Kant: the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative Term Paper

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Kant: the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative

Kantian 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


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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