Archives for category: Kant

Global protest has been prominent since the late 1990s. It is a reaction to dominant forces of multinational corporations undermining democratically elected governments, and the people’s own identity through citizenship, across the globe. For a few years these protests were quelled because of the threat of terrorism. However, since the new global financial crisis that began in 2008 which evidenced the complete and utter disregard that these corporations, citing their status as natural persons, have had for the real occupants of the world, new protest movements are burgeoning everywhere. It is imperative that we contemplate the vastness and autonomy of these corporations and perceive how global governance must be consolidated to be able to harness such forces for the peace and security of all. Therefore, a global social contract must be established.














Monoprints by Janet Elizabeth Thomas (2010)








Nils Holtug argues for the Value of Existence View which makes ‘the comparative claim that existence can be better (or worse) for a person than non-existence’ (p.370). Derek Parfit and John Broome argue against this view by stating that it is incoherent. Parfit argues that causing someone to exist cannot be better for a person because the alternative would not have been worse. Broome argues that it can never be true that it is better for a person to exist than to not exist because if she had not existed there would not have been a ‘her’ to have been worse off.

The argument set out by Parfit and Broome is called the Metaphysical Argument and it relies upon two premises. The first premise makes the judgement that it is better (or worse) to exist than never to exist and entails that it is worse (or better) to not exist than to exist. The second premise is that it cannot be worse (or better) to not exist. The first claim, Holtug states, is based upon the logic of ‘betterness’ relation, and the second premise is based upon the metaphysical principle called The No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle. This means that an individual cannot have any properties if it does not exist.

This principle can be disputed. Broome’s argument relies upon the point that if a person does not exist then it is impossible for any properties to be attached to her. Holtug contends that the logic of betterness relation that the argument relies upon assumes that in order for existence to be worse than non-existence, non-existence must be better than existence. To explore the logical properties of the betterness relation, Holtug considers the following definition:

1)      y is worse for S than x, if and only of x is better for S than y.

If (1) states that existence if better (or worse) for a person than non-existence, non existence is better (or worse) for her. The latter part seems to violate the No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle. It seems to ascribe to her the property of being worse (or better) off in a possible world in which she does not exist. According to this principle we cannot claim that existence is better for her than non-existence because this implies that non-existence is worse for her than existence. So Holtug reassesses the argument with the proposition:

P: Non-existence is worse for Jeremy than existence.

Can the truth of P be established without ascribing to Jeremy positive properties in a possible world in which he does not exist? Holtug claims that P can be established by appeal to a preference that Jeremy has in an actual world in which he exists. Existence may be preferable for Jeremy because he prefers existence to non-existence. Jeremy’s life includes a surplus of positive value, whereas his non-existence had no value. Holtug insists that this is compatible with The No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle; it is better to have a surplus of values than no value. The Metaphysical Argument is not preserved because the Value of Existence View does not rely upon someone existing for the possibility of them benefiting from existence.

  • Holtug, Nils. “On the value of coming into existence” Journal of Ethics , 5:4 , 2001 , 361-384

The distinction between a person and a human being is a relatively recent concept. It is derived from the philosophy of John Locke, who states that a person is ‘a thinking, intelligent, being, that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thing in different times and places’[1]. This distinction has led to an arbitrary and exclusionary criterion that differentiates human beings into person and non-person or part-person types, with a non-person being considered of no moral significance and a part-person being only partially morally significant.

Human beings are a member of the species homo sapien which, like other plants and animals, have identity and continuity as a member of their species. For Immanuel Kant the source of human autonomy comes from the combination of our sensibility and understanding[2]. For John Locke, consciousness always accompanies thinking and the understanding of self, and this is of what personal identity consists. It is the same self now as it was then[3]. David Hume refuted this, stating that we have no idea of ‘self’, that our notion of self or person are not just a single impression but many and that there is no single and continued self[4]. Derek Parfit also rejects the notion of identity and states that scientific experiments have shown that the brain actually contains separate consciousnesses in its two upper spheres[5].

