Korsgaard on Kant

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Kant's Formula of Universal Law

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Korsgaard, Christine M. 1985. Kant's formula of universal law. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66, no. 1-2: 24-47.

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December 6, 2012 4:39:30 AM EST

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Ka n t ' s F o rmu l a o f U n i v e rs a l L a w
C h r i sti n e M . K o rs gaar d

Kant 's first formulation of t h e Cat e gorical Imperative , t h e Formula of Universal Law, runs:
Act only according t o t hat maxim by which you can at t h e same time will t hat it should b ecome a universal law.
(G 421/39)


A few lines lat er, Kant says that t h is is eq uivale nt t o acting as th ough your maxim were b y your will t o become a law of nat ure , and he use s t his lat t er formulat ion in h is examples of how t h e imperat ive is t o be app lie d . E lse wh ere, Kant specifies t hat t h e t est is whe t h er you could will t h e universalization for a syst em of nat ure "of which you yourse lf were a part" (C2 69/72); and in one p lace he characterizes t h e moral age nt as asking "what sort of world he would create und er t h e guidance of practical reason, . . . a world int o which , moreover, h e would place himself as a member."


But h ow d o you

d e t ermine wh e t h er or not you can will a give n maxim as a law of nat ure? Since t h e will is practical reason, and since e veryone must arrive at th e same conclusions in mat t ers of d u t y, it canno t b e t h e case that what you are able t o will is a matt er of personal tast e, or relative t o your ind ivid ual desires. Rath er, t h e q uest ion of what you can will is a q ue st ion of what you can will wit h ou t contradiction.

According t o Kant , willing uni versalize d maxims may give rise t o contradict ions in t wo ways:


Some actions are of such a nat ure t hat t h eir maxim cannot e ve n b e t h ough t as a universal law of nat ure wit h ou t contradiction, far from it being p ossib le t hat one could will t hat it should b e such . In ot h ers t h is int ernal impossib ilit y is not fou nd , t h ough it is still impossible t o will th at t h eir maxim should b e raise d t o t h e uni versalit y of a law of nat ure , because such a will would contradict itself. We

easily see t hat t h e former maxim conflicts wit h t h e strict er or narrower (imprescript ible ) d ut y, t h e lat t er wit h broader (merit orious) d u t y.
(G 424/41- 42)
T h e first sort of contradict ion is usually calle d a con tradict ion in conce p t ion, and t h e second a contradict ion in t h e will.
In t his paper I am concerne d wit h id e n t ifyi ng t h e se nse in which t h ere is a "contradiction" in willing t h e uni versalization of an immoral maxim, and esp ecially wit h t h e se nse in which t h e universalization of such a maxim can be said t o have a contradiction in it - that is, wit h t h e id ea of a cont radiction in conce p t ion. T h ere are t hre e dif fere n t in t erpre tat ions of t h e kind of contradiction Kant has (or ough t t o have ) in mind fou nd in t h e lit erat ure .


Th e y are:

i) T h e Logical Contradict ion Int erpre tat ion. On t h is int erpre tat ion, t h ere is some t hing like a logical impossib ilit y in t h e uni versalization of t h e maxim, or in t h e syst em of nat ure in wh ich t h e maxim is a nat ural law: if t h e maxim were universalize d , t h e action or policy t hat it prop oses would be inconceivab le....
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