Act only on the maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law.
Applying the formula of universal law involves the following steps
Step 1: Formulate a maxim that connects your action to your reason for acting
Step 2: Recast the maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents
Step 3: Check whether it is conceivable that it could be a universal law of nature.
If not, the maxim has failed the contradiction in conception test. If it passes this test proceed to step 4
Step 4: Consider whether you have any legitimate reasons to desire that the maxim not be universalised.
If so, the maxim has failed the contradiction in willing test.
It is not obvious why we should care about whether i) a maxim is universalisable and if it is ii) why we should care about whether we have reason to desire that it be universalisable. Being able to deduce i and ii is equivalent to deriving the formula of universal law. The following is the best derivation for the formula of universal law that I have arrived at:
1. A morally committed person is committed to acting according to practical laws, i.e. principles that are valid for all possible rational beings.
i.e. Moral particularism is demonstrably wrong. I do not need to go into this demonstration at this point in time. I presume that that has already been done for me) I also avoid looking at whether there are reasons to be morally committed or not. It is just simple to note that when we talk about moral reasons, we are not talking about reasons that apply to some and not others. A moral reason would apply to anyone in that particular situation no matter who that person may be.
2. Any principle for practical action links an act, or class of acts to a particular ground which provides reason for that action.
i.e. it is not sufficient to merely say “in this situation, do that”. A principle must also in addition have a reason that grounds it. For example: When people are in dire need of help (the condition) we ought to help them (the action) because it will increase the total amount of pleasure in the world (the reason)
Note that the reason, while being logically distinct from the conditions can coincide with them. E.g. do phi if it increases the number of sheep in Texas because it increases the number of sheep in Texas. The two happen to coincide. It just happens to be that increasing the sheep in Texas seems to be an absurd thing to do for its own sake. However, compare with utilitarianism which says that we should do something if it maximises the amount of pleasure in the world because it maximises the pleasure in the world. Classical utilitarians, at least one of whom can be found in every philosophy faculty find that principle highly plausible. At the same time, the reason to increase the number of sheep in Texas may be that it best boosts the farming economy and that will increase the net pleasure (or some other good)
3. Since practical laws are valid for all possible beings, their grounds provide (genuine/moral) reason for all possible beings to act as the principle dictates. For the rest of the essay I will consider the theft maxim “I will steal from someone if I can get away with it because it is in my self interest”
4. Note that there seems to be a distinction between there being a reason for each and every person to act and a reason for me to will that everyone act so. A morally committed person in addition to being committed to act on practical laws, must also desire that everyone else act on practical laws.
Explanation: If one desired that there be exceptions, that some people (either oneself or others) not act on a practical law, he would in fact desire that a practical law not apply to some people. But this is impossible; a practical law by definition is valid for everyone. To speak of a practical law which did not apply to some people would be a contradiction.
Corollary: As will be explained later, if a particular ground provides genuine reason giving force, any objection that the reason grounds also stands. Therefore, any objection to the universal application of a particular principle also stands. Note, however this objection would stand only if the ground was genuine/moral.
5. A morally committed person would steal from self interest iff self interest provided genuine (moral) ground for stealing.
6. A corollary to premise 3 is that it must be possible that everyone could steal and get away with it whenever it was in their self interest. i.e. saying that everyone ought to act according to a maxim presupposes that everyone can at the same time can (ought implies can) act according to the maxim. If the latter is not possible, neither is the former.
This settles the third part of the test in the formula of universal law. If everyone at the same time cannot do the act, there is a contradiction in conception. It cannot even be conceived that the maxim would be a universal law.
It may be plausible to argue that under more widespread cover theft, the property regime would be less stable and inefficiencies may be created in the economy as people divert more resources to keeping their property secure. The deadweight loss may very well make it such that the piece of property that people wanted to steal would not have been formed in the first place. i.e. if everybody is much poorer, some particular material good may not even be available for theft. A contradiction in conception may occur as people are thinking of obtaining an object by violating the rules of a particular institution without which the object would not exist in the first place.
7. Even if there is no contradiction in conception, if everyone stole whenever they could get away with it because it was in their self interest to steal, there would be some situation where people would steal from you and injure your own interests.
Explanations: As with prisoner’s dilemma situations, the additional marginal theft act would benefit the thief in question, but a background of more widespread theft would make everyone including the thief worse off. There may be less to steal because of the earlier mentioned inefficiencies. The increase in number of thefts would mean the thief himself would have his stuff stolen more often.
