Tell Essay, Research Paper

Kant: the Universal Law Formation of the Categorical Imperative

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 husbands 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


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 then 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. The suicide is,

however, a consequence of your initial action. The 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 are a multitude of alternative choices that she

could make and it is impossible to predict each one. To decide whether

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 because 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

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