There is, therefore, only one categorical imperative. It is: Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) German philosopher
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten], Sec. 2 (1785) [tr. Beck (1969)]

Alternate translations:
  1. I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.
  2. Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
  3. Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.
  4. So act that your principle of action might safely be made a law for the whole world.
  5. May you live your life as if the maxim of your actions were to become universal law.
  6. Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.
  7. Do not feel forced to act, as you're only willing to act according to your own universal laws. And that's good. For only willful acts are universal. And that's your maxim.

(As noted in the comments, the "alternate translations" may represent other restatements by Kant of the categorical imperative.)

Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 25-Sep-15
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2 Responses to Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten], Sec. 2 (1785) [tr. Beck (1969)]

  1. David Newman says:

    I don’t think the “alternate translations” are really translations of the same bit of Kant. Kant formulated the same basic idea over and over. Some of the alternatives may be alternative translations of the first quotation (#1 and #2), but others appear to me to be translations of one of Kant’s alternative formulations of the categorical imperative (#3 – #6). The last one appears to me to be analysis of the relation between free will and the categorical imperative, or something. It doesn’t feel like Kant, to me.

    In the Oxford edition (2002, Hill and Zweig translators), Kant gives four formulations of the categorical Imperative, the first of which is your main quotation, and the second of which is I think the source of your alternatives 3-6:
    1) “Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (p222)
    2) “Act as though the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.” (p222)
    3) The supreme condition of the will’s harmony with universal practical reason is the Idea of the will of every rational being as a will that legislates universal law.” (p232)
    4) “[R]ational beings all stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end in himself.” (p234)

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