The distinction between a human being and person became important for moral philosophers such as Locke because he wanted to establish that personal identity must be understood in terms of the continuity of consciousness. It was this empirical claim by Locke that invented the new entity defined as the person. To explain how a part may be taken from the whole without a change in personal identity, he used the example of your hand being cut off, being separated from your consciousness and no longer part of the whole substance. Locke states that personal identity exists in the identity of the consciousness[6]. The term person is a forensic term for Locke. It considers actions and their merit and so the term person can only belong to intelligent agents capable of law, happiness and misery. Locke considered that personal identity extends beyond present existence to what is past, through its consciousness. It is accountable for its past actions as well as its present actions. All this is founded in the self’s concern for pleasure and pain[7]. However, it could be said that by differentiating of human beings into the new entity of a person Locke commits the same mistake as dualists by multiplying an entity beyond what is strictly necessary to explain phenomena[8].

Contemporary bioethicists such as Mary-Anne Warren, Michael Tooley and John Harris go further and state that the moral community should only consist of ‘people’, rather than all and only human beings. They think that genetic humanity is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing that entity as a person. Warren states: “Some human beings are not people, and there may well be people who are not human beings”[9]. Tooley states that the value of a person’s life may be defined as their capacity to pursue goals and projects. The differing capacities of these capabilities could be said to make the value of the individual’s personhood. For Tooley, the destruction of a person unable or severely restricted in remembering the past or envisaging the future will not be as wrong as destroying someone with these capabilities intact[10]. For Harris: ‘anyone capable of valuing existence, whether they do or not, is a person in this sense. The possession of this capacity to whatever degree it is possessed meets Locke’s criteria’[11]. One of the implications of the theory of personhood is that health care ethics can then determine which individuals hold the ‘ultimate moral value’ and are therefore entitled to interventionary treatment, and those that are not[12].

By differentiating human beings into persons, non-persons or part-persons, it allows those who are considered persons to have special protections. It also justifies treating those considered part or non-persons selfishly. By denying moral rights to those whom we consider do not qualify for personhood we justify using these individuals as means for human satisfaction[13]. This could be the satisfaction of saving money for costly medical treatment, the use of donated organs from these individuals, or simply the satisfaction of alleviating the emotional or physical cost to which we believe that they commit us. It also restricts our moral capacity to the narrow circle to which we belong and allows us to assert our selfish desires on to those whom fall outside that circle. The bioethicist S. F. Sapontzis rejects this distinction because it restricts our moral view, discourages us from developing a universalist outlook and frustrates the progress of morality[14].

Warren and Tooley use the distinctions of personhood to define why a foetus or an individual who has severe brain damage is no longer a person. Warren asserts only persons have moral rights and claims; the Jeffersonian ideal of life, liberty and happiness. Only persons are part of the ‘moral community’[15]. Although a foetus has a full homo sapien genetic code and the potentiality for rational thought, Warren states it does not conform to the basic criteria of personhood[16]. Warren uses this argument to legitimise abortion. Yet, the determination of whether a foetus has moral rights based upon its ‘personhood’ is not relevant to the human right of a woman to decide what to do with her own body. A foetus cannot survive without the woman’s consent for it to develop. This is so because a woman is also entitled to the security of her person under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When the moral rights of the foetus, a potential human being, and a pregnant woman come into conflict the woman’s rights override the rights of the foetus because she is an actual human that the foetus relies upon both physically and emotionally.

Tooley defines the difference between the biological meaning of person, being a homo sapien, and ‘normal adult human beings’ who enjoy self-consciousness and rational thought. ‘Normal adult human beings’ are considered a crucial concept to ethics for Tooley so that basic moral principles can be formulated, including the ‘morality of killing’. He states that ‘a fundamental principle that is crucial for setting out an account of the morality of killing is that the destructions of persons is at least prima facie very seriously wrong’[17]. However, if someone is not a person then its destruction is not wrong. Tooley asserts that someone is not a person if it has no interests. Tooley concludes that this means that the destruction of a person unable or severely restricted in remembering the past or envisaging the future will not be as wrong as destroying someone with those capacities intact[18]. The example is given of a person with Alzheimer’s disease which results in a permanent degenerative state who loses personhood as gradually as they acquired it[19]. Tooley uses this argument to legitimize euthanasia of severely brain damaged humans, stating that they should not be kept alive with expensive medical intervention. This is an empirical argument to justify his assertions however, like other physicalists, Tooley cannot account for consciousness or its qualifiable activities. We cannot explain consciousness, the point at which we attain it or even if we lose it when we die, and we also do not know how our activities are qualified[20]. Therefore it is difficult to assess the capacities of someone who is severely brain damaged, unless of course they have been declared brain dead. If that is the case, they are also legally dead[21].

