Recent work on Kantian maxims I: Established approaches

Philosophy Compass 5 (3):216-227 (2010)

Abstract

Maxims play a crucial role in Kant's ethical philosophy, but there is significant disagreement about what maxims are. In this two-part essay, I survey eight different views of Kantian maxims, presenting their strengths, and their weaknesses. Part I: Established Approaches, begins with Rüdiger Bubner's view that Kant took maxims to be what ordinary people of today take them to be, namely pithily expressed precepts of morality or prudence. Next comes the position, most associated with Rüdiger Bittner and Otfried Höffe, that maxims are Lebensregeln, or 'life-rules'– quite general rules for how to conduct oneself based on equally general outlooks on how the world is. These first two interpretations make sense of Kant's claim, made in his anthropological and pedagogical writings, that we have to learn how to act on maxims, but they become less plausible in light of Kant's probable view that people always act on maxims – after all, how can people learn how to act on something they always act on anyway? The next two views, each advanced, at different times, by Onora O'Neill, make better sense of the fact that people always act on maxims, for they hold that maxims are intentions – either specific intentions, such as 'to open the door', or general intentions, such as 'to make guests feel welcome'– and it is perfectly sensible to claim that people always act on intentions. However, they face the same problem as the two previous views, which is that if people always act on maxims, what sense does it make to say they also have to learn how to act on them? Henry Allison, the main representative of the fifth view, claims, on the basis of Kant's doctrine of the 'highest maxim', that maxims are principles organized hierarchically, such that an agent endorses one maxim because she endorses a more general maxim. Unfortunately for Allison, there is little direct textual support for his claim that maxims are organized hierarchically.

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Robert Gressis
California State University, Northridge

References found in this work

Creating the Kingdom of Ends.Christine M. Korsgaard - 1996 - Cambridge University Press.
Kant’s Ethical Thought.Allen W. Wood - 1999 - Cambridge University Press.
Kant's Theory of Freedom.Henry E. Allison - 1990 - Cambridge University Press.
The Practice of Moral Judgment.Barbara Herman - 1985 - Journal of Philosophy 82 (8):414-436.

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