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
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
that he died instantly in order to spare her feelings." We can easily
imagine a world in which all paramedics lied to widows in this specific
That does