Soft Categoricity in Ethics

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The Kantian dichotomy between categorical and hypothetical imperatives is a time-honored one in moral philosophy. The distinction as such is often accepted as obvious, even if the actual possibility of categorical imperatives is denied. In this paper I dispute the traditional conception of a categorical–hypothetical dichotomy. I do this not by denying the possibility of categoricity but by enlarging it to other territories that do not fit the traditional fault lines: while the traditional conception purports to be universal (based on avoidance of contradiction; addressing all creatures of reason), I am suggesting “softer” conceptions that substitute the human condition for universality. Human-based categoricity is “soft” both in its narrowed scope—not prescribing to all creatures of reason—and in the degree of contingency that accompanies the “descent” from metaphysics to life. Although this view is lurking in various discussions in and around moral philosophy, the idea of alternative conceptions of moral categoricity has not, to my knowledge, been the focus of explicit discussion.1 I begin by outlining three conceptions of soft categoricity; I subsequently elaborate on some of their philosophical characteristics and explain how they combine into one robust conception.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)35-60
Number of pages26
JournalThe Philosophical Forum
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2011
Externally publishedYes


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