Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-dnltx Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-20T08:13:39.236Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

A Critique of the Practical Contradiction Procedure for Testing Maxims

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Shawn D. Kaplan
State University of New York at Stony Brook


Emerging from the growing swell of recent literature concerning Kant's practical philosophy, one interpretation of his procedure for testing maxims has crested above others. The influential interpretation to which I refer believes that the categorical imperative guides a procedure that finds maxims impermissible when they cannot be universalized without producing a 'practical' contradiction. As a major proponent of the practical contradiction interpretation, Christine Korsgaard claims that, while there is textual support for this point of view, she is more concerned with developing a defensible interpretation of maxim testing for a ‘Kantian’ system of morality. Accordingly, one cannot simply attempt to evaluate such a theory solely by considering its various incongruities with Kant's specific claims and arguments. Instead, my evaluation of the practical contradiction interpretation will examine: (a) whether it is a procedure that is applicable to a full range of maxims; (b) whether it maintains a distinct advantage over the alternative readings; and (c) whether it is an internally coherent and consistent model for testing maxims. I propose, here, that regardless of the practical contradiction test's many advantages, it fails with regard to all three of these questions.

Copyright © Kantian Review 2005

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



1 The author I will use as the primary account of the practical contradiction interpretation is Christine Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 77105CrossRefGoogle Scholar . In her early work, Onora O'Neill presented a similar account which Korsgaard cites. See, Nell, Onora(O'Neill), Acting on Principle: An Essay on Kantian Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), pp. 5993Google Scholar.

2 Korsgaard states:

I should say from the outset that although there is one important piece of textual evidence for this answer [favouring the practical contradiction reading], it is my view that no interpretation can be based on textual consideration alone… My defense of the practical contradiction interpretation will therefore be based primarily on philosophical considerations.

The considerations she mentions are: the types of cases this procedure can handle; how well it addresses standard objections to Kant's system; how it distinguishes between the two forms of contradiction; and what it assumes about rationality. , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, pp. 80–1Google Scholar.

3 , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, p. 92.Google Scholar

4 , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, pp. 93–4.Google Scholar

5 , Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Ellington, James (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), p. 417Google Scholar. Page references to Kant's Grounding follow the Akademie edition of Kant's works.

6 Korsgaard does not pay attention to Kant's distinction between the two types of hypothetical imperatives, viz., between ‘rules of skill’ and ‘counsels of prudence’.

7 , Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 417–18.Google Scholar

8 See , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, pp. 95–7.Google Scholar

9 Korsgaard points out: ‘Often proponents of the Logical Contradiction Interpretation for the contradictions in conception end up with something like a utilitarian or a teleological view about contradictions in the will.’ She criticizes both of these views as ‘presupposing a morality-laden conception of rationality’. , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, p. 96Google Scholar.

10 Mill was one the first commentators to point out the lack of a logical contradiction in a strict sense in Kant's examples. See Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, ed. Sher, George (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), p. 4Google Scholar. For a more contemporary version of this criticism see Harrison, Jonathan, ‘Kant's examples of the first formulation of the categorical imperative’, in Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Wolff, Robert Paul (New York: Anchor Books, 1967), pp. 228–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, p. 97.Google Scholar

12 For a representative of this approach, see Kemp, J., ‘Kant's examples of the categorical imperative’, in Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Wolff, , pp. 246–58Google Scholar.

13 Paton, H. J., The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 157–64Google Scholar. While phrasing the test in terms of logical impossibilities, Kemp remains quite faithful to Paton's position.

14 , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, pp. 91–2.Google Scholar

15 , Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 422.Google Scholar

18 Allen Wood argues that Kant is simultaneously presenting two different arguments for the impossibility of the maxim in favour of offering false promises. He claims that the argument which concentrates on the impossibility of attaining the end of promising cannot produce a contradiction in conception but only a contradiction in the will. In effect, the agent holding the universalized maxim is both willing to attain the end and willing to undermine her ability to realize this end. The result is a contradiction in the will wherein it holds contrary volitions. The will holding contrary volitions is something which we can conceive of and is, therefore, not the same as a contradiction in conception. Wood concludes that while Kant presents two possible arguments against the maxim in favour of offering false promises, one does not produce the type of contradiction for which Kant is looking and, hence, should be disregarded. Allen W. Wood, ‘Kant on false promises’, in Proceedings of the Third International Kant Congress, ed. Beck, Lewis White (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1972), pp. 614–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Korsgaard's model for deriving contradictions in conception by negating the analytic structure of hypothetical imperatives seemingly evades Wood's potential criticism that undermining the end of receiving needed money only produces a contradiction in the will. However, if my critique of the practical contradiction procedure is upheld, Wood's treatment of Kant's ambiguous passage may prove useful.

19 , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, p. 94.Google Scholar

20 See , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, pp. 96–7.Google Scholar

22 , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, p. 97.Google Scholar

24 This example is borrowed from Hill, Thomas Jr, ‘The hypothetical imperative’, in Dignity and Practical Reason in Kant's Moral Theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 24Google Scholar.

25 In response to the possible argument that the universalized maxim would create so much competition that the Nazi party member would undermine his advancement, one can argue that the competition is only heightened and that advancement does not rely upon one's activities being exceptional, only that one is ‘better’ at it.

26 The ensuing immanent critique is directed at the procedure for deriving practical contradictions in conception. If it could be agreed upon, that is, fully justified, that general efficacy is an essential purpose of the will, then the practical contradiction procedure should be internally consistent with regard to determining contradictions in the will. The interpret-ation's seeming consistency with respect to imperfect duties rests upon the fact that general efficacy is to a great extent not determined by contin-gent circumstances. As opposed to when one considers the efficacy of an action type or specific deed (for example, receiving a needed loan), one's general ability to attain desired ends is not affected by as many social conventions and other contingently determined circumstances. While one could still imagine that contingent factors such as being born into a specific social class could very well affect one's ability to attain desired ends in general, such factors would fall under the category of luck and the means for improving one's general efficacy would remain the same.

27 Korsgaard admits that there is a class of actions which challenge the practical contradiction procedure because they do not rely upon either social conventions or contingent circumstances existing. Suicide is an example of such a ‘natural action’ since an effective suicide depends only upon the individual picking a ‘poison’ that will produce the desired end of death according to the laws of nature. See , Korsgaard, ‘Kant's formula of universal law’, pp. 92, 100Google Scholar.

28 The contingent circumstance that allows the universalized maxim in favour of deceiving inexperienced customers may be the empirical fact that there is a constantly renewing pool of callow customers to be deceived. See pp. 123–4, above.