Mill’s Objection to the Formula of Universal Law

The second paper I wrote for moral phil. I don’t really think i have anything surprising or new in here, but hopefully, I did a decent job explaining the concepts I do put out there.

Mill’s Objection to the Formula of Universal Law

In the “Groundwork for the Metaphysics Morals,” Immanuel Kant proposes a method for determining the correctness of any maxim for an action. The Formula of Universal Law, or FUL, tells us to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become universal law.” If one can imagine a world in which the maxim in question is universal applied and no contradiction develops, then the maxim is acceptable. As an opposing theory to his own, John Stuart Mill specifically responds to Kant’s Formula of Universal Law:

This remarkable man… does… lay down an universal first principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation; it is this: — ‘So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings’. But when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur. (Utilitarianism, ch. 1)

Mill claims the FUL permits commonly immoral behavior and can only become consistent by resorting to Utilitarianism. In this paper, we will consider and determine the validity of Mill’s objection. While I agree with Mill that Kant’s FUL has problems cases, I do believe that contradictions are derivable, and the strongest point Mill has against Kant is that Mill is better able to differentiate the best action between alternatives. First, I will frame Mill’s Utilitarianism against Kantian ethics and will complete the explanation of the FUL. Next, I will explain the types of contradiction and how Mill would counter their importance. Finally, I will show how Mill provides a more complete theory than Kant with a specific example on the severity of a maxim.

To better frame the quote, we can first analyze Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mill proposes that the correct action produces the maximal happiness for everyone. This consequentialist theory evaluates an action purely by the results and not by an intrinsic property of the action. Moreover, Utilitarianism can be reduced to a scientific method if we account for the total utility of all those affected. For example, a man decides to give a child the lollipop he would have eaten himself. This would be a good action if the total happiness, including the man’s pleasure, the child’s pleasure, the child’s dentist’s pain, and anyone else’s, increased. Notably, this principle holds even if one performs a typically immoral action. Perhaps the man gave the child a stolen lollipop. If, even after considering the angst of the robbed shopkeeper and future repercussions of the crime, this still produces an increase in total happiness, this is a correct action.

In contrast, Kant believes that action, not consequence, determines the moral law. To repeat, the Formula of Universal Law (FUL), tells us to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become universal law.” While somewhat dense, Kant’s definition of the FUL essentially challenges a maxim to be good enough to be a truth about how a world works. We can use a thought experiment about a world where the maxim is universally applied and attempt to derive a contradiction. If we cannot find a contradiction, the maxim is permissible. For example, a simple maxim is “I will tell the truth in order to be more trustworthy.” Since nothing is clearly wrong with the world where this is universally applied, then my maxim is consistent and acceptable. On the other hand, perhaps my maxim is “I will steal in order to increase my possessions.” If applied universally, this maxim would destroy the idea of property because stealing becomes the norm. Possessions would be meaningless, stealing would no longer have meaning, and we have our desired contradiction.

The FUL also suggests another important difference between these theories. The FUL requires that all people perform the same process to determine the validity of a maxim. Given the same maxim, everyone should create the same universalized world and come to the same conclusion. Blind to the circumstances of either the person or situation, the FUL appeals to our belief in a single, rigid moral law without exception for everyone. The correctness of this interpretation depends upon more of Kant’s theory that will not be discussed here, but it suffices to understand that Kant believes that the correct actions are unconditional. Mill’s Utilitarianism, however, relies heavily on one’s preferences on circumstance. Although everyone must apply the principle of utility similarly, the inputs for whom an action affects and how each of them responds to it always varies. We will revisit this difference later. With an understanding of the FUL, we can now consider Mill’s criticism of Kant’s theory.
First, Mill claims that the FUL doesn’t reject obviously immoral actions. Kant’s only method for rejecting a maxim as immoral is that the maxim creates a contradiction in the universalized world. Specifically, Mill refers to the contradiction as a “logical impossibility,” which can be best interpreted as a fundamental flaw with the existence of such a world. Kant only ambiguously defines what he means by “contradiction,” though Christine Korsgaard offers several potential interpretations. For completeness, we can consider two types of potential contradictions: logical and practical.