We have been indoctrinated since ancient times to aspire and strive for perfection. Aristotle thought that the goal of a human life was to live virtuously. By connecting this goal with reason he gave us the foundation of ethics. By being depraved, insensitive or callous we are denying reason and failing our supreme human capacity[22]. There are circumstances where we may be called upon to sacrifice something of our own health and happiness. Sometimes duty will mean laying down our own lives. We cannot attain this goal through the exclusion of others. Just as once men mistakenly thought that women were defective humans the same must be said for humans that do not fulfil our desire for perfect personhood. Notions of a continuous self and unchanging personal identity are disputed. The concept of a moral community made up of persons put forward by some contemporary bioethicists is exclusionary and arbitrary. It requires one to judge the consciousness of others and their ability to feel, experience, or value life. It allows moral decisions to be made about the potentiality of life based upon uncertain premises of when consciousness begins or ends. It allows notions of lesser and greater persons based upon arbitrary judgements about life’s value. Therefore, the deterministic concept of whether a human is a person should not decide someone’s fate.


  1. Guyer, Paul (1998, 2004). Kant, Immanuel. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved December 15, 2011, from
  2. Locke, John. “Of identity and diversity (extract)” in Essay Concerning Human Understanding , Locke, John; Nidditch, Peter H. , 1975 , 328-347
  3. Hume, David. (1739) “Personal Identity” in  A Treatise of Human Nature, ebooks Adelaide. Retrieved December 20, 2011, from
  4.  Parfit, Derek. (1984) “Why our identity is not what matters” in Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, Oxford
  5. Warren, Mary Ann. “On the moral and legal status of abortion” Monist , 57:1 , 1973 , 43-61
  6. Tooley, Michael. “Personhood” in A Companion to Bioethics , Kuhse, Helga; Singer, Peter , 1998 , 117-126
  7. Harris, John. “The concept of the Person and the Value of Life”, in Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 9.4, 1999,  293-308
  8. Sapontzis, S.F. “A Critique of Personhood” in  Ethics, 91. 4,1981, 607-618,
  9. Intensive Care Coordination and Monitoring Unit (ICCMU), “Brain Death”, NSW Government Dept. of Health, 2011, Retrieved: 28 December 2011
  10. Blackburn, Simon. “Being good and living well” Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics , :17 , 2001 , 112-116
  1. Churchland, Paul M. “The ontological problem (the mind-body problem)” in Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, (1988), pp.7-22

[1] Locke, 1975

[2] Guyer, 1998, 2004

[3] Locke, 1975

[4] Hume, 2006

[5] Parfit, 1984

[6] Locke, 1975

[7] ibid.

[8] Churchland, 1988

[9] Warren, 1973

[10] Tooley, 1998

[11] Harris, 1999

[12] ibid.

[13] Sapontzis, 1981

[14] ibid.

[15] Warren, 1973

[16] ibid.

[17] Tooley, 1998

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid.

[20] Churchland 1988

[21] ICCMU, 2011

[22] Blackburn, 2001

‘The world’s inequality is due to capitalism. Not to capitalism having made certain groups poor, but to its making its practitioners wealthy.’

