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Episode transcript here. This month, we discuss the categorical imperative with Stephen Engstrom, professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. Click here to listen to our conversation.

True to the Chicago tradition, we philosophers spend a lot of time asking – but perhaps not so much time answering – an everyday question: What’s the right thing to do?

What’s the right thing to do? we have asked many episodes. You’re in need; a stranger helps you and leaves. Should you find them and pay it back? But what if you can’t? Should you find someone else and pay them forward? But what did they do for it? Should you act like nothing happened? And so on. Alternatively: You must decide whether or not to believe in God. Should you believe? If you have no evidence? Should you not? And risk eternal damnation? Or should you reject these formulations?

Philosophers can advance and attack our moral reasoning by constructing such un-reasonable scenarios. Perhaps, we’ve wondered then and now, we shouldn’t suppose morality to exist at all? Yet Kant pushes back, deriving his entire ethics through a single principle: the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative impels us completely, without ifs, buts, ands, etc.; and it is fundamentally reasonable. That is, it is derived from reasoning as unequivocally as science is. So while we will obviously lack good answers to moral questions now and then, they aren’t beyond reason.

But how does this imperative work, anyway? Stephen Engstrom graduated from Chicago years ago, but he rejoins us to answer this and more. Join us!

Dominic Surya