8. Therefore self interest seems to ground an objection to everybody acting on the theft maxim. Since the theft maxim is itself grounded in self interest, a contradiction becomes apparent. The morally committed person in acting from the theft maxim is implying that self interest has genuine reason giving force. But if self interest has legitimate reason giving force, he also has a legitimate objection to everyone else acting on the maxim. But in that case he is not acting on a practical law if he is acting on a principle which admits of exceptions. However, as a morally committed person, he has to act on practical laws.
9. Therefore a morally committed person would not act on the theft maxim. Thus we derive the test for a contradiction in the will.
10. Note that really, no person would benefit if the maxim were to become a universal law. However, it is not that nobody benefits which grounds our rejection, but the very person who was herself considering the principle who would not benefit. Consider that for some person, it would still be beneficial if everybody complied with the theft maxim. Then for that person self interest would indeed be grounds for having everyone act on the theft maxim. It is however strange that for some people a maxim is a practical law and for others it is not. Moreover, it is not clear that if a principle were to become a universal law, everyone would necessarily be affected similarly.
The possibility that one person could will a maxim as a universal law while another could not will that same maxim due to differences in empirical power or relative positions in society seems awkward. It seems that such issues arise primarily in the context of self interest as a ground, and in particular discrimination as a ground for action. Another plausible case could be the case of the penniless thief. Since the thief himself holds no serious property beyond a few possessions, widespread theft is not likely to adversely affect him.
11. Note that we can replace self interest with any particular ground. Once we replace the ground, we will have to repeat the analysis to determine whether the ground of the maxim gives us reasons against everybody acting according to it.
12. Therefore it should be noted that the test in the contradiction in willing should be modified for maxims which do not ground themselves in self interest. Instead of considering whether one could desire that a particular maxim be a universal law (given that everyone desires their own happiness) one should instead consider whether the grounds which give us reason to act in accordance with the principle also give us reason to object to the principle being acted on by everyone.
Consider the classical utilitarian principle “Perform an action if doing so among all other alternatives maximises the total pleasure in this world because it will maximise the pleasure” If I objected on grounds of self interest that this maxim should not be followed by everyone because I can conceive of situations where my own welfare is sacrificed for the sake of others’ pleasure, it would not be clear that the objection has any force. There is no particular reason why the objection has any force unless we can independently establish the legitimacy of self interest as a ground for actions and objections. But if the ground for the maxim also grounds the objection to everyone acting under the maxim, there is a presumptive legitimacy of the ground because the maxim is being acted on by the morally committed person under the presumption that the maxim is a practical law.
Note that for the classical utilitarian principle, an act, or a class of actions can be legitimately objected to if while each action among all other alternatives maximised pleasure but everyone acting on the maxim did not as compared to no-one acting on said principle. One such case are actions that fall under a practice, or institution, which itself maximises pleasure, but whose rules forbid each individual from acting to maximise pleasure in any one instance. Political institutions which assign people various rights and forbid their violation may be one such case. It does not necessarily follow that institutions which maximise pleasure are the right institutions and practices to act under. But if maximising pleasure was a relevant consideration, the above argument would legitimate a move from act consequentialism to rule consequentialism.
13. Also note that the mere fact that a maxim passes the test for a contradiction in willing is not sufficient to guarantee that the principle is a practical law. Rather failure to pass either the test for contradiction in conception or the contradiction in will guarantees that the principle is wrong and ought not to be acted on.
14. At least one remaining objection seems to be that wanting to act on a maxim and wanting others to act on a maxim are two different things. If self interest can ground some actions (like good hygiene) but not others (like theft) then there is no particular reason why it cannot ground an action like theft, but not the objection to everyone stealing.
One reply to this objection is that if the moral particularist is substantively wrong (as it should have been demonstrated elsewhere) then self interest cannot ground good hygiene but not theft. Therefore, it is not self interest per se which grounds good hygiene, because it cannot in itself do so. If self interest is prima facie legitimate, there must be another separate reason that grounds a limitation to self interest, such that the complete grounds for action is not self interest per se, but self interest limited by respect for rational nature (to pick a possible example), or maybe a general interest in everyone’s welfare or something else.
An appeal must therefore be made to the nature of grounds and the way in which they provide reason to act. But this would be work for a future post.
* Moral Particularism is the view that there are no general moral principles, rather the rightness or wrongness of any act in any situation depends on the particulars of that situation.