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A hypothetical imperative is a commandment of reason that applies only conditionally.
Kant divides hypothetical imperatives into two subcategories: the rules of skill and the counsels of prudence. The rules of skill are conditional and are specific to each and every person to which the skill is mandated by. The counsels of prudence (or rules of prudence) are attained a priori (unlike the rules of skill which are attained via experience, or a posteriori) and have universal goals such as happiness. Thus, almost any moral "rule" about how to act is hypothetical, because it assumes that your goal is to be moral, or to be happy, or to please God, etc. The only non-hypothetical imperatives are ones which tell you to do something no matter who you are or what you want, because the thing is good in itself.
Hypothetical imperatives tell us how to act in order to achieve a specific goal, e.g. I must study to get a degree.
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Part 1, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 1: Definition.