Kantian philosophy outlines the Universal Law Formation of theCategorical Imperative as a method for determining morality of actions. This formula is a two part test.
First, one creates a maxim andconsiders whether the maxim could be a universal law for all rationalbeings. Second, one determines whether rational beings would will it tobe a universal law. Once it is clear that the maxim passes both prongsof the test, there are no exceptions. As a paramedic faced with adistraught widow who asks whether her late husband suffered in hisaccidental death, you must decide which maxim to create and based on thetest which action to perform. The maxim “when answering a widow’sinquiry as to the nature and duration of her late husbands death, oneshould always tell the truth regarding the nature of her late husband’sdeath” (M1) passes both parts of the Universal Law Formation of theCategorical Imperative. Consequently, according to Kant, M1 is a moralaction.Order now
The initial stage of the Universal Law Formation of the CategoricalImperative requires that a maxim be universally applicable to allrational beings. M1 succeeds in passing the first stage. We can easilyimagine a world in which paramedics always answer widows truthfully whenqueried. Therefore, this maxim is logical and everyone can abide by itwithout causing a logical impossibility.
The next logical step is toapply the second stage of the test. The second requirement is that a rational being would will this maximto become a universal law. In testing this part, you must decide whetherin every case, a rational being would believe that the morally correctaction is to tell the truth. First, it is clear that the widow expectsto know the truth. A lie would only serve to spare her feelings if shebelieved it to be the truth. Therefore, even people who would considerlying to her, must concede that the correct and expected action is totell the truth.
By asking she has already decided, good or bad, that shemust know the truth. What if telling the truth brings the widow to the point where shecommits suicide, however? Is telling her the truth then a moral actionalthough its consequence is this terrible response? If telling thewidow the truth drives her to commit suicide, it seems like no rationalbeing would will the maxim to become a universal law. The suicide is,however, a consequence of your initial action. The suicide has nobearing, at least for the Categorical Imperative, on whether telling thetruth is moral or not. Likewise it is impossible to judge whether uponhearing the news, the widow would commit suicide. Granted it is apossibility, but there are a multitude of alternative choices that shecould make and it is impossible to predict each one.
To decide whetherrational being would will a maxim to become a law, the maxim itself mustbe examined rationally and not its consequences. Accordingly, the maximpasses 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 “whitelies” feel the maxim should read, “When facing a distraught widow, youshould lie in regards to the death of her late husband in order to spareher feelings. ” Applying the first part of the Universal Law Formation ofthe Categorical Imperative, it appears that this maxim is a moral act.
Certainly, a universal law that prevents the feelings of people who arealready in pain from being hurt further seems like an excellentuniversal law. Unfortunately for this line of objection, the only reasona lie works is because the person being lied to believes it to be thetruth. In a situation where every widow is lied to in order to spare herfeelings, then they never get the truth. This leads to a logicalcontradiction because no one will believe a lie if they know it a lieand the maxim fails. Perhaps the die-hard liar can regroup and test a narrower maxim.
If itis narrow enough so that it encompasses only a few people, then itpasses the first test. For example, the maxim could read, “When facing adistraught 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 waswearing a brown suit and brown loafers, then you should tell the widowthat he died instantly in order to spare her feelings. ” We can easilyimagine a world in which all paramedics lied to widows in this specificsituation. That does not necessarily mean that it will pass the second testhowever. Even if it does pass the first test, narrowing down maxim cancreate other problems.
For instance circumstances may change and thepeople who were originally included in the universal law, may not beincluded anymore. Consequently you many not want to will your maxim tobe a universal law. Likewise, if one person can make these maxims thatinclude only a select group of people, so can everyone else. If youcreate a maxim about lying to widows that is specific enough to pass thefirst test, so can everyone else. One must ask if rational beings wouldreally will such a world in which there would be many, many specific,but universal, laws.
In order to answer this question, one must use therational “I” for the statement “I, as a rational being would will such aworld,” not the specific, embodied “I” which represents you in yourpresent condition. You must consider that you could be the widow in thesituation rather than the paramedic, then decide whether you would willsuch a universal law. I agree with the morality based on Kantian principles because it isstrict in its application of moral conduct. Consequently there is novacillating in individual cases to determine whether an action is moralor not.
An action is moral in itself not because of its consequences butbecause any rational being wills it to be a universal law and it doesnot contradict itself. Regardless of what the widow does with theinformation, the act of telling her the truth, is a moral one. No onewould argue that telling the truth, if she asks for it, is an immoralthing to do. Sometimes moral actions are difficult, and perhaps in thissituation it would be easier to lie to the widow, but it would still bean immoral action that I would not want everyone to do.
This picture ofmorality resonates with my common sense view of morality. If the widowsubsequently commits suicide or commits any other immoral act as aconsequence, that has no bearing on the morality of the original actionin itself. Utilitarianism would differ on this point. Utilitarianism outlines thatan action is moral if it increases the total happiness of society. Morality is based on consequences. Telling a lie to the widow wouldincrease her happiness and consequently would, at least possibly, be amoral action.
Utilitarianism would also take into account the precedentset by lying; however, the analysis still rests on predicted consequencerather than on the action’s intrinsic moral value. The morality oftelling the lie is on a case by case basis. In some situations, it mightbe better to tell the truth, and according to utilitarianism that wouldthen be the moral action. Unlike Kantian philosophy, one is not bound byan immutable universal law. Instead one must judge in each case whichaction will produce the most overall happiness.
The problem with thisapproach is that morality loses any value as a universal or intrinsicquality. Every decision is made on an individual basis in an individualand specific situation. In fact, utilitarianism considers happiness tobe the only intrinsically valuable end. Defenders of utilitarianism claim that it maintains universality byconsidering the greatest happiness of all beings, rather than justindividual happiness.
Still, the morality is based on constantlychanging and often unpredictable consequences. The requirement that oneconsider all of the consequences of an action and determine the bestpossible action through such calculations makes me reject