” (Rohlf) These maxims may be as simple as gratifying a desire or something complex like becoming a lawyer. Kant then distinguishes between two basic kinds of maxims: material and formal principles. If I am acting in order to satisfy some desire, such as going to a Starbucks to get a coffee, that is acting on a material principle. According to Kant, maxims are rules that describe how one does act and imperatives prescribe how one should act. A categorical imperative commands that I should act in some way unconditionally. Kant regards these categorical imperatives as moral laws and they apply to everyone in the same way. In other words, if stealing is morally wrong, we cannot say that stealing is okay., because we are hungry and lack the money to buy food for ourselves or our families.

Part II

Kants Categorical Imperative commands that we should act in some way unconditionally and he equates this with moral laws. He then comes up with four formulas to decide if you can follow this moral reasoning.

1. Formulate a maxim that holds as sacred your reason for acting thus;

2. The maxim must be a universal law of nature that governs all rational agents;

3. Consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature; and

4. Ask yourself whether you would or could rationally “will” to act on your maxim in such a world.

If you could, then your action is morally permissible. If your maxim fails the third step, you have a perfect duty to refrain from acting on it. “If your maxim fails the fourth step, you have an imperfect duty requiring you to pursue a policy that can admit of such exceptions.” (Rohlf)

“So, for instance, Kant held that the maxim of committing suicide to avoid future unhappiness did not pass the third step, the contradiction in conception test. Hence, one is forbidden to act on the maxim of committing suicide to avoid unhappiness. By contrast, the maxim of refusing to assist others in pursuit of their projects passes the contradiction in conception test, but fails the contradiction in the will test. Hence, we have a duty to sometimes and to some extent aid and assist others.” (Rohlf)


McCormick, M. (2005) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.

“Immanual Kant:Metaphysics.” (June 2005). Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantmeta/#SH8a.

Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition),

Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/kant/>..

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