Johan Norberg. Johan Norberg began the decade of 2000-2010 cheering the ability of capitalism to cure global inequality in his book In Defence of Global Capitalism (2003) and ended the decade trying to explain why capitalism had gone so terribly wrong in his book The Financial Fiasco (2009) . In the quote above he asserts that capitalism does not make people poor but makes people wealthy and this is the only cause of disparity in income inequality between people. It is the manifesto of laissez-faire capitalism that the ability to be able to earn money and keep it is fundamental to a human’s freedom. It is through the use of their own ingenuity and rationalism that human’s can thrive and buy property enabling them to establish wealth. Norberg argues that it is the regulation of this wealth through the state’s interference that causes financial crises, not the greed or ruthless fraud of a few who are wealthy and influentially connected. This essay will argue that Norberg is wrong in his reasoning. Although liberalism and its counterpart capitalism are great engines for human growth and civilization, it is the corruption of these systems through monopolies, subsidies and fraudulent trade practice that bring these systems down. With the collapse of these systems the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few and it is taken from the effort of all those that supported or connected to those systems, leaving them poor. I will use the collapse of Enron Corporation and the growth of global agribusinesses as examples to argue my conclusion, and begin by attempting to establish what the ideals of liberal-capitalism are through looking at the work of one of its greatest advocates, Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand, a precursor to neo-liberalists such as Johan Norberg and Milton Friedman, stated in her 1967 essay What is Capitalism? the essential characteristic of humans is rational thought. The human mind is the basic means of survival through the acquisition of knowledge . This enormously complex process of identification and integration is something only an individual brain can perform. The concept of a collective brain is a fallacy as humans can learn from one another and can cooperate to gain new knowledge but this process requires the independent exercise of each individual’s rational faculty . For Immanuel Kant, a liberal philosopher, humans are not only individualised and rationalised they are also ‘capable of appreciating the moral equality of all individuals as ends rather than means’ What binds all individuals is that all means of survival depend upon the degree to which rationality is able to be applied; in Rand’s words ‘men prosper or fail, survive or perish in proportion to their degree of rationality’ . For a rational mind to think, freedom is a fundamental requirement . A rational mind cannot work under compulsion, it cannot be controlled by others; it cannot give up its knowledge or its perception of the truth. That principle of rational action is what all humans, no matter their ability or achievement, owe for their survival. Irrational action will be to their self-destruction . It is the connection between reason and survival that gives us the concept of individual rights .

This liberal view of individual rights is important to the tenets of capitalism because it is only the system of capitalism that recognises individual rights, including the right to property . In capitalist societies human associations are free and voluntary . The objective theory of value underlies the structure of the capitalist system. What is implied by recognising the rights of the individual is that the concept of the good is not an ideal but a concept based in the reality of every human life, such as the right to pursue happiness. It also implies that the concept of what is good cannot be held separate from its beneficiaries. It cannot be that one human or group of humans can achieve good at the price of others . Most capitalism that is alleged to be practiced today is really that which can be defined as a mixed economy. True capitalism is not compatible with government control as its innovators do not rely upon government assistance or interference, or coercion .

Corporate capitalists seek to avoid the anarchy of the marketplace by managerial coordination within firms. It is based upon the rational of economic activity rather than reliance upon market coordination . For the economist Max Weber, economic organization holds together through a system of authority . For a complex organization such as a corporation this requires an impersonal set of rules of conduct . This is the process of rationalization according to rules and structures, and it is this corporate structure upon which I will base my argument that is susceptible to corrupting the liberal capitalist system.

The economic theorist Adam Smith provided an insight into the workings of capitalism through the integration and coordination of markets with the actions of millions of people manipulating the supply and demand system . It is markets that establish values of goods and services rather than them having any innate value .This assumes, however, that there is such a thing as market equilibrium . But this denies that market equilibrium can be brought about by distorted markets. Examples of this are when goods are produced by slaves or forced labour, when there are speculative bubbles brought about by excessive leverage which allows buyers to unsustainably distort the system of demand and supply or when depression or economic stagnation deflates demand more than the amount a country can produce . For market equilibrium to be a reality, values must reflect true social cost and demand must be sustainable without undue financial leverage . If not, an oligarchy develops where significant political power is vested in the economic system and is not held to account by anyone . One of the most classic examples of this process of distortion in capital markets is the manipulation of Californian energy supplies by Enron Corporation in the late 1990s as documented by the film Enron: The Smartest Guys on the Room (2005).

In fifteen years Enron Corporation grew from a small concept company of founder Kenneth Lay to be the seventh largest company in the USA with 21000 employees in 40 countries, a true example of the globalized economy . In the late 1990s California was hit by a rolling series of power cuts organised by the monopoly energy supplier, Enron. Although California had plenty of power to meet their demands the controllers of the power grid blacked-out the northern half of the state using a series of controlled outages which were implemented in order to enact pricing fluctuations from which Enron was able to profit . This was enabled by the deregulation of California’s electricity legislation in 1996 after pressure applied by energy companies such as Enron. California State Senator, Joseph Dunn, stated that California was selected by Enron as the place “to experiment with this new concept of deregulated electricity” . The CEO of Enron at the time, Jeffrey Skilling, stated: “Reducing electricity cost is only one benefit from choice and competition” . Enron used these new rules to profiteer and gain control of the California market. In the midst of California’s energy shortages Enron began to export energy out of the state and when prices soared they brought it back in . Soon Enron was shutting down power plants to create artificial shortages to push prices even higher . In short, it was a process of extortion perpetrated by a monopolised corporation.

