Categorical Imperative

Under the system of ethics described by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a categorical imperative is an absolute moral obligation to do or not do something that applies to all rational beings, with no consideration for personal desires, motives, or inclinations. To explore this concept, consider the following categorical imperative definition.

Definition of Categorical Imperative


  1. A moral obligation or duty that is universally binding and unconditional.


Late 1700s        Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason,” (1788) and “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” (1785)

History of Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant believed that all humans hold a special place in creation as thinking, reasoning beings. He theorized that the idea of morality, ethics, and principles may be summed up in an imperative, or essential decree of reason, from which all human obligations and duties arise.

For example, some people believe that murder is wrong because it fails to secure a positive result for everyone involved. This theory, however, is irrelevant to anyone concerned only with their own good or positive outcome. This type of “hypothetical” system of morality cannot be used as a base for making moral judgments against others simply because it relies on the subjective considerations of that person. The categorical imperative assumes people have a duty not to act in a manner that creates a contradiction between positive and negative outcomes when applied to all people universally.

For example, most people consider owning personal property a positive thing. While taking a desired thing from a neighbor may create the positive outcome of “ownership” for the taker, it creates a negative outcome for the neighbor.

Moral Obligation and the Categorical Imperative

Rather than specifically stating, “perform a specific action,” such as “keep the commandments,” or “respect your elders,” the Categorical Imperative provides an all-encompassing edict to do only that which results in a positive outcome for all involved. This provides an anchor by which all people can seek to evaluate the motives and actions of others, and to make moral judgments.

This becomes relevant to the law when dealing with an issue in which the person clearly acted for the right reasons, or in an attempt to create a positive outcome for all involved. This type or reasoning may also come into consideration in a matter in which a person is seen to have a duty to act, either to protect others, or to prevent further harm, and has chosen not to act for personal reasons.

Obligation Under the Law

All legal systems create, recognize, and enforce a wide variety of obligations. Every individual has obligations under the law, as well as obligations to the law. Most people agree that every person in a society has a moral obligation to obey the law.

One example of an obligation under the law is a law that, in a contract of sale, there is an implication that the goods sold are what they are stated to be, and of merchantable quality. This law then imposes an obligation to ensure merchantability of the item that flows from the moral imperative, rather than from the words in which they are expressed.

Other laws, such as a requirement for a Will to be signed and witnessed, do not impose a duty to create a Will, or even to have it signed in the event it is created, but sets forth conditions which must be met in order for the document to be considered valid.

The Categorical Imperative and the Law

In many situations, the courts take into account, when deciding both civil and criminal matters, whether or not an individual or entity has an obligation to act. For example:

Julia enters a small, mom-and-pop convenience store to pick up a soda. The only employee on duty is busy at the register when Julia slips in a puddle of water caused by a failing ice machine, breaking her wrist when she falls. The employee feels bad, as the ice machine has been failing for several days, making it necessary to frequently mop up the water. The storeowner has been putting off the costly repair, which created a seemingly positive outcome for him.

When considering the letter of the law, it is not illegal to have a puddle of water on the floor, nor is there a law specifying under which conditions, and under what timeline, a puddle of water should be removed. Business owners and other people have a categorical imperative to take the action that creates a positive outcome for everyone involved, or as close to it as possible.

This storeowner, then, had a moral obligation to make the repairs in order to keep visitors to his property safe from harm. In the event Julia sues the storeowner for medical bills and other damages, the court is likely to find the storeowner was negligent in failing to fix or replace the ice machine, and order him to pay Julia’s medical bills as well as money for her pain and suffering.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Negligent – failure to act, or to exercise the level of care, as another reasonably prudent person would be expected to act.
  • Moral Obligation – an obligation or duty that originates from considerations of what is right or wrong.