Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics
June 25, 2013
Harvard Public Law Working Paper
How can we tell right actions from wrong ones? I believe that Kant’s Universal Principle of Right establishes a dual standard for the rightness of actions, corresponding to the two distinct types of wrong actions — formal wrongs and material wrongs — that Kant describes elsewhere. My proposed interpretation makes more sense out of Kant’s awkward text than do competing accounts. More importantly, it integrates and reflects Kant’s philosophical commitments concerning distinctions between material and formal wrongdoing, related distinctions between civil remedies and criminal penalties, and his claim that some formal wrongs do not wrong anyone in particular.
Any new interpretation of the Universal Principle of Right raises more questions than it immediately resolves. For example, does my formulation of Kant’s standard for formal wrongdoing limit the sphere of conduct that lawmakers may criminalize? If the wrong-making property of a formally wrong action is in the action’s maxim, what are the implications of my proposed standard for jurisprudential questions about criminal intent and legal insanity? If maxims pick out actions in our continual stream of activity for evaluation as right or wrong, how must we draw the legal distinction between criminal attempt, on one hand, and mere “preparation” on the other? Arthur Ripstein’s groundbreaking book, Force and Freedom: Kant’s Legal and Political Philosophy, has ignited interest in the application of Kantian ideas to such contemporary problems. My proposed interpretation of Kant’s keystone political principle puts new tools in our hands as we construct answers to these and other current questions.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 23
Keywords: Kant, Kantian, Universal Principle of Right, Arthur Ripstein, Force and Freedomworking papers series
Date posted: June 27, 2013 ; Last revised: June 19, 2014
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