Revisiting the Maxim-Law Dynamic in the Light of Kant’s Theory of Action

Kantian Journal 38 (2):45-72 (2019)
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A stable classification of practical principles into mutually exclusive types is foundational to Kant’s moral theory. Yet, other than a few brief hints on the distinction between maxims and laws, he does not provide any elaborate discussion on the classification and the types of practical principles in his works. This has led Onora O’Neill and Lewis Beck to reinterpret Kant’s classification of practical principles in a way that would clarify the conceptual connection between maxims and laws. In this paper I argue that the revised interpretations of O’Neill and Beck stem from a mistaken reading of the fundamental basis of the classification of practical principles. To show this, I first argue that Kant distinguishes between maxims and laws on the bases of validity and reality. I then argue that although a practical principle necessarily has the feature of validity, its reality in actually moving the agents to action sufficiently makes a principle a practical principle. If this is so, I argue that the classification of practical principles must be based on the extent to which they are effective in human agents. Such a classification yields us three exhaustive and mutually exclusive types namely, “maxims that are not potential laws”, “maxims that are potential laws” and “laws that are not maxims”.
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