3 Tutorials that teach The Formulation of Universal Law
Take your pick:
The Formulation of Universal Law

The Formulation of Universal Law

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Determine permissibility for a maxim using the Formulation of Universal Law

See More
Try a College Course Free

Sophia’s self-paced online courses are a great way to save time and money as you earn credits eligible for transfer to over 2,000 colleges and universities.*

Begin Free Trial
No credit card required

28 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

253 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 22 of Sophia’s online courses. More than 2,000 colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


Source: Image of Socrates, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/29ZntMM

Video Transcription

Download PDF

Hi. I'm Glenn. And this ethics tutorial is on the formulation of universal law. Things to keep in mind as we go through the tutorial are the definition of Kantian deontology and how for Kant permissibility is determined by whether or not our intent aligns with the categorical imperative. A key term for this tutorial is maxim, which is the situation-specific principle of action that an agent upholds by acting in that way. Another word for maxim is motive.

In this tutorial, we will be covering the relationship between the formulation of universal law and a maxim. We will be explaining how the formulation of universal law works and of how to use it.

First, let's look at the idea of a maxim a little bit further. A maxim is a motive for an action. It is situation-specific.

It is something that's articulated and understood through reason. And it is the real reason you choose to do something. And therefore, when you act in a certain way based upon a decision, what you are doing is you are affirming or upholding the maxim of your action.

For example, to win a race, I should use performance-enhancing drugs. That is my motive. In order to win the race, I should do this. Another maxim is, to complete a marathon, I should train properly. In both of these cases, the maxim is affirmed by training properly or by taking enhancing drugs.

The formulation of universal law is a method for determining whether these maxims are in accordance with the categorical imperative. It's a way of using a tool. It's nothing more than that.

I know we're throwing a lot of terms around. But really, it's a tool for evaluating motives. So the action is the realization or the manifestation of the maxim. And then the action is determined to be good whether or not the maxim is universalizable according to the categorical imperative.

There are a couple of steps that we can take in order to engage the formulation of universal law and test via the categorical imperative. First, we need to identify the maxim by putting it in a specific form that will help us understand a little bit more easily. We use the words "I should" or "I ought to." This will help us figure out the motive.

Then once we've done that, we test that maxim by a condition of universalizability. I ask myself, can I honestly and rationally and realistically believe that everyone, that is all rational beings-- you've got to be careful on that. Infants are not rational beings, so they're not included. And my cat is not a rational being, so that's not included.

We have to consider rational beings. Can all of them everywhere act upon this maxim? If yes, it is permissible. If no, it is impermissible.

Remember, consequences are irrelevant. That's utilitarianism. That's not Kantian deontology.

Now, how do you tell if it's universalizable. Well, Kant says that there will be no contradiction when we figure out the Maxim. In other words, I will not will both A and not A.

It's not that I have a conflict between willing A and B-- willing should I go to Taco John's or Taco Bell. Those are two different things. A and not A would be going to Taco John's and not going to Taco John's. It's the negation.

So Kant says, I can't equally will both of these without it being impermissible. If a contradiction arises in the willing, then it is impermissible. This can be a little bit tricky.

So I've got an explanation on how to do this and an example that's coming up in just a second. One other thing to keep in mind is that when we formulate our test, our maxim, to hold it up to the categorical imperative, we cannot make exceptions for ourselves or for other individuals, not even one. That will fail the formulation of universal law.

So I have two examples that show how to use the formulation of universal law. And one will lead to an impermissible result, and the other one will lead to a permissible result. First is impermissible. And our method is, as we just mentioned, to identify the maxim, the motive, and then put it to the test of universalizability. And then for impermissible, we need to show that it leads to a contradiction.

So let's say we have the situation of running, stop signs. And I think to myself, when I am in a rush, I will run stop signs in order to get to my destination faster. That's formulating the maxim, what I ought to do. When I'm in a rush, I ought to run stop signs.

So I reformulate a little bit to make it a little bit clearer. And I say, as an unbreakable law-- I get real dramatic. As an unbreakable law, when anyone anywhere wants to get somewhere faster, they must run stop signs. So we've got that everywhere, the categoricalness of it, and then the must, the imperative.

Everyone everywhere has got to run stop signs. Now, this means that I would be willing everyone to run stop signs all the time. But it also means I would be willing on universal unsafe driving. I would be willing people to violate the law.

So Kant would say, this creates a contradiction in the will because I would, at the same time, be willing that I get somewhere and that I not be able to get there since driving would be inherently unsafe because no one would be abiding by the traffic laws. I'd be willing you know that traffic laws should exist and traffic laws should not exist. And this just creates an impossible situation. So Kant would say this leads to an impermissible result.

For a permissible result, we again go through the same basic procedure. We identify the maxim and put it through the test of universalizability. And this time, we show that it does not in fact lead to a contradiction.

So let's take the general circumstance of keeping a promise. When I give my word to keep a promise, I will do that. That's my basic motive.

Then I universalize it. As an unbreakable law, when anyone anywhere gives their word to keep a promise, they must fulfill that promise. Now is this universalizable? Can everyone abide by this?

Well, this would mean that I would be willing for everyone to keep their word when they say they will. Kant would say this is not contradictory because it upholds the inherent value of promise-keeping as a universalizable motive. There is no inherent contradiction here, so promise-keeping is permissible. And it's also morally good.

In this tutorial, we've looked at the formulation for universal law and its relationship to a maxim. We've explained how it works and how to use it.

Notes on “The Formulation of Universal Law”

(00:00 – 00:41) Introduction, Things to Remember, and Key Term

(00:42 – 01:02) Content of Tutorial

(01:03 – 02:35) Maxims and the Formulation of Universal Law

(02:36 – 05:02) Explanation of the Formulation of Universal Law

(05:03 – 08:15) Using the Formulation of Universal Law

(08:16 – 08:31) Summary

Terms to Know

The situation-specific principle of an action that an agent upholds by acting in that way