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Kant on the problem of relevant descriptions and the problem of act individuation

The conventional motivation story shows that individuating actions play a role in discussions of the nature of action, but the role that action individuation plays in the study of what actions are may not be significant enough to convince us of its importance. Here, I will argue that the importance of action individuation is derived from a problem Kantian moral theory must confront.


A virtue of action individuation is its ability to determine whether two or more action descriptions designate the same action or distinct actions. If a moral theory uses an action description to evaluate the moral permissibility or impermissibility of an action, then they have to determine which action description they ought to evaluate. Moral theories unable to make such a determination are bound to be morally bankrupt and should not be adopted.

There seem to be two aims of moral theory: the practical and the theoretical. First, the practical aim of moral theory is to provide agents with a decision procedure for use in practical deliberation. Next, the theoretical aim of moral theory is to ascertain systematic and precise knowledge of the deep nature of right and wrong when we understand these features in virtue of which actions possess whatever deontic status they have. Since the theoretical aim tries to uncover the right and wrong-making features of action, and since it does not concern the decision procedure involved in determining whether or not to perform some action, the action individuation debate has fewer things to say about the theoretical aim than the practical aim. So, I will concentrate my discussion on the practical aim of moral theory.


The decision procedure that the practical aim provides should tell us which action we ought to perform. If a person follows the decision procedure provided by the moral theory, then she should be led to correct moral views about the rightness or wrongness of particular concrete actions or action types. There are two qualifications the decision procedure must uphold. The decision procedure must be reliably connected to the truth about the deontic status of actions, and it must be useful. Without these features, the decision procedure fails to lead the agent to perform the morally correct action.


Kantian ethics provides a decision procedure for actions we ought to perform. The Universal Law formulation of the Categorical Imperative represents a decision procedure for coming to conclusions about the deontic status of actions. The Universal Law formulation of the Categorical Imperative is “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Grudlegung, 421). Kant is explicit about the procedural capacity of the Universal Law formulation in the Metaphysics of Morals. He says that according to the Universal Law formulation agents are required to subject maxims to “the test of conceiving yourself as also giving universal law through it” (VI: 225, 51).[1] Similarly, in the Grudlegung, Kant writes, “We must be able to will that a maxim of our action should become a universal law – this is the general canon for all moral judgment of action” (Grundlegung, IV: 424, 91). One’s maxim must be universalizable if the Universal Law formulation is to be enacted. Thus, the Universal Law formulation fulfills its function as a basic norm for rational decision making.


Kant’s Universal Law formulation of the Categorical Imperative provides us with a test for determining whether an action is objectively right or wrong. An action is objectively right just in case it is independent of anyone’s beliefs about the morality of the action, and an action is subjectively right when it is dependent upon a person’s belief in the morality of the action. Whenever a moral theory proposes a universality test to reach moral conclusions, such as in Kant’s Universal Law formulation, it must show agents which actions are objectively morally correct. The status of moral conclusions reached by applying the Universal Law formulation must contend with the problem of relevant descriptions.


The problem of relevant descriptions applies to any theory that upholds a universality test in ethics. A universality test is a test of principles that is supposed to help us select which acts we are morally obligated to perform. Since any given act can be acted upon repeatedly and in various way, and since any given act exemplifies numerous principles, principles and acts are in many-many correspondence. If principles and acts were in one-many or one-to-one correspondence, then the problem of relevant descriptions would not arise. Any act admits of an indefinitely large number of true descriptions. A universality test can be made to yield inconsistent deontic conclusions about an action unless there is a principled way of specifying which features of an action are morally relevant. If a moral principle guides action, then we must specify some way of deciding which of the principles covering an act it is relevant to assess in a given context. Thus, we must find some method for deciding what the relevant descriptions of a given act are.


In Kant’s universality test, one must formulate a maxim upon which the action is to be performed. A maxim includes a description of one’s action and circumstances. Since there are numerous ways one can describe some concrete action and the circumstances in which it can be performed, a maxim can include features that are not morally relevant and may fail to include all of the features that are morally relevant which would be required to come to a correct assessment of the objective deontic status of the action in question. Thus, the problem for Kantian ethics is one of specifying which descriptions of one’s action and circumstances capture the relevant features of action for purposes of moral evaluation and which of them should be reflected in the formulation of one’s maxim.


