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§5. Kant ’s Fourth Example:The Maxim of Indifference

§5. Kant ’s Fourth Example:The Maxim of Indifference

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associated with the maxim of indifference because presumably many situations may arise in that world in which we need the love and sympathy

of others. In those situations, by a law originating from our own will, we

would have robbed ourselves of what we need and require. It would be

irrational, he suggests, for us to will a social world in which everyone, as

it were by a law of nature, is deaf to our appeals for help and assistance,

unless of course their self-interest moves them otherwise.

The difficulty in question becomes evident once we note that the test

Kant applies to the maxim of indifference seems too strong, for it rejects

all maxims leading to any form of the precept of mutual aid. The reason

is that any such precept will sometimes enjoin us to help others when they

are in need. But situations may arise in any associated adjusted social world

in which we very much want not to help others, unless the precept involved

is quite trivial. Our circumstances may be such that doing so is extremely

inconvenient, given our current plans. Once again, by a law originating

from our own will, we would have prevented ourselves from doing what

we very much want.

The general difficulty is this: in any adjusted social world, all moral

precepts will oppose our settled intentions and plans and natural desires on

at least some occasions; in those cases they will be contrary to our will.

Indeed, one role of moral norms is to provide precisely such opposition as

the situation requires. Thus the test of the CI-procedure, as Kant states it,

seems to call for some revision.

. The difficulty is not easily disposed of, but two things may preserve

Kant’s main thought.

First, we must give more content to the will of ideal agents in deciding

whether they can will an adjusted social world. What do such agents will?

What priorities if any do they have?

Second, we must specify further the point of view from which these

decisions about social worlds are made: What kind of information do ideal

agents have and what can they assume about their position and role in an

adjusted social world?

Consider the content of the will of an ideal agent: one way out, I think

(I don’t say the only one), is to develop an appropriate conception of what

we may call “true human needs,” a phrase Kant uses several times in the

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Metaphysics of Morals (:, f.; ff.).4 I understand Kant to say that we

have certain true human needs, certain requisite conditions, the fulfillment

of which is necessary if human beings are to enjoy their lives. It is a duty

to ourselves to try to secure these needs, and one form of avarice tempts

us to violate this duty (MdS :). Thus, we must will (so far as circumstances allow) a social world in which that guarantee obtains. Kant suggests

what he calls a “maxim of common interest,” which may be understood

as follows:

I am to help others in order that their true needs be met when I

am in a position to do so, but not to the extent that I become needy


Thus Kant thinks that we have this universal duty, for we are to be

considered fellow human beings (MdS :): “rational beings with needs,

united by nature in one dwelling place for the purpose of helping one another.”

In view of the foregoing, it is clear that as between the adjusted social

world associated with the precept of indifference and the one associated

with the precept of mutual assistance, as ideal agents we can will only the

latter: only that world guarantees the fulfillment of our true human needs,

to the securing of which a rational, prudent being gives priority. As part

of the CI-procedure, let’s suppose that we have such needs and that they

are more or less the same for everyone.

In applying the CI-procedure as revised, we understand that any general

precept will restrict our actions as moved by our desires on some and perhaps many occasions. We must compare alternative social worlds and estimate the overall consequences of willing one of these worlds rather than

another. In order to do this, we may have to take into account the rough

balance of likely effects over time on our true human needs. For this idea

to work, even in the kind of case discussed here, we require some account

of these needs. Kant holds, I think, that we have “true human needs” (or

basic needs) not only for food, drink, and rest, but also for education and

4. In adopting this way out, we are amending, or adding to, Kant’s account. It is, I think,

Kantian in spirit, provided that, as I believe, it doesn’t compromise the essential elements of his


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culture, as well as for various conditions essential for the development and

exercise of our moral sensibility and conscience, and for the powers of reason, thought, and judgment. I shall not pursue this suggestion here.

§. Two Limits on Information

. Consider now the point of view from which ideal agents decide whether

they can will a social world. I believe that Kant may have assumed that

the decision at step () is subject to at least two kinds of limits on information. That some limits are necessary seems evident from the kind of objection raised by Sidgwick.5

The first limit is that we are to ignore the more particular features of

persons, including ourselves, as well as the specific content of their and our

final ends and desires. Some support for this suggestion appears where Kant

is characterizing the realm of ends; he says (Gr II: []):

I understand by a “realm” a systematic union of different rational beings under common laws. Now since laws determine ends as regards

their universal validity, we shall be able—if we abstract from the personal differences between rational beings, and also from all the content

of their private ends—to conceive a whole of ends in systematic conjunction (a whole both of rational beings as ends in themselves and

also of their own ends which each may set before himself ); that is, we

shall be able to conceive of a realm of ends which is possible in accordance with the above principles.6

The second limit is that when we ask ourselves whether we can will

the adjusted social world associated with our maxim, we are to reason as

5. “We can . . . conceive of a man, he says, in whom the spirit of independence and the distaste

for incurring obligations would be so strong that he would choose to endure any privations rather

than receive the aid of others. But even granting that every one, in the actual moment of distress,

must necessarily wish for the assistance of others; still a strong man, after balancing the chances

of life, may easily think that he and such as he have more to gain, on the whole, by the general

adoption of the egoistic maxim; benevolence being likely to bring them more trouble than profit.”

See Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, th ed. (London: Macmillan, ), pp. n.

6. Rawls prefers “realm” to Paton’s “kingdom” in “kingdom of ends.” [Ed.]

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if we do not know what place we may have in that world. I find it hard

to read, say, Kant’s discussion of the Typic (KP :f.) without feeling that

some such idea is implicit. He says: “Ask yourself whether, if the action

which you propose should take place by a law of a system of nature of

which you were a part, you could regard it as possible through your will.

Everyone does, in fact, decide by this rule whether actions are morally

good or bad. Thus people ask: if one belonged to such an order of things

in which . . . everyone looked with complete indifference on the needs of

others, would they assent of their own will to being a member of such an


Here what suggests some limit on our knowledge of our place in the

adjusted social world is Kant’s speaking of our being “a part” of that system

of nature, and the suggestion at the end of the passage that we are to

consider whether we would “assent of [our] own will,” that is, freely assent,

to being a member of such a world. That surely depends on what we know

about our place in that world. If I know that the fulfillment of my true

needs is assured (as socially practicable) by the generalized precepts at step

(), presumably yes; otherwise, probably not.

. If these two suggestions are correct, the CI-procedure is misapplied

when we project into the adjusted social world either the specific content

of our final ends or the particular features of our present or likely future

political or social circumstances. No one can know, for example, that he

is one of Sidgwick’s strong men. And in a society where everyone is either

a noble or a serf, the nobles cannot reason from a maxim of mutual assistance that limits it to members of their class. Such a maxim relies on illicit

information. Rather, they must first guarantee the fulfillment of their own

and others’ true human needs.

To sum up: we must reason at step () not only on the basis of a conception of true human needs but also from a suitably general point of view

that satisfies these two limits on particular (as opposed to general) information. This is because the requirements of pure and empirical practical reason

represented in the CI-procedure force us to view ourselves as proposing

public moral practice for an ongoing social world enduring over time. Any

such public law for a realm of ends the members of which are free and

equal and reasonable persons must answer to these conditions.

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§5. Kant ’s Fourth Example:The Maxim of Indifference

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