Kantianism is false

Kantian ethics is false

Kant’s attempt to turn the “golden rule” – the idea that we ought to do unto others as we would have them do to us – into an entire theory of normative ethics is an obvious failure.

No doubt, there are many who share this opinion already, and some of you have even better reasons to reject Kantianism than I do. But for those who, like my younger self, find themselves attracted by the Kantian project, here is my reason for thinking the project absurd.

Target and counterexample

Kant said a lot of things – which do I take to be essential to “Kantianism about ethics”?

My target is the first formulation of the categorical imperative: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”.[1] This claim is implicitly quantified: one ought always to act in such-and-such a way. So if we can find just one instance where acting in that way has absurdly unattractive consequences, we have enough to refute the view.

Suppose I wish to go shopping at odd hours, so as to avoid crowds in the supermarket. The maxim on which I am acting is something like: “Shop at an unpopular time, in order to …”.[2] (The rest of the maxim doesn’t really matter for the example.)

Can I will that this is a universal law? Not very sensibly: it would be self-defeating. If everyone is trying to shop at an unpopular time, there will be no unpopular times: in equilibrium, every time would have the same number of customers.[3]

So this behavior conflicts with the first formulation of the categorical imperative. Hence it is immoral, according to Kantian moral doctrine.

This is an absurd conclusion. So, Kantian moral doctrine is false.


But the categorical imperative is not supposed to be applied to all behaviors, only a subset.

This seems flatly inconsistent with the ambition of Kantian moral ethics: to derive a universal formula for moral action, that is grounded only in precepts of what it takes to be rational/autonomous. And if some restriction were to be used, how can this be done in a non-ad hoc manner?

The first formulation of the categorical imperative is not the only formulation. Since Kant takes the formula to be equivalent to the second, third, and fourth formulations, we need to interpret it more subtly to ensure it harmonizes with those.

I’m inclined to think that the second, third, and fourth formulations face pretty serious objections also, but put that aside. It is manifestly silly to think that all these formulations are equivalent. It makes Kantian ethics less defensible, not moreso, to adopt this claim.

The first formulation is not the final word on right action. You need to “interpret” it in light of the later formulations.

Usually, an interpretation attributes additional content to a text, where it was previously silent or indeterminate. For instance, I look at your pizza and say, “That looks tasty”. The claim is ambiguous as to whether I am being sincere or sarcastic. You interpret me by attributing a logically stronger proposition to me than is evident from my words alone.

In this case, the “interpretation”, however, would either have to contradict the initial formulation, or would have to attribute logically weaker content to it. If the interpretation entails that the behavior is permissible, then we have contradicted the first formulation – this is not a particularly credible mode of interpretation. On the other hand if the interpretation entails that Kantian ethics is silent on the permissibility of the action, then this is both a dispiriting retreat from the initial ambition of the ethical project, and also a dismal example of the interpreter’s art.

You have formulated the maxim incorrectly. Here is a better formulation: “To shop at a time that does not unduly inconvenience anyone”.

This smacks of desperation. Suppose I lack the concept of convenience – I am a completely selfish person, with no regard for how my behavior affects others. Nonetheless, I am sophisticated enough that I am able to engage in means-end reasoning, and I determine that I can better fulfil my ends by shopping at a time that is unpopular. It cannot be said that I act on a “no inconvenience” maxim, because I cannot even comprehend such a maxim. But my behavior is morally acceptable.

(And note, such reformulations will have to be given for all puzzle maxims, not just the example I have produced. Consider: “To consume only and not produce”; “To be first through every door”; etc. Ad hoccery looms.)

Further reply: You are mistaken. While the person who acts on the no inconvenience maxim behaves morally, the selfish individual that you describe is either not a moral agent or is behaving immorally.