Kantian ethicists have to provide some principled account of those features of one’s circumstances and actions that bear on the objective deontic status of actions and thus ought to be included in one’s maxim. If a solution to the problem is not possible, then Kant’s universality test cannot deliver.


Onora O’Neill (Nell 1975) believes that Kant has solved the problem of relevant descriptions in his work. According to O’Neill, when we engage in moral decision making, the complete morally relevant description of an agent’s action and circumstances for purposes of using the universality tests is nothing other than whatever happens to be reflected in one’s maxim. She writes:

Kant’s universality test includes an explicit solution to the problem of relevant descriptions. The principle or instantiation of a principle whose universality it is relevant to test is the one on which the agent acts or proposes to act on a given occasion. This principle or instantiation is the agent’s maxim. It is Kant’s contention that when an act is morally acceptable (in either of two distinct, but clearly defined, ways) the agent’s maxim must be a principle of a particular sort. The Categorical Imperative both states a condition on principles and also instructs us as to which principle or instantiation of a principle we should assess in any given context. It incorporates a solution to the problem of relevant descriptions (Nell 1975, 13).

What we should notice is that O’Neill fails to consider the problem of relevant descriptions objectively. Her solution does not give us the objective deontic status of actions. She is forced to conclude that Kant’s universality test can only be counted upon to give us conclusions about the subjective rightness of actions. Ultimately, O’Neill admits the best one can hope to do is align a Kantian solution with subjectively right action.


Mark Timmons (1997) has proposed “the differential roles interpretation of Kant’s ethics” (408) to circumvent the problem of relevant descriptions. Whereas the Universal Law formulation provides a marginally decent decision procedure for moral deliberation if we seek subjective rightness of actions, Timmons believes the Humanity-as-an-end-in-itself formulation furnishes a criterion of right action in order to give us the objective deontic status of actions. He interprets the system of duties consulted in the humanity formulation to capture all of the innate tendencies, i.e., what Kant terms “animality,” “humanity,” and “personality,” and capacities in human nature. He writes:

All fully rational human agents would necessarily value the various ingredients mentioned above that are innate in human nature, presumably because they are, for human beings at least, intimately connected to autonomy, understood negatively as a capacity to act for reasons independently of inclinations and desires, and positively as being capable of acting for unconditionally valid reasons (Timmons 1997, 406).

The Humanity formulation of the Categorical Imperative can serve as a norm of right and wrong conduct because humanity has the status of an objective end. Some single terms have the ability to single out actions under a description. For example, “suicide” or “envy” is a truncated form of a more cumbersome description. The system of duties Kant speaks of represents at least a part of a principled account of objective moral relevance. So, when some action of an agent can be classified as being a part of one of the actions in the system of duties, the corresponding fact about it is morally relevant.


Both the Universal Law formulation and the Humanity formulation test the deontic status of an action using some description. Since an infinite amount of action descriptions satisfactorily designate some action, one may pass the universality test and one may not pass the test. What we must do is to determine which action description is the one we ought to test using Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Individuating actions should reveal the best description that corresponds with some action. So, some of the work in coming to grips with the deontic status of some action should be undertaken by an account of action individuation.


A theory of action individuation will tell us whether some action description identifies an action. While Kant’s theory has the ability to test some action description for whether it is morally obligatory, permissible, impermissible, or forbidden, it has virtually nothing to say about whether two or more action descriptions designate the same action or distinct actions. As long as we may be skeptical over Kant’s theory in this regard, there has to be a device by which we can ensure that some action description designates the morally relevant description. Action individuation ought to allows us to do just that. Thus, an account of action individuation ought to be an additional component of a Kantian ethical system.


Let's create some acronyms for common terminology:

  • FUL: “Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

  • FLN: “Act as though the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.”

  • PGW: “I ought never to act in such a way that I could not also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”


Four examples:

  1. “I make it my principle out of self-love to shorten my life if its continuance promises more evil than it promises advantage.” -- this maxim could not become a universal law of nature because, in such a system of nature, the very same feeling which is meant to promote life would actually destroy it.

  2. “When I believe myself short of money, I will borrow money and promise to pay it back, even though I know that this will never be done.” -- this maxim could never hold as a “self-consistent law of nature, but must necessarily contradict itself,” and therefore it would be morally forbidden to act on that maxim.

