I once read long ago Immanuel Kant came up with a model of Maxim. What I interpreted of it is basically that "if everyone does this and it still works in the long run, then it is right."

This makes it easy to portray how some things can be wrong and right without getting too semantic about it. "If everyone litters, things stop working; if everyone decides to steal from another person, things stop working." etc.

Sometimes, however, things are not so simple using this interpretation of mine. A modern example of a solution for invasive web advertisement:

"Use ad-block."

Ads vary. They are often intrusive, sometimes even virulent. Blocking them is defensive and something you'd want your loved ones to do. However they also power a lot of the internet. If everyone uses it, then the solution to Ads will either break, or mutate into another, greater problem.

If someone asks for help with a problem, is it moral to not provide a solution that does not scale?

Obviously you may explain why one shouldn't do it, why be responsible etc. Let's assume however, for the sake of argument, the individual will liberally use it regardless and perhaps even spread it further in the case they are introduced to it.


1 Answer 1


Offering a specific advice on a specific problem does not amount to offering an ethical maxim to be followed generally. If "the individual will liberally use it" as such it is their responsibility (assuming they subscribe to Kantian ethics) to make sure that it is properly universalizable. At most, you owe them a warning that the solution offered has limitations, and is not a panacea. If you have reasons to believe that they would not heed your warning, you may reconsider offering the advice, but it is not reasonable to generalize that everyone would act irresponsibly.

This said, there are multiple issues and caveats concerning Kant's application of the categorical imperative. One of them is known as the problem of relevant descriptions, a maxim may be universalizable (i.e. "still work" if everyone does it) under one description, but not another. In this case, the implied maxim contained in the advice can be interpreted (too) straightforwardly, as in the OP, or in a more nuanced way. The "everyone" of Kant is implicitly bound by constraints of rationality, and what they are is left vague. There is a great deal of unspelled out common sense, or practical reason, as Kant calls it, that he assumes in interpreting ethical maxims. Modern scholars find that spelling it out in general faces major difficulties, see What are some examples of categorical imperatives/universalizable maxims relevant to modern ethics? and Is Kant's ethical theory adequate to the complexities of universalisation?

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