For those who are not familiar with the concept, the categorical imperative was a principle that was stoutly and verbosely defended by the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant which posited that for an action to be moral, it would have to be able to endure being made as a general rule. In the form stated by Kant, clearly this is an exaggeration. Not every good action deserves to be made into a universally good action that would be wise or appropriate in all circumstances. Indeed, one of the important aspects of wisdom is being able to determine the prudent course of action where it is important to deal with difficult situations with the skill that allows one to preserve one’s well-being in the face of danger. A great deal of what one does under the rubric of prudential morality is very much context-dependent, in that one may restrain oneself from doing what one would normally do because of the obvious consequences, and one may do what one would normally not do because of those same circumstances.
Nevertheless, there are occasions where the categorical imperative can be useful if it is reframed and put in a different context. If we would not accept other people acting in such a fashion as we wish to act in, we may safely consider our own behavior to be unjust. If we do not care about the suffering of others, we cannot expect others to care about our own suffering. If we do not wish to allow other people to celebrate their own beliefs, practices, and identities, we ought not to seek to enforce the celebration of our own. What we do not wish to allow for others we have no right demanding for ourselves. That which we would not wish to suffer ourselves, we cannot inflict upon others. Viewed in this fashion, the categorical imperative becomes an application of the golden and silver rules, rather than a straightjacket that denies the importance of context to the morality of behavior.
In its proper place, a healthy appreciation of the categorical imperative allows us to recognize if we are operating under any unjust double standards by putting the shoe on the other foot, by engaging in the worthwhile thought experiment of how we would feel if the tables were turned and were on the other side of the situation. The greater the gap between what we expect of others and what we are willing to demand of ourselves with regards to them, between that which we ask them to put up with and that which we are willing to put up with from them, the greater the double standards we operate under and the less just our dealings are with other people. Few of us stop to ponder and reflect on what grounds we consider ourselves to be worthy of respect from others that we are not willing to give to others. Yet other people can be expected to be very interested in this matter to the extent that we demand from others what we are not willing to give them in return.
A proper understanding of the beneficial uses of the categorical imperative can help us realize that widespread and general rules are often best not when they are used by us to judge other people by the standards of our own thinking, but rather to judge our own thinking by its own standards, to see if we would accept our behavior as a generally applicable principle that we would be willing to have enforced on ourselves. The key is that we should not use a black and white rule, applied without consideration for circumstances or any application of mercy, in order to club other people with a supposed ethical imperative, but rather that we should examine our own conduct in light of general principles. We may decide that our circumstances are not the usual circumstances and that we would not want others to act in that way under all circumstances, but if we are at all just people, we will concede that if it is right for us to do something in a given context, then it is right for others to do so in the same context, or else we are not people who can have any claim to be just in our dealings.