Kant's Formula of Universal Law as a Test of Causality

Philosophical Review 132 (3):459-90 (2023)
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Kant’s formula of universal law (FUL) is standardly understood as a test of the moral permissibility of an agent’s maxim: maxims which pass the test are morally neutral, and so permissible, while those which do not are morally impermissible. In contrast, I argue that the FUL tests whether a maxim is the cause or determining ground of an action at all. According to Kant’s general account of causality, nothing can be a cause of some effect unless there is a law-like relation between the putative cause and effect. Applied to the case of action, no maxim can be the cause of an agent’s action unless there is a law-like relation between maxims of that kind and actions of that kind. The special capacity to act according to maxims as law-like causes is what Kant calls a will; the basic constitutive principle of the will is a non-normative principle I call the categorical declarative. While the actions of a perfectly good will would be described by the categorical declarative alone, human action is determined not only by the causality of the will, but also by competing causes, namely those stemming from inclination. There is thus need for a causal test for putative maxims. The test contained in the FUL is meant to determine whether an action could be grounded solely on the agent’s maxim, or whether it requires a cause external to the will. This account permits one to build eventual distinctions concerning the morality of actions on prior and independent distinctions concerning their causality.

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W. Clark Wolf
Marquette University


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