Enron made about $2 billion from their manipulation of the Californian energy markets, even though energy is the lifeblood of an advanced society . Instead of the average price per kilowatt hour being $35-$45 it was $1000. Enron did not behave ethically, it did not behave in its best long-term interests thus it did not behave rationally. Eventually it collapsed in 2001 amidst allegations of fraud, insider trading and political scandal over its close associations with the US president George Bush and his family . However, although many of its top associates were able to abscond with their profits intact, the millions of Enron employees, investors and pension funds went for next to nothing, leaving those people vastly poorer for their efforts .

The actions of the executive of Enron were a threat to the liberal capitalist system through its arrogant greed, fraud, and political and market manipulation. Its advocacy of the ‘free market’ brought the financial system to its knees in 2001 . This contradicts the argument made by Johan Norberg and Ayn Rand , who argue that it is government regulation that causes speculative bubbles and financial crises. The economist Milton Friedman also posits the theory that liberal capitalism organized through private enterprise operating through the free market is a system of economic freedom and is essential for political freedom . He argues that concentrated power is a threat to freedom and political authority is a threat to economic power. However, Friedman assumes that only political power can act as a restraint on a free market. In that, he disregards the fact that large corporations can be a threat to the freedom of individuals, employees and smaller companies . For Friedman to disregard this power imbalance brought about by large and powerful corporations like Enron is disingenuous and an oversimplification . By oversimplifying economic power Friedman negates the meaning of freedom to those members of society with little economic power . It allows those with great wealth to grow even stronger and the weak to be left to pick up the pieces.

In his 2003 book In Defence of Global Capitalism Norberg contends that instead of the world becoming increasingly more unequal, that it is in fact becoming more equal . He argues that the wealthy have become wealthier and that absolute poverty has diminished in places like Asia, where most of the world’s population lived in abject poverty only a few decades ago . This may have been the case in 2003 but since the global financial crises of 2008-2010 the level of world hunger has increased beyond the levels seen forty years ago . This is because of the globalization and corporatization of the global food supply. In December 2010 the UN Food and Agricultural Organization announced that its Food Index had hit an all-time high. This spike in commodity prices has not been caused by weather events as in the past but by trends in the supply/demand ratios for food. There is demand caused by population growth, rising affluence and the use of grain to fuel cars. The supply is affected by the loss of cropland to non-farm uses . Other causes are the cumulative effect of three decades of neo-liberal free-trade agreements where the national food production systems in most countries around the world have been dismantled and replaced by a system of agroexports which are stimulated by government subsidies to agribusiness . By forcing governments to sell off their grain reserves, the World Bank and the IMF have created ‘the tightest margins in recent history between food reserves and demand’ . These countries are now dependent upon food imports which generate greater demand and results in skyrocketing food prices.

The most important cause of the global food crisis is the entry into the commodity market of speculative financial capital in the way of global hedge funds that have invested heavily in the food market on the proviso that food prices will rise . These hedge funds have also invested in the crop-fuel industry which results in governments being pressured to designate agricultural land being used for agrofuel crops . This seems much like the energy crisis developed by Enron in the late 1990s and results in those with investments in these hedge funds and agribusinesses becoming wealthier at the expense of the world’s poor.

The liberal concepts advocated by economists such as Norberg and Milton Friedman and philosophers like Ayn Rand are based upon the theories of philosophers as John Locke, Immanel Kant and Adam Smith. The concepts that these philosophers put forward were a belief in reason and the possibility of progress; that the individual was at the heart of moral value; that human beings are ends not means and that ethical principle be paramount over the pursuit of power . These corporations that have been mentioned above are not applying these principles at all. They are benefitting from the advocacy of free markets and manipulating the financial system so that ethical principles are no longer their concern and power and money are everything. The human beings affected by their greed and manipulation are used as the means to their ends. These corporations and their supporting international institutions advocate liberalism and demand that countries cede sovereignty so that they can increase the profits of a few at the terrible expense of hunger and poverty to the many. Therefore, although persuasive and personable, Norberg’s assertion that he makes in the quote above is a fallacy. The world’s inequality is due to corporate capitalism making many poor so that a few can be wealthy.


