Frequently asked questions

If we receive questions by e-mail of general interest, I will post the question and answer here, in reverse chronological order.

Question (Dec. 16, by Brendan Blackmore)

Can you clarify what constitutes Kant's principle of universalizability? Is this simply 'Everyone always does/should do/can do X in circumstance Y to bring about Z', or is there more to it than that? Furthermore, when taking the step of formulating the action's universalization, would we simply replace the variables with the actual scenario?

Answer (by David Hitchcock)

There is a lot more to the principle of universalizability than simply 'Everyone always does/should do/can do X in circumstance Y to bring about Z'.

First, and most importantly, the principle as Kant formulates it does **not** apply to actions. It applies to maxims. Here are the two versions of the first formulation of Kant's categorical imperative, as evidence:
"Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." (Ak 4:421 and 4:402)
"So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature." (Ak 4:421 and 4:436)

To apply the principle of universalizability to a case, you therefore need to extract from the description of the case the maxim on which the person or persons in the case propose to act, or are acting. The maxim, as Kant explains (footnote at the very beginning of 4:421, marked in our text with a double asterisk [**]), is the subjective principle in accordance with which the subject acts, i.e. the rule of action on which the person is acting or proposes to act. I claimed in class that a maxim includes a description of a type of situation, a type of action and a motive or end in view. Consider Kant's example of a maxim: "From self-love, I make it my principle to shorten my life when by longer term it threatens more ill than it promises agreeableness." (Ak 4:422) Here the type of situation is a situation in which the continuation of one's life threatens more ill than it promises agreeableness, the type of action is committing suicide, and the motive is self-love.

You then need to consider what it would be like for the maxim as you formulate it to become a universal law of nature. In the example, it would be that everyone whose life threatens more ill than it promises agreeableness out of self-love commits suicide.

You then need to consider whether it is possible to will *through your maxim* that this universal law be the case. Kant recognizes two distinct ways in which a maxim can fail the test of universalizability. "Some actions are so constituted that their maxim cannot even be thought without contradiction as a universal law of nature... With others, ... it is impossible to will that their actions should be elevated to the universality of a natural law, because such a will would contradict itself." (Ak 4:424) Kant has a rather broad understanding of what counts as a contradiction. For example, he thinks that the maxim of the person contemplating suicide cannot even be thought without contradiction as a universal law of nature, because the purpose of the feeling of self-love is to impel the furtherance of life and this feeling could not without self-contradiction also have as its purpose to end life.

In considering whether there is either an internal contradiction or a contradiction in the will of willing that one's maxim be a universal law of nature, you will need to take into account the consequences of its being a universal law of nature, as well as other relevant general known facts. See Kant's discussion of his examples.

Question (Dec. 8, by Sara Heslington)

I have a question regarding Kant's morality. The three formulations for the categorical imperative: when evaluating a case scenario will you want us to use all three of the formulations put together as the guideline to interpret whether an action was morally correct, or do we only rely on Kant's third formulation?

I'm having trouble understanding how the formulations work. I think that they are developed in such a way that the third formulation is what Kant uses as the actual categorical imperative, but the first and second seem to have points that the third does not. Perhaps I've fried my brain from studying... Am i way off?

Answer (by David Hitchcock)

In asking you to evaluate a case by Kant's categorical imperative, I will specify which formulation to use, as I did on last year's exam, which is now posted on ELM with the marking scheme. It would take too long to work out the application of all three formulations to a case. The third formulation is actually not used very much in exploring the implications of Kant's categorical imperative, since it is not entirely clear what would make it impossible for the will through its maxim to consider itself as universally legislative for a realm of ends. It is noteworthy that Kant does not actually apply the third formulation to any cases in his _Groundwork_, and he does not use the third formulation at all when he comes to write _The Metaphysics of Morals_.

Kant himself thought that all three formulations were equivalent, in the sense that they would give the same result when applied to any particular case. His application of the first and second formulations to the same four cases is some evidence that those two formulations are equivalent. From Kant's point of view, the first formulation characterizes the categorical imperative by its form (universalizability), the second formulation by its matter (treating humanity as an end), and the third by a complete determination of maxims (a realm of ends); see Ak 4:436. Kant says in the _Groundwork_ that one does better in moral judging to take the first formulation (Ak 4:436). In the _Metaphysics of Morals_, however, he uses in every case but one the second formulation.

