PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday April 8, 2015



Continuing Kant’s examples of applications of the Categorical Imperative…


1.      A man “finds in himself a talent which could, by means of some cultivation, make him in many respects a useful man. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers indulgence in pleasure to troubling himself with broadening and improving his fortunate natural gifts. Now, however, let him ask whether his maxim of neglecting his gifts, besides agreeing with his propensity to idle amusement, agrees also with what is called duty.” His maxim is this: I will “let [my] talents rust and resolve to devote [my] life merely to idleness, indulgence, and propagation—in a word, to pleasure.”  (RTD 62)

·         No rational being can will that this maxim become a universal law or that “it should be implanted in us by a natural instinct.” This is because a rational being will necessarily recognize that any talent a person has, has been “given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.” (RTD 62) As Kant scholar J. Kemp puts the point: “To refuse to develop any of one’s talents would be irrational; it would be failing to take rational means to the achievement of any of one’s [goals], and all of us must have some such [goals].” [1]


2.      “Let each one [i.e., each person] be as happy as heaven wills, or as he can make himself; I will not take anything from him or even envy him; but to his welfare or to his assistance in time of need I have no desire to contribute.” (RTD 62) In other words, I will ignore the well-being and needs of others.

·         You cannot will that this become a universal law, because as a rational being, you would not want others to ignore your well-being when you are in need: “instances can often arise in which he would need the love and sympathy of others, and in which he would have robbed himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he desires.” (RTD 62)


So the Categorical Imperative implies that you should follow these rules:

·         You should never commit suicide in order to improve your life. [a duty to oneself that is “perfect”—it can never be violated, no matter what]

·         You should never promise to repay a loan when you know you won’t be able to. [a duty to others that is “perfect”—it can never be violated, no matter what]

·         You should cultivate your own talents. [a duty to oneself, but it can be overridden by a competing “perfect” duty”]

·         You should attend to the well-being and needs of others. [a duty to others but it can be overridden by a competing “perfect” duty”]


The first two maxims express “perfect duties”—they do not allow for any exceptions whatsoever. No matter what the circumstances or the consequences, it is never permissible to violate them.


Kant says, not simply that you must accept The CI in order to be moral, but that you must accept The CI in order to be rational.  If you do not accept The CI, then you are behaving, not just immorally, but irrationally.



[7.3.] Kant’s Argument Against Lying.


We have seen that Kant took the Categorical Imperative to imply the following specific rules of morality:

·         Never commit suicide in order to improve your life.

·         Never promise to repay a loan when you know you won’t be able to.

·         Cultivate your own talents.

·         Attend to the well-being and needs of others.


Kant thought that the following was also implied by the Categorical Imperative:

·         Never tell a lie.


On Kant’s view, you are always obligated to avoid lying, even if it means telling an inquiring murderer the location of his next victim (EMP 130). How could Kant possibly defend such a claim?


Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” Argument Against Lying (EMP 130):


  1. We should do only those actions that conform to rules that we could will to be adopted universally. [The Categorical Imperative]
  2. If you were to lie, you would be following the rule “It is okay to lie.”
  3. This rule could not be adopted universally, because it would be self-defeating: People would stop believing one another, and then it would do no good to lie.
  4. Therefore, you should never lie.


AN EXPLANATION OF PREMISE 3… Why think that “It is okay to lie” is a non-universalizable rule?

·         Presently we assume that other people mean to tell us the truth unless we have some specific reason to think that they are being dishonest. This is why we trust what our friends and family tell us, and what we see and read in the news: there is a general presumption of honesty.

·         But this would change if everyone adopted the rule “It is okay to lie.” This rule is self-defeating: if everyone were to begin lying whenever they wanted to, then people would stop believing one another, so it would do no good to lie, and people would stop lying.

·         If everyone were to begin following the rule, then eventually no one would be following it any more. This is why no rational being can will that everyone follow the rule: to will that everyone follow it amounts to willing that everyone begin lying AND cease lying. It is to will a contradiction.


