The Instigator
Pro (for)
6 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
3 Points

The categorical imperative vs. the principle of utility

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 12/15/2011 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 4 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 5,975 times Debate No: 19893
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (12)
Votes (3)




Full resolution: Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative is a more justified method of deducing moral actions than the principle of utility.

This debate is for Group A Round 2 of my tourney.

===Resolution and BoP===

The Pro will argue for Kant's first formulation as more justified while Con will argue for the principle of utility as more justified. Neither debater can win by simply disproving the other's case. The winner must not only prove their own case but disprove the other's.


Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative was to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[1] Hereon referred to as FF.

The principle of utility states that "actions or behaviors are right in so far as they promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain."[2] Hereon referred to as PU.

Justified: To demonstrate or prove to be just, right, or valid[3]

===Structure and rules===

1. Drops will count as concessions.

2. Semantic or abusive arguments will not be counted.

3. New arguments brought in the last round will not be counted.

4. R1 is for acceptance. Argumentation will begin in R2.




Challenge Accepted!

I would like to point out that the principle of utility is not to be measured by one's personal sense of pleasure, but by the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people.
Debate Round No. 1


I would first like to sincerely thank Lickdafoot for agreeing to debate this topic with me. I've been reading and thinking a lot about this subject and am glad she was so flexible with regards to the specific topic of debate. I also wish her the best of luck.

Premise 1: Apriori of communication and argumentation

Justification of any proposition must come through argumentation. This concept was expressed by Jurgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel and later expanded upon by Hans Hermann-Hoppe. The basic formulation goes as follows. Any attempt to deny that argumentation is necessary to justify a proposition unintentionally affirms what they are attempting to deny. Hoppe writes:

        • "It must be presupposed that any intellectual position, that it is meaningful and can be argued with regard to its cognitive value, simply because it is presented in a language and communicated. To argue otherwise would already implicitly admit its validity."[1]

So to argue against the concept that argumentation is necessary is to already assume the opposite of what you're arguing against by the very fact that you are arguing against it. This has been called a performative contradiction because one acts in a way that contradicts what they are saying.

Premise 2: Argumentation presupposes universalizability

If argumentation is a necessary requisite for the justification of any proposition, it logically follows that any presuppositions of argumentation are justified via the same reasoning as P1. For to deny presuppositions of discourse as unjustified would be to deny argumentation itself as a requisite for justification. Since I have shown the latter, the former is implied.

To show the reasoning behind the universalization principle, Kant offers the example of a lie. Imagine that you wish to get out of a ticket after you're pulled over for speeding. A good way might be to lie to the police officer by saying that you're wife is in labor and you were rushing to the hospital. This might get you out of the ticket, but Kant argued that to universalize the act of lying is to will that your lie would fail. This is because in order for a lie to work, one must operate under a general framework of truth telling. Otherwise no one would believe you. But if everyone in the world were to make it a habit to lie about everything, surely anyone you tried to lie to would suspect you as such. So to lie is to contradict yourself because you implicitly will that the lie fails. We can see through the example of lying that to argue against the universalization of one's maxims for acting is fall into contradiction.

Conclusion: One should act so that they could universalize their action

I showed in P1 that in order to justify a proposition, one must use communication and argumentation (called Y) to accomplish that. From this one can deduce that anything which is necessary for the justification of a proposition (called X) is itself justified. As I stated before, to deny X is essentially to deny Y because X must be assumed before Y. Since universalizability is a requisite to the act of argumentation and thus to justification, to argue against the universalization of one's actions is to fall into contradiction.

My next round will focus dually on my defense of my above argument and refutation of my opponent's. I now pass the debate on to Con.



My Case

The principle of utility establishes that acts should be in accordance with what brings happiness or pleasure, instead of discomfort or pain. Acts should be determined by the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people.

The Principle of Utility has two basic steps which apply towards the standards of one’s actions. [1]

1. Pain & Pleasure

The concepts of pain and pleasure are fundamental in a human’s life. Each of us has receptors in our brain which make us capable of feeling and distinguishing pleasure and pain. Good can be equated to what brings about happiness, while evil can be equated with suffering. Pain and pleasure can be measured by the quality of one’s experience, and by the quantity of people benefiting from the experience.

2. Action approval

Actions can be approved or disapproved by the amount of pain or pleasure that they bring about. Therefore, consequences are essential to establishing the merit of an action. One cannot truly act in a neutral way because an action always has a reaction. A cause always has an effect. Consequences are intertwined with our actions. The principle of utility allows us to act in a way that will reach the desired outcome, not only for ourselves, but for the greatest amount of people. Therefore, the principle of utility is the most beneficial basis for our actions.