Logical contradictions prevent such a world from even existing. By construction, the world doesn’t make sense according to the maxim. For example, the maxim “I will destroy any machine on sight in order to save the environment” has a logical contradiction. In a universalized world, all machines would be destroyed. And because all potential creators share the desire to destroy machines, no one ever creates a machine in the first place. The logical contradiction is that this maxim needs to destroy a non-existent object, so this would not be a good maxim.

Practical contradictions occur when the generalized maxim defeats its own purpose. Practical contradictions often determine actions that depend on the maxim being willed exceptionally. For example, the maxim “I will run the red light in order to get to work faster this morning” depends on only one person disobeying traffic laws. In the universalized world, everyone would run red lights to hasten their trips as well, and the combination of accidents and chaos would likely result in longer commutes for everyone.

In both of these interpretations, however, the strict requirement of contradiction remains, which is a somewhat difficult standard to meet. Mill accuses Kant of lax requirements for immoral actions. Because contradictions are difficult to derive, there exist maxims that we consider immoral for which we cannot derive any contradiction. Mill somewhat ambiguously states if he believes contradictions in other worlds are impossible, but he does imply that contradiction is the wrong condition for rejection.

The second part of Mill’s claim is that when we try an immoral action in a universalized world, we create something less desirable than our actual world. Mill asserts that Utilitarianism is more effective than Kantian ethics because Utilitarianism can reject these maxims based on the undesirability of universalized worlds. If we accept the FUL as a fair test for whether a maxim is correct, we can see worlds that are hopefully distinct from our own. For example, consider the maxim “I will kick every pedestrian in front of me as I walk in order to get kicking practice.” This is absurd and would induce much pain in other pedestrians, and even much pain for myself, but no contradiction exists in the construction of such a world. This world is imaginable and sustainable, and everyone would get kicking practice. Conventionally, this maxim is immoral, likely because of our instincts to avoid unnecessary pain, yet Kantian ethics don’t disallow it. If it were forbidden because the imagined world is worse, this would be a reversal of the principle of Kantian ethics. Instead of judging the action on its own value, we would be judging the action on its consequences. If so, the core principle that judges an action would be consequentialist, and only by appealing to the Theory of Utility and determining the absolute difference in pleasure and pain can we judge between these two worlds. In this case, Mill provides a more consistent evaluation for the correctness of this action.

A stronger interpretation of Mill’s statement implies that some of Kant’s contradictions aren’t even contradictions but simply undesirable worlds. I disagree that we can never show contradictions, because we have used several already, though perhaps they aren’t the proper grounds for evaluation.

Consider a more complete example. Bob is the manager for a concert venue, and he’s concerned about health issues in a crowded, public place. He formulates the maxim “I will kill anyone who sneezes at the concert in order to avoid widespread infection.” By conventional morality, this sounds unnecessarily harsh. Testing by the FUL, we can universalize this maxim in another world where all sneezers at concerts are killed. Because the construction of such a world is sound and imaginable, there is no logical contradiction. And because all outbreaks at concerts will stop, there is no practical contradiction. Without any contradiction, the FUL permits this action, even if it doesn’t require it.

In Mill’s Utilitarianism, we must consider the difference in utility. First, we can evaluate the utility of this maxim in our world. If the manager did enact this maxim, there would likely be great pain on the part of the person who died, coupled with outrage in the public over the action. Most people would believe that the pain of a potential outbreak is less than that of the death of a mostly innocent person. Thus, the maxim is not permissible. This example also shows how Utilitarianism includes action-based judgment. While it still deals only with consequences, the moral value of actions are factored into the pleasure and pain of individuals. Our belief about the categorically immoral action of killing causes us great pain, which is then counted in the summation of pains and pleasures. Thus, Mill could argue that Kantian ethics form a subset of Utilitarianism.

