Formula of Universal Law
Yu-hwa Sharon Song
Explain Kant’s Formula of Universal Law, and provide a detailed example of your own to illustrate how the Formula of Universal Law works. Do you think the Formula of Universal Law works as a method for deriving universal moral laws? What, in your opinion, is the best criticism of the Formula of Universal Law?
Kant’s Formula of Universal Law branches from categorical imperatives, which according to Kant, is what makes morality. In order to understand the Formula of Universal Law, we must first briefly define what categorical imperatives are. Moral statements can only be expressed in command forms, so categorical imperatives are commands that disregard what you want. A person’s predispositions don’t matter. It is unconditional and does not contain an “if” clause for a command is naturally absolute regardless of what you want or don’t want.
On the lines of being absolute and unconditional Kant wanted a structure based on that and thus, came up with the Formula of Universal Law. This law states: Act always in such a way that you can at the same time will the maxim of your action to become universal law. This simply means that when you perform an action, you must be able to first pick out and filter the maxim, or principle, of the action. Then, you must be able to apply that maxim/principle to everyone in the universe without exception. But, if you are not willing to universalize the maxim, then you cannot perform that action. For example, let’s say I just got home from exercising and I am about to take a shower. The maxim/principle of my action is, ‘I ought to take a shower.’ The question I must then ask myself is: Am I willing to universalize the maxim and change it to ‘everyone ought to take a shower’? If my answer to this question is ‘no’ I am forbid to perform this action of taking a shower. Obviously in this case I would be willing to universalize it, so I can take a shower.
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Kant strongly stresses that all human beings are rational. Rationality necessitate for people to be impartial and consistent so you should be able to apply the same rule to yourself and other human beings and vice versa. Because of this, he knows that no one would be able to get away with morally bad actions because he/she would not be willing to universalize it. For example, if the maxim was, ‘I ought to steal’, I wouldn’t want to universalize it because I wouldn’t want it to be okay for anyone to steal from me. Therefore, I would not be able to perform nor even want to perform this action under Kant’s Formula of Universal Law.
This system of morality at first glance seems very simple and sensible. It’s almost like saying, “Don’t do something you don’t want others do to you.” In my opinion Kant’s Formula of Universal Law help avoid people from becoming hypocrites. It’s successful in that sense but not in deriving universal moral laws. Though this method strives to universalize and generalize the law to all human beings, it actually doesn’t. It’s only limited to those who are categorized in the maxim. And, there’s even a problem with that because Kant was not specific in his guidelines of how to categorize people and universalize to whom. The Universalization Criticism is essentially why I believe Kant’s formula is flawed and also in my opinion the best criticism of Kant’s Formula of Universal Law.
The Universalization Criticism states that ‘Kant does not really give us any clear guidelines as to how we should universalize maxims.’ For example, let’s refer back to the shower example. There are many if not infinite ways in which I can universalize this maxim. I can say many of the following:
- I, a Korean, ought to take a shower
- I, a girl, ought to take a shower
- I, a person who just exercised, ought to take a shower
And the list goes on. There are numerous and infinite ways in which we can describe people and situations. So which one? The question here that still remains unanswered by Kant’s Formula of Universal Law is, how do you exactly put limits? Of course one can argue why not just universalize the maxim “I, a human being, ought to …” so that we can say “Everyone human beings ought to…” but this generalization would be dangerous and insensible. Perhaps you want to universalize the maxim “I, a human being, ought to save someone inside a burning building” and thus get the maxim of “Every human being ought to save someone inside a burning building.” This means that those who don’t save people from burning building is morally a bad person, but this is unfair. What about those handicapped human beings who simply cannot do so due to physical complications. Are they really morally bad people because they physically couldn’t save someone? We can’t generalize to the whole, and we can’t be too specific because it defeats the whole purpose of being able to universalize it. Hence, Kant’s Formula of Universal Law is a great attempt to morality but is flawed.