Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Categorical Imperative

[Guest post by Pat Smith]

We ended Part One with the idea that the categorical imperative must be the law under which rational beings act. And contrary to Hegel, the categorical imperative is not an empty formalism in the sense that it allows or prohibits everything. Before we move on to the domain problem, I would like to give a short discussion on how the first formulation (the Formula of Universal Law) of the categorical imperative works.

Let’s take Kant’s famous example: you are strapped for cash, need it badly, and the only way to get is to lie to someone (or a bank) that you will pay it back. So, you plan to tell a lie in order to get some money.

The first thing to do is to formulate your maxim, which follows the lines of “I will do Act-A in order to achieve Purpose-P.” The foundation of this maxim is the idea of a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative is an imperative of the will: If will End-E, then I will the means to that end. Kant believed that this was analytic based on the concept of willing. If you will an end, and you take yourself as a being that wills (that is, as a cause of something), then you must will the means to that end. If you don’t, then how are you taking yourself as the cause of the end? It’s a pipe dream, not a willing, otherwise.

So, we start with a valid and true hypothetical imperative: If I will that I get ready cash, then I will that I make a false promise to repay a loan.” And you turn it into a categorical imperative: I make a false promise in order to get ready cash.

Now what? We imagine what the world would be like if everyone in world adopted that maxim under those circumstances. That is, whenever someone needed money, they would make a false promise in order to get it. This is the World of the Universalized Maxim. Imagine further that this is along the lines of natural law (gravity pulls things to earth) and is well known.

And now the 64 dollar question: can you still act on your maxim? No you cannot. Your maxim fails because, as a practical matter, it no longer works. In the World of the Universalized Maxim, no one is going to believe you when you make your false promise. It will be laughed at as a “vain pretense.” The effectiveness of your false promise depends on you being an exception to the rule that people generally promise truly. Take that general rule away, and promising as an institution disappears. Without people generally trusting promises to repay money, your false promise will be ineffective in gaining any actual money.

Thus, you cannot simultaneously will your maxim and will that everyone adopt it. You have contradicted yourself. Thus, giving a false promise in order to gain ready cash is impermissible.

Recommended Reading:

-Korsgaard, “The Formula of Universal Law” in Creating the Kingdom of Ends


  1. I've have a problem with Kant in this area. Why should I care that I cannot conform to the Categorical Imperative? So if everyone was as sneaky (untrustworthy, amoral etc.) as me, I would have to be even sneakier to get what I want, since they are not I will take full advantage of that fact.

    Secondly, let's say I subscribe to this theory and I'm considering whether or not I should withdraw all my savings from the bank. In the World of the Universalized Maxim everyone would withdraw their savings. Clearly this could not work, consequently I cannot simultaneously will your maxim and will that everyone adopt it, so it is wrong for one to withdraw their savings...

  2. To answer your first question you should look at my Willing and Normativity Parts One and Two (Two is forthcoming).

    But "I withdraw my savings" is not a proper maxim because it does not describe the purpose.

    (By the way, the second problem is what we call coordination problems)

    I wrote a paper on coordination problems that you can download here:
    Named "Parfit Paper"

  3. It depends a little on how you define the category what conclusions you will come to. if it is defined narrowly enough

    for a ridiculous example

    I will rob from people with blond hair on thursdays in july 2005 where they are richer than me and not nice people...
    I could probably define it narrowly enough that the net outcome was understandable and positive even if that was only as a result of chance.
    I suggest you could use such logic to define any set of laws you want to live by.

    Of course if you have an infinite set of laws you would probably tend towards utilitarianism. Good on ya

  4. Again, that isn't a properly formed maxim, so I can't really evaluate.

    There is a specific form that maxims need to take: I will do Act-A in order to achieve End-E. Remember, maxims must be founded in credible and well-formed hypothetical imperatives.

    This kind of limitation prevents the formulation of the maxims you lay out above.

    Not only that, but the circumstances that are morally salient are defined by Kant's second and third formulations of the categorical imperative, which Kant believed were equivalent.

  5. Lets say I want to solve the problem in Zimbabwae. I can take an action to resolve the issue, lets say assasinating mugabe (or it could be donate money to mugabe or his opposition or whatever) - but assasinating leaders doesnt sound like a good universal moral law - although assasinating bad leaders does sound ok - but assasinating bad leaders who have even worse replacements doesn't sound like a good idea but if other leaders start to behave better at a result it starts to look more reasonable in the end after adding so many conditions every event ends up a completely individual moral problem.

    Act A is "whatever your solution is" End E is "generic positive outcome".

    there is also the "one is better than all" sort of argument where lets say I want to be president and help myself to achieve that status because I know I will do a good job - but if I apply to be president I should want everyone to do the same - but if everyone applies to be presedent we will have a one vote each 3 million way tie and no aditional information.

    Lets say the country was at a turning point and needed to make a decision - any decision is better than no decision but it is impossible to make a decision without injecting unfiarness into the decision making.

  6. Also there is the lier paradox where a murderer asks you where a victim is. you dont want "abeting murder" to be a general rule but you also dont want lying to be one either. most pepopel respond with "say the truth UNLESS it seems it will cause murder" otherwise the initial application of kantian philosophy is highly likely to result in disaster as things similar to the above situation, similar in effect I mean, I beleive, would not be uncommon - one exanmple is knowledge should be shared - but the knowledge of how to make weaponized ebola is knowledge - if nth korea had that knowledge we would want them to share it with us (so we could protect ourselves) but then we have to share it with every "crack pot".
    this sharing of knowledge one is a VERY broard one and very common issue far to major an issue to gloss over.

  7. Illusive Mind: I think Kant was trying to help those who want to be moral, not those who don't. So it does not matter that the amoral will have no use for the CI. The question is, is it a good guide for the rest of us?


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