John Stuart Mill famously criticized Immanuel Kant and his theory of the Categorical Imperative by arguing that,
“[Kant] fails… to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.”
If accurate, this is a debilitating criticism of Kant’s moral theory as he had intended it. Mill’s critique instead classifies Kant’s moral theory as a type of rule utilitarianism. Any action under Kant’s theory is tested as a general rule for the public, and if the consequences are undesirable, then the general rule is rejected. “Undesirable consequences” are, according to the more precise language of Mill’s utilitarianism, consequences which are not a result of producing the greatest happiness. Mill’s analysis hinges on the lack of logical contradiction found in Kant’s theory. Without a concrete incongruity, Kant may be no more than a rule utilitarian. However, Mill is mistaken; the Categorical Imperative does produce absolute contradictions, as will be demonstrated through examples.
Kant argued that the Categorical Imperative (CI) was the test for morally permissible actions. The CI states: I must act in such a way that I can will that my maxim should become a universal law. Maxims which fail to pass the CI do so because they lead to a contradiction or impossibility. Kant believes this imperative stems from the rationality of the will itself, and thus it is necessary regardless of the particular ends of an individual; the CI is an innate constituent of being a rational individual. As a result, failure to conform to the CI is irrational. The CI tests maxims, which are a general rule of action. As an example, an individual may be tempted to lie. This may be formulated into a maxim in many ways, but I will discuss only two formulations. This maxim may be “I will lie when I want to deceive someone”, or it may also be “I will lie in order to deceive someone.” More generally, a maxim may account for the circumstances in which an action will be performed (I will perform act A in circumstances C), or account for the purpose at which it aims (I will do act A in order to P). For many cases either articulation will result in the same verdict via the CI, and exceptions will be addressed later.
Kant uses the CI with the examples of promise keeping and beneficence to show that both are rationally necessary. In the case of promise keeping, we may formulate the maxim in one of two ways: 1) I will make a false promise when I am in a difficult situation, or 2) I will make a false promise in order to get out of a difficult situation. Using the CI as a test for acceptable action, we attempt to envision willing the universalization of this maxim. In doing so, we discover a contradiction and our maxim is rejected. The nature of this...