Maxim (philosophy)

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A maxim is a concise expression of a fundamental moral rule or principle, whether considered as objective or subjective contingent on one's philosophy. A maxim is often pedagogical and motivates specific actions. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines it as:


Generally any simple and memorable rule or guide for living; for example, 'neither a borrower nor a lender be'. Tennyson speaks of 'a little hoard of maxims preaching down a daughter's heart (Locksley Hall), and maxims have generally been associated with a 'folksy' or 'copy-book' approach to morality. [1]

Deontological ethics

In deontological ethics, mainly in Kantian ethics, maxims are understood as subjective principles of action. A maxim is thought to be part of an agent's thought process for every rational action, indicating in its standard form: (1) the action, or type of action; (2) the conditions under which it is to be done; and (3) the end or purpose to be achieved by the action, or the motive. The maxim of an action is often referred to as the agent's intention. In Kantian ethics, the categorical imperative provides a test on maxims for determining whether the actions they refer to are right, wrong, or permissible.

The categorical imperative is stated canonically as: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." [2]

In his Critique of Practical Reason , Immanuel Kant provided the following example of a maxim and of how to apply the test of the categorical imperative:

I have, for example, made it my maxim to increase my wealth by any safe means. Now I have a deposit in my hands, the owner of which has died and left no record of it. . . . I therefore apply the maxim to the present case and ask whether it could indeed take the form of a law, and consequently whether I could through my maxim at the same time give such a law as this: that everyone may deny a deposit which no one can prove has been made. I at once become aware that such a principle, as a law, would annihilate itself since it would bring it about that there would be no deposits at all. [3]

Also, an action is said to have "moral worth" if the maxim upon which the agent acts cites the purpose of conforming to a moral requirement. That is, a person's action has moral worth when he does his duty purely for the sake of duty, or does the right thing for the right reason. Kant himself believed that it is impossible to know whether anyone's action has ever had moral worth. It might appear to someone that he has acted entirely "from duty", but this could always be an illusion of self-interest: of wanting to see oneself in the best, most noble light. This indicates that agents are not always the best judges of their own maxims or motives.

Personal knowledge

Michael Polanyi in his account of tacit knowledge stressed the importance of the maxim in focusing both explicit and implicit modes of understanding. “Maxims are rules, the correct application of which is part of the art they govern....Maxims can only function within a framework of personal (i.e., experiential) knowledge”. [4]

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Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher (1724–1804)

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Categorical imperative Concept of Kantian philosophy

The categorical imperative is the central philosophical concept in the deontological moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Introduced in Kant's 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, it may be defined as a way of evaluating motivations for action.

<i>Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals</i>

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<i>Critique of Practical Reason</i> 1788 book by Immanuel Kant

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Kantianism Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher

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<i>The Metaphysics of Morals</i> 1797 work of political and moral philosophy by Immanuel Kant

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Kantian ethics Ethical theory of Immanuel Kant

Kantian ethics refers to a deontological ethical theory developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant that is based on the notion that: "It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will." The theory was developed as a result of Enlightenment rationalism, stating that an action can only be good if its maxim—the principle behind it—is duty to the moral law, and arises from a sense of duty in the actor.

Moral rationalism, also called ethical rationalism, is a view in meta-ethics according to which moral principles are knowable a priori, by reason alone. Some prominent figures in the history of philosophy who have defended moral rationalism are Plato and Immanuel Kant. Perhaps the most prominent figure in the history of philosophy who has rejected moral rationalism is David Hume. Recent philosophers who have defended moral rationalism include Richard Hare, Christine Korsgaard, Alan Gewirth, and Michael Smith.

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Radical evil is a phrase used by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, one representing the Christian term, radix malorum. Kant believed that human beings naturally have a tendency to be evil. He explains radical evil as corruption in a human being that takes over them entirely. It has their desire acting against the universal moral law. The outcome of one's natural tendency, or innate propensity, towards evil are actions or "deeds" that subordinate the moral law. By Kant, these actions oppose the universally moral maxims and displayed from self-love and self conceit. By many authors, Kant's concept of radical evil is seen as a paradox and inconsistent through his development of moral theories.

Inclination (ethics)

Aristotle defined inclination in the first paragraph of Metaphysics with the statement "all men by their nature, desire to know." Thomas Aquinas proposed that humans have four natural inclinations - a natural inclination to preservation (life), an inclination to sexual reproduction (procreation), sociability, and knowledge. Inclination in the modern philosophy of ethics is viewed in the context of morality, or moral worth.

The general concept or principle of moral universalizability is that moral principles, maxims, norms, facts, predicates, rules, etc., are universally true; that is, if they are true as applied to some particular case then they are true of all other cases of this sort. Some philosophers, like Immanuel Kant, Richard Hare, and Alan Gewirth, have argued that moral universalizability is the foundation of all moral facts. Others have argued that moral universalizability is a necessary, but not a sufficient, test of morality. A few philosophers have also argued that morality is not constrained by universalizability at all.

<i>The Right and the Good</i>

The Right and the Good is a 1930 book by the Scottish philosopher David Ross. In it, Ross develops a deontological pluralism based on prima facie duties. Ross defends a realist position about morality and an intuitionist position about moral knowledge. The Right and the Good has been praised as one of the most important works of ethical theory in the twentieth century.


  1. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Maxim (Oxford University Press 2008) p. 226
  2. Kant, Immanuel (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed . Translated by James W. Ellington. Hackett. pp.  30. ISBN   0-87220-166-X.
  3. Kant, Immanuel (1997). Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Mary Gregor. Cambridge University Press. pp. 25/5:27. ISBN   0-521-59051-5.
  4. Quoted in Guy Claxton, Live and learn (1992) p. 116