulation of the categorical imperative?

The categorical imperative is an idea of Immanuel Kant's, 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 humanity formulation is one of them.

What Kant says in the humanity formulation is that people must always act in such a way that they treat others as ends in themselves, not as means to an end.  What this means is that we must always treat other people as if they are important because of their humanity.  We should not treat them as if they are simply tools to be used in an effort to get the things we want.

For example, 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.  I need to make my decision while thinking about the store owner as an important person.  I cannot simply decide to use him as a tool to save my family.  It is possible that I might still steal the bread.  I might decide that it is better to steal the bread than to make the storeowner turn me down when I ask him.  If I ask him for the bread, he might feel guilty so I might think that I should spare him that burden.

It is not clear if I would really be treating him as an end in himself, but I would at least be using the humanity formulation (rightly or wrongly) when I made this decision.

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What is the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative?

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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What is the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative?

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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