Kant and the universalization of a rule of conduct

Kant famously held that the criterion for an action being moral is that the agent should be able to rationally will a universal rule under which his particular action falls. So, if I am generous to a homeless person, I can comprehend that action falling under the universal rule, "Those who have more than enough should be generous to the destitute." But if I steal from my neighbor, I cannot do similarly: "Everyone should steal from their neighbor" is irrational as a rule, since the very goal of thievery is to take lasting possession of the stolen object, not to have it stolen back immediately.

So far so good. Kant was a very smart man, and was certainly on to something here. But there is a well-known problem with the permissiveness of this guideline: it is too easy to generate a universal rule that will justify almost any action. So, imagine Immanuel confronting Alexander the Great with his principle. Alexander could respond, "Immanuel, I am down with your idea. And the rule that justifies my actions is, 'Any person
bold, courageous, and resourceful enough to conquer the known world should do so.'" But Kant probably did not mean to permit wars of aggression, so long as the aggressor was likely to win.

However, I think there is a second problem that has not drawn you same amount of attention: Kant's principle also is, at times, too restrictive. Consider: At the grocery store, I am very fussy about the freshness of the food I buy. For instance, in choosing a carton of milk, I will search for cartons with a later expiration date toward the back of the shelf. But if we apply Kant's principle in a straightforward fashion, this might be deemed immoral: after all, if everyone did this, it would result in all of the freshest milk moving first, which would just lead to grocery stores keeping that milk off the shelf until all of the older milk had sold, meaning no one could buy the fresher milk.

Nevertheless, I believe what I do is okay: I don't seek a special privilege that allows only me to act as I do. What I count on is that others differ from me in their preferences: they may go through milk faster than I do, or simply not find my search to be worth the bother.

Of course, I could formulate a rule like, "For anyone for whom it is worth the trouble to seek out the fresher milk from the back of the shelf, it is okay to do so." But this looks suspiciously like Alexander's maneuver above, which we would want to block in his case, if we are to give Kant's principle any teeth.

In short, I think we see here how Hegel advanced beyond Kant, in formulating the concept of the concrete universal. In our actions, we ought to always strive to embody the universal concept of "the good," but in every particular case our judgment of whether or not we are doing so must take into account all of the concrete circumstances in which we act.


  1. Actually, lots of people do what you do, and grocery stores expend a great deal of energy trying to figure out how to get customers to buy the older stuff and not dig through the merchandise. The reason the older stuff is at the front of the shelf is because that is how the stockers are instructed to arrange it, and periodically throughout the day they will come by and rearrange things so the new stuff is at the back.

    (If you want to know a trick, they color-code the twisty ties on the bread loaves, so all the bread made on the same day is the same color. That makes it easier for the stockers to sort and arrange the bread quickly.)

    1. "Actually, lots of people do what you do..."

      I know, but not everyone, or stores would have to keep the new items in the back.

      "The reason the older stuff is at the front of the shelf is because that is how the stockers are instructed to arrange it..."

      Yes: I worked at a grocery store for four years.


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