PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday April 6, 2015




[7.2.3.] A Procedure Suggested by the Categorical Imperative.


Again, the central idea of Kant’s moral philosophy is:


The Categorical Imperative:  “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, RTD 60; quoted at EMP 129)


This principle suggests a procedure for deciding whether it is morally permissible to perform an action:


Step 1: Figure out what “maxim” (a rule or principle of behavior) you would be following were you to perform that action.


This seems pretty easy… if the action is doing a, then the rule will simply be the rule that says to do a. For example, if the action you are considering is giving money to a charity, the maxim will be “Give money to a charity.” If the action is stealing a bicycle, the maxim will be “Steal a bicycle.”


Step 2: Figure out whether you can rationally will for that maxim to “become a universal law,” i.e., whether you can rationally will for everyone to follow that maxim, all the time.

·         If you can, then the maxim is “universalizable” and the action is morally permissible.

·         If you cannot, then the maxim is not “universalizable” and the action is immoral.




[7.2.4] Kant’s Four Examples.


The Categorical Imperative rules out a number of different maxims as being immoral to follow. An action that follows any of these rules is immoral:


1.      “For love of myself, I make it my principle to shorten my life when by a longer duration it threatens more evil than satisfaction.” (RTD 61) I.e., I will end my life in order to improve it, i.e., in order to make things better for myself.

·         On Kant’s view, this maxim is contradictory: “One immediately sees a contradiction in a system of nature, whose law would be to destroy life by the feeling [namely, love or concern for oneself] whose special office [i.e., purpose] is to impel the improvement of life.” (RTD 61) In other words, it is contradictory to try to improve one’s situation by ending one’s own life… that doesn’t make one’s situation better; it ends it! It is like attempting to renovate a house by burning it to the ground.

·         So committing suicide in order to improve your life violates the Categorical Imperative and is immoral.


2.      “When I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know I shall never do so.” (RTD 61)

·         You cannot will that this become a universal law, because such a law would be self-defeating: if everyone followed this rule, then eventually no one would have any reason to believe anyone else was making such a promise in good faith – so people would stop lending money: “For the universality of a law which says that anyone who believes himself to be in need could promise what he pleased with the intention of not fulfilling it would make the promise itself and the end to be accomplished by it impossible; no one would believe what was promised to him but would only laugh at any such assertion as vain pretense.” (RTD 61) To will that people follow this maxim would also be to will that people not follow this maxim. So as with the first example, this is also contradictory.

·         So promising to repay a loan when you have no intention of repaying violates the Categorical Imperative, and is immoral.


We will examine Kant’s other two examples at the beginning of the next class…


Stopping point for Monday April 6. For next time, study today’s lecture notes, and finish reading EMP ch.9 (pp.130-135).



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