  3. We are asked to imagine someone who possesses a number of potentially useful talents but cares not to develop them, preferring to devote his life to “idleness, amusement, procreation - in a word, to enjoyment.” Kant identifies the maxim as “neglecting his natural gifts” and says that even though we could imagine a world in which no one developed any of his talents, we could not consistently will that this maxim become a universal law of nature, or that it be “implanted in us as such a law by a natural instinct,” since a rational being necessarily wills that his talents be developed.

  4. “Let everyone be as happy as Heaven intends or as he can make himself; I won’t deprive him of anything; I won’t even envy him, but I don’t feel like contributing anything to his well-being or helping him in his distress.” -- even though we might be able to imagine a world in which the maxim that corresponds to this person’s “attitude” or “principle” were a universal law of nature, we could not possibly will such a law of nature, since we might face situations in which we need assistance from others, and we would have willed that no one provide assistance to anyone else.

Schematic for a maxim: In circumstances C, from motive M, I will perform act-type A to bring about purpose P, although we should reiterate that beyond the description of the act, none of the additional elements is included by Kant within each of his examples.


We then take up this maxim and “universalize” it, by creating its “Universal Counterpart” or “UC-maxim”, which is identical to the original maxim, except for changing the “I will...” to “Everyone will...” Kant’s FUL can now be seen as requiring agents to act only on maxims whose UC-maxims can be consistently willed as universal laws.


Since FUL tests maxims, its usefulness in any context will require a method for determining exactly what the maxim of an action is or, if actions can have more than one maxim, which maxim should be subjected to FUL’s noncontradiction test. There is nothing that rules out the noncontradiction test’s giving mutually inconsistent results for more than one maxim of an action.


Some commentators argue that actions and maxims stand in a “many-to-many” relationship, insofar as one action can be performed from any number of maxims, and a single maxim can be acted upon in any number of ways. Which is the relevant maxim for FUL? ISOLATION TEST: the relevant maxim includes just those descriptions of the action and circumstance under which the agent intends the action, namely those descriptions which, if altered, would have led the agent to act differently. Since agents often “intend” their actions on a number of different descriptions, it is unlikely that in all cases a single relevant maxim will emerge, or if one does emerge, that maxim will often be a complex conjunctive maxim containing multiple descriptions of the agent, act, and circumstances, and which may therefore be unsuitable for testing via FUL’s non-contradiction tests.


Some commentators suggest that we can speak of a “properly formulated maxim” for an action, one that an agent is actually acting on when acting deliberately and purposively. This maxim is linked to what the agent wills and includes. But even these commentators notice that it is sensitive to how “the purpose” and “the reasons” are specified, and given that agents can act on multiple reasons, and for multiple purposes, it is unclear that appealing solely to the reasons and purposes we have in acting will reveal a single “properly formulated” maxim that is appropriate for running through FUL’s tests.


Once again, we end up with either multiple maxims to test (and the possibility of conflicting results) or a single “relevant” maxim that includes multiple conjoined descriptions of the action, circumstances, and purpose (which seems unsuitable for testing via the noncontradiction tests).


Maxims involve underlying or fundamental principles or policies that an agent has in acting. Maxims are the “highest piece of practical reasoning” and govern the choice of more specific “ancillary” principles (O’Neill 1990, 129). So when an agent deliberates, the maxim reflects deep policy commitments at the level of fundamental principles. One problem facing this view is that even though some of Kant’s own examples of maxims do reflect general policies, many maxims that Kant discusses and tests by using FUL are fairly specific and appear not to reflect deep, general policy commitments at all.


Kant’s FUL should not be viewed as testing the actual maxims on which agents might act in some specific context, the output of which would be an actual duty (i.e., absolute, exceptionless prohibitions and requirements) for that agent to act on or refrain from acting on some specific maxim. Instead, the FUL test should be seen as working with “generic” maxims, which can apply to many different actions, and more than one of which may apply in a specific instance (Herman 1996, ch. 7). This must be viewed as a significant retreat for the role that Kant at least at times seemed to endorse for FUL.


What is meant by “raising one’ s maxim to the status of a universal law?”

Common answer: One should imagine a possible world in which everyone who is in the appropriate circumstances adopts and actually acts on the maxim that is being tested, whenever acting on that maxim is available to them. Testing a maxim would then involve viewing the maxim as if it operated as a causal law, not in the sense that everyone were literally caused to act as the maxim specifies, but rather that everyone actually does act on the maxim in this possible world.





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