If what I know about Kant is correct- watching the Harvard Justice series on Kant and some summaries of his work- then Kant believes in an absolute morality where everything is either right or wrong in every situation. The act of morality is not dependent on the consequence of the action, but rather the action itself. His mantra, I believe, is, "Act so that your action might be applied as a law of the world."

We have heard the question of, "What would Kant say to a murderer asking him about the whereabouts of the potential victims." to which the answer is usually, "Tell him.", "Close the door.", or "Twist the truth so that what you are saying is not a lie in itself and therefore respects the categorical imperative."

I stumbled upon a similar question for which I cannot find an answer that would lie within Kant's philosophy. I chose this question because the usual one with the murder is classified as exceptional. WW2 was a horrible period in our history and is, hopefully, never to be repeated. However, complications during childbirth are a lot more common and I can see how some people must face this situation. I hope that most of you will agree that this question is more properly grounded in realism than other examples.

Imagine being married and your wife is currently giving childbirth. 
Because of complications both the child and wife are in critical danger, 
and you must choose which individual to save.

My first instinct is that Kant would say, "No, I cannot make this decision for every person has inherent value and to choose one over the other would violate their right to life." Therefore, in the extreme, Kant would let both people die.

However, I question this, not only for my ignorance of Kant's true philosophy. The difference between these two questions is that you are the person that must either act or not act. A killer is the agent acting out the evil option. In this scenario, there is no evil agent, only unfortunate circumstances. I cannot help but feel that inaction is an action at the same time, therefore I come to the conclusion:

1) Sacrificing one individual for the other is not permitted.

2) Inaction is an action. Therefore, the action itself, not choosing an individual, is morally evil and contradicts the categorical imperative.

The two contradictions are horrible. I believe to have read on Wikipedia that Ayn Rand called Kant a "monster" because of conundrums like these. This makes me understand her objections more clearly, while at the same time believing that Kant's imperative is still the best possible action to be performed. However, we, as irrational human beings, would choose not to uphold Kant's philosophy.

Am I correct in assuming that Kant would refuse to act in this situation? More specifically, Kant would let the circumstances unfold and risk losing both his wife and child? I'm also very interested in the reasoning behind the decisions as I am quite possibly misinterpreting or misunderstanding the philosophy of the categorical imperative.

  • Thanks for your question and welcome to Philosophy.SE! Note this does strike me as a legitimate difficulty of the categorical imperative, though I might take some issue with the way it's formulated in your exposition. In passing, I might encourage you to tell us a little bit more about what Kant you might be reading if any and any passages in particular that exemplify the problematic logic you're asking after.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 21, 2012 at 22:01
  • Interesting question! Have you considered the allowable context for the hypothetical law? What leads you to believe that "When two individuals' lives are in danger and it is only possible to save one, you must save one; otherwise to kill or let die is a sacrifice and not permissible" is not a valid universal law?
    – Rex Kerr
    Jul 22, 2012 at 23:03

5 Answers 5


Your specific question (about abortion) has been discussed a fair bit. In general, people seem to agree that when the mother's life is threatened it's OK:

This presumption [that abortion is immoral] may be rebutted when the agent’s reasons for abortion have to do with such things as physical risks of pregnancy... abortion is morally problematic, but often permissible - Animality and Agency: A Kantian Approach to Abortion

You can read the full paper for her exact reasoning, but it roughly has to do with considering all the various duties one has and weighing them against each other. (i.e. certain duties are more "important" than others.) This is a very common way to approach it.

Another way, frequently discussed with regards to euthanasia, is the doctrine of double effect:

It is claimed that sometimes it is permissible to cause such a harm as a side effect (or “double effect”) of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end.

So, roughly, killing the fetus is "side effect" of saving your wife and therefore you aren't using it as a "means to an end." How exactly one defines a "side effect" versus a "means" is difficult, of course.

As to what Kant would say: who knows? You're right that in the inquiring murderer case he held fast to his guns and claimed that you shouldn't lie, but if more extreme examples were brought to his attention would he have changed his mind? I guess we'll never know.

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    There are never duties to be weighed for Kant, because there can always be only one duty due to the entailed necessarity. obligationes non colliduntur, 6:224!
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 14, 2016 at 2:56

It is clear that any intelligent human being will proceed under assumption to do whatever is possible to save both. This assumption will be proven wrong only after the fact, when one of them dies, or both die or both live. Since you do not know in advance of the fact, you cannot be morally at fault. This dilemma is just another variant of the "throw grandma under the tram" dilemma, and it is total nonsense to say that the outcome is certain death for one or the other. And not just nonsense, I personally think that people who even pose this to others are morally suspect.

