Ethical Orientations: Categorical Imperative

The Categorical Imperative, which comes from sixteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is an ethical orientation that holds that one’s actions should be undertaken as if s/he had the power to make them universally applicable. Thus, to decide if lying is acceptable, one should ask oneself what would happen if everyone lied? Or from a public relations position, what of deceiving the media, not being honest with stakeholders or publics, using fear appeals to get people to take action, or any number of other dubious communication strategies?

For Kant, the answer is easy, if everyone did it, we could not trust individuals or organizations. Kant further argues that we should treat people as ends (or inherently valuable), and not as means to ends (taking advantage of people for personal gain as a situationalist might). The categorical imperative in not about doing what is easy or what people like; rather, the categorical imperative is about doing what is “right.”

We do not litter because if everyone littered, we would have a dirty and unsanitary world. We do not speed because if everyone sped the roads would be unsafe. The categorical imperative is about personal restraint for the good of society. However, the categorical imperative cannot be used to guide decisions about things that are not universally agreed upon, such as which religion is best, or whether pornography should be banned, because there are no universally agreed upon rules of social conduct in such matters. The Categorical Imperative is also not intended as a stick to make others do what we want, but as a way of judging the societal value and equity of one’s own actions. On moral and ethical issues such as being honest, treating workers fairly, offering health benefits or a living wage, etc. the categorical imperative would apply. Actions that are taken purely for self-gain, or that exploit others, violate the principle.

Q: Why is it that what people believe is often not consistent with their actions? For example, everyone agrees that drivers should not text and drive, and yet, more than 330,000 people are injured or killed every year because of that.

Q: When are universal principles or beliefs not “universal?” For example, that one should not kill other people is generally accepted, but then we make exceptions for example with the death penalty.

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