I am having some doubts in understanding the universalisation of maxims in Kant's Categorical Imperative.

For instance, one can determine whether a maxim of lying to secure a loan is moral by attempting to universalize it and applying reason to the results. If everyone lied to secure loans, the very practices of promising and lending would fall apart, and the maxim would then become impossible.

How would I apply in cases like: Should I eat meat, or should I drive under the speed limit?

How does one universalize a maxim?

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    We do not universalize a "thing" but a maxim for actions. E.g. "should I drive under speed limit ?" YES, because if all do not stay within speed limits the occurrence of car crashes will increase dramatically. Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 13:03
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    Perhaps you could clarify the problem you're having. The example you've given seems to capture the process fairly well to me.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 16:27
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    @Isaacson Hi, so for example with Should I eat meat one could take extreme example and say that we will eat all the animals and then will die from starvation - which obviously is nonsense, same could be applied to most of things when taken extreme case it will be bad,... I am not trying to argue the Kant, it's just not obvious how one is expected to universalize a maxim,... I hope I am making sense... :) Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 16:49
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    @mobileink: Nope, "I should do X" is not a maxim. "I should do X" is an imperative. And Kant invests quite a lot in pointing out the difference.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 3:35
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    @Mr.Kennedy: I am pretty sure that what Kant tried is pointing out the necessary conditions of the possibility of our moral intuitions (= transcendental philosophy), beginning from his example of a liar in CPR (B582-84), where he just points out that we hold persons morally responsible for their doings even if we can explain their action completely through empirical findings (read: science). His ethics, and the CI in particular, investigate how this may be possible as "real" (and not mere chimera) at all. Especially considering the time I think that to be pretty advanced truth-seeking.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 3:42

4 Answers 4


What is a maxim?

Jens Timmermann argues in his not translated book "Sittengesetz und Freiheit" (DeGruyter, 2003), Chapter IV, that there are at least three different senses in which Kant uses the term "maxim".

The one important for the question is neither what could be called "basic principle", nor what could be called "higher order maxims" or "meta-maxims" (maxims that rule (the choice of) maxims). It is the simple sense of the particular subjective principle of a particular action (see Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:400, 420 fn).

Furthermore, according to Timmermann, every single maxim contains

  1. A particular situation
  2. A particular intent/end [Zweck] the action is aiming for
  3. The particular means/action for achieving the intended outcome (and thus what Kant calls "practical rules")

The mentioned example

In Kant's own words, he describes it as follows:

Another sees himself pressured by need to borrow money. He knows full well that he will not be able to repay, but also sees that nothing will be lent to him unless he solemnly promises to repay it at a determinate time. (Groundwork, Ak. 4:422)

We can rather easily see how the maxim should look like: Being in financial distress without a perspective of being able to pay it back [Situation], I shall give a false promise [means] in order to nevertheless get money [intention/end]. Kant himself gives the following formulation:

When I believe myself to be in need of money [Situation] I shall borrow money, and promise to repay it, [means] even though I know that it will never happen [situation] (ibid)

As you can see, the actual intent/end of getting money is only implicit in this case, but should nevertheless always be taken into consideration when it comes to fully fleshed out maxims.

Your examples

I would argue that your examples are not proper maxims at all, and that's why it is hard to universalise them per application of the Categorical Imperative. They lack situational and intentional dimensions.

Regarding universalisation in general

Henry Allison argues in his Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary, Chapter 9 (Oxford UP, 2011) that in order to correctly understand the Categorical Imperative, we have to apply a certain mode of universalisation. He further argues (and I strongly disagree with him here), that the original formulation would only include intra-subjective universalisation, while the Formula of Autonomy would necessarily include inter-subjective universalisation.

Intra-subjective here means that we explicitly keep our subjective standpoint and reason from our feelings and knowings, not abstracting from ourselves. Inter-subjective, on the other hand, means that we explicitly take into consideration the conceivable needs, thinkings, and positions of others, essentially not asking "can I", but "is it possible to think at all".

I think that the term inter-subjective universalisation is really good to get a first feeling of how it works. It is not about what the particular, empirical you thinks or feels things should be like (a major difference to the Golden Rule!).

On the other hand, I also think that by implying that there even is such a thing as "intra-subjective universalisation", Allison misinterprets the whole argumental arc of part two of the Groundwork at this point since the second section is analytical and therefore all that happens in later formulations, supposedly allowing for an "inter-subjective universalisation" not contained in earlier formulations, is an explication of what is contained in the original formulation. Well, at least Allison is not clear in distinguishing between what Kant wanted to say and what he thinks is actually written at this point.