Categorical Imperative supports Principle of Utility

Universality can only be achieved by applying a certain amount of moral standards to an action. What one person thinks everyone should do very well could be different than what others think everyone should do. A heroin addict probably wishes that everyone should be on heroin. This would make life much easier for them. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone should get doped up. In order to establish an ideal as being universal, we have to think about the moral ramifications of an action. This is established through rule-utilitarianism [2] which says that we should act in accordance to the rules of what is good.

I ask my opponent if there are any universal laws for human conduct that are neutral rather than good in nature?


Premise 1:

I wouldn't necessarily say that argumentation is necessary for the justification of a proposition; although an act that presupposes argumentation is necessary: Logical thought. One can develop a plan without arguing for that plan. They cannot develop a plan without thinking or strategizing as a means of coming up with that plan. Acting upon that plan in and of itself is justification of the plan. Argumentation is only required when it conflicts with another person’s place in the proposition.

My opponent says that denying the concept of arguing to justify an action is affirming the opposite of what you are arguing. Arguing against arguing naturally means that you are doing what you are denying; this is a clear contradiction of itself. How this contradiction transfers to any law in a universal way is unclear and not supported.

Premise 2:

My opponent has used circular reasoning to establish premise 2. He claims that lying is setting yourself up for failure because if everyone lied, then no one would believe anyone. This statement is justifying the categorical imperative by assuming its truth. Remember, the categorical imperative theory is to act upon what could be a universal law. Using universal law as an applier to the premise therefore does not proove its truth. We cannot affirm the truth of a premise to support a theory if the premise relies on the theory for its truth.

But for the sake of the debate, lets apply his premise to the example he used. Imagine that no one in the world lied. Everyone would believe what they hear as truth. If you've ever seen a funny little movie called "The Invention of Lying"[3] you will see that living in a world void of lies gives great opportunity for one to achieve what they want through lying, because the liar will always be believed. The first liar told everyone a tale about a Creator who lived in the Sky; promising eternal bliss for those who treat each other kindly. This was a satire on the foundation of religion. Even though this was fictional, we can see that through a similar hypothetical situation, one would not be setting themselves up for failure if they acted against what was considered universal. They would be achieving their desired goal. My opponent has given no justification for why someone should not act against a universal law, or even what is required for a law to be universal.

Opponent's Conclusion:

My opponents tie in of the premises to the categorical imperative is that universalizability is a requisite to argumentation for justification. This is an assumption. Nowhere did my opponent show the significance of universalizability in relation to the justification of actions through argumentation.

For instance, you can argue that you did something because it was the best option given your circumstances, even though it would be detrimental on a universal scale. The action that you took does not have to be universal in order for it to be the best choice for you. Say for example you are low on cash and winter is gearing up. You take a demanding job that is detrimental to your health in order to cover the electric bill to keep your family warm throughout the winter. It is not necessarily beneficial to take a job that is detrimental to ones health. You are committing to an action that can harm yourself, which could be considered, on a small scale, self-mutilation or suicide. If everyone were to put themselves at risk, most people would end up dead. A rich man would have no need to take a job that was detrimental to their health. Sacrificing your safety for the security of your family is justified, even though it is not appropriate on a universal scale.


Humans are complex and so are their decisions. What is justified for one is not always universal. Justification to actions is more suited to moral standards that we have created through our notions of good (pleasure) and bad (pain.) In fact, Universalizability can only be determined through what is good for humanity in whole. The principle of utility determines what actions are the best for the greatest amount of people, which extends to humanity. Therefore, the principle of utility determines categorical imperative.


Debate Round No. 2


Refutation of Con's case

Lack of evidence for intrinsic goodness of pleasure

The central premise of utilitarianism is that pleasure or happiness is an intrinsic good d thus one should pursue it as a moral good. However, a requisite for this would be for Con to provide evidence of the intrinsic goodness of pleasure which she has failed to do. If pleasure cannot be shown to be good than it cannot be shown to be morally good to pursue.

Whether consequences are necessary in moral calculation

Obviously the more general debate over consequentialism and deontology will come up and my opponent makes a preemptive case for consequentialism. She argues that since the amount of pleasure or pain an action creates is vital in the calculation of its moral worth, consequences are therefore a necessity in determining what is moral and what is not. However, the intrinsic goodness of pleasure or happiness has yet to be proved and until my opponent shows this, her defense of consequentialism lacks warrant.

Whether the FF supports the PU

My opponent argues here that some sort of moral standard must be applied in order to achieve universalizability. Con argues that a heroin addict might want to universalize addiction to heroin and thus universalizability by itself is not enough. However, this point illuminates a basic misunderstanding of the first formulation.

