Yes, I have read the other questions on Universalisability - mine is quite different.

The question is: if the action in question were hypothetically universalised (i.e everyone could do it), would there be a logical contradiction?

Two examples: 1. Theft is wrong, because if everyone were to steal things, there would be no such thing as personal property hence you can't steal. 2. Lying is wrong, because if everyone were to lie there would be no such thing as truth - hence you can't lie.

Now my problem is that these examples seem a little 'cute' to me (I really couldn't think of another word). Are the logical contradictions so clear in every case?

Examples I examined: 1. Drugs - if everyone were allowed to take drugs, then everyone would be high all the time so one can't 'take drugs' so to speak? This logical contradiction seems extremely dubious. 2. Not giving to the poor - if nobody gave money to the poor they would all be dead so there is no such thing as being poor? Logical contradiction seems dubious. 3. Smoking in public - If everyone were to smoke in public, then there would be no public because it is so smokey?

I hope you see where this is going.

The point is, in real life so far I have found it quite hard to apply the idea of universalisability.

Before you start answering, I want to deal with one objection you might come up with

You: "Ok, how about we rephrase Kant's universalisability principle to this: 'If an action were hypothetically universalised, would the outcome be morally good?"

Me: We are using the universalisability as one of the checks to find out whether something can be your duty (i.e whether it is morally good for you to do it) - it doesn't make sense to define morally good with morally good - circular logic.

  • I see a difference between your examples. 1. A property is something which the society gives in your unique disposition. By this it inhibits other people any access to this something - it puts by its own moral authority the label "wrong action" on any such an attempt, theft including. Thus a definition of a property precludes an universialisation of theft. 2. If lying would be permitted, it does not mean that the truth disappears - one can say a truth, anyway. Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 13:20
  • 1. Drugs - if everyone were allowed to take drugs, then everyone would be high all the time so one can't 'take drugs' so to speak? << Non-Sequitur. Just because one is "Allowed", it does not follow that someone will.
    – Anon
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 10:22

2 Answers 2


First off, I want to say this is a good question. Second, I agree with your objection -- we cannot appeal to "good" (especially without definition at this point).

The issue you are highlighting is one that is well known to Kant scholars (here I mean on 2nd critique / ethicists). Kant's claim that we can test morality with universals sounds like a great idea and one that would get us a universal, objective morality founded on reason alone. The devil is in the details.

What you call cuteness is basically one of those devils. Or to put it another way, there's a critique that articulates the same issue this way: somehow the things Kant cannot universalize are those things that are incompatible with bourgeois Prussian society centered around the town of Konigsberg.

Here, the theory:

(1) For any maxim M, we can test whether the action is good by seeing whether we could simultaneously will that all agents in situation S should will the same.
(2) "good" here means compatible with objective reason, i.e. universalizable. I can get the reference if you want. But specifically this is *objective good* which Kant distinguishes from things we like to experience. (If my memory is correct, he does not use the opposite phrase subjective good).

Now this definition actually does some of the legwork for us. But there's more that is helpful in Kant.

Returning to the two examples from the text (which based on your choices I'm going to assume is the Groundwork), we can see why Kant still (probably) can say they are wrong:

In the case of lying, it's not merely that truth is lost but that the ability for other agents to act rationally is lost. Thus, it impugns the rationality of creatures and is thus immoral.

Similarly, property is for Kant a rational feature of things (this is expounded in the Metaphysical Doctrine/Principle of Right). Thus, to undo it is to remove something he takes to be necessary to rationality. (This one is clearly the more dubious of the two proofs since the definition of property is far from evident in our retrospective capacity).

Also, I must add as an addendum that there are two variants of the universalizability test in the Groundwork. One checks whether it is incoherent on a purely logical basis. The other asks whether it could be a universal law of nature. On my interpretation the latter adds what one takes to be the necessary laws of the universe.

Moving to three your suggested tests for universalization.

Drugs for Kant will need to get treated in the same way as alcohol as Mozibur notes. Kant has such a treatment in the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue for alcohol. Working from memory, drinking is okay, but being so drunk that you are not rational is not. Thus, the same question is going to arise with drugs. If you become irrational, it is immoral for Kant, because morality is about acting rationally. And whenever a creature capable of acting rationally doesn't, that is immoral.

For the not giving to the poor, that's not actually a duty for Kant in the strict (perfect) sense. So he would agree that there's no logical contradiction. It is a form of imperfect duty under the obligation to help others. But this duty, at least as far as I argue, is one we hold insofar as we creatures who sometimes need help. This is already in the Groundwork but gets repeated with some details in the Metaphysical Principle of Virtue

Smoking for Kant would be fine if it does not impugn rationality or would need to be treated in the same way as obesity (also handled in the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue

What might interest you is the treatment by Allen Wood in Kant's Ethical Thought that looks at some more interesting objections that occur in terms of even defining the maxim to be universalized. Or I might be getting confused with this text by Henry Allison. But there's several questions as to what a maxim even is.

  • Thanks for the good answer, especially the further reading :) Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 10:33
  • Thanks for the clarification. Are there any purely logically based ethical frameworks that you know of? And I liked how you dealt with my three examples, is it just that they are bad examples or is there a similar way of reasoning other potential problems? Thank you :) Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 10:37
  • I don't think there are any purely logical ethical frameworks. Kant probably comes the closest. But in a certain respect, you could say the logic of consequentialist frameworks is easy. Everything is a number there whereas Kant's worth / price distinction makes it harder to jive with. And Mozibur definitely is not wrong when he says Kant's theory starts with reason -- not logic.
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 10:46
  • The drug and smoking examples are not especially bad. But there's also a lot of articles on whether Kant can approve of them. Or at least they get mentioned in passing in the literature. The dicey part is that there's a lot of Kantian ethics that doesn't really seem like Kant on these sort of things (Korsgaard's Creating the Kingdom of Ends and Barbara Herman's work as well).
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 10:47
  1. Drugs - if everyone were allowed to take drugs, then everyone would be high all the time so one can't 'take drugs' so to speak? This logical contradiction seems extremely dubious.

Sure; which is why its allowed - alcohol for example is a 'drug'; but its socially proscribed too; one normally doesn't drink at work. This tallies with: 'If everyone was high all the time' society wouldn't function.

  1. Not giving to the poor - if nobody gave money to the poor they would all be dead so there is no such thing as being poor?

If nobody gives money to the poor they will still be with us - as one can see by looking at the world today. If no-one gave money to the poor, would you be happy being born poor? What happens if before you were born, you were told that you could wish for either possibility and you would be born into that world but you wouldn't know beforehand the circumstances of your station in life. This is John Rawls argument of The Veil of Ignorance and it relies on Kant.

  1. Smoking in public - If everyone were to smoke in public, then there would be no public because it is so smokey?

No; smoking was allowed even if it made public areas 'smokey'; the problem is that after extensive scientific investigation its known that it is a danger to public heath; its on that basis a contradiction needs to be looked for. Its the same or similar argument to one.

The point is this; its not logical contradictions to be sought; we're not making formal arguments as in symbolic logic; but reasoned argument on certain principles; and its on that basis that one develops arguments. But this means that one needs a good conception of how individual, society and politics function; of what policies can be supported or not and how. For example, the ban on public smoking couldn't have functioned without an extensive public education campaign mounted in several different ways over a sustained period of time.

To reiterate: It is not logic but reason; even a little reflection shows that logic per se was born out of reason; and not the other way around.

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