Kant’s arguments for his formula of universal law
Parfit (Derek)
Source: Christine Sypnowich (ed.) The egalitarian conscience: essays in honour of G. A. Cohen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 56-69
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Author’s Introduction

  1. I am delighted to discuss some of Kant’s arguments in a volume that celebrates the writer of some brilliant unpublished lectures on Kant, and the most acute critic of arguments I know.

Author’s Concluding Paragraphs
  1. Consider next Kant’s summary of his view:
      The sole principle of morality consists in independence from all matter of the law (i.e. a desired object) and in the accompanying determination of choice by the mere form of giving universal law which a maxim must be capable of having. (ibid. 33)
  2. Kant here forgets the difference between his two uses of the phrase ‘the matter of the law’. On Kant’s narrower use, this ‘matter’ is a desired object. On Kant’s wider use, a law’s ‘matter’ is whatever this law tells us to try to achieve, which might be some categorically required end. Kant assumes that, if some moral principle does not have ‘matter’ in his narrower sense, it cannot have ‘matter’ in his wider sense. This leads him to conclude that, if some moral principle does not appeal to a desired object, it must require the mere form of giving universal law. That is not true. As before, Kant overlooks all substantive categorical principles.
  3. In his other writings, Kant gives some other arguments for his Formula of Universal Law. These arguments, I believe, do not succeed. But Kant’s Formula is in itself plausible. And, when revised in certain ways, this formula can provide what seems to me one of the two best versions of contractualism.


For the full text, see Parfit - Kant’s arguments for his formula of universal law.

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