The categorical imperative is, in Kant’s ethics, a synonym for the moral imperative, the designation of the moral norm as formally independent in its grounds from any actual conditions of human will and therefore unconditionally compulsory for execution with any composition of our actual goals. He opposes the hypothetical imperative as a conditional form of will, in which the moral obligation of this action is based on the premise of the actual or possible desire of the subject. Unlike the hypothetical imperative, the categorical imperative expresses the pure normative work of moral reason. The criterion of the legitimacy of desire, therefore, consists in the possibility for this desire to become an indispensable principle of will in general and nothing more: it must be possible to desire the subjective principle of one’s will as the law of every will of a rational being.
The ethical formalism of Kant consists in an emphasis on the form of will; The “formula” of this acceptable form of will is precisely the categorical imperative, but not the law of morality. The categorical imperative forbids placing the value of the will in dependence on its content, but by doing so does not at all place the will in dependence on its own form:
- the will that submits to the categorical imperative is subject to reason, but not to the subject;
- the will, the form of the value definition of which is described by a categorical imperative, is moral for any specific content.
The will, whose definition of value is due to its content, is at any rate outside of the moral: the value that drives it is not a moral value. This is the pathos of Kantian formalism.
Thus, the place of the subjective goal (for all its anthropological significance) in ethics is an objective that is valuable not at the personal whim of the person who believes it, but quite independently of the content of any arbitrariness – a goal metaphysically original and therefore valuable in itself. This, at least, is the goal of preserving the subject himself of all goals-man in his universal, or generic being, as humanity in man. This intelligent nature of mankind and every intelligent in general is a goal in itself. Therefore, the formal quality of all moral will must be such that, in this will, the value of reasonable humanity must always be relegated as the goal of this will itself and the condition for accepting all other goals that, in contrast to this goal, have to be recognized as merely subjective.
So, the content or matter of the moral goal-setting is determined from the correlation of the real goal-setting with its modal form. This reduction is a judgment, and therefore the moral reality of the will is mediated by the moral ability of judgment. The formal principle of this ability, which determines attitude of its subject to the moral form of will (to the categorical imperative), gives the final definition of the moral will, in which the subject’s competence is recognized only by what he himself freely recognized as pure value (not to have other laws of personal will, except those certified by the court of conscience). The ethical law from this position appears as the categorical imperative of autonomy.
The formulation of the categorical imperative: “Do your best so that the maxim of your will could at the same time have the force of the principle of universal legislation.” “Do it so that you will always treat humanity in your face, and in the person of everyone else as well as your goal, and never treat it only as a means”; everyone must treat himself and others following the “idea of humanity as a goal in itself”. For the perfect will in the virtue, the categorical imperative, according to Kant himself, has no force: from the norm of the will, he becomes a description of the natural form of will for him.