What Do Maxims, Maxims Mean in Kant’s Ethics of Duty?

What Do Maxims, Maxims Mean in Kant’s Ethics of Duty?

June 27, 2021 Off By Felso

Kant defines the intentions behind any action as the maxim. Maxim is the general principle underlying action.

For example, the Compassionate Human may have grounded the maxim of “Always help those in need if you think you will be rewarded after your hardships”. Likewise, he may be acting with the maxim of “Help those in need when you feel compassion”.

However, if the behavior of the Compassionate Human were moral, then he would probably be acting according to the maxim of “Always help those in need, as it is your duty”.

Kant believed that what makes us human, unlike other animals, is our ability to reflectively reflect on our own choices. If we could not act on purpose, we would be like machines.

“Why did you do that?” It almost always makes sense to ask. We act not only on instinct, but also on reason. Kant expressed this with the “maxims” from which our actions originate. Maxim’s underlying principle is “why did you do that?” is the answer to the question.

Kant believed that what matters is the maxim underlying your action. He argued that action should be based only on maxims that can be universalised.

For something to be universalizable, it had to apply to everyone. It simply meant doing what would make sense to anyone else in the same situation as you. Always ask the question: “What if everyone did this?”

Do not create a special situation for yourself. Kant thought that the practical equivalent of this was not to use others, but to treat people with respect, taking into account their autonomy, their capacity as individuals to make rational decisions for themselves.

This respect for human dignity and the worth of the individual is at the core of modern human rights theory. This is Kant’s great contribution to moral philosophy. This is easier to understand through an example:

Imagine you own a shop and sell fruit. When people shop with you, you are always polite and give the change in full. You act this way because perhaps you think it’s good for your business and people will come to your store more often and spend money. If that’s the only reason you’re giving up the change, that’s one of the ways you’re using people to get what you want.

Kant believed that this is not a moral course of action, since you cannot logically suggest that everyone should treat everyone this way. But if you give the full change because you realize it’s your duty not to deceive others, then that would be a moral act. It is a moral act because it is based on the maxim of “deceiving others”. According to Kant, this is a maxim that we can adapt to any situation.

Cheating people is a way of using them to get what you want. This cannot be a moral principle. If everyone cheated on everyone, all trust would be down. No one would believe what anyone else said.

Let’s take another example that Kant uses:

You are penniless. The banks don’t lend you money, you have nothing to sell, and if you don’t pay your rent, you’re stuck on the street. You find a way out. You go to a friend and ask him to borrow some money. You promise to pay him back the money, even though you know you can’t do it. This is your last resort, you can’t find any other way to pay your rent.

Would this be acceptable? Kant argues that it should be immoral to borrow money from your friend without the intention of returning the money. The mind can show us this. It would be absurd to borrow money from someone else and promise to pay it back, even though everyone knows they cannot pay. This is not a universalizable maxim either.

“What would happen if everyone did this?” Ask the question again. If everyone made promises they couldn’t keep like this, promises would be worthless. If it’s not right for everyone, it’s not right for you either. That’s why you shouldn’t do that. If you do, you’re doing it wrong.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook; “Introduction to Philosophy” / Nigel Warburton