The title is clickbait, but the question is not.

First, The Categorical Imperative:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

The above formulation seems to be talking about actions that are fixed points across people and across time.

A simple example to show that stealing is bad is to say if everyone stole, then there would be no private property, so stealing is self negating.

But what if people only stole a small percentage of the time? Or under a pre-determined policy? How can we guarantee that there wouldn't be other fixed points aside from the "no stealing" one? If you say that this is obvious with respect to stealing, then what about lying? And, more generally, any statement of obviousness without something like a non-existence proof is simply an argument from lack of imagination.


Has there been any work that shows that the The Categorical Imperative is satisfied by one an only one set of maxims? A proof of existence and uniqueness if you will.

  • I like your characterization "any statement of obviousness without something like a non-existence proof [for alternatives] is simply an argument from lack of imagination"
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 17:51
  • The Categorical Imperative is a moral code. Morality as used in Philosophy is not what the average person accepts. You seem already to side with rules with special cases & shun the one rule fits all policy. The view that each case is different & unique is what culture teaches most people as children. This upbringing is called subjectivism. You typically must UNLEARN it to understand many philosophers or theories. Your reasoning is an issue here. You give an example of stealing. Replace stealing with MURDER in your example. What if we did it a small percentage? Do you think this way about that?
    – Logikal
    Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 20:25
  • Thinking morals can be subjective almost always leads to inconsistent reasoning. Rational thinking requires consistency. We can't flip flop topics like a politician requesting votes. If you are for something you must make your position clear & detailed as much as possible. For example the pro life movement has been somewhat consistent on their view one becomes a human being at conception. The pro life arguments seem not to apply when capital punishment arises. Both intentionally kill a human being. We can't make exceptions or excuses to just have things your way without justification.
    – Logikal
    Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 20:32
  • No, it has little to do with any math. Kant explicitly opposed the sorts of utilitarian calculations that lead to the idea of "fixed points". Actions, according to him, are to be judged based on their intrinsic worth, not based on consequences, and the imperative is a practical guide to judging this worth individually when considering maxims. It makes no difference what "fixed points" exist and what would happen under them, so there is no existence to prove. But categorical imperative can certainly lead to different sets of maxims for people with different abilities and circumstances.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 13, 2021 at 0:14
  • Bad Math ?????? Commented Aug 13, 2021 at 9:00

3 Answers 3


You are correct that the CI does not mandate any specific code of behavior. The CI says:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

But what is a "maxim"? If we allow any rule of behavior as a maxim, then a person named Dave Jackson could say, "steal if your name is Dave Jackson and you were born on such-and-such a date." He wouldn't mind if everyone in the world followed this maxim, because it would have no effect on the behavior of anyone except Dave Jackson.

Is the Dave-Jackson-maxim not a universal law, then? Well, what makes it not a universal law?

  • If a universal law is simply any rule of behavior that everyone in the world follows, then the Dave-Jackson-maxim would qualify, if everyone followed it - even though following it would change the behavior of no one but Dave.
  • If the Dave-Jackson-maxim is disqualified because it mentions a specific person, well, Dave could reformulate it by any number of ways to avoid mentioning his name. Dave could describe the height and education and other conditions, such that a person meeting those conditions is allowed to steal. That Dave happens to share those factors himself (and no one else does) is coincidental.
  • If you object to the setting of conditions on the maxim at all - it's impossible to describe anything in the world without a great number of conditions. How do we describe "stealing," other than by a huge collection of conditions that specify what is and is not stealing? Stealing is taking an item - IF someone else legally holds claim on it - AND the item is not given through a gift or transaction or other contract - AND there is no statute saying the item may be taken, such as police impounding a vehicle - etc. That we name this huge collection of conditions by one word, "stealing," is only throwing a sheet over the elephant.

I think there is actually a math answer. Kant's categorical imperative is an example of intersubjectivity, and it relies on a symmetry - that any given human can be substituted into any other position facing any other choice, in deciding what is just (we use tactics like juries to try to minimise impacts of picking an oddball).