Explaining Kantian universalisation

But how can we understand this form of universalisation? It means that we basically have to put ourselves into the shoes of every single rational being (in the Kingdom of Ends) and, using this perspective, decide whether our maxim is morally acceptable or not.

To make this a bit more explicit: At the same time we have to imagine

a) that every single person would in this situation necessarily act the same way our maxim proposes (as per the Formula of Law of Nature) and

b) that we have to respect the dignity of every single person in our decision, always treating them as autonomous agents, never as mere means (as per Formula of Humanity). This does explicitly not exclude using people as means, otherwise being an employer could end up being immoral.

In a second step, considering these two aspects, we will see whether there

a) already is an inner contradiction in this thought ("it cannot even be thought") - For example, if false promising was universal, the whole social instrument of promising would not even exist since nobody would believe in promises if we knew that everybody will necessarily lie the moment he thinks to be in trouble. But the maxim relies on that very presupposition (see comment below as well). So there is an inner tension (or contradiction) in trying to make false promising a (necessary!) general law for everybody. Because for making the promise (or communication in general) work it is essential that people generally believe in what you are saying and act in good will. But a law like that would undermine the credibility of such utterances. That means a principle like this as a general law is conceptually contradictory and is in this sense "unthinkable" - coherently.


b) looking at how society would end up like if everyone would necessarily do it the way you do cannot be wanted by you (read: as an empathetic, rational being! Sado-masochists could be fine with everyone slapping random persons for sexual stimulation, but this is not what we're talking about!). This account is insofar not trivially consequentialist as it is completely irrelevant what the actual consequences of your actions in any particular cultural or historical context would be. In a sense, it is quite misleading to call it consequentialist since the very premise of this thought experiment is that in a similar situation, indeed all rational beings do follow the maxim by the letter - and hence it is a "consequence" following from something that Kant himself did never think to actually happen. All that counts is what a society of sentient, rational, and potentially morally perfect beings would end up like (abstracting from specific cultural and situational circumstances) if your maxim would become one of its general laws (or even - laws of nature!, see 4:421). Since the Categorical Imperative tests the form of the maxim, i.e. whether it has the form of a law (which is both general [allgemein] and universal), all we test here is the logical coherence of thinking this maxim as actually universal among rational wills. The (mis-)understanding of this kind of contradiction has been the source of both the most fierce criticism and the most admiring praise of his deontic morals.

This is basically the argument he presents over the course of the second part of the Groundwork, summarised in 4:435-40.

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    IMO this doesn't quite get to the point of question, which seems to be about quantity. Even if the questioner hasn't proposed a "regular" maxim, doesn't his questions relate to some possible maxim? For instance: "when in hunger, I'll eat meat to my satisfaction". This leaves out how much meat someone should eat. But the behavior of a gluttonous person, when generalized to the whole population would produce a shortage of meat. The problem is: how to proceed when the mean used is something else than a binary variable (e.g. "lying" or "not lying"), such as a quantity of meat (e.g. 100g)?
    – ejQhZ
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 4:29
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    @ejQhZ: Don't you think that it is included in the evaluation (the last b) in my answer? If for satisfying my hunger, eating only meat until my stomach bursts would, in universalisation, lead to shortage, messed up digestion and so on (and this WOULD happen!), how can I want this? Not to speak of the problems with vegetarians ;) I think that without heavy situational restraints, the test would fail. This is what most people do not get: For Kant, in order to be a virtuous person, you need to know a hell lot about how the world works first. It is made explicit in his later works.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 4:40
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    Frankly, I wasn't sure it is included, because it doesn't tackle this issue explicitly. But writing out the maxim, it occurred to me as well that in so far as everyone eats to their satisfaction (after all, it said "to my satisfaction", not to the satisfaction of Henry VIII), there would be no issue at all. And in other maxims as well, if everyone acts to produce the ends they desire according to sound judgement, sensible results may follow and the maxim will be generalizable.
    – ejQhZ
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 5:02
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    @ejQhZ: Regarding lies...Kant is so rigorous about it because in his view, the whole of human communications relies on the premise that lies are exceptional. Introducing a general law (as per CI) that not only allows lying, but rather obliges not only you, but everyone else as well, to necessarily lie in according situations (while you cannot possibly know everyone's situation), makes human communication as such unreliable in his view. That is why lying is contradictory in thought, as he puts it (4:424).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 5:09
  • I am told that Kant did in fact weigh in on the quantity of meat one should consume -- that it is touched upon in a discussion of 'degrading the proper sentiments' as an aspect of 'using oneself as a mere means'. But this was in a course 20 years ago and I cannot find the reference. Can't universalize never eat meat, becase to deny someone eating anything could mean someone who has just that starves. But shouldn't encourage levels of production that render workers callous by need. Using oneself in a way that violates empathy lowers the future ability to universalize correctly.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 15:02

