Using Kant’s categorical imperative, I understand that in order to ‘test’ the morality of an intended action, one has to take the maxim of their action and universalise it. If it is self contradictory when universalised, then it is an immoral action. For example, Kant says that the act of lying is always immoral, because universalising lying is contradictory (if everyone lied, there would be no such thing as truth and therefore no such thing as a lie).

What I am not clear on is exactly what the ‘maxim of our action’ that is to be universalised includes: is it just the action itself (e.g. suicide), is it the action and our motivation for carrying out that action (e.g. committing suicide as an act of self care), or is it the action, motivation and circumstance (e.g. committing suicide as an act of self care when in unbearable pain).

Some authors seem to say that it is just the action that is universalised – this makes the whole thing seem pretty straight forward. Lying, burglary, suicide, etc are all clearly ‘wrong’ actions. We cannot have a world where everyone did all of these things. Other authors say that the maxim is not just the action, but more of the principle behind the action, therefore the motivation/circumstance is sometimes included.

To me this is an important issue because it surely effects the outcome of the universal test. Kant himself seemed to sometimes universalise just the action (e.g. lying is never morally justified, ever), but sometimes the action and the motivation behind it (e.g. suicide as an act of self love, not just the action of suicide).

It seems to me that including any aspect of a situation in the maxim goes against Kant's insistence that consequences are irrelevant; if we try to universalise 'killing someone when it saves the lives of numerous others', we are concerning ourselves with consequences i.e. killing when the consequence is saving the lives of others. But if this is the case, then why do some trusted and reliable authors explain maxims as including situations as well as actions?

Thanks for your help (I’m so confused!)

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    If I get this correctly, the problem stated seems to be that Kant needs maxims as matter for the purely formal categorical imperative, but the matter in form of maxims seem to include situational and causal aspects. Consequently, these situational and causal aspects, taken into the moral judgement, would imply consequentialistic aspects within the actual judgement, which obviously is a no-go for Kant and therefore would be highly problematic. I therefore consider this question quite interesting, because this indeed is one core-problem of Kant that he tried to face several times.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 26, 2016 at 14:29

1 Answer 1


This indeed seems to be a problem for Kant. No action exists outside some situational, motivational, and even historical context. Moreover: consequences are an integral part of any action, if we consider action to be purposeful behavior of an agent endowed with reason. Yet if this is the case, how we can universalize it the way Kant wants?

It seems that the solution would lie in selecting those contextual characteristics that would be universalizeable. For example, if I want to push a fat man down from the bridge to stop the infamous trolley and save the lives of five people, the maxim would be not 'killing someone when it saves the lives of numerous others' but rather 'considering the value of the lives of rational agents quantitatively and using such calculus as a guide for action'. This principle is applicable to any situation involving lives of rational agents. Yet as such the principle would amount to assigning a price rather than value to rational life, and thus go contrary to the Formula of Humanity CI.

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