We find the intersubjective stance also taken, in the 'obviously' not true statement in the declaration of independence, "all men are created equal". And in The Golden Rule, arguably the most culturally universal and longstanding moral principle. And present in Rawls' Theory Of Justice with the idea of the veil of ignorance. We are not in fact born equal, in a literal sense. And there is no veil of ignorance we will get shuffled behind, to choose our social structure unbiased. So why is this mode of thinking compelling?

Because intersubjectivity is the basis of communication and abstract reasoning, as discussed at How would you apply John Rawls "Theory of justice" to everyday decisions? Through engaging with other minds as 'swappable' with our own, we can share experiences, dilemmas, greatly expanding what an individual can experience & learn from. Fostering the ability to do this requires a shared sense of fairness and justice. We can see this in moral progress as described by Singer, as expanding the circle of moral concern. Universal citizenship, universal suffrage, ending legal slavery and sexism, is part of allowing all people to fully participate in the collective behaviours of language and culture development. Extending this to animals can help extend them and us, as discussed at Is our general level of abstraction in ethics hypocritical?

Just as children or the criminally inclined, don't invalidate the categorical imperative because it's about what is right, similarly with animals who haven't attained a cognitive level of responsibility. We have expectations on participants, and limit or exclude those unwilling or unable to take up responsibilities as well as privileges. That is about the stability of the system, and an essential precondition for people to participate.

A different perspective to come at morality from, is game theory. We can see if not lying is taken to be unambiguously correct, so no one checks, a single psychopath with limited intersubjectivity promoted to leadership, can persuade large groups to act against their interests. This is thought to result in a stable low percentage of psychopaths across all cultures, and they are over represented in company boardrooms, in general at cost to their companies. See The Pros to Being a Psychopath and Psychopathy in the workplace. Does this change what we consider fair and moral behaviour to be? No.

We can understand the social contract in relation to game theory, and it draws particular attention to the unit of selection. Discussed here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate? The advantages of intersubjective behaviours must become less stable where a group is exploited, because you get a free-rider problem. Economists Wilson & Pickett provide the evidence base for this, in their books The Spirit Level & The Inner Level discussed at Why does poverty still exist in the world that discovered advanced technologies? I'd draw attention to the less well known 'social contract for the ages' of Burke, which highlights society as an intergenerational compact, discussed at Burke on the social contract. We can understand the implementation of this, with James C Scott's interpretation of 'metis' and 'cultural legibility', discussed at Philosophical framework for avoiding short-term strategies. We can see an example of how not providing justice and fairness, even where revolution is impossible, can lead to withdrawal of participation, in the 'lying flat' movement in China (contrasted with Hong Kong & the attempt to preserve accountable justice & politics by people with high levels of shared purpose).

Good communication, and good abstract reasoning, is founded on intersubjectivity. Adults grow accustomed to their society, but new generations always question it, emerging in an era of different technology & concerns, that challenges the legibility of previous cultural systems. Handing on systems, so as to avoid collapse (what Joseph Tainter describes as 'rapid simplification') & revolt, means appealing to the unborn - those literally behind a veil of ignorance. So these different dimensions of symmetry, of intersubjectivity, undergird our participation in something collaborative, culture, society, which is fundamental to being human and to our (so far) unique capacities, and takes us from solitary intelligences like bears and cephalopods, to the technology wielding creatures we see. When we exploit others, we make the system less stable, the integration less full, and the intelligence of our community is decreased.

  • 1
    I would phrase some parts differently to avoid misunderstandings on social equality, but overall I see the points
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jun 30, 2022 at 19:31

A grain of sand cannot suffocate you but it can still suffocate an ant. A drop of water cannot save a burning mouse but it can still save a burning flea.

If everybody steals, there will be no private property. Having no private property everybody will be de-motivated, therefore don't work hard. Everybody will be poor and miserable then.

If only some people steal, then only some people will lose some private property. This will de-motivate them to some extent. They therefore will work less that much. Everybody will be a little bit poorer and more miserable. The combined loss here is hundreds of thousands of time larger than the gain the thief gets.

Things have their effect even if they are in small quantity.

There is inertia sure but energy is still going somewhere effecting something.

Sometimes only reserve is taken. This makes objects vulnerable to other threats they would have otherwise handled using the reserve. Think Spanish flu killing 20 million right after the first world war.


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