The examples Kant gives for the application of the CI (categorical imperative) are relatively simple and unproblematic.

Of course, it's contentious to regard lying for the greater good as immoral, but still, lying is usually regarded as morally wrong. That's the starting point.

Since the CI is no more than an argument from symmetry, how can it ever give us an answer for a more complex moral question?

If we take, for example, intellectual property, the utilitarian case is easy to get going (the Copyright Clause in the U.S. constitution appeals to it).

But how would applying the CI work here? It is both perfectly fine to reject IP for me and everyone else, and to claim it for me and everyone else.

  • The other formulation of the CI "don't consider people as mere means to an end" suggest that you can't use someone's intellectual property without their consent, which probably includes a fair compensation for their creative/research work.
    – armand
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 13:28
  • @armand ironically, Kant was against IP. You can just reverse this to "there should be no IP, so people are not degraded to a means to an end of making money"
    – viuser
    Commented May 28, 2023 at 14:54
  • i don't see how your reasoning follows and at least this paper says the opposite scielo.br/j/trans/a/rLfb3yPN3p4KPsYpxp8LQCp/?lang=en
    – armand
    Commented May 28, 2023 at 15:09
  • @armand oh no, that seems to be a rabbit hole, see here: osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/b9zfr - last paragraph of page 3. So it's safe to say he would've rejected patents at least.
    – viuser
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 0:15
  • @armand from the paper: "the injustice of reprinting books depends on their communication to the public, we can deduce that their reproduction for personal use is not to be forbidden" - so Kant's very narrow conception of copyright, wasn't about "fruits of one's labor" at all. If he thought he could justify it with your argumentation, I guess, he would've done it. In the case of patents, he would've likely rejected them.
    – viuser
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 0:27

1 Answer 1


In the second Critique, when Kant brings up the question, "What if everyone did that?" he is to an extent presenting the question as a "commoner's" version of the more elaborate thesis he states:

Thus, people say: "If everyone permitted himself..." [emphasis added]

He uses a word (translated as) "commonest" ten times in that document, e.g. "The commonest intelligence can easily and without hesitation see what, on the principle of autonomy of the will, requires to be done..." In this, he is indirectly echoing his own startled reaction to J. Rousseau's ethical writings:

Kant's biographers tell a legend that Kant, who never interrupted his daily routine, gave up his daily walk in order to continue his study of Rousseau's Emile. The only picture in Kant's otherwise sparsely decorated home was a portrait of Rousseau that he hung over his writing desk. Rousseau’s influence helped give rise to important Kantian themes such as the dignity of common humanity, the importance of autonomy, the centality of virtue, and the nature of proper theodicy. [emphasis added]

And again, regarding the happiness/virtue tension in theories of his own time:

[The conflation of happiness and virtue] can only, indeed, be maintained in the perplexing speculations of the schools...

So, for all that, Kant's theory is not quite so "simple" as we might think the above is meant to have it be. First, since maxims are the initial "units" of moral judgment, there are complications regarding what maxims are (what "maxim" refers to/is defined as). The four overarching categories of deficient moral theories, as glossed in the Groundwork, correspond to the four (meta)categories of principles-of-the-understanding in the first Critique:

  1. Hedonismaxioms of intuition
  2. Moral-sense theoryanticipations of perception
  3. Metaphysical perfectionismanalogies of experience
  4. Divine-command theorypostulates of empirical thought

At least some maxims, then, are roughly "on the same level as" principles-of-the-understanding. The unity that theoretical reason brings to empirical understanding ex post facto is reflected by a unity of practical reason that precedes moral understanding.

Further complications arise with respect to the more detailed picture of categories of freedom and the "type" of the moral law. I haven't confirmed this ever, but Kant might be using the word "type," here, based on the word's Christian history, where types are paired with antitypes, which are particulars that yet generalize over the generality of types. The laws-of-nature version of the categorical imperative is a use of the theoretical concept of laws-of-nature, relative to practical concepts, according to this type-antitype scheme (Kant says something ambivalent about "the scheme of the law," here). Per the categories of freedom as the "components" of the typical representation, Kant says:

In this way we survey the whole plan of what has to be done, every question of practical philosophy that has to be answered, and also the order that is to be followed.

Finally (for present purposes), Kant closer to the second Critique's end says:

To set before children, as a pattern, actions that are called noble, magnanimous, meritorious, with the notion of captivating them by infusing enthusiasm for such actions, is to defeat our end. For as they are still so backward in the observance of the commonest duty, and even in the correct estimation of it, this means simply to make them fantastical romancers betimes. But, even with the instructed and experienced part of mankind, this supposed spring has, if not an injurious, at least no genuine, moral effect on the heart, which, however, is what it was desired to produce.

I.e. formalizing supererogation in our deontic understanding appears to bring in enormous complications:

[Going beyond or "below" duty's call is] plainly not representable in [standard deontic logic]... As a measure of the increased expressive power, the three-fold partition of normative positions for SDL is extended to a twelve-fold partition; with an extension to accommodate praiseworthiness and blameworthiness (McNamara 2011a,b), an eighty-four fold partition results. [emphasis added]

Another way to introduce a supererogation operator in DL also highlights the added complexity:

Let's define the basic operator for the word, "Do," as in, "Do this." Let's have the symbol be ±, so ±A means "Do A." Then ±(¬A) goes to, "Do not A" = -A. So we have ±A and -A. In natural language we also have expressions like, "Do be nice," which fact allows us to have any imperative represented with the ±/- operators.

... J:±A [means], "J is why do A." With this in mind, let's correlate simple logical forms of imperatives with deontic operators:

  1. J:±A = A is obligatory (there is a reason to A).
  2. J:-A = A is forbidden (there is a reason not to A).
  3. ¬J:±A & ¬J:-A (there is no reason to do A and no reason to not do A) = A is indifferently optional.
  4. J:±(A v ¬A) (there is a reason to do (A or not A)) = A is differently optional.

But on this kind of scheme, supererogation apparently would be:

  1. J:±(A v (A & B) v (A & B & C) v ... v (A & ... & N))

In summary, then, Kant thinks that everyone should be able to know and understand their moral responsibilities, so there must be some kind of practical limit on the complexity of moral questions. There are no "moral experts", or even if there are, this is not on account of greater intellectual capacity.

EDIT: perhaps we need to differentiate between:

  1. Metaethics is as simple as deriving the CI.
  2. Ethics is as simple as applying the CI.
  3. Applying the CI is as simple as...?
  • Could you apply the CI it to the example (IP) in my question?
    – viuser
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 14:56
  • @viuser Kant would judge property-rights questions from the standpoint of his Doctrine of Right, not his Doctrine of Virtue (both in his The Metaphysics of Morals). See his discussion of sensible-vs.-intelligible-possession. Whether this is all just a "simple" application of the CI, well, I would say, "Not quite," but then I would suggest that Kant had a different feel for what counts as "simple" or "complex" in this connection. Commented May 27, 2023 at 15:05
  • Since he also claims that the various CI-formulations flow into each other and are one and all imperfect mirrors of the noumenal core of ethics, showing that a maxim conforms to the laws-of-nature CI ends up meaning to show that the same maxim conforms to the other versions, too (as @armand indicates). So again, some more complexity (interpolating the CI-formulations has a similar flavor to attempts at solving Trinitarian equations, in my opinion). Commented May 27, 2023 at 15:22

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