Is the categorical imperative two imperatives implicitly in one? I'm not asking about the congruence or equivalence of the formulations; rather, I'm asking whether, "Act only on that maxim..." can be broken into:

Act on maxims that can be willed as...

Don't act on maxims that can't be willed as...

... Wherefore the "only" in the single imperative covers this divided sense?

C.f. the second formulation: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end." Can this be broken into a positive and a negative imperative? Here, "never/always" would function like "only" in the first formulation.

I ask in part because maybe such a division would relate to the difference between contradiction-in-conception vs. contradiction-in-the-will issues re: applying the CI.

  • Anything can be broken into analytical parts, but (unless one wants to indulge in reductionism) the presence of parts does not obviate the existence of the whole. I can break down 'walking to the kitchen' into numerous parts — rise, step, step, {repeat...), step, stop — but I still walked to the kitchen. There may be a use for making such an analytic distinction, sure, but best to lose sight of the totality. Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 18:00

1 Answer 1


This is an intriguing question, but I think the answer is negative. Your analysis would be correct if Kant said, "Act always and only ..."

I think what we get out of the categorical imperative is the negative imperative. That is, it is the very limit of our freedom: it says you may never do things that are incompatible with the CI. However, compatibility with the CI is necessary but not sufficient for acting. It may be that an act's maxim is compatible with the CI, but the conditions never arise for you to discharge that action. For example, imagine for some reason that the opportunity to be honest or to lie just never came up in your life. In that case, you haven't run afoul of the categorical imperative. Hence, an act's being compatible with the CI is not by itself sufficient condition for you to will it. However, it is necessary condition for you to do so.

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