But let me expand on my answer a little bit. A doctor or any other professional may be

  1. morally right and professionally right
  2. morally right and professionally wrong
  3. morally wrong and professionally wrong

BUT, he/she cannot be morally wrong and professionally right. To be morally wrong is wrong, period. It is this idea that Kant is trying to convey to you!

  • If you have relevant references they would support your answer and provide the user with a place to go for more information. Welcome to Philosophy! Feb 12, 2019 at 11:37

While I'm sure Philip Klocking's answer in comments is correct, this very either-or question of two lives, in some sort of "lifeboat for one," say, is often used to criticize the limits of actually applying Kant's categorical imperative. Does it imply an injunction even against sacrificing one's own life for two others, in the grand manner of Sidney Carton?

No matter how "dutiful" the good Kantian ought to be, I'm sure it is nonsense to suppose that Kant himself thought such unearthly restrictions must or could govern daily life so absolutely. They furnish "regulative ideals" to judgement along with the actual and actionable circumstances. Kant did say that "ought" implies "can," that we will not be burdened by providence, as in Greek or Hegelian tragedy, with utterly irreconcilable moral choices. But this is not to say that one can "know" the right choice.

Thus, epistemology plays a role and offers one further appeal. Kant did reject utilitarian and consequentialist ethics of the sort that might "decide" to "save the mother" or whatever. And here his epistemology ties in with his ethics. He argued that such ethical rules assume we can actually predict the outcome, while our knowledge is always limited. This is not an appeal to miracles, but to the realities of induction and the limits of reason.

How certain are we that our decision will actually save anyone? What if the child we decide to save grows up motherless into another Hitler? History is an endless smash-up of unintended consequences. Here Kant, especially in his own historical circumstances, might indeed invoke a necessary "faith" in the moral imperative in the face of unknowns or mere probabilities. Even inaction. This is a plausible moral stance, but one that is strangely eroded by technology and the advance of historical relativism.


He says specifically: "...currently giving child birth...", the term abortion shouldn't be used as it is broad and may refer to situations where something MAY happen; potential risk to a mother is subject to a physicians opinion. A simple way to rephrase is: "both are dying, save one." Don't convolute it with a term not initially referred to and most likely not referred to intentionally.

As far as "What would Kant say to a murderer asking for the where about's to potential victims?", the simplest choice since we aren't in that situation is silence. In the situation you say what can't be recalled or proven.

It seems no matter the scenario, the details are what seem to matter most. The better the dilemma is posed or phrased, the more conflicted we are about our answers. Opinion among many-the correct answer in any of these situations is the most selfless one. It's the only way to keep everything on an even keel, or calibrate the instrument by which we are measuring when dealing with a spectrum of intelligence, ability to reason or speed in which a person can make a decision. After all, we are dealing with human beings, none of which are perfect.

  • 1
    Kant very prominently states that there can be no true moral dilemmas in his Metaphysics of Morals: obligationes non colliduntur (6:224). One could argue that the duty, i.e. moral obligation, is to save at least one life and the choice which one is not a question of morals, but of ethics (narrow sense). I think your answer is a) not kantian at all and b) not sourced in Kant, which may coincide.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 14, 2016 at 2:54
  • Please refrain from the use of crude language in your answers. Jan 14, 2016 at 14:54

I don't think Kant was applying for Arbitrator of such dilemmas as he would have given some examples of same, in his explanations. Reason was the theme, and I'm sure he would have agreed with any truly reasonable solution. Your dilemmas are aside from the appeal to reason and veer into the realm of emotion. If he had written a work called "Die Kritik der Reinen Gefühl" it might be different. But see Hegel's "Preface to the Phenomenology of the Geist" he addresss das Gefühl.

  • 2
    There is some really strange wording going on, not only in German. And furthermore, what do you think the Critique of the Power of Judgement is about? It includes a critique of the faculty of lust and aversion [Vermögen der Lust und Unlust]. He actually stated what we would call a dilemma at least once.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 15, 2016 at 19:02
  • 1
    Welcome to Philosophy.SE! The OP does not seem to appeal emotion, it's asking according to Kant what the reasons are for making which decision. Jan 15, 2016 at 20:18
  • The very question trys to put Kant into the dilemma, which is both a Fantasy and Un philosophical. More legal or what based on one's own feelings.
    – reidh
    Nov 6, 2017 at 19:27

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