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 action.
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