This is probably where the dispute will bottom out. If you say that the agent in the example is not a “moral agent”, we end up in a semantic dispute about the meaning of that term. If you take the other route, I want to stamp my foot and insist that intentions cannot make so much difference to the morality of an action, though I doubt I have any proof to offer that won’t beg the question. Intentions may well make a difference to the evaluation we make of someone’s character. But an adequate theory of permissible action should not entail that two actions, identical in physical movements, and identical in consequences, nonetheless differ in permissibility.[4]


To the extent that universalizability is a nice idea, it works well for the classic social dilemma: the prisoners’ dilemma (or its multi-player equivalent, the tragedy of the commons). In such cases, there is one “cooperative” action which, if everyone performed it, would be best for the collective. But it is always better for each individual to abstain from cooperating. In such cases, we cannot rationally will that everyone abstain: that would defeat our rational aims. So there is a duty to cooperate.

This is an important collective action problem, and it is one that humans have developed especially good techniques for overcoming. We are a remarkably cooperative species. Morality is part of our armory of techniques for overcoming collective action problems, and so it is not surprising that part of Kant’s theory of morality is so well tailored to this problem.

But it is manifestly wrong to think that this problem is omnipresent in social life. Sometimes we face different sorts of strategic scenarios. In particular, in some scenarios, we do best if we all act in different, complementary ways. I’ll wash, you dry. You lead, I’ll follow. You climb, I’ll hold the ladder.

These scenarios have the flavor of a coordination game. But unlike the simplest, symmetric coordination games, where the best outcome occurs if we both perform the same action, these are cases where the collectively (and individually) best outcome occurs if we perform different actions. If we both climb, and nobody holds the ladder, the outcome will be disastrous.

Can I rationally will that everyone climbs while someone else holds the ladder? No: it is not even conceivable. If everyone is climbing, no one can hold the ladder. But there is nothing immoral about two of us cooperating in this way.

Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative is a beautiful idea, but it is only usefully applied to a limited portion of the social situations in which we find ourselves. It is probably the curse of philosophers to be prone to massive overgeneralization, and when we identify such overgeneralizations, we should not make ad hoc patches to keep the theory on the road, we should recognize the failure for what it is.

Photo credit: US Office of War Information Collection 12002–18 (DLC) 93845501, 1942.

  1. Groundwork 4: 421.

    I make no claim that this is what a scholar of Kant would regard as the most important doctrine, nor even something that Kant himself actually believed. If I were observing maximal disciplinary pieties, I should perhaps call it “Kantianism*”, to stress that the target view is not intended to be historically accurate, but to represent an important cultural trope that is widely associated with Kant.  ↩

  2. I believe I learned of this example when taking an undergraduate class with David McCarthy, in which we studied Barbara Herman’s book on Kantian moral philosophy, though I cannot find the particular example in that book. At the time, I regret to say, I believe I was persuaded that Herman successfully defended the doctrine from the present objection. On re-reading her defense, it falls into “reinterpret the formulation” approach, discussed below.  ↩

  3. Kantians distinguish two ways in which an action can fail the first formulation of the CI: it may be not even conceivable that everyone act on the maxim, or it can be conceivable, but still undesirable (I couldn’t rationally will the world be this way). The first sort of failure implies a perfect duty to abstain from the action. The second sort of failure implies an imperfect duty. I take it that this maxim would fail the first, and more important test: it is not conceivable that everyone shop at unpopular times.  ↩

  4. Judith Thomson makes a point in this vicinity when discussing the doctrine of double effect.

    It is a very odd idea … that a person’s intentions play a role in fixing what he may or may not do… Suppose a pilot comes to us with a request for advice: “See, we’re at war with a villainous country called Bad, and my superiors have ordered me to drop some bombs at Placetown in Bad. Now there’s a munitions factory at Placetown, but there’s a children’s hospital there too. Is it permissible for me to drop the bombs?” And suppose we make the following reply: “Well, it all depends on what your intentions would be in dropping the bombs. If you would be intending to destroy the munitions factory … then yes, you may drop the bombs. On the other hand, if you would be intending to destroy the children … then no, you may not drop the bombs.” What a queer performance this would be!

    (Thomson, “Self-Defence”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 20 (1991): 283–310, at p. 293.)  ↩