I recently read some papers on Kant's categorical imperative (McCarty, Kosgaard, Gressis mainly) on how to properly formulate a maxim according to him, and on the multiple problems linked to those things, and it seems to me as though there could be no way to salvage or solve the problems of the false positives or negatives one could seemingly derive at will from Kant's system, especially from the first formulation of the categorical imperative. To me, because it seems as though you could demonstrate anything be moral or immoral depending on how you formulate your maxim, even for a single action, which is contradictory, and that the diverse solutions offered to solve some of these false positives/negatives aren't very satisfying and often times, although they might indeed solve some of these cases, they also create new ones, Kant's moral theory seems to be shaky at best.

For instance, it seems highly problematic to me that you could split up an action infinitely and that although the components of that split up action might be moral on their own, that action when taken as whole might not ; so that if you were to take for example the maxim of ''always buying X, but never selling X because you like X'', then that maxim would fail the test of the categorical imperative's first formulation (if everyone could buy something, but no one was selling that thing, no one could buy it in the first place -- it is a self-defeating maxim). However, if you only take the maxim of ''always buying X because you like X'', then it can be universalized, and same with ''never selling X because you like X''. So depending on how you formulate your maxim, and purely on that, you achieve different results which are contradictory, which is problematic to say the least. Not to mention that this would be a false positive even if it worked out.

I was therefore wondering :

1) If anyone found a comprehensible and plausible solution following Kant's system on those problems?

2) If not, has someone found a similar system, even if only loosely grounded on Kantian principles, without the issues of false positives/negatives?

3) If not for both 1 and 2, is there any point to even studying Kant's moral theory, if it is so flawed? Shouldn't other moral theories be studied instead?

EDIT: the maxim should be read and understood this way : Always buying X and never selling X (action) whenever I can buy X (condition) because I like X (reason). My maxim should follow this way of formulating maxims If C (condition), then I’ll A (action) for the sake of R (reason).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Keelan Aug 4 '17 at 13:50

Kant had a bunch of ideas on maxims, and I think your examples would fail Kants tests.

always buying X because you like X

has a condition 'because you like X' I don't think Kant would accept that condition and you'd have to reduce it to always buy X, which would fail for your first line of reasoning.

  • ''Because you like X'' would not be the condition for the maxim, but rather the reason behind it. For Kant, a maxim is an action, with a condition, and a reason for which you adopted said maxim. In my case, the condition would be something like ''if I can buy it'', the action ''buying X'', and the reason being ''because you like X''. Kant's example often follow this example, for instance when he talks about committing suicide out of self-love (reason) if life threatens more ill than good (condition). That aside, why would always buying something fail the test? – Scanderbek Aug 1 '17 at 0:22

The Categorical Imperative requires maxims to be categorical, not hypothetical or contingent, and universal, not specific to you. Your example is neither, it is contingent upon a trait of yours -- what you like.

So a lot of things can't be formulated as maxims, and a lot of maxims don't end up having a clear moral status. Kant sees this apparent weakness as a strength. It leaves more room open for autonomous behavior or cultural fine-tuning of mores to the environment.

Even if the framing did not have this problem, your example does not work out.

You cannot generalize 'Always buy a given thing because you like it.' Nor 'Never sell a given thing because you like it.' There are moral circumstances where the price required would deprive you of the resources to do something morally required or the resources freed by selling it would enable you to do something morally required. You would not buy it, and you may have to sell it if the alternative is not fulfilling an obligation like feeding your children.

You need to have some underlying principle like 'Meet your established economic obligations with what resources are available." And that contradicts both halves of your example independently.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Keelan Aug 4 '17 at 13:50

You are not alone in thinking that the categorical imperative is flawed in that it can be circumvented simply by additional specification. Alasdair McIntyre concluded that it "Imposes restrictions only on those insufficiently equipped with ingenuity", by which he meant exactly the point you are making, that your maxim can always be sufficiently specific to your current circumstances to be universalizable. Kant strove to remove this problem by the division of Hypothetical and Categorical imperatives, putting the problem down to one of conditions, but this does not entirely satisfy McIntyre who argues that such conditions could be present in all actual moral dilemmas, making Kant's system useless in the real world. Supporters of Kant frequently 'adjust' the application of the Imperative to obtain the results from moral dilemmas that fit their intuition using this exact feature. Whether you see this as a problem or a merit to the theory depends largely on whether you care to have your decision supported by a philosophical luminary or not.

Joel Kupperman also dismisses the imperative as lacking any plausible logical argument (seeming to have no trouble identifying the meaning of the word plausible). He echoes Schopenhauer's argument that whilst the imperative may be useful, it is little more than the Bible's "Do to others as you would have them do to you.", a manifestation of our intuition that moral decisions we make now will impact on those we might need to make in the future.

As to your direct questions;

There have, of course been numerous attempts to lever Kant's ethics into some sort of practical application. I will avoid the ideological Kantian's who simply use McIntyre's 'ingenuity' to make Kant fit whatever they will, but a couple of philosophers have attempted to modify it to something usable with varying degrees of utility. William Ross proposed a set of prima facie duties, which, when used as a categorical input into Kant's ethics, avoids many of the problems in attempting to rationalise those duties at first. Thomas Scanlon's Contractualism owes much to modifications of Kant's Ethics, largely basing it more on a more normative understanding of existing moral intuitions.

Kantianism is, perhaps more than most philosophies, something of a religion and evokes a similar fervour among it's supporters, criticisms of it's formulations are generally not well received and, as much of it is extremely ambiguous (one it's major criticisms), in a field which is already extremely ambiguous at it's best, I wouldn't expect a great slew of rational answers.

  • Thanks for the sources, I'll try to read up on those. On William Ross, does he simply admit some duties without demonstrating them, or admits them firstly and sort of switches the burden of proof to the other party to show that they aren't real duties, or is it something else? Also, are those authors (Ross and Scanlon) partisans of intuitionism? – Scanderbek Aug 1 '17 at 20:50

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