First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, and so as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances. Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature...

If your maxim fails the third step, you have a ‘perfect’ duty... if your maxim passes all four steps, only then is acting on it morally permissible.

One example is lying:

The maxim of lying whenever it gets what you want generates a contradiction once you try to combine it with the universalized version that all rational agents must, by a law of nature, lie when it gets what they want.

Imagine there is a dance called the hokey cokey (there actually is, but I don't think this is it) which involves two people. They stand side by side, and the one on the left starts by putting their left leg in, out, and shaking it all about. Then the person on the right does the same, with their right leg.

According to wikipedia, a maxim is

1) the action, or type of action; (2) the conditions under which it is to be done; and (3) the end or purpose to be achieved by the action, or the motive

So what if we consider the following maxim:

  • If you want to dance the hokey cokey (3) start with the left foot (1) when music is playing (2)

This seems impossible to universalise: so why isn't it immoral (and, moreover, a perfect duty not) to deliberately do the hokey cokey to music?

As there is no way for everyone to start with the left foot, and still dance the hokey cokey to music, because to do the hokey cokey you need a dance partner who goes second.

Unless (I suppose) you can do the dance by accident.

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    This is not how maxims work in the first place. "Starting the HC with your left leg" is not a maxim at all. – Philip Klöcking Jan 21 '16 at 15:35
  • " short, pithy statement expressing a general truth or rule of conduct." i suppose it could be limited, but how? – user6917 Jan 21 '16 at 16:25
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    Where do you have this definition from? Adding the reference for the quotes above would be helpful, too, becauee the name of the author alone would providd helpful context. – Philip Klöcking Jan 21 '16 at 16:30
  • @PhilipKlöcking it's from the dictionary. i tidied it up with Kant's definition, which weakens the argument, though i'm still a little unconvinced – user6917 Jan 21 '16 at 16:54
  • But how is it impossible to even think of a world where starting with the left foot is the way to start the dance? It is the very description you made of it: The person to the right does never start the dance, she's not even enabled to, because of the very rules of it. I don't see any incoherence there. The only problem is that for starting it you have to stand to the left, but this is the rule of the dance. – Philip Klöcking Jan 21 '16 at 18:07

In our legal system Judges, who are assigned that role by others, can levee fines. If I go out and levee fines, it is extortion. That is not a conflict with universality, it is just another precondition in the maxim.

The proposed maxim is naturally universal, once you state it completely, specifying the role of the person who is to do the action. If you do it the other way, you are simply doing a different dance. In fact simple definitions and logical tautologies are always immediately universal. So they basically lack ethical content.

The only way a simple fact can have moral content is to be culturally embedded, and for the user of the fact to have a contingent duty to be truthful about its use. If the hokey pokey (that is the name, at least in the US) had moral content, the duty would rely upon the idea that it communicates a specific message in a specific context. If that message is important enough, by doing it wrong, you are lying, and in a way that is unethical. (If you do the statistical 'dance' of computing a p-value in a science paper wrong, it is unethical.)

But the hokey pokey is not the Medieval Mass, (or even the modern peer-review process) or some similar cornerstone of deep cultural definition. So its definition is not going to be 'categorical' enough to be a general truth or rule of conduct, at least not up to Kant's standard for generality.

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  • so the test, as defined, isn't sufficient for a perfect duty ? – user6917 Jan 22 '16 at 0:06
  • No, The maxim, as defined does not contain the conditions under which the action is to be performed -- it has omitted assignment to the role. Corrected, it does not pass the test. It is a contingent duty. – user9166 Jan 22 '16 at 1:58
  • i thought that it did, "when music is playing" – user6917 Jan 22 '16 at 2:03
  • Take the Judge example seriously. Duties can fall differently on people in different roles. Obviously the behavior of the two people is expected to be different. If that is not part of the rules, then those are not the rules.... – user9166 Jan 22 '16 at 2:18
  • ok, sure i didn't parse / understand your answer yet... i can find it difficult to do so if there appears to be an easy objection. it is apprecaited – user6917 Jan 22 '16 at 2:22

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