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Kant: the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical


 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 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 situation. That does not necessarily mean
that it will pass the second test however. Even if it does
pass the first test, narrowing down maxim can create other
problems. For instance circumstances may change and the
people who were originally included in the universal law,
may not be included anymore. Consequently you many not want
to will your maxim to be a universal law. Likewise, if one
person can make these maxims that include only a select
group of people, so can everyone else. If you create a
maxim about lying to widows that is specific enough to pass
the first test, so can everyone else. One must ask if
rational beings would really will such a world in which
there would be many, many specific, but universal, laws. In
order to answer this question, one must use the rational
"I" for the statement "I, as a rational being would will
such a world," not the specific, embodied "I" which
represents you in your present condition. You must consider
that you could be the widow in the situation rather than
the paramedic, then decide whether you would will such a
universal law. I agree with the morality based on Kantian
principles because it is strict in its application of moral
conduct. Consequently there is no vacillating in individual
cases to determine whether an action is moral or not. An
action is moral in itself not because of its consequences
but because any rational being wills it to be a universal
law and it does not contradict itself. Regardless of what
the widow does with the information, the act of telling her
the truth, is a moral one. No one would argue that telling
the truth, if she asks for it, is an immoral thing to do.
Sometimes moral actions are difficult, and perhaps in this
situation it would be easier to lie to the widow, but it
would still be an immoral action that I would not want
everyone to do. This picture of morality resonates with my
common sense view of morality. If the widow subsequently
commits suicide or commits any other immoral act as a
consequence, that has no bearing on the morality of the
original action in itself. Utilitarianism would differ on
this point. Utilitarianism outlines that an action is moral
if it increases the total happiness of society. Morality is
based on consequences. Telling a lie to the widow would
increase her happiness and consequently would, at least
possibly, be a moral action. Utilitarianism would also take
into account the precedent set by lying; however, the
analysis still rests on predicted consequence rather than
on the action's intrinsic moral value. The morality of
telling the lie is on a case by case basis. In some
situations, it might be better to tell the truth, and
according to utilitarianism that would then be the moral
action. Unlike Kantian philosophy, one is not bound by an
immutable universal law. Instead one must judge in each
case which action will produce the most overall happiness.
The problem with this approach is that morality loses any
value as a universal or intrinsic quality. Every decision
is made on an individual basis in an individual and
specific situation. In fact, utilitarianism considers
happiness to be the only intrinsically valuable end.
 Defenders of utilitarianism claim that it maintains
universality by considering the greatest happiness of all
beings, rather than just individual happiness. Still, the
morality is based on constantly changing and often
unpredictable consequences. The requirement that one
consider all of the consequences of an action and determine
the best possible action through such calculations makes me
reject utilitarianism as a method of determining morality.
 Although utilitarianism often offers the easier solution
to perform because it produces immediate gratification and
allows many exceptions to common sense moral codes, the
answers it gives are unfilling and unrealistic.
Furthermore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make
all of the required calculations beforehand. Kant's
solution, although as interpreted by Kant is sometimes
overly extreme, is much better than utilitarianism. It
resonates with my moral sensibilities to consider that
actions are moral or immoral regardless of their immediate
consequences. I am willing to accept that sometimes the
moral action is harder to perform, but I am unwilling to
accept that morality rests within the specifics of a
situation and the possible consequences. Therefore, I
consider Kant's Universal Law Formation of the Categorical
Imperative to be a better test of morality than Mill's


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