Mill could also argue from the perspective of the universalized world. In his statement on the FUL, he asserts that we would only see a world less preferable than our own. Comparing the universalized world with our own, most would likely prefer ours for its greater total utility. The pain associated with being constantly fearful at any concert for sneezing on punishment of death seems unnecessary, so Mill still rejects this maxim.

We might attribute the apparently unreasonable conclusion of Kantian ethics in this example to a variety of trivial reasons. The fundamental issue arises when we tweak the maxim. Instead, let the maxim be “I will eject anyone who sneezes at the concert in order to avoid widespread infection.” While also somewhat unrealistic, this maxim seems far closer to something fair, so while the previous version seems wrong, this version might be permissible. Evaluated by Mill’s Utilitarianism, the pain for the sneezer greatly decreases from death to ejection, so if in recalculating the summative aspect, this action is better than the previous, it would be preferable and perhaps even generally permissible. This shift matches our intuition’s shift that, in some way, the new maxim is morally better. If we consider the new maxim by the FUL, we can again imagine a non-contradictory world where this is universalized. The evaluation largely hasn’t changed, so the FUL again deems it permissible, but not obligatory. Oddly, while conventional moral judgment has changed, the evaluation by the FUL hasn’t.

From this example, Kantian ethics seems to lack the resolution of differences that Utilitarianism has. In all cases, after evaluating both a maxim and its negation, the FUL can only resolve to obligatory, rejected, or acceptable. Given two alternatives that are both permissible, the FUL doesn’t really tell us what to do, so Kantian ethics cannot give the same guidance that Utilitarianism can. Mill presents a specific case of this issue in his objection when he says that decision by contradiction cannot resolve “the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct.” In the above example, the FUL cannot distinguish the severity of an action. We, however, often scale our moral assessment of an action based on severity. For example, spanking a child for misbehavior is socially acceptable, while beating a child violates laws put in place for such immoral actions. Kant does believe in categorical imperatives that do attribute unconditional value to particular actions, and initially, he would seem to have a method for more detailed judgment based on the absolute correctness of actions of varying severities. Unfortunately, the FUL doesn’t reflect these subtleties, and as one of the explicit bases for Kantian ethics, his formula doesn’t seem complete with respect to severity.

While not a complete defeat of non-consequentialist theories, Mill’s objection to the FUL points out a significant flaw in its design: while the FUL provides guidance for maxims based on making oneself an exception, it less effectively counters maxims with consistent intent. A universalized world can help to see the magnified effect of a particular maxim, and maybe one can yield some contradiction, yet Mill seems correct in that contradiction is the wrong criterion for moral judgment. In comparing Mill’s Utilitarianism to Kantian ethics, the inability of the FUL to make stronger distinctions between alternatives demonstrates the weakness of contradiction in evaluating simple choices.

Works Cited
Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics Morals.” Cambridge University Press, 1998. 1-45
Korsgaard, Christine, “Ch. 3: Kant’s Formula of Universal Law,” Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge University Press, 1996. 77-105.
Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism.” Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ED. Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

2 thoughts on “Mill’s Objection to the Formula of Universal Law”

  1. don’t maxim’s have to pass the second formation, which is to treat other individuals as ends in themselves and not as mere means to another’s ends? I realize this article deals with FUL, but it doesn’t even mention there might be more that’s relevant to kant.

    I think kicking an unconsenting individual is treating them as a means and not an end. same for killing a person who sneezes. I see treating people as ends as respecting property rights including rights to their own bodies. In voluntary exchanges both parties seem to me to be pursuing their own ends.

    Also it seems consequences are too often discounted when talking about kant. It seems to me that he considers consequences such as when deciding if lying can be universalized.

    1. Actually, according to Kant, the four formulations of the categorical imperative are supposed to be united. That is, if only the “mean/end” formulation respond adequately to Mill, we are accepting the fact that the formulations are not unified and that would be a contradiction in Kant’s theory.

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