Kantian philosophy outlines the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative as a method for determining morality of actions. This formula is a two part test. First, one creates a maxim and considers whether the maxim could be a universal law for all rational beings.
Second, one determines whether rational beings would will it to be a universal law. Once it is clear that the maxim passes both prongs of the test, there are no exceptions. As a paramedic faced with a distraught widow who asks whether her late husband suffered in his accidental death, you must decide which maxim to create and based on the test which action to perform.
The maxim “when answering a widow’s inquiry as to the nature and duration of her late husband’s death, one should always tell the truth regarding the nature of her late husband’s death” (M1) passes both parts of the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative. Consequently, according to Kant, M1 is a moral action.
The initial stage of the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative requires that a maxim be universally applicable to all rational beings. M1 succeeds in passing the first stage. We can easily imagine a world in which paramedics always answer widows truthfully when queried. Therefore, this maxim is logical and everyone can abide by it without causing a logical impossibility.
The next logical step is to apply the second stage of the test. The second requirement is that a rational being would will this maxim to become a universal law. In testing this part, you must decide whether in every case, a rational being would believe that the morally correct action is, to tell the truth. First, it is clear that the widow expects to know the truth.
A lie would only serve to spare her feelings if she believed it to be the truth. Therefore, even people who would consider lying to her must concede that the correct and expected action is, to tell the truth. By asking she has already decided, good or bad, that she must know the truth. What if telling the truth brings the widow to the point where she commits suicide, however? Is telling her the truth than a moral action although its consequence is this terrible response?
If telling the widow the truth drives her to commit suicide, it seems like no rational being would will the maxim to become a universal law. Suicide is, however, a consequence of your initial action. Suicide has no bearing, at least for the Categorical Imperative, on whether telling the truth is moral or not. Likewise, it is impossible to judge whether upon hearing the news, the widow would commit suicide.
Granted it is a possibility, but there is a multitude of alternative choices that she could make and it is impossible to predict each one. To decide whether a rational being would will a maxim to become a law, the maxim itself must be examined rationally and not its consequences. Accordingly, the maxim passes the second test.
Conversely, some people might argue that in telling the widow a lie, you spare her years of torment and suffering. These supporters of “white lies” feel the maxim should read, “When facing a distraught widow, you should lie in regards to the death of her late husband in order to spare her feelings.” Applying the first part of the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative, it appears that this maxim is a moral act.
Certainly, a universal law that prevents the feelings of people who are already in pain from being hurt further seems like an excellent universal law. Unfortunately for this line of objection, the only reason a lie works is that the person being lied to believes it to be the truth. In a situation where every widow is lied to in order to spare her feelings, then they never get the truth.
This leads to a logical contradiction because no one will believe a lie if they know it a lie and the maxim fails. Perhaps the die-hard liar can regroup and test a narrower maxim. If it is narrow enough so that it encompasses only a few people, then it passes the first test.
For example, the maxim could read, “When facing a distraught widow whose late husband has driven off a bridge at night, and he struggled to get out of the car but ended up drowning, and he was wearing a brown suit and brown loafers, then you should tell the widow that he died instantly in order to spare her feelings.” We can easily imagine a world in which all paramedics lied to widows in this specific situation.
That does not necessarily mean that it will pass the second test, however. Even if it does pass the first test, narrowing down maxim can create other problems. For instance, circumstances may change and the people who were originally included in the universal law, may not be included anymore. Consequently, you may not want to will your maxim to be a universal law.
Likewise, if one person can make these maxims that include only a select group of people, so can everyone else. If you create a maxim about lying to widows that is specific enough to pass the first test, so can everyone else. One must ask if rational beings would really will such a world in which there would be many, many specific, but universal, laws. In order to answer this question, one must use the rational “I” for the statement “I, as a rational being would will such a world,” not the specific, embodied “I” which represents you in your present condition.
You must consider that you could be the widow in the situation rather than the paramedic, then decide whether you would want such a universal law. I agree with a morality based on Kantian principles because it is strict in its application of moral conduct. Consequently, there is no vacillating in individual cases to determine whether an action is moral or not. An action is moral in itself not because of its consequences but because any rational being wills it to be a universal law and it does not contradict itself.
Regardless of what the widow does with the information, the act of telling her the truth is a moral one. No one would argue that telling the truth, if she asks for it, is an immoral thing to do. Sometimes moral actions are difficult, and perhaps in this situation it would be easier to lie to the widow, but it would still be an immoral action that I would not want everyone to do.
This picture of morality resonates with my common-sense view of morality. If the widow subsequently commits suicide or commits any other immoral act as a consequence, that has no bearing on the morality of the original action in itself. Utilitarianism would differ on this point. Utilitarianism outlines that an action is moral if it increases the total happiness of society.
Morality is based on consequences. Telling a lie to the widow would increase her happiness and consequently would, at least possibly, be a moral action. Utilitarianism would also take into account the precedent set by lying; however, the analysis still rests on predicted consequence rather than on the action’s intrinsic moral value.
The morality of telling the lie is on a case-by-case basis. In some situations, it might be better, to tell the truth, and according to utilitarianism that would then be the moral action. Unlike Kantian philosophy, one is not bound by an immutable universal law. Instead one must judge in each case which action will produce the most overall happiness.
The problem with this approach is that morality loses any value as a universal or intrinsic quality. Every decision is made on an individual basis in an individual and specific situation. In fact, utilitarianism considers happiness to be the only intrinsically valuable end. Defenders of utilitarianism claim that it maintains universality by considering the greatest happiness of all beings, rather than just individual happiness. Still, morality is based on constantly changing and often unpredictable consequences.
The requirement that one consider all of the consequences of an action and determine the best possible action through such calculations makes me reject utilitarianism as a method of determining morality. Although utilitarianism often offers the easier solution to perform because it produces immediate gratification and allows many exceptions to common sense moral codes, the answers it gives are unfilling and unrealistic. Furthermore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make all of the required calculations beforehand.
Kant’s solution, although as interpreted by Kant is sometimes overly extreme, is much better than utilitarianism. It resonates with my moral sensibilities to consider that actions are moral or immoral regardless of their immediate consequences. I am willing to accept that sometimes the moral action is harder to perform, but I am unwilling to accept that morality rests within the specifics of a situation and the possible consequences. Therefore, I consider Kant’s Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative to be a better test of morality than Mill’s Utilitarianism.