The Insufficiency of Kant’s Universal Law Formulation

The Universal Law Formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative states, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (88). Regarding the nature of the ULF Kant asserts, “…there remains nothing over to which the maxim has to conform except the universality of a law as such; and it is this conformity alone that the imperative properly asserts to be necessary” (88). Here Kant makes explicit the idea his ethical system uses universability through reason as the single necessary and sufficient condition for moral evaluation. If a maxim (a general ethical principle put into first-person terms) can be rationally willed by the individual to be universalized and shared by every rational being in the world, then the maxim and its related action are morally permissible. I will argue that universability through reason alone does not provide sufficient conditions for evaluating the morality of maxims by showing how the proper application of ULF can yield two conflicting morally obligatory answers. By morally obligatory (and I will illustrate this concept in more detail below), I mean an action that must be carried out and for which it is immoral not to. If such is possible, Kant’s moral theory is shown to be inadequate because a plausible moral theory must give non-conflicting answers.

Under Kant’s moral system, evaluating the morality of an action involves subjecting it to this test of universability, which I will call the ULF test. A maxim can fail the test in two ways: it can give rise to a contradiction in conception or a contradiction in willing. Contradiction in conception occurs when it is impossible to even conceive of a world in which the given maxim is universalized. Contradiction in willing occurs when the individual finds himself worse off in a where the given maxim is universalized, and so cannot will it to be universal. For a maxim to pass the test, it must have neither contradiction. For an action to be morally permissible, its maxim must pass the test. For an action to be morally obligatory, all the maxims permitting the failure of carrying out that action must fail the ULF test. Conversely, for an action to be morally forbidden, all the maxims permitting that action must fail.

Consider the following scenario: a paramedic on the scene of a car accident. The car drove off a bridge and fell into a river. The driver of the car could not escape the car and drowned. Upon examining the body, the paramedic concludes that the driver did not die instantly, but drowned while struggling desperately to escape. When the driver’s wife arrives on the scene of the accident, she asks the paramedic if her husband died quickly or suffered before his death. What should the paramedic tell her?

The ULF test can yield the answer that it is morally obligatory to tell the wife the truth. Every maxim that permits lying to the wife contradicts itself in conception because in a world where every paramedic simply told the story that is easier for the wife to bear (that the victim died painlessly), there would be no point to even asking the paramedic in the first place. In such a world, the victim’s wife would know that the paramedic always gives this answer, regardless of the truth, so they would see no point in asking. Furthermore, there seems to be a contradiction in willing for maxims which permit lying in these cases. Could the paramedic really will that all paramedics in this position lie? Then, if the paramedic were to find himself in the position of the wife, he would never know the truth about the victim’s death. Surely he cannot will that he himself might be placed in such an undesirable situation. On the other hand, maxims that permit telling the truth all pass the ULF test. There is no contradiction in conception because wives would continue to ask paramedics for the true account of how the victim died. There is no contradiction in will because if the paramedic were placed in such a situation, he would want to know that the story the paramedic tells him is in fact true. The honest paramedic would argue that it is morally obligatory to tell the truth because all maxims permitting lying in this scenario would fail because they rise to both contradictions in conception and will.

However, the ULF test can also yield the answer that it is morally obligatory to lie to the wife. In response to the arguments above that a lie-permitting maxim would generate a contradiction in conception, the dishonest paramedic could argue that such a contradiction only arises if the paramedic’s sole duty is to tell the truth. He might argue that while telling the truth is one possible purpose, the greater purpose is to lessen the emotional trauma of the victim’s wife. If this latter purpose has been established as a premise, then there is no contradiction in conception because the paramedic would still have a purpose answering the wife, which is to reduce her emotional suffering. While the honest paramedic might rebut by pointing out that in a world where this maxim is universalized, the wife would know that the paramedic only ever gives the easier account, and so their emotional trauma would not be lessened because they would still left in uncertainty about what happened. But even so, for the wife, there still exists a 50% chance that her husband actually died painlessly according to the paramedic. If the paramedic always told the truth, then the wife either knows 100% that the husband died painfully or painlessly. By eliminating the possibility that the wife knows for certain her husband died painfully, the wife is better off emotionally. This is resting on the assumption that, for anyone in the wife’s situation, the emotional suffering that would occur from knowing the worse outcome greatly outbalances the peace of mind from knowing the better outcome. As for contradiction in willing, the dishonest paramedic agrees with the above assumption and would rather be left uncertain than chance knowing the worse outcome. Thus, the dishonest paramedic can reasonably will this maxim to be universal. More importantly, he would argue that giving the easier account is morally obligatory because all maxims permitting the paramedic to tell the truth in the case where the victim died painfully would fail the ULF test. Given that the duty of the paramedic is to reduce the emotional trauma of the already suffering wife, he must give the easier answer. A contradiction in willing arises otherwise, because the honest paramedic could not will himself to be in a situation where he is at danger for suffering the additional emotional weight of knowing the victim died painfully.

