I'm wondering if there's a maxim that is morally permissible that cannot be universalized, or at least done so consistently under Kantian ethics and his formula of universal law. In Examples of universalizable maxims in Kantian ethics the maxims remain valid when applied universally to everyone.

  • 3
    According to Kant's categorical imperative, it is morally permissible to "act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law". So, by postulation, morally permissible maxims that cannot be universalized do not exist.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 20:04
  • @Conifold But isn't the question asking whether there are exceptions to Kant's principle?
    – Bumble
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 7:44
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    @Bumble If so, it is not obvious from the post. Or according to whom a maxim is supposed to be morally permissible, yet not universalizable "consistently under Kantian ethics". If it is about reconsideration of universalizability by modern Kantians it is up to the OP to clarify that. And they are not so much into finding exceptions as into resolving ambiguity in what is or is not universalizable under different redescriptions so that there are no exceptions after all.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 9:05
  • How about: Give as much money to charity as your two nearest neighbours put together. This seems 'morally permissible' to me, and would be a splendidly generous thing if some people did it, but it could not be universalised. Or maybe more simply: Whenever somebody does you a favour, do two favours for others.
    – Bumble
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 0:47
  • From inside the Kantian perspective, as conifold says there can be no exception to Kantian principles. From outside, there are plenty obviously, because those perspective are not bound by Kantian principles. What exactly do you mean by "morally permissible" ? According to who? Nazis thought it was morally permissible to exterminate or enslave "lesser races", which is obviously not universalizable.
    – armand
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 0:52

2 Answers 2


"Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." The ambiguity is in what you wish to call a "universal law." Is it simply any universally quantified rule consistent with the specific case, like ∀x ∀y ~Steal(x, y) ? Or are there more specific conditions?

If it's simply any universally quantified rule, then what prevents ∀x ∀y DaveHaskins(x) ∨ ~Steal(x, y) ? This seems like a universalization attractive to a career thief named Dave Haskins, and consistent with the maxim he lives by. In what way is ∀x ∀y DaveHaskins(x) ∨ ~Steal(x, y) less "universal" than ∀x ∀y ~Steal(x, y) ?

"Oh no, but it names a person!" you might object. Well, it turns out Dave Haskins happens to drive a car with license plate 25306. So, what prevents him from universalizing in the following way: ∀x ∀y CarLicensePlate(x, 25306) ∨ ~Steal(x, y). Perhaps there are others with the same license plate in other states, so it doesn't name only him, but Dave would still be happy with this universal law.

"But you're adding extra conditions!" you might object. Well, what is this predicate Steal(x, y) but a whole box of conditions saying when an act is stealing or when it is not? It is only possible to steal what is someone else's property, that they do not give willingly or in trade. So to give the same meaning as ∀x ∀y ~Steal(x, y), we may say, ∀x ∀y ∀z ~ (OwnsProperty(z, y) ∧ Takes(x, y) ∧ ~GaveWillingly(z, x, y) ∧ ~TradedAway(z, x, y) ). And really this is not a complete picture; to fully specify the meaning of the word "Steal" we would have to add many more conditions.

So, if adding extra conditions is not a valid objection to Dave's selfish universalization, and neither is the fact that Dave names himself, on what grounds can you object to it?

I'd like to further note that examples like Dave's are common in real life; people invent ostensibly "universal" morality to justify whatever they happen to benefit from. Social Darwinism comes to mind, or "manifest destiny," or the mandate of Heaven for Chinese emperors, or the justifications for keeping slaves made up by slaveowners.


Peter Singer's idea that moral progress involves expanding the circle of moral concern, involves development. And suggests other species can become, are becoming moral agents. Such a developing ethic cannot be universalised prescriptively for all times and places, I think. It is an ethic that changes.

Religious ethics often involve a higher standard that can be achieved, such as by saints (or monks or anchorites), bodhisattvas (or the sangha), or the Sikh kalsa. They represent aspirational moral codes. Like the demands on volunteer soldiers, or secret service agents, there are demands on behaviour which cannot be demanded of everyone. We hold police & politicians 'to a higher standard', implicitly making it non-universalisable - we can note that preventing people who's businesses have ever failed from starting new ones, is a massive economic drag, to understand why. Sometimes it's appropriate to demand not a single failure. But also we should not make people' s pasts entirely define them.

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