Source: p. 44 Bottom. Ethics ; A Beginner's Guide (2015) by Peter Cave.

  The universal and the general are distinct; the general is a matter of degree. Kant sought laws that are universal, applying to everybody everywhere, impartially, untied to any particular individual; he also wanted them to be pretty general.
A universal law with little generality would be
[1.] 'never shoot anybody who wears a hat and yellow socks'.
A more general law, yet not with Kantian universality because tied to a particular, would be:
[2.] everyone must give Miranda, that particular woman, whatever she wants. If applying to all, 'do not lie' is impartial, but that accolade may mislead; it is a greater burden on would-be liars than non-liars.

  1. I read this, this blog post; but I still do not understand the difference between generality and universality. E.g.: in 1 and 2 above, why would interchanging the two notions be wrong?

  2. Why must anybody be universal? Instead, why is not 1 a general law without universality?

  3. Why must everyone be general? Instead, why is not 2 a universal law without generality?

  • It is not a "linguistic" fact, gorunded in the (today life) use of the words anybody and everyone, that in abstarct means the same. It is a "conceptual" distinction between holding universally (every human must love its parents, and not only John's parents) and regarding some "fact" of "common interest", like property or violence and not "specific" issues of limited inetrest (hat and socks). Jan 25, 2017 at 11:04
  • because Miranda cannot give anything to herself? i used to find this confusing: that universals (cat-ness) are not universal in the sense of applying everywhere
    – user6917
    Jan 28, 2017 at 2:16

1 Answer 1


A statement p is more general than statement q if p pertains to more instances than q (i.e. when all the instances of q are instances of p, but not vice versa).

A statement p is universal if it does not contain any references to particular objects, times, places etc.

And so

Never shoot anybody who wears a hat and yellow socks

is universal, because it does not refers to any particular persons, places, etc. On the other hand its generality is probably low, not many people with hats and yellow socks.


Everyone must give Miranda whatever she wants

seems highly general, it refers to everyone without restrictions. But it is not universal, because it refers to a particular person (Miranda).

The choice of the words "everyone" and "anybody" is irrelevant to the present distinction. We could have switched them.

  • 1
    I think you're right. I gave another answer below but upvoted yours. I would add that a statement p is more general than statement q if p pertains to relatively more instances than q. Since p and q can have domains of quantification with distinct numbers of objects, q can pertain to fewer instances than p but be more general. For example, a law true of 7 out of 8 planets in the Solar system is more general than a law true of 1 billion human beings.
    – n.r.
    Jan 27, 2017 at 16:17
  • @n.r. Thanks. I prefer to define generality by strict inclusion, and not by numbers. I added a clarification to the answer. Jan 27, 2017 at 19:31
  • hmm think you're wrong here. always give Miranda what she wants is no different here to never shoot Miranda, and it's not obvious for me that the latter is not a universal proscription, anymore than never shoot anybody who dresses in red
    – user6917
    Jan 28, 2017 at 2:19
  • @MATHEMETICIAN What about my definition of universality? Do you agree with it? Jan 28, 2017 at 13:36

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