Immanuel Kant's Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

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  • 0:01 Shoulds
  • 0:48 Hypothetical Imperatives
  • 1:50 Categorical Imperatives
  • 2:57 Motivation and Duty
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, you'll think about the different reasons why you use the word 'should.' We'll look at how Immanuel Kant understood these imperatives and what he had to say about doing the right thing.


Consider the ways you use the word 'should' in your life today. For instance, you might say to yourself: 'I should watch this video lesson on Immanuel Kant, so I can learn the information.' Maybe you also say to yourself: 'I should take a break from watching when I get tired, so I can rest my eyes.'

But what about bigger 'shoulds,' like 'I shouldn't steal my friend's tablet in order to watch these video lessons.'

This lesson looks at the differences between these different kinds of 'shoulds,' also known as imperatives. We'll look at the topic from the perspective of philosopher Immanuel Kant, including his approach to morality in the text Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals.

Hypothetical Imperatives

To Kant, saying to yourself 'I should watch this video, so I can learn the information' is an example of a hypothetical imperative. This means it's a statement about what a person would need to do to achieve a desired aim. You have a reason you want to learn this information. This compels you to take action and watch it because it gets you something you want.

Another example of a hypothetical imperative is saying that if you want to become a singer, you should take voice lessons. Or if you want to take college classes, you should complete an application. These all describe something you should do in order to achieve something that is important to you.

Remember the name hypothetical imperatives by thinking of how they are suggestions, or hypothetical possibilities. If you want something, you may take a certain action. Not everyone will take these actions, because not everyone wants the same thing. They are simply hypothetical.

Categorical Imperatives

But according to Kant, there are some 'shoulds' that are for everyone. These moral rules don't just apply to you if you desire a certain result, like being a singer or taking college classes. They are rules that apply to us simply because we are born.

These are examples of a categorical imperative, or a statement about what a person needs to do because it is a rational moral obligation. Remember the phrase 'categorical imperatives' by thinking of how the word 'categorical' means 'absolute.' These rules are universal.

Examples of categorical imperatives would be:

  • A person should not be cruel to animals.
  • A person should not make a promise they cannot keep.

Why? Kant says it's not because that will necessarily bring about a certain aim. It's related instead to what is morally rational for a person to do, something that can be applied to everyone as a universal moral law.

Motivation and Duty

Different from many philosophers of his time, Kant's approach was focused more on the motivation behind a person's actions rather than on consequences.

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