Question (Nov. 11, by David Hitchcock)

My undergraduate ethics class is working its way through your "Common Morality". Last night, a student raised a good question about your claim (p. 76) that people do not explicitly use the moral system when making their moral decisions and moral judgments, and about the related claim (pp. 15-17) that the moral system resembles the grammatical system of a natural language in being implicit in the moral decisions and moral judgments that people make, in the same way as rules of grammar are implicit in the speaking and interpreting activities of speakers of a language.

The student's question was whether the claim of implicitness is consistent with the requirement that the moral rules and the morally relevant features can be formulated in a way that all moral agents can understand. If the moral system is merely implicit, why is it necessary for its component to be formulated in a way that all moral agents can understand?

On reflection, it seemed to me that the analogy between the moral system and the rules of grammar was only partial. It is not necessary that a person know any rules of grammar in order to use a language grammatically. However, it is unimaginable that a person could act in morally acceptable ways in all situations without knowing any of the components of the moral system. So the moral system must be at least partly explicit, in order to act as a source of guidance for those tempted to stray from the straight and narrow path. Explicitness seems to be particularly necessary when it comes to things like defining cheating (e.g. in an educational context) or specifying the requirements for valid consent to a medical intervention, where there is institutional oversight of ethical behavior.

What do you think?

Reply (by Bernard Gert)

Nice to hear from you. The question is a good one. By coincidence it is one that I was thinking about just recently because yesterday I attended a seminar by my son Joshua at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

The seminar was on a paper he wrote that just came out in "Philosophy and Phenomenological Research". It is a good paper although I do not agree with all of it, but he makes an analogy between seeing colors and seeing that an action is irrational. There is a difference between the two which is like my difference between grammar and morality, but he claims that both of his pair are innate whereas I think both of my pair are at least partly learned.

The fact that both grammar and morality are learned, and to some extent taught, means that they both can be made explicit and, in fact, both are often made explicit. Especially when teaching foreign languages we make the grammar explicit and also do so in the early grades in one's native language. Morality is also taught, but what is usually taught are the variations in place in different variations of common morality, e,.g., different interpretations of the rules.

However, the biggest difference is in the function and character of grammar and morality. Normally no one is tempted or benefited by violating the rules of grammar, nor is it usually a burden to speak ungrammatically. This is not true of morality, so one must be able to justify the moral rules in a way that would be pointless for the rules of grammar. I explicitly say, in /Common Morality/, that, unlike grammar, all of morality must be rational, that is, it cannot merely be arbitrary but one must show that it has a rational function, that given the nature of human beings, the constraints of morality serve a useful purpose in reducing the amount of harm suffered.

There is no analogue in grammar to the question "Why should I be moral?"

That this question naturally arises and that one must be able to answer it is why morality must be made explicit to some degree. However, this does not count against the claim that most moral judgment and action are done without explicitly thinking about the moral system. It is usually only in controversial situations that one tries to show how the policy one favors is based on the preferred variation of the moral system.

There are no analogous controversies in grammar.

You are certainly correct that the analogy between grammar and morality is only partial, and I agree that the details must be made explicit when discussing local variations, but I think that it is because of the differences in character and function that all of morality must be understandable to all moral agents and that morality is often made explicit.

I hope that this is helpful.

Question (Sep. 25)

I'm having trouble understanding what Kant means by "law". He references natural law, and in his definition of "the will", he refers to as the faculty of determining action in accordance with the representation of certain "laws". (pg 45, first full paragraph in the text).

As I would understand laws, it would mean set rules. Based on Kant's fondness for the a priori, I would be inclined to think that these laws (whatever they are) are immutable, eternal, etc.

Any help in defining this term would be appreciated. I've looked through the text and on the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy but I've had no success.

Answer (by Ben)

First, read the relevant section of the groundwork again (Ak 4:387-388). Then go to and read the first few pages if you haven't already, which sums up the preface. Now, the SEP entry that is relevant is this . You should read it again. Then come back and read the rest of this e-mail.

Kant is clearly not talking about a natural law, right? He's not talking about gravity or electromagnetism or anything like that. These laws after all cannot be "broken". . .in other words, we cannot choose to follow them, or not. And he's not talking about legislative law either. Though we might "break" a law, that kind of law is fabricated by people and does not rest on the intelligible nature of law "as such".

The law he's talking about is the a priori moral principle(s) by which our moral actions are to be judged. Such a law is universal and necessary. So when Kant says that an action of moral worth is done according to and for the sake of duty, he means that a action that has moral worth is performed out of "reverence" for the a priori moral law a person finds in their reason, that exists apart from any a posteriori consideration of the action or its consequences. So humans are in an interesting position of being able to act in accordance with moral law, or not. When we act in accordance with law, for the sake of duty, we are acting in a morally worthy manner. When we do not, we are not.