1. A Mystery in Which Everyone is Guilty- Johan Norberg on his book “Financial Fiasco” Retrieved 6/10/2011

2. Brown L. 2011 “The Great Food Crisis of 2011” in Foreign Policy

3. Enron Scandal At- A-Glance, 2002, BBC News, Retrieved: 9/10/2011

4. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, 2005, film, HDNet Films, Written and directed by Alex Gibney, Retrieved: 8/10/2011

5. Doyle, M.W., 1986, “Liberalism and World Politics”, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Dec. 1986)

6. Independent Lens – Enron Timeline, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Retrieved: 12 October, 2011

7. Kegley, C.W., Blanton, S.L., 2011, World Politics- Trend and Transformation, Wadsworth, pp. 37-45

8. Langlois R., 2007, The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler and The New Economy, Routledge Press- Retrieved 25.09.2011

9. Norberg, J., 2009, Financial Fiasco: How America’s Infatuation with Homeownership and Easy Money Created the Economic Crisis, Cato Institute

10. Norberg, J., 2003, In Defence of Global Capitalism, Cato Institute

11. Rand A., 1967, “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand with Nathaniel Brandon, Alan Greenspan and Robert Hessen, Signet Book

12. Rosset P., “Food Sovereignty and the Contemporary Food Crisis” in Development, 2008, 51(4), p. 460

13. Scott B.R., 2009, The Concept of Capitalism, Springer, Retreived: 28 September 2011

14. World Hunger Education Service, 2011 World Hunger and Poverty Statistics, Washington D.C., Retrieved: 5th October 2011


This essay will attempt to explain why the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), thought that it is wrong to lie even to an enquiring murderer. To do this the essay will explain Kant’s theory of a Categorical Imperative which is a source of all universalized moral laws and how he applied it to the challenge of his theory by the Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant. The essay will then discuss whether Kant is right in asserting the correct moral answer through the use of the Categorical Imperative.

Kant advocated a moral principle that, “It is a duty to tell the truth”[1].  He asserted that it would even be wrong to lie to a murderer who inquired as to the whereabouts of our friend so that he could harm our friend[2]. This is because the formal duty of being truthful is something that is owed by an individual to everyone[3]. By making a false statement we commit a wrong against our general duty to be truthful[4]. If we could be alleviated from this obligation, all of our contractual rights would be void and there would be no security in relations between humans[5]. This would harm the good of all mankind because it would corrupt the origin of law itself[6]. For Kant, honesty was an absolute and sacred imperative for all declarations, and could not be limited by other contingent factors[7].

The absolute and sacred imperative that Kant describes in his explanation of the importance of truthfulness became known as the Categorical Imperative. A Categorical Imperative is a universal law that is derived from reason alone[8]. The concept of the Categorical Imperative was developed in Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the central question for the development of this concept was, “What ought I to do?”[9]. By identifying fundamental principles, or maxims, he does away with all previous philosophical assertions or references to what is supposedly good for humans[10]. All his principles for what is good for humans are derived from a rational process only[11] and his quest for what our moral obligations are begins with a rejection of all principles that cannot be universalized[12].

Kant’s whole process in the development of his moral laws, or Categorical Imperatives, was based upon the keystone demand: “Act only on the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it be a universal law”[13]. Kant contends that if moral laws hold for every rational being a genuine practice of moral principles will be implanted into the human mind for the highest good[14]. Objective principles derived through reason alone become a form of command which is called an imperative[15].

