The Categorical Imperative: How We Define Morals

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What is the categorical imperative? What does it mean for religion and morality?

The categorical imperative is the idea that individual moral principles should be judged on the basis of whether or not they would make sense as universal principles. This indicates that religion shouldn’t be the deciding factor about what is or isn’t moral.

Read more about the categorical imperative below.

The Categorical Imperative

One final moral claim advanced by the religious community is that religion provides absolute moral standards. Religion, they argue, is the only force capable of telling human beings what is good and what is evil in all cases.

Without the absolute and universal moral clarity of religion, they claim, each individual would be free to decide for themselves what is and is not moral. Anything could be justified under such a flimsy moral framework. But is this really true? But does religion truly have a monopoly on absolute moral standards?

The 18th-century German moral philosopher Immanuel Kant would have likely disagreed. He put forward a theory of morality that could operate without God. Kant’s categorical imperative argues that individual moral principles should be judged on the basis of whether or not they would make sense as universal principles. 

For example, if you cheat on a test because it’s inconvenient and burdensome for you to get good results by studying, would you then be in favor of a universal law that justifies cheating in all situations where working hard is inconvenient? Is a world in which people did this as a matter of routine a world in which you’d like to live? If your answer is no, then you must judge your own conduct as immoral under the categorical imperative.

Kant’s categorical imperative provides a moral standard that exists entirely outside of religion—it does not require the existence of God, nor the acceptance of a holy text. It demonstrates that morality can exist wholly without reference to religion.

The Categorical Imperative: How We Define Morals

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  • Why Dawkins thinks religion has exerted a harmful influence on human society
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  • The 3 arguments that challenge the existence of God

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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