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Immanuel Kant and the Difference Between Right and Wrong

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at DePaul chapter.

Ever wondered about the origins of right versus wrong? 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant invented the critical philosophy of the categorical imperative that discerns right from wrong.  Basically, according to Kant, one should only act in accordance with the reasons in which it can be applied universally. This is called the universal law. According to Kant, in his book, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, “Hence there is only one categorical imperative and it is this: act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” 

Kant also covers theories regarding moral obligations – why we do what we do the way we do it.  Per Kant, moral obligations are derived from pure reason. It does not matter whether one wants to be a moral person or not, the moral law is binding on all of us, given the fact that we all share common public spaces and live with each other.  Per Kant, one does not need religion to determine what that law is from what is right and wrong is total knowledge just by using one’s intellect. The universal principle is acting only according to that maxim without contradiction. 

According to Kant, a maxim is a rule or principle of action where universal law is something that must always be done in similar situations. For instance, one might make its own maxim in giving at least as much to charity each year as I spend on eating out. The command expresses the universal principle of establishing a common principle can be used multiple times. Kant states that no one is allowed to make exceptions for themselves.  For example, if Person A expects Person B to keep their promises, then Person A is obligated to keep such promises. Addition, the principal commands that every maxim a person acts on must be enforced in all situations moving forward. Kant argues that it is impossible to want everyone to lie whenever it is convenient, which results in the maxim telling a lie. The focus is “how would things stand if the maxim were to become a universal law?” Kant creates this formulation to establish a clear distinction of what is acceptable and simply not in our society.

Another scenario: student A forgets her wallet in her dorm, and has no time to go back to her residence hall building.  Student A is really hungry, and notices a student working at the Ray is deeply involved in the conversation with another person. Student A can easily snatch an apple from the counter. However, according to Kant’s principle, this would not be morally acceptable. If one approves of the maxim of stealing, which student A would do, whether you admit it or not, then what is actually happening would be considered a universal action. If this was true, everyone would have the liberty to steal, since Student A felt she had the right to do so. Obviously, stealing is wrong, and not everyone does it. Therefore, stealing is not universalizable and there cannot be any exemptions for anyone. Moral of the story: don’t steal fruit. Be a nice fellow, like Kant.


Hello! My name is Lizbeth Servin a current sophomore studying political science. On my free time, I enjoy watching the Netflix shows, traveling and dancing.