There is an argument against Kant’s moral philosophy that just won’t die. I’ve seen it show up in some surprising places: Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust. I remember a moral philosophy professor repeating it in class once, with approval. These are all smart people but they all level a criticism against Kant that’s based on a misunderstanding.
The mistake concerns the “universalizability” test in Kant’s Groundwork. The test for whether some action is morally permitted is often oversimplified into something like “what if everyone did that?” or some version of the Golden Rule. But what is the test really?
Early on in the Groundwork, Kant asks what the content of the moral law would be, if it existed. The “universalizing” test shows up in this context, and the universal aspect of moral law is no accident. For Kant, if there’s anything to the idea that morality tells me what I must do, then morality, being a law, would have to be universal, as well as knowable by reflection alone. Moral demands are a kind of practical necessity, which is why they’re both universal and a priori.
Suppose there’s something I want to do, but I’m not sure whether doing it would be okay, morally speaking. Let’s say I want to visit my friend’s chickens, but don’t want to bother asking for permission, since she’s away on vacation. So, here’s my potential purpose for acting: I will visit my friend’s chickens and keep them company, but without asking for permission to enter the coop, so I can have fun and avoid bothering my friend. This is my “maxim,” in Kant’s language, my statement of purpose for what I’d like to do. It spells out my means and my ends. But would it be okay to do what I propose to do?
Since a system of universal and necessary laws won’t brook contradictions, I now ask whether my maxim could fit within such a system. If it yields a contradiction and doesn’t fit, then I have my answer: don’t act on it. But if I can’t derive a contradiction from the maxim, I’m good to go.
Can I go visit the chickens without my friend’s permission after all? Well, could my maxim be a universal law? If the law would create some sort of impossibility, then it couldn’t be a law after all. The proposed law generated by my maxim in this case could be: “Anybody can use their friend’s property without needing permission.” Is this contradictory?
Here’s a rationale for “yes”: even between friends, there is a difference between yours and mine, and one of the basic features of owning something is that you get to determine who uses it. If that feature isn’t there, then it’s not property. So if the world worked according to my proposed law, it would be a world where there are property rights (because the chickens belong to my friend in this imagined scenario), but also a world where there are no property rights (because the need for permission doesn’t exist). By willing my maxim, I’ve endorsed something impossible. Uh oh. I can’t act on that maxim, then. Taking my selected means to my selected ends is incoherent.
This is a very simplified account of the “formula of universal law” of the categorical imperative, of course, but not nearly as simplified as another version you can find among professionals. This oversimplified version is usually given in the course of criticizing the formula of universal law, leveling the objection that the formula proves too much. “You can universalize just about anything,” says the critic, “including laws so specific that they could’t yield contradictions.”
Here is the criticism first. Consider the following “law”: “Any male child of an interfaith marriage born on July 18, 1988, between the hours of 0600 and 0800 in the Twin Cities area can visit his friend’s chicken coop without permission.” It’s a universal generalization — see the “any”? — but it also happens to be specific in the extreme. I’m probably the only person in the world who fits that description. As a result, if I endorse this law and act on it, I’m in no danger of willing something incoherent, because the world where this is a universal law is consistent. So (the critic concludes) Kant has given me a cheap moral license to trespass in my friend’s chicken coop. Job done.
The only way to make this criticism stick is to skip an important step in the universal law test: formulating a maxim. When I formulate my “maxim,” I’m putting together the reason for which I act. I’m spelling out the rationale for my choice and my action, what I will bring about by so choosing. In short, I’m proposing a course of action (what I want and how I’ll get it) and the rational spring that shall initiate it. But how is it possible to get the hyper-specific law above by universalizing a maxim? There doesn’t seem to be room in the generic maxim formula (“I will do such-and-such action in these circumstances so that I can get results so-and-so”) to spell out conditions like birthdays and metro areas of origin.
One of Kant’s examples of a maxim in the Groundwork is: “When I believe myself to be in need of money I shall borrow money and promise to repay it, even though I know this will never happen.” This spells out the context I take myself to be acting in, but where could my personal origin story enter into it? It has nothing whatsoever to do with the act I propose — it has nothing to do with my means or my ends. Just ask yourself: how often, when making plans or considering options, do you have to be like Dewey Cox and think about your whole life before you play?
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of our reasons for doing things are hyper-specific and based on the peculiarity of personal experience. But those idiosyncrasies shape our goals and ends, not our wills per se. If I wanted to make an appeal to my friend after her return from vacation, I wouldn’t say, “Put yourself in my shoes, imagine you’re a bearded philosophy professor several years out of grad school…” I would say, “Suppose you wanted the things I wanted. What would you do?”
The most basic problem with this criticism of Kant, that the universal law formulation gives us too many laws, is that it’s based on a poor interpretation. MacIntyre says (in chapter 4 on After Virtue) that “Always eat mussels on Mondays in March” is a universalizable maxim. It is? Why would someone give themselves the maxim of eating mussels on every March Monday? That’s not specified in the maxim, and it has to be to even get the test going. Well, let’s fill in the blank: “I will eat mussels on every March Monday because alliterative menus make me merry.” If we universalized this maxim, would it pass? It would indeed — there’s no contradiction in thought and probably not in the will either. (I suppose we’d have to ask Christine Korsgaard whether mussels are ends-in-themselves, though.)
What follows from this? Passing the universalizability test means you have a maxim that you can act on. A policy for March Mussel Madness is morally permitted. That’s all, and it’s a fairly straightforward consequence of Kant’s introduction of the universal law formula: if it can be universalized without contradiction, your maxim is in the clear. That doesn’t mean you must act on it, only that you can. So, although MacIntyre seems to be suggesting otherwise, there’s no duty here by Kant’s lights . It genuinely does not make sense to me why MacIntyre introduced this as a devastating criticism of Kant — he says maxims like this are even easier to universalize than Kant’s own examples.
Gee, I wonder why.