“So Many Formulas”: The Relations Among the Formulas of the Categorical Imperative

Kant, having identified the formulas of the supreme principle of morality, offers a succinct explanation of their interrelation. What Kant says is, “The above three ways of representing the principle of morality are at bottom only so many formulae of the very same law, and any one of them of itself unites the other two in it.”1 This claim – hereafter the “Unity Claim” – plays the role of the eccentric cousin in the family of Kant’s ethics: although glaringly present, it is little spoken of, but seldom disowned. Most commentators, at any rate, focus their attention on more important matters, such as the content of the individual formulas, the moral psychology, or the deduction of freedom. Such matters are sufficiently absorbing to leave the Unity Claim often passed over without remark. But the Unity Claim should not be ignored. Kant does assert it, which compels us to attempt to find a place for it in his moral theory. It would seem to constrain the interpretation of the other, more momentous issues. How one interprets the content of the categorical imperative, in particular, would seem to be significantly restricted by the Unity Claim; one could not, given the Unity Claim, offer a complete interpretation of any single formula without also at least referring to the other formulas. And, as I shall argue in Part III below, the Unity Claim is no accident. Kant is committed to the Unity Claim by virtue of some basic features of his moral theory. This paper will thus offer what amounts to an extended commentary on the Unity Claim. I shall review the various suggestions of what it might mean, and how it might, or might not, be accommodated within Kant’s moral theory. The structure of this paper will be as such. Part II will examine the two main strategies for including the Unity Claim within Kant’s moral theory, and explain why they are both inadequate. Part III will examine the other main approach to the 2 Unity Claim: giving up on it..
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