Philosophy - Kants Universal Law Formation Of The Categorical Imperati Essay

veKantian philosophy outlines the Universal Law Formation of the
Categorical Imperative as a method for determining morality of actions.

This formula is a two part test. First, one creates a maxim and
considers whether the maxim could be a universal law for all rational
beings. Second, one determines whether rational beings would will it to
be a universal law. Once it is clear that the maxim passes both prongs
of the test, there are no exceptions. As a paramedic faced with a
distraught widow who asks whether her late husband suffered in his
accidental death, you must decide which maxim to create and based on the
test which action to perform. The maxim “when answering a widow’s
inquiry as to the nature and duration of her late husbands death, one
should always tell the truth regarding the nature of her late husband’s
death” (M1) passes both parts of the Universal Law Formation of the
Categorical Imperative. Consequently, according to Kant, M1 is a moral

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The initial stage of the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical
Imperative requires that a maxim be universally applicable to all
rational beings. M1 succeeds in passing the first stage. We can easily
imagine a world in which paramedics always answer widows truthfully when
queried. Therefore, this maxim is logical and everyone can abide by it
without causing a logical impossibility. The next logical step is to
apply the second stage of the test.

The second requirement is that a rational being would will this maxim
to become a universal law. In testing this part, you must decide whether
in every case, a rational being would believe that the morally correct
action is to tell the truth. First, it is clear that the widow expects
to know the truth. A lie would only serve to spare her feelings if she
believed it to be the truth. Therefore, even people who would consider
lying to her, must concede that the correct and expected action is to
tell the truth. By asking she has already decided, good or bad, that she
must know the truth.
What if telling the truth brings the widow to the point where she
commits suicide, however? Is telling her the truth then a moral action
although its consequence is this terrible response? If telling the
widow the truth drives her to commit suicide, it seems like no rational
being would will the maxim to become a universal law. The suicide is,
however, a consequence of your initial action. The suicide has no
bearing, at least for the Categorical Imperative, on whether telling the
truth is moral or not. Likewise it is impossible to judge whether upon
hearing the news, the widow would commit suicide. Granted it is a
possibility, but there are a multitude of alternative choices that she
could make and it is impossible to predict each one. To decide whether
rational being would will a maxim to become a law, the maxim itself must
be examined rationally and not its consequences. Accordingly, the maxim
passes the second test.

Conversely, some people might argue that in telling the widow a lie,
you spare her years of torment and suffering. These supporters of “white
lies” feel the maxim should read, “When facing a distraught widow, you
should lie in regards to the death of her late husband in order to spare
her feelings.” Applying the first part of the Universal Law Formation of
the Categorical Imperative, it appears that this maxim is a moral act.

Certainly, a universal law that prevents the feelings of people who are
already in pain from being hurt further seems like an excellent
universal law. Unfortunately for this line of objection, the only reason
a lie works is because the person being lied to believes it to be the
truth. In a situation where every widow is lied to in order to spare her
feelings, then they never get the truth. This leads to a logical
contradiction because no one will believe a lie if they know it a lie
and the maxim fails.

Perhaps the die-hard liar can regroup and test a narrower maxim. If it
is narrow enough so that it encompasses only a few people, then it
passes the first test. For example, the maxim could read, “When facing a
distraught widow whose late husband has driven off a bridge at night,
and he struggled to get out of the car but ended up drowning, and he was
wearing a brown suit and brown loafers, then you should tell the widow
that he died instantly in order to spare her feelings.” We can easily
imagine a world in which all paramedics lied to widows in this specific

That does not necessarily mean that it will pass the second test
however. Even if it does pass the first test, narrowing down maxim can
create other problems. For instance circumstances may change and the
people who were originally included in the universal law, may not be
included anymore. Consequently you many not want to will your maxim to
be a universal law. Likewise, if one person can make these maxims that
include only a select group of people, so can everyone else. If you
create a maxim about lying to widows that is specific enough to pass the
first test, so can everyone else. One must ask if rational beings would
really will such a world in which there would be many, many specific,
but universal, laws. In order to answer this question, one must use the
rational “I” for the statement “I, as a rational being would will such a
world,” not the specific, embodied “I” which represents you in your
present condition. You must consider that you could be the widow in the
situation rather than the paramedic, then decide whether you would will
such a universal law.

I agree with the morality based on Kantian principles because it is
strict in its application of moral conduct. Consequently there is no
vacillating in individual cases to determine whether an action is moral
or not. An action is moral in itself not because of its consequences but
because any rational being wills it to be a universal law and it does
not contradict itself. Regardless of what the widow does with the
information, the act of telling her the truth, is a moral one. No one
would argue that telling the truth, if she asks for it, is an immoral
thing to do. Sometimes moral actions are difficult, and perhaps in this
situation it would be easier to lie to the widow, but it would still be
an immoral action that I would not want everyone to do. This picture of
morality resonates with my common sense view of morality. If the widow
subsequently commits suicide or commits any other immoral act as a
consequence, that has no bearing on the morality of the original action
in itself.

Utilitarianism would differ on this point. Utilitarianism outlines that
an action is moral if it increases the total happiness of society.

Morality is based on consequences. Telling a lie to the widow would
increase her happiness and consequently would, at least possibly, be a
moral action. Utilitarianism would also take into account the precedent
set by lying; however, the analysis still rests on predicted consequence
rather than on the action’s intrinsic moral value. The morality of
telling the lie is on a case by case basis. In some situations, it might
be better to tell the truth, and according to utilitarianism that would
then be the moral action. Unlike Kantian philosophy, one is not bound by
an immutable universal law. Instead one must judge in each case which
action will produce the most overall happiness. The problem with this
approach is that morality loses any value as a universal or intrinsic
quality. Every decision is made on an individual basis in an individual
and specific situation. In fact, utilitarianism considers happiness to
be the only intrinsically valuable end.

Defenders of utilitarianism claim that it maintains universality by
considering the greatest happiness of all beings, rather than just
individual happiness. Still, the morality is based on constantly
changing and often unpredictable consequences. The requirement that one
consider all of the consequences of an action and determine the best
possible action through such calculations makes me reject utilitarianism
as a method of determining morality.
Although utilitarianism often offers the easier solution to perform
because it produces immediate gratification and allows many exceptions
to common sense moral codes, the answers it gives are unfilling and
unrealistic. Furthermore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make
all of the required calculations beforehand. Kant’s solution, although
as interpreted by Kant is sometimes overly extreme, is much better than
utilitarianism. It resonates with my moral sensibilities to consider
that actions are moral or immoral regardless of their immediate
consequences. I am willing to accept that sometimes the moral action is
harder to perform, but I am unwilling to accept that morality rests
within the specifics of a situation and the possible consequences.

Therefore, I consider Kant’s Universal Law Formation of the Categorical
Imperative to be a better test of morality than Mill’s Utilitarianism.


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