If this argument is sound, then it is always immoral to lie, no matter what the circumstances. If it is not sound, then what exactly is wrong with it? Is it invalid? Or does it have a false premise? Or both?


[Rachels discusses another argument Kant gave for this conclusion, based on the idea that we can never be absolutely certain what the consequences of our actions will be; see EMP pp.130-31.]



[7.4.] Anscombe’s Criticism of Kant’s Argument.


G. E. M. Anscombe agreed with Kant that lying is always immoral. But she thought is reason for saying this was mistaken, for the following reason.


Kant assumed that the maxim we should consider when wondering whether we should lie is always: “It is okay to lie.”


But why use this very general maxim? Why not use a more specific maxim, one that describes in more detail what’s going on in the case at hand?


For example, suppose you are lying in order to save the life of an innocent person (as in Kant’s own Case of the Inquiring Murderer – see EMP p.131). In that situation, you could just as easily say that the maxim of your action is: “It is okay to lie in order to save an innocent life.”


This maxim can be rationally willed to be adopted universally, since it is not self-defeating like “It is okay to lie.”

·         If everyone were to begin following this rule, then we would not reach a point where no one is following it anymore.

·         In fact, nearly everyone would already follow this rule if put in a position where they could save an innocent life by lying.


So Kant’s own theory would support lying in order to save an innocent life!


More generally, the challenge posed by Anscombe is as follows. If you’re going to have an ethical theory based on rules, then how do you know how general or how specific to make the rules? Kant offers us no guidance in answering this question.


His own rigoristic convictions on the subject of lying were so intense that it never occurred to him that a lie could be relevantly described as anything but just a lie (e.g. as “a lie in such-and-such circumstances”). His rule about universalizable maxims is useless without stipulations as to what shall count as a relevant description of an action with a view to constructing a maxim about it. (Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy33 (124), 1958, 1-19, p.2.



Stopping point for Wednesday April 8. For next time, read EMP ch.10 (“Kant and Respect for Persons”) and study today’s lecture notes.



[1] Commentators disagree about how best to understand this example. What I have suggested here is the explanation provided by J. Kemp. Here is a longer quotation: “What chiefly distinguishes man from the rest of creation, according to Kant, is his possession of freedom; this in turn depends on his possession of reason, not in the sense that he is capable of theoretical activity, but in the sense that he can set ends or purposes before himself (whereas the rest of creation can merely fulfil passively the purposes of nature). And this gives its point to the expression… ‘For as a rational being he necessarily wills...’. Whatever a man’s private aim or purpose in life may be, the fact that he has such a purpose is a sign of his rationality, even though all men, being imperfectly rational, have some purposes which they would not have if they were perfectly rational, and fail to have some which they would then have. Now any human purpose requires the exercise of some talent or capacity for its fulfilment; for a talent or capacity just is the ability to take appropriate means to given ends. Man’s ability to conceive of purposes would be of no value, and his freedom would be incomplete, if he were not also endowed with the capacity for discovering and adopting the best means for the attainment of those purposes. Hence to refuse to develop any of one’s talents would be irrational; it would be failing to take rational means to the achievement of any of one’s aims or purposes, and all of us must have some such aims or (as we should more naturally say) desires. But why, it might be asked, should I not restrict my efforts to developing those talents which will enable me to live a more pleasant life; why should I worry about developing my moral capacities or increasing my ability to help others ? Because, Kant would reply, you are a man and a rational being, and to restrict the development of one’s capacities to those which provide an increase of pleasure for oneself is to put oneself on a level with the beasts, to behave in an inhuman and irrational way. It is because of this that a man cannot rationally assent to being a member of an order of nature in which self-development was universally neglected. Moreover, the use of reason, as manifested in the deliberate cultivation of one’s talents, in order merely to promote one’s own happiness is unlikely to be successful, human nature being what it is: ‘the more a cultivated reason concerns itself with the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the farther does man get away from true contentment.’” “Kant’s Examples of the Categorical Imperative,” Philosophical Quarterly 8 (30), 1958, 63-71, p.69.


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