The ULF test seems to yield two conflicting answers, that it is morally obligatory to tell the truth and that it is morally obligatory to lie and give the easier answer. Why do the two paramedics reach opposite conclusions while properly applying the ULF test?

This problem, as I see it, arises because the ULF does not contain enough content to yield clear and non-conflicting moral answers. Because both views are supported by reason and both pass the ULF test as obligatory, universability through reason is shown to be insufficient to yield a single moral answer, and thus insufficient as the sole condition of an ethical system. There is a missing ingredient that differentiates why an individual would choose one position over the other. The issue is put into focus in examining how each side argues that the other side leads to contradictions in willing. The honest paramedic believes that no rational individual in this situation would will themselves into a position where he would be lied to, while the dishonest paramedic believes that no rational individual in this position would will themselves into a more emotionally vulnerable position. It seems that the two paramedics value different things in this situation: the honest paramedic values knowing the truth and the dishonest paramedic values peace of mind. It is the paramedics’ different values that cause them to make opposite conclusions. A plausible moral theory must include a mechanism that allows the individual to establish the relative importance of values in any given moral dilemma. As illustrated by the paramedic example, mere universability fails to do this. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that an individual can will a world where everybody in the paramedic scenario values knowing the truth, or that he wills a world where everybody values avoiding further emotional stress. Both of these values can be universalized through reason.

The Kantian might contend reason is sufficient to determine what values are most important. He might argue that truth is obviously more valuable than emotional comfort because the successful function of rationality depends on understanding of the truth. Because rationality guides our actions and helps us make the best decisions, it is in everybody’s best interest to maximize the access they have to reality. While this argument might hold true if we are talking about the scope of one’s lifetime, it does not, I think, hold for the isolated paramedic case. If I stipulate that the wife’s knowing or not knowing the truth is inconsequential with respect to her future rational decisions, then the argument that truth is more valuable falls apart. I acknowledge that I have sketched a consequentialist argument for the value of truth and that there are other ways of arguing for truth’s value. However, I think the consequentialist argument for truth is the strongest insofar as we are discussing the application of the ULF because it is most likely to be universalized. It is harder to universalize a value based on a belief in its intrinsic importance, because other individuals might not share that belief. The Kantian might still argue that the perfect use of reason is sufficient to yield this hierarchy of values. But since I have never seen this successfully demonstrated, I remain unconvinced. It seems then, that the application of reason alone leaves room for valuing both truth and emotional comfort, but provides no way of choosing between the two. Keep in mind that one of the two values must take precedence in this case of two conflicting morally obligatory answers in which the ULF has been applied properly in both positions.

It would be beyond the scope of this paper to introduce a plausible mechanism for deciding the relative importance of values in cases like these. I hope I have shown that Kant’s ULF, which contains universability through reason as its only condition for moral evaluation, is insufficient. In conceiving of the ULF, Kant seems to have overextended the powers of reason far beyond what is plausible for an ethical theory. Although I realize that a discussion about the nature of reason itself would require much detail than what I can offer here, I will nevertheless venture to make some remarks about reason as they relate to the shortcomings of Kant’s moral theory. Reason is most effective as an evaluative instrument given the initial premises. It cannot, however, be relied on alone to generate fundamental premises for a moral theory, let alone plausibly universal premises. Even the perfect use of reason cannot do this. Thus, individuals properly applying reason will arrive at different moral conclusions if they have different premises or moral values. The nature of reason is different than what Kant thought, and the ULF must be amended to include a way for individuals with different values to rationally evaluate the importance of their own values relative to other values in a given moral dilemma, with the goal of arriving at a definitive moral answer. Although the question remains open as to whether or not any moral system can fully achieve this goal, Kant’s ULF can without a doubt be improved in this respect.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel. Ground of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. H.J. Paton. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

Tagged under Philosophy