A complex and controversial notion which has been used both to distinguish the moral from the non-moral and to distinguish the moral from the immoral – two jobs which tend to get in each other’s way.

‘What if everyone did that?’ is often a relevant question in moral contexts; but ‘did what exactly?’. The same action can be described in many ways. And what counts as ‘everyone’?

Presumably everyone with certain characteristics or in a certain situation, but which characteristics or situations? As for distinguishing the moral from the non-moral, no doubt if I act in arbitrary ways I cannot claim to be acting on a moral principle – but will I be acting on any other kind of principle either? And what counts as ‘arbitrary’?

These questions of course give only the general flavor of discussions in this area; and though the terms are often confused, one should distinguish the universal (as against particular or individual) from the general (as against specific): ‘Always help the blind’ is universal but specific.

The appeal to universalizability in ethics dates from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

D Locke, ‘The Trivializability of Universalizability’, Philosophical Review (1968)

The concept of universalizability was set out by the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant as part of his work Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.[citation needed] It is part of the first formulation of his categorical imperative, which states that the only morally acceptable maxims of our actions are those that could rationally be willed to be universal law.[citation needed][need quotation to verify]

The precise meaning of universalizability is contentious, but the most common interpretation is that the categorical imperative asks whether the maxim of your action could become one that everyone could act upon in similar circumstances.[citation needed] An action is socially acceptable if it can be universalized (i.e., everyone could do it).[citation needed]

For instance, one can determine whether a maxim of lying to secure a loan is moral by attempting to universalize it and applying reason to the results. If everyone lied to secure loans, the very practices of promising and lending would fall apart, and the maxim would then become impossible.

Kant calls such acts examples of a contradiction in conception, which is much like a performative contradiction, because they undermine the very basis for their existence.[1]

Kant’s notion of universalizability has a clear antecedent in Rousseau’s idea of a general will.[citation needed] Both notions provide for a radical separation of will and nature, leading to the idea that true freedom lies substantially in self-legislation.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Kant, Immanuel (1998-01-01). Gregor, Mary (ed.). Kant: Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. Cambridge University Press. p. 53. ISBN 9780521626958. OCLC 47008768

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