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§6. The Categorical Imperative:In What Way Synthetic A Priori?
Critique, we have to distinguish between the a priori in connection with
the understanding and its categories as well as in connection with reason
and the ideas of reason. Understanding and reason (Verstand and Vernunft)
have different roles in the overall structure of knowledge, and the categories
and the ideas of reason have their own distinctive roles. All of this must
be kept track of. And there are also the a priori intuitions of space and time.
By contrast, in the second Critique, there is only the a priori of practical
. Now, for Kant, there are two marks of a priori knowledge: necessity
and universality; and these marks apply to practical as well as to theoretical
(a) Necessity here means practical necessity: that is, what is required
by the principles of pure practical reason. So whatever is required by
the categorical imperative (via the CI-procedure) is practically necessary
(b) As for universality, this means that the requirements in question
hold for all reasonable and rational persons in virtue of their nature as
such persons, independently of any particular conditions of inclination and
circumstances that mark off one reasonable and rational person from another. Kant insists in the preface of the Groundwork (Pref:– [–] )
that “ ‘Thou shalt lie’ could not hold merely for men, other rational beings
having no obligation to abide by it—and similarly with all other genuinely
moral laws; that here consequently the ground of obligation must be looked
for, not in the nature of man nor in the circumstances of the world in which
he is placed, but solely a priori in the concepts of pure reason.”
So far, all this is quite straightforward. The categorical imperative is a
priori as grounded on pure practical reason; it is both practically necessary
and holds universally for all reasonable and rational persons; and the same
is true of particular categorical imperatives when the persons in question
are, like us, ﬁnite persons with needs and hence subject to that imperative.
We must be careful to distinguish, as we have done before, the categorical imperative from the hypothetical. Two differences are these:
First, the hypothetical imperative Kant regards as analytic and not synthetic, and it holds in virtue of empirical rather than pure practical reason.
For Kant, it is simply part of being rational that if we desire the end, we
also desire the (most effective) means. For him, there is no difﬁculty in
understanding how hypothetical imperatives can determine our will (Gr II:
). He doesn’t see it as a problem.
The second difference is that particular hypothetical imperatives are
conditional: they apply to us or not depending on our speciﬁc wants and
. As we might expect from these two differences, the difﬁculty with
understanding how the categorical imperative determines the will concerns
how we are to understand it as a synthetic a priori and practical proposition.
The problem is that in contrast with hypothetical imperatives, they are
unconditional, both in regard to the means they forbid us to adopt in pursuing our ends (these means are restricted by the duties of justice) and in the
obligatory ends they require us to give at least some weight to (these ends
are speciﬁed by the duties of virtue). Recall that to say that particular categorical imperatives are unconditional is to say that they apply to us whatever may be the ends sought by our interests and inclinations. But if that
is so, how is it possible that they can determine our will? What possible
foothold can they have in our person?
There is a parallel here, as Kant indicates in passing, with the problem
of synthetic a priori propositions in the ﬁrst Critique. For in that work Kant
sees no difﬁculty in understanding how empirical concepts apply to objects.
They are abstracted from instances of those concepts met with in experience, and so we are assured of their objective reality: that is, we are assured
that those concepts can apply to objects of experience. After all, the basic
ones have been abstracted from instances to which those concepts already
did apply. But the categories of the understanding, such as the concept of
cause, are a priori and have not been abstracted from objects in experience,
so how can we be assured that they can apply to objects? Thus arises the
problem of the transcendental deduction.
. How are we, then, to understand the categorical imperative as
synthetic a priori? We have already noted the general sense in which this
imperative is a priori as arising from practical reason. But there is also a
special sense in which it is a priori: it formulates the requirements of pure
practical reason and so it is a priori with respect to empirical practical
The thought is that just as the categories of the understanding specify
a priori conditions for the possibility of the experience of objects, the cate[ ]