Can Kantian Maxims have more than one goal? Suppose I tell the murderer at the door that my mother is not home in order to save her life. That itself may be fine, but equally I am saying that in order to deceive him, and so may have an obligation not to.

All the example maxims I have seen have involved one reason to perform one action.

The trolley example is similar. This time, it is prohibited because the maxim should be phrased as "murdering one person to save five". But why can't I just phrase it as "diverting a run away trolley away from five people to save their lives".

Is the idea that we have to think of our maixm in the worst way possible, then try and universalise it? Then why isn't telling the truth prohibited by bringing about a murder? After-all, it is not my desired goal to kill the one person.

The obvious answer is you phrase your own action and agency in the worst possible way and the goal and motive in the best. So

  • lying to save a life
  • murdering someone to save five people

But it seems too obvious and unstated.

  • basic question, but hopefully not just my problem
    – user67675
    Sep 23, 2023 at 18:54
  • 2
    Unfortunately, nothing in Kant's account even gives guidelines to, let alone dictates it, other than agent's "moral sensibility". This was pointed out by Anscombe and is known as the problem of relevant descriptions. It was discussed, e.g., in the thread on universalizable maxims, some authors suggest that it has no satisfactory solution on Kantian terms.
    – Conifold
    Sep 24, 2023 at 9:49

2 Answers 2


As I explained at length in my answer here, that is not how maxims work like.

Even your trolley example is way too general. Only if there is a full description of all relevant aspects of the situation, the particular end of the action, and the particular action to achieve that end are involved, this will make a maxim proper.

The murderer example is problematic since you are, according to Kant, morally responsible only for your own action and could well bring about undesired consequences by lying: as long as you are not omniscient, you cannot possible know whether lying will actually prevent the murder or even facilitate it. But you can know whether your action is right or wrong.

The trolley problem is a more delicate one but if you think about it, it boils down to should I pull the lever to try to have only one person die instead of 5? Thus, as long as there is nothing contradictory or not to want about a society where every person presented with such a choice would choose 5 to live on over 1 because of what they do, well...

People tend to conflate personal bad conscience (that one guy died because of me) with moral responsibility (but I saved 4 more persons than not doing anything would have). That's a different moral framework.

  • if get your last paragraph, not the second (how do you phrase the entire complex situation into one reason and result?). does my edit work?
    – user67675
    Sep 23, 2023 at 19:20
  • oh clicked on your lack answer now. still can't quite see what you are recommending though. what dictates how i phrase my action and intent?
    – user67675
    Sep 23, 2023 at 19:27
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    @prof_post It is simpler than you make it. For me, it would sound something like: If I see a trolley that will kill everyone in its way approach a switch from where there is one track with 5 people tied to it and one track with one person tied to it and I could do nothing but change the switch from the former to the latter track [situation], should I pull the lever [action] in the hope of there dying only one instead of 5 people [end]? It is your subjective principle! There is no wrong maxim. The question of the moral character is decided by possible universality, not description.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 23, 2023 at 19:36
  • so is a lie the action or the end? i think i get that the end is what is directly brought about my our action, so it would be the action. right?
    – user67675
    Sep 23, 2023 at 19:48
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    @prof_post I think murdering (ie. killing, depending on the legal system it may not count as murder) the Nazi at the door to save people may even be permissable while lying to him is not. You know, the trolley problem is actually not that problematic IMHO compared to Sophie's Choice.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 23, 2023 at 20:24

Recall how much Kant likes to layer things, including here:

  1. The Form of the Law
  2. Maxims
  3. Applications of maxims
  4. One-off actions (lawful/law-like or not)

Now even the Form is not really one-and-only-one imperative, but since it is phrased, "Act only on that maxim can be willed as universal laws," then it inherits the duality of a positive command, "Act on maxims that can be willed as universal laws," and a negative command, "Don't act on other maxims that can't be thusly willed." For this is the significance of the quantifier "only," that it has an indicative and an exclusive aspect, ruling some things in and ruling others out.

Now, per the layering theme, then, and Kant's description of practical reason as the deduction of actions from principles, it follows that every justifiable maxim will be divisible into an affirmative component that participates in the positive side of Auto to Nomos and a prohibitive component that reflects the shadow-in-itself of the Form. Moreover, fitting specific maxims into the framework of the categories of freedom (as accounted for in the second Critique) means even more complexity in the design of maxims; and note, again, that designing a maxim is not as specific as designing the application of a maxim (and really can't be so specifiable in advance when it comes to another of Kant's poetic terms, the "eleutheronomy" of virtue's doctrinaire rules).

  • this is helpful, but i wasn't sure what you were getting at with the last sentence, sorry. hope you're well.
    – user67675
    Sep 23, 2023 at 22:08
  • @prof_post in the Doctrine of Virtue, Kant introduces that word "eleutheronomy," which I don't know that he used anywhere else in his writings (he might've), but which means "the law of freedom," roughly. So there is a freedom to the maxims of virtue, absent from the maxims of politics, so far as we formulate these things. Political law will tend towards the monadic while personal law will tend towards polyadic/multivalent, hence all the tortuous casuistry that Kant muses about in the Doctrine of Virtue. Sep 23, 2023 at 22:13
  • "multivalent" in what sense? that we have many actions (lying, saving our mother, a linguistic utterance)?
    – user67675
    Sep 23, 2023 at 22:17
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    @prof_post I suppose so, yes, though he might not have written of the issue in quite those terms. I assume he was aware of the problem of classifying one act under multiple descriptions (also, IIRC, Christine Korsgaard makes a strong act/action distinction, precisely for these kinds of reasons). Let me look at the SEP article on practical reason and the structure of actions for relevant info... Sep 23, 2023 at 22:20
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    @prof_post well, I searched "under a description" in that SEP article and got nothing, but then I Googled the phrase and got this nice Wikipedia entry, albeit it starts out from an Anscombe citation, and she was hardly a Kant enthusiast! But I do think philosophers have "spiritually" more in common than they always like to admit, so I expect Anscombian thoughts can illuminate Kantian ones by the by anyway :) Sep 23, 2023 at 22:24

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