Universalism in ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

5. Fundamental principles: Kantian universalizability

An alternative conception of universalism in ethics rejects golden rules and seeks to anchor all ethical justification in a more formal fundamental universal principle, which does not refer to desires or consent to fix the content of ethics. The most famous and most ambitious attempt to go further is Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’, of which the best known version runs: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ ([1785] 1903: 421). Kant claims to show that ‘all imperatives of duty can be derived from this one imperative as their principle’ (421). He insists that in such derivations no reference be made either to anyone’s happiness or desires, consent or agreement, and that the categorical imperative is not a version of a golden rule (which he dismisses as trivial, 430, footnote). Kant’s views have been influential: a German scholar recently commented that ‘Kant succeeded with his objection almost in invalidating the golden rule and disqualifying it from future discussion in ethics’ (Reiner 1983: 274).

English language philosophy has been less convinced that Kant undermined golden rule approaches. J.S. Mill was neither the first nor the last to think that Kant’s claim to derive all principles of duty from the categorical imperative was complete nonsense. He wrote of Kant

when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.

(1861: 207; original emphasis)

There has been widespread scepticism about Kant’s supposed claim to show that ‘immoral rules of conduct’ are self-contradictory. However, he in fact makes the more circumspect modal claim that we should not act on principles which we cannot simultaneously ‘will as universal laws’. An example of such a principle is that of false promising. Kant holds that false promisers who try (incoherently) to will false promising as a universal law thereby will the destruction of the very trust on which their own attempts to promise falsely must rely. Hence when we try to act on such principles Kant holds that

we in fact do not will that our maxim (principle) should become a universal law – since this is impossible for us – but rather that its opposite should remain a law universally: we only take the liberty of making an exception to it for ourselves (or even just for this once).

([1785] 1903: 424; original emphasis)

In ‘deriving’ an ‘actual principle of duty’ from the categorical imperative, Kant takes it that agents not only seek principles of universal form and cosmopolitan scope which prescribe the same for all, but shun any principles which cannot be ‘willed for all’. Kantian justifications of such principles, unlike golden rule justifications, do not appeal to either the desires, the happiness or the acceptance of those on the receiving end, nor indeed to actual or hypothetical desires of any or of all agents. The distinctive modal character of Kantian universalizability is its appeal to what can be willed for all (rather than to what actually is or hypothetically would be willed by all). It remains a matter of considerable controversy whether a strictly Kantian approach can be used to construct an account of specific principles of duty, virtue or entitlement, or whether it is indeed too formal and minimal to sustain these derivations.

Citing this article:
O'Neill, Onora. Fundamental principles: Kantian universalizability. Universalism in ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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