Not only does Kant formulate a basis for assessing the reliability of all Categorical Imperatives but he states that they can be drawn down to the single Categorical Imperative[16]. to act only on the maxim that is able to be universalized and only in a way through which our treatment of humanity is not a means to an end but an end in itself[17]. When the philosopher, Constant, challenged Kant’s proposition of such a Categorical Imperative, he stated that as truthfulness must be a universalizable maxim according to Kant’s assertions then one would have to be truthful to a murderer who was trying to locate a victim[18]. It is useful to note that Constant’s example does not leave one the ability to refuse to give the information, only to lie to protect the victim[19]. Constant then posited that although it is a duty to tell the truth , a duty is a right and if the other person had no right to that duty he has no right to truthfulness[20]. In the case of the enquiring murderer Constant stated that a maxim should apply in which ‘no one as a right to a truth that injures others’[21].

Kant objects to this challenge by stating that we must tell the truth to everyone even if they are an enquiring murderer. Kant reaffirms that it is a formal duty of every individual to tell the truth to everyone even if this puts that individual at a disadvantage[22]. This is because the individual also relies upon the truthfulness of others[23]. Further he states that by telling a lie to protect someone the individual leaves itself open to the responsibility of the consequences of such a lie[24]. Also, Kant argues, that we cannot know the consequences of such an action as telling a benevolent lie and that the truth must prevail so as to allow consequences to be what they may[25].

One of the difficulties with such an absolute moral maxim is that it is counterintuitive to human behaviour[26]. Many people would find that it would be a moral imperative to try and save the murderer’s victim. The philosopher William David Ross (1877-1971) argued that, contrary to Kant’s assertion that it would be an uncertain world where we could not rely upon truthtelling, that a world in which everybody made false promises would be just as effective and reliable[27]. Another objection to Kant’s assertion that we cannot know the consequences of our actions is that we can a have justifiable belief in such consequences as what the victim would suffer at the hands of the murderer[28]. Also, if there is a negative consequence of lying it can also be posited that there is a negative consequence of telling the truth[29].  So there appears to be a contradiction in Kant’s two proposed maxims 1) not to lie and 2) not to do anyone harm.

It is in the idea of the conflicting maxims that a further solution to the challenge posed by Constant can be applied. Through his maxims Kant intended to influence human volition so that it would have the greatest good for all. When there are contradicting maxims as the ones above it could be argued that the maxim that applies to the greatest good for all must have priority over any other conflicting maxim. In this case the greatest good would be one that did no one any harm. By lying to the murderer, one is doing him the greatest good by not allowing him to harm and doing the victim good through not allowing him to be harmed. The only one to be harmed by lying would be the individual.

Kant asserted that it would be wrong to lie even to an enquiring murderer because it would cause  harm to all mankind through the uncertainty caused by the breach of the Categorical Imperative for truthfulness. The Categorical Imperative is a universalized moral law that works for all rational beings. The philosopher Constant challenged such an absolute view by stating that a murderer has no right to expect the truth. However, Kant refutes this by stating that everyone has a right to the truth and that we cannot determine the consequences our actions by using lies as a contingency. Therefore, considering that there is a Categorical Imperative not to harm others or oneself, it can be argued that when there are two moral laws that conflict with each other, the one that applies to the greatest good for all must prevail.


  1. Constant B. “On Political Reactions” in France Part VI, No.1 (1797)
  2. Retrieved 16/07/2011
  3. Kant, I. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Trans. Mary Gregor, Harvard University, 
  4. Kant, I. (1785), The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, trans. L.W. Beck, (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1949), 346-9 in Oxford Ethics (1994) Ed. Peter Singer
  5. Retrieved 16/07/2011
  6. O’Neill O. Kantian Ethics in “A Companion to Ethics” Ed. Peter Singer

[1] Constant B. “On Political Reactions” in France Part VI, No.1 (1797) p.123

[2] Ibid

[3] Kant, I. (1785), The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, trans. L.W. Beck, (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1949), 346-9 in Oxford Ethics (1994) Ed. Peter Singer, p. 280

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Inid

[8] O’Neill O. Kantian Ethics in “A Companion to Ethics” Ed. Peter Singer p.vii

[9] Ibid. p.176

[10] O’Neill O. Kantian Ethics p. 177

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Kant, I. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Trans. Mary Gregor, Harvard University,  4.412

[15] Ibid: 4.413

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Constant B. “On Political Reactions” (1797) p.123

[21] Ibid

[22] Kant, I. (1785), The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in Oxford Ethics (1994) Ed. Peter Singer

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[29] Ibid