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§2. Features of Ideal Moral Agents
needs and misery of others who seek my help. By representing the requirements of practical reason, the CI-procedure articulates a mode of reﬂection
that Kant thinks can help us to gain clarity about such matters, given our
moral sensibility and capacity for judgment as developed, as it must be, in
growing up and living in society.
It is a serious misconception to think of the CI-procedure as an algorithm intended to yield, more or less mechanically, a correct judgment.
There is no such algorithm, and Kant knows this. It is equally a misconception to think of this procedure as a set of debating rules that can trap liars
and cheats, scoundrels and cynics, into exposing their hand. There are no
. To clarify the remark above about a sincere agent, let’s distinguish
three kinds of reasons: explanatory reasons, agents’ reasons, and grounding
Explanatory reasons are part of an explanation of why someone acted as
he did. The explanation is partly psychological—a belief-desire explanation,
say—but it may refer to repressed or unconscious motives, and to other
psychological elements that agents are unaware of and would not count
among their reasons.
Agents’ reasons are the reasons that agents count as their reasons and
that truthful and sincere agents would, when appropriate, acknowledge as
their reasons. When people are lucid before themselves, that is, when they
know what moves them and do not act under the promptings of repressed
or unconscious motives, then agents’ reasons tend to coincide, or else to
overlap, with explanatory reasons. Kant’s ideal reasonable and rational and
sincere agents are also lucid.
Grounding reasons are of two kinds: reasons of rationality and justifying
reasons. Reasons of rationality are those that show a decision or an action
(for an agent in certain circumstances) to be rational, or sensible, as the
case may be; while justifying reasons show a decision or an action to be
reasonable, right, or just, or whatever is appropriate.
In the case of ideal agents—those who are reasonable, rational, and
lucid as well as truthful and sincere—the three kinds of reasons tend to
coincide, or else to overlap, when the actions in question are fully intentional, i.e., undertaken in the light of deliberation and judgment.
§. The Four-Step CI-Procedure
. It is important to recognize that the moral law, the categorical imperative,
and the CI-procedure are three different things.
The moral law is an idea of reason. It speciﬁes a principle that applies
to all reasonable and rational beings (or reasonable beings for short)
whether or not they are, like us, ﬁnite beings with needs. It holds for God
and the angels, and for reasonable beings elsewhere in the universe (should
there be such), as well as for us.
The categorical imperative, as an imperative, is directed only to those
reasonable beings who, because they are ﬁnite beings with needs, experience the moral law as a constraint. As such beings, we experience the moral
law in that way, and so the categorical imperative speciﬁes how that law
is to apply to us (Gr II:– [–]).
For the categorical imperative to be applied to our situation, it must
be adapted to our circumstances in the order of nature. This adaptation is
made by the CI-procedure as it takes into account the normal conditions
of human life by means of the law of nature formulation (Gr II: ).
. With these remarks as a preface, I now set out the CI-procedure in
four steps.3 At the ﬁrst step, we have the agent’s maxim, which is, let’s
suppose, rational from the agent’s point of view: that is, the maxim is rational given the agent’s situation and the available alternatives, together with
the agent’s desires, abilities, and beliefs (taken to be rational in the circumstances). Kant speaks of a maxim as a subjective principle: it is a principle
from which the subject acts (Gr II:n. ). When the agent’s maxim is
rational from the agent’s point of view, as supposed here, it may be said
to be subjectively valid.
The maxim is also assumed to be sincere: that is, it reﬂects the agent’s
actual reasons for the intended action as the agent, presumed to be lucid,
3. Modulo a few minor variations, my account of the CI-procedure follows that of Onora (Nell)
O’Neill in her Acting on Principle (New York: Columbia University Press, ). See also Paul Dietrichson, “When Is a Maxim Universalizable?” Kantstudien (); and Thomas Pogge, “The Categorical
Imperative,” in Grundelgung zur Metaphysick der Sitten: Ein Kooperativer Kommentar, ed. Ofried Hoăffe
(Frankfurt: Vittorio Klosterman, ). I have followed Barbara Herman’s supposition in a number
of her papers that when we apply the CI-procedure, we are to assume that the agent’s maxim is
would truthfully describe them. The CI-procedure applies, then, to maxims
that lucid and rational agents have arrived at in view of what they regard
as the relevant features of their circumstances. We should add that the
procedure applies equally well to maxims that rational and sincere agents
might arrive at (but have not), given the normal circumstances of human
To conclude: the agent’s maxim at the ﬁrst step is both sincere and
rational. It is a particular hypothetical imperative (to be distinguished from
the hypothetical imperative); and since it uses the ﬁrst-person pronoun, let’s
say that it expresses the agent’s personal intention to act from the maxim.
It has this standard form:
() I am to do X in circumstances C in order to bring about Y
unless Z. (Here X is an action and Y is an end, a state of
Note that the maxim has an “in order to” clause and so refers to an end.
For Kant, all actions have ends (MdS, Intro :f.). The nature of the clause
is important in distinguishing between duties of justice and other kinds of
duties, but I leave this aside here.
. The second step generalizes the maxim of the ﬁrst step; the result is
what we may call a universal precept (not Kant’s terminology) that applies
to everyone. When this precept passes the test of the CI-procedure, it is a
practical law, an objective principle valid for every rational being (Gr II:
n. ). So we have:
() Everyone is to do X in circumstances C in order to bring
about Y unless Z.
At the third step we are to transform the universal precept at () into
a law of nature to obtain:
() Everyone always does X in circumstances C in order to bring
about Y, as if by a law of nature (as if such a law was implanted in us by natural instinct) (II: [–]).
The fourth step is the most complicated; it raises questions which we
cannot thoroughly discuss here. The intuitive idea is this:
() We are to adjoin the as-if law of nature at step () to the
existing laws of nature (as these are understood by us) and
then think through as best we can what the order of nature
would be once the effects of the newly adjoined law of nature
have had sufﬁcient time to work themselves out.
It is assumed that a new order of nature results from the addition of
the law at step () to the other laws of nature, and that this new order of
nature has a settled equilibrium state the relevant features of which we are
able to ﬁgure out. Let us call this new order of nature an “adjusted social
world.” Let’s also think of this social world as associated with the maxim
at step (), and impute to the agent a legislative intention, an intention as
it were to legislate such a world. Here the thought is that an ideal reasonable
agent considering whether to act from the maxim at step () implicitly accepts the requirements of pure practical reason represented in the steps
leading up to and including step ().
. Kant’s categorical imperative can now be stated as follows: We are
permitted to act from our rational and sincere maxim at step () only if
two conditions are satisﬁed:
First, we must be able to intend, as sincere, reasonable, and rational
agents, to act from that maxim when we regard ourselves as a member of
the adjusted social world associated with it, and thus as acting within that
world and subject to its conditions; and
Second, we must be able to will this adjusted social world itself and
afﬁrm it should we belong to it.
Hence, if we cannot at the same time both will this adjusted social world
and intend to act from that maxim as a member of it, we cannot now act
from the maxim, even though it is, by assumption, fully rational in our
present circumstances. The categorical imperative, as represented by the
CI-procedure, applies to us no matter what the consequences of our compliance with it may be for our natural desires and needs. This reﬂects the
priority of pure practical reason over empirical practical reason.
Finally, it should be kept in mind that this rendering of the CI-procedure
draws on the law of nature formulation, which reads (II: ):
Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will
a universal law of nature.