Julius Sensat / Philosophy 241 / Notes / Installment 17: Kant (2)


What kind of principle of practical reason is the fundamental principle of morality? We can answer this question by asking what kind of imperative or command it gives us. Beings like us, who don't automatically act according to principles of practical reason, experience those principles as imperatives. An imperative is a formula which represents an action as something we ought to do, something it would be good to do. There are two kinds of imperatives, hypothetical and categorical:
  1. A hypothetical imperative represents an action as good for the achievement of some purpose, that is, good as a means for attaining some end. The goodness of the action is represented as deriving from the goodness of the end.
  2. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, represents an action as good in itself, without regard to any purpose. In other words, the goodness attributed to the action is not represented as deriving from the goodness of any end to be achieved by it, but as intrinsic to the action itself.
If the moral law consisted solely of hypothetical imperatives, then our reason for following it would ultimately derive from some end we are trying to accomplish, since these imperatives prescribe actions as good ways of achieving various ends. But then there would be no such thing as a good will, since as we saw last time a good will does the right thing simply because it is right and not primarily because of some end he is trying to accomplish. So the moral law must provide us with categorical imperatives (if morality is not an illusion). The general underlying principle of practical reason underlying all categorical imperatives is called by Kant The Categorical Imperative. It is what we ran across last time as the fundamental principle of morality:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

The "CI Procedure"

We shall use a procedure for applying the categorical imperative that is close to one worked out by Rawls (see for example John Rawls, "Themes in Kant's Moral Philosophy," in Eckart Förster (ed.), Kant's Transcendental Deductions, Palo Alto: Stanford university Press, 1989). The procedure requires us to take a maxim we are thinking of acting on and process it through four steps. Then we ask two questions about the result of this processing. We must get a yes answer to both questions for the maxim to be acceptable.

The four steps:

  1. Formulate the maxim:
  2. I am to do x in circumstances y in order to bring about z.
    I am to lie on a loan application when I am in severe financial difficulty and there is no other way to obtain funds, in order to ease the strain on my finances.
  3. Generalize the maxim:
  4. Everyone is to do x in circumstances y in order to bring about z.
    Everyone is to lie on a loan application when he is in severe financial difficulty and there is no other way to obtain funds, in order to ease the strain on his finances.
  5. Transform the generalized maxim into a law of nature:
  6. Everyone always does x in circumstances y in order to bring about z.
    Everyone always lies on a loan application when he is in severe financial difficulty and there is no other way to obtain funds, in order to ease the strain on his finances.
  7. Figure out the perturbed social world (PSW), that is, what the world would be like if this law of nature were added to existing laws of nature and things had a chance to reach equilibrium. Note: assume that after the adjustment to equilibrium the new law is common knowledge -- everyone knows that it is true, everyone knows that everyone knows, etc.
The two questions:
  1. Could I rationally act on my maxim in the PSW?
  2. Could I rationally choose the PSW as one in which I would be a member?
Our evaluation rule is this: we must be able to answer yes to both questions for the maxim to be acceptable. If we get a no answer to either, we must reject the maxim and try to find another one on which to act.

Before we discuss the example, we need to add three more comments:

  1. At the first step, the maxim proposed should be the one you sincerely would be acting on and one you sincerely think might provide a justifiable reason for acting.
  2. The maxim should also be rational in the hypothetical-imperative sense, that is, the action x should be an effective means of promoting the end z in circumstances y.
  3. Similarly, "rational" as it occurs in the two-part test means instrumental or hypothetical-imperative rationality. So with the first question, for example, what we are asking is whether the action specified in the maxim still is an effective means of achieving the end specified in the maxim in the PSW.

The deceitful promise (Kant's 2nd example)

This is the example we have been using in spelling out the procedure. The maxim fails because I must answer "no" to the first question: I could not rationally act on the maxim in the PSW. There are two reasons Kant states for this: (1) promising and (2) the end to be attained by it would be impossible, since no one would believe what was promised him but would laugh at all such utterances as being vain pretenses.

Note the implicit publicity condition: the new laws of nature become common knowledge. As stated above, this is part of the process of "adjustment" to the new law of nature.

This maxim is supposed to fail the first part of the two-part test. Kant refers to this part as the "contradiction in conception" test: "Some actions are so constituted that their maxims cannot without contradiction even be thought as a universal law of nature, much less be willed as what should become one." (424)

The second part of the test is the "contradiction in the will test." It catches those maxims whose existence as a universal law of nature is conceivable without contradiction, but which cannot be willed to be such without contradiction. The next example is supposed to illustrate a failure of this test.

Indifference to the needs of others (Kant's 4th example)

Here the maxim is something like the following:
In order to advance my own interests, I will not do anything to help others in need unless I have something to gain from doing so.
Can you put this maxim into the standard form?

Performing the specified transformations of the maxim, we see that the PSW will contain a law of nature of the form:

To advance his own interests, everyone always refrains from helping others in need unless he has something to gain from doing so.
Now Kant would say that there is no problem in conceiving such a PSW (in fact, those of a cynical bent might think that the PSW is no different from the existing world). Applying the first question of the procedure, we see that we cannot answer no to the first question: it would be rational in the PSW to follow the maxim if everyone else is doing the same, because in that world everyone is indifferent to the needs of others, so the best way for you to advance your interests is to be likewise indifferent (for you will not gain anything through reciprocity of others by departing from the maxim).

However, according to Kant the second part of the test fails: I could not rationally choose the PSW, because "a will which resolved itself in this way would contradict itself, inasmuch as cases might often arise in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others and in which he would deprive himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he wants for himself (423)." That is, according to Kant it is not rational to choose a world in which you would not be helped if you were in need and no one was in a position to gain by helping you.

So this maxim, too is supposed to fail the procedure. Does it? Next time we shall explore some problems and how they might be fixed.

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