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