I do not think that universalizing a maxim is a deterministic process, it is more of a negotiation with yourself and the logic of the maxim. The same intuition can take the form of several different maxims. But Kant theorizes that the cohesive nature of intelligence and the limitations of the human will are going to make them agree in principle. (That is a huge assumption, which requires an almost religious level of faith to accept, even after thousands of pages of argumentation. Fortunately for Kant, he was already religious.)

One way of looking at the goals in that negotiation are these:

  1. Everyone should be considered: You should determine whether there are people whose state you are ignoring, or whose autonomy you are infringing.
  2. Duties should not conflict: You should always see if some competing rule is more likely to be universalized.
  3. All good wills should agree: When you have refined the thought you should try to imagine an arbitrary person of good will and see if they would be harmed in any way.
  4. The intention should be simple (not easy): At the same time, you should make the maxim itself as broad as possible, and exclude accidental conditions. (Accidental conditions render the maxim not 'categorical' enough.)
  5. The statement should be forthright: This is less important, but to my mind, it implies avoiding negation (especially negation of negative terms) and using simple terms and minimal grammar.

If you can make changes on any of these fronts, you should modify the maxim and try again.

You should not lie to get a loan because you should not lie. (You can broaden the maxim, so you should try.) You would not want to be the person lied to. (Who are you not considering?) We want to avoid ambiguity as to what lying is, since people want to lawyer about, for example, lies of omission. We don't need to consider that case yet. So it is nice to flip this injunction over. (We are seeking simplicity.) The maxim 'When you speak, say what you believe' should not offend anyone. If someone has asked you a question and expects to hear from you something you do not believe, his intent is to use you as a means: to bolster his ego, or to maintain a fiction for others, for instance. (If a generic example of someone who would disagree is automatically acting in bad faith, then all the well-intended would agree.) Lying to get a loan, like all other kinds of lying, involves saying things you don't believe.

(There are still weaknesses here. We have not chosen explicitly not to address the case of lying by omission, but we have firm agreement that applies to our case. To deal with lying by omission, we can come up with an independent maxim for when one is obligated to intervene in someone else's error. Then, if one is not obligated to intervene, then remaining silent is moral, even when it is dishonest.)

Consider "Don't eat meat." There are whole tribes of primitive peoples with no arable land and no way to store food who live off cattle. We should not consider poverty and bad conditions sins, so it should be OK for them to eat a cow when it dies. So this cannot be a duty. Can we flip it over? "Eat all the meat you want." Well, how do we get meat? Someone produces it. Why don't we all produce it ourselves? Well, it would bother us. Why? Not just because it is dirty or hard, but also because using an animal as a tool involves withholding empathy: we do not like being used as mere means, and we naturally, if inappropriately, extend that empathically to animals. Is it just uncomfortable to withhold empathy, or is it bad? Well, for a Kantian, if we were totally subject to empathy, we would lose our autonomy, so some low level of it must be OK. But it obviously becomes bad at some point, because our whole process of moralizing involves empathy. Can we do the job at all without being bad? Yes, at some level, like the dairy cow that dies on its own, it is clearly possible to simply harvest the meat. Without going into the details of exactly where the cutoff lies, it is possible at some level to raise cattle and not be bad to them. We can trust that call to someone else. But we can use the idea now, and do the research later. "Consume at most that quantity of any given product that can be humanely raised and fairly distributed in your society." Who would object? Farmers that want to make more money than they can while being humane are actors in bad faith. Who else? I can't think of anyone.

"Should I drive under the speed limit". Well, you should probably not do things that violate other people's expectations in a way that make them unable to keep themselves safe. I think you can universalize "Obey the local customs when they are safe and moral for you and others." In Chicago that means obey the speed limit, when violating it might endanger anyone, and break it if going slowly might be less than safe. (If you go 55 on all of our 55MPH roads, you will eventually cause an accident.)


