I’ve been struggling with the question, What feature must a requirement exhibit in order to qualify as a categorical imperative?
The first thought is that a categorical imperative is one that binds unconditionally. Thus, a requirement that p that binds only on the condition that q, is not a categorical imperative.
One problem with this is that whenever this is the case, we can readily produce a categorical imperative by introducing the condition into the requirement’s content. So, if the problem with the requirement that p is that it binds only on condition that q, then the requirement that q à p avoids that problem. Of course, it might be that the requirement that p binds also only on the condition that r, but we get around this by formulating the requirement that (q & r) à p. And so on.
This may lead to the suggestion that a requirement is categorical just in case it has non-conditional content. But such requirements may bind only conditionally.
So the natural thought is that a categorical imperative is a requirement with non-conditional content that binds non-conditionally.
There are both technical and non-technical problems with this. Technically, conditionals are equivalent to non-conditionals and vice versa. Thus, p à q is equivalent to ~p V q, and p is equivalent to (q V ~q) à p. Technical problems tend to have technical solutions that smarter people can figure out, however, so let me move to a non-technical problem.
Take Kant’s own (and only) categorical imperative, in its second formulation: “always treat rational beings as ends rather than mere means.” On a literal reading, this requirement is too strong, as it requires that one seek rational beings so that one could treat them as ends, which is silly if not contradictory. Probably the spirit of the Kant’s categorical imperative is better captured by: “if and when dealing with rational beings, treat them as ends rather than mere means.” But that’s a conditional. It’s similar to another example sometimes given of a conditional categorical imperative: “if you’re a parent, treat your children well.” All conditionals. Yet we want to say these are categorical imperatives. So the suggestion under consideration returns the wrong results.
So maybe it’s OK for a categorical imperative to be conditional (either in content or in bind) – as long as it’s not conditional on one’s desires. This captures the intuitive idea that a categorical imperative is “one that each person has reason to follow no matter what her desires” (as Jamie Dreier puts it in his paper in the Cullity & Gaut book). Being a parent, or dealing with a rational being, is not a desire, but a state of affairs. So a requirement’s being conditional on their obtaining would not disqualify it from being a categorical imperative, on the present proposal. Thus the proposal returns the right results.
One problem is how to handle trivial or necessary desires, such as the desire to do what’s desirable, or perhaps the de dicto desire to do the right thing. In a way, every categorical imperative is conditional on one’s desire to do what’s desirable. But this shouldn’t disqualify it from being a categorical imperative.
The best way to handle necessary desires is to ignore them. We may simply modify the suggestion to read: a requirement is a categorical imperative just in case it’s not conditional on one’s contingent desires.
That’s my thought right now for how to construe categorical imperatives. I suspect there are more considerations that are relevant to this issue. There is, for starters, the whole business of desires for means v. desires for ultimate ends that needs to somehow feed into it. Difficult.