The problem with Kant's ethics in general is that he adds so many caveats and footnotes to make it fit reality that he ends up providing no real insight that was not already there in the instinct of the person reading it. Your problem with universalizing to the extreme is covered by just such a set of caveats, namely that;

Firstly, a maxim should be derived by reason in the first place and must only be universalized through categorical (as opposed to hypothetical) imperative to apply to everyone. So "I should eat meat" would only be a rational maxim used in a categorical imperative if it were phrased "I should eat a reasonable amount of meat" and so avoid the extreme you cite. This, of course requires that the person deriving the maxim already knows what sort of outcome would be acceptable prior to the universalizing, and so doing so has not yielded any real insight.

Secondly, general principles cannot always be applied to specific cases (undermining the whole point of general principles). If individual judgement can be trusted on which cases it applies to and which it does not, then there is no meed for the moral law in the first place. This applies to your "always drive below the speed limit" maxim, which, in special cases, may need to be broken.

Thirdly, Kant admits that there are conflicting maxims which may advise contradictory actions at any one time. This, again, leaves the agent to make a decision which, if they have the ability to do so, they do not need the law in the first place. This does not relate directly to your issues, I've added it for the sake of completeness.

Your doubts may simply be asking Kant's ethics to do more than it is capable of.

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    1) Judging Kant's ethics without including his later works into the reading cannot do him justice, as he explicitely states in his Anthropology and hints at in the Groundwork already. 2) A maxim is made up by our appetitive faculty, to be explicit our "Willkür", which is to be distinguished from our "Wille", although both may be translated as "will". The latter is practical reason and imposes rules upon the appetitive faculty, as expressed in the table in the CoJ. 3) I think if someone asks for help in understanding Kant, it is not a good move to argue against him without comprehension of it
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 3:25
  • @Philip You are mistaking disagreement (and also some degree of brevity demanded by the format) for lack of comprehension. I'm well aware that much of Kant's ethics extends to his later works, these comprise the "caveats and footnotes" I mention in my first paragraph, which together require so much of the intuition and individual judgement as to make little more than a complicated description of ethics.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 7:56
  • The rules imposed on our appetitive faculty I have attempted to describe in layman's terms in the second paragraph I see no sense in just repeating Kant when the OP was clearly looking for a translation into something more understandable in normal terms.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 7:57
  • Finally I think many people, certainly in my academic experience, have the root of their "failure" to understand a philosopher in the expectation that they are going to say more profound than they actually do. Knowing what limits can be placed on what has been said is an essential step to proper understanding, otherwise we have something little more than hero worship.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 8:02
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    For me, it is simply painful to read about maxims treated as imperatives, although maxims are subjective, imperatives objective principles of acts. These are obvious things, not caveats or footnotes. Furthermore, yes, it is important in philosophy to understand the boundaries and flaws of a text. But in order to do so, the first step is to make the text as strong as possible and understand it historically, systematically and exegetically as good as possible. The flaws and problems that remain are proper objections. If you miss the first part, your criticism will have to be superficial.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 19:29

Simply put, Universalizability is a principle expressing a form of symmetry in all natural laws. A law that does not have equal (universal) applicability is not a law, but a whim. You can choose to do something (we call that a maxim or a policy), but what effect does it have if everyone acts in the same way that you do (follows the same policy, aka universalizes your maxim)?

Universalization is a logical activity informed by experience and cause and effect, which tests a policy for symmetry or universalizability.


If you eat meat, then everyone can eat meat also so long as there is a sufficient supply of meat (the quantity and frequency are not specified, and so this condition would be nearly trivial to satisfy, and is not manifestly immoral on that basis).

If you drive under the speed limit, so can everyone else. No problem there either. If you drive over the speed limit, you increase the likelihood of potentially fatal crashes, incurring property damage. Depending on the degree, this does not scale. As a category, a dangerous increase of speed fails the test. A sufficiently high speed increase could decimate or eliminate the race.

If you choose not to work for a living, then (universalizing the principle) no one works for a living, and everybody (yourself included) starves or otherwise expires because of the lack of access to the life-sustaining fruits of work.

Any maxim that results in an unsustainable condition is immoral. Any condition that results in an apparently sustainable condition might be moral, but it might not be. The primary applicability of the categorical imperative is to detect conditions that will not scale, which means they cannot possibly be universal laws and so are not moral.

Ultimately, it can be seen as a mild rephrasing or expounding of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", although it clarifies the will of the person as being (obviously) a reasonable will, with a view to deducing logically the long-term outcomes entailed by a policy. It is a great tool with very broad applicability.

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