The FF doesn't argue that anything which can be universalized must be acted on, but that anything which cannot be universalized ought not to be acted upon. For instance, one could take the example of being a race car driver. If we universalize the maxim that everyone should be a race car driver, we don't run into a contradiction of either will or nature since a world of only race car drivers is logically possible to exist and there is no contradiction in willing everyone to be one. However, the FF doesn't say everyone should therefore be race car driver, it just doesn't rule it out.

Defense of the Pro case

Premise 1 and concession

My opponent seems to have conceded that a denial of the apriori of argumentation and communication results in a contradiction. I see no reason to argue this point hereon then. My opponent does however express doubts as to how this translates into universal law. I cover this in my premise 2.

Premise 2 and circular reasoning

My opponent argues that I applied circular reasoning to arrive at the conclusion of the soundness of the FF by applying it to my premise. This is a mere misconception on my opponent's part. Far from using circular reasoning, I employed an argument from the contrary, using the contradiction of the denial of FF to show it's truth.

Refer to my example in R2, that the universalization of lying is a contradiction in will since you basically will that your lie should fail. It might look on the surface that circular reasoning was employed, however my case relies on assuming the contrary, namely that univeralization of maxims for actions do not result in contradiction. As I showed however, it does, thus affirming the FF.

My opponent's next point is that in a world without lying, there would be no basis not to believe a lie. Besides the fact that lying is only a single example of the FF and a refutation of this one example does nothing to disprove the principle on which it is based, my opponent's reasoning behind this point is lacking.

My opponent offers as an example, a movie called The Invention of Lying. Obviously though this movie was not intended to demonstrate any philosophical principle but was a comedy lampooning gullibility and some aspects of religion. Nevertheless, my opponent makes the mistake of believing that the laws of logic would not exist in a world without lying. Obviously lying entails a contradiction from the truth. Otherwise it wouldn't be a lie. Assuming of course that the laws of logic are still known, finding out that something is not the truth would still be possible, even if people didn't understand the motivation behind someone speaking an untruth.

Defense of my conclusion from P1 and P2

My opponent argues that I never provide justification for universalization as a requisite for argumentation. However, as I showed in my defense of P2, a denial of universalization entails a contradiction. This is what ties in my P2 with my P1. The same line of reasoning is used, namely performative contradiction. Just like a denial of the apriori of argumentation and communication results in contradiction, so does a denial of universalization as a requisite for non-contradicting maxims for action.


First I will be defending my case, and then I shall move on the rebuttals of my opponent’s case.

Intrinsic Good

An intrinsic good is something thats very nature itself is good, or worthwhile. Intrinsic goods are states of consciousness. [1] Happiness is a state of conscious which is good in nature and therefore is itself an intrinsic good. You can see this when you ask yourself the question “Why do I want to be happy?” It is self-explanatory. We want to be happy because the state of happiness is an intrinsic good.

It also follows that things that bring about happiness bring about an intrinsic good. The actions that we take to arise at an intrinsic good are considered instrumental goods. For example, having an education will lead to a successful life and wealth, which leads to fulfillment, or happiness. If we act upon what is instrumentally good, we will be led to an intrinsic good. Anything that brings about a state of happiness or pleasure is bringing about an intrinsic good.


My opponent’s argument against this contention is that I have not shown proof of the intrinsic good of happiness. Since I have done this, this point is conceded.

FF Supports PU

My opponent says that my contention here is a misunderstanding of the formulation. This is not the case. He says that anything that can not be universalized should not be acted upon. I already gave an example of this in my first round, which my opponent has not responded to. A person who risks his life to take a dangerous job in order to support his family would not be universally logical. If everyone took a high-risk job, many people would wind up injured, sick, or dead. However, it is a beneficial option for those in certain circumstances. Since this was not responded to, it can be conceded that there are beneficial actions that are not universal.

In order for something to deny universality, it has to be negative on a worldwide scale. For example, being a rapist would bring about suffering to the victim. If everyone was a rapist, everyone would suffer. It should not be universal because the state of suffering is intrinsically bad. Therefore, we are using the PU to determine the FF.

Now let’s move on to my opponents case.

Premise 2 - Circular Reasoning

My opponent says that his case employs an example of a contradiction which affirms the truth of the FF; while saying that my refutation is flawed and therefore does not deny the truth of FF. He’s made a contradiction himself here.

First, Pro says that lying would deny universal law because if everyone lied, no one would believe anything. Pro then says that if everyone told the truth, people could still find deception in things due to logic. He has applied logic to my example while not applying it to his own. If everyone lied, one could still use logic to determine what was truth. In fact, we can see that right in front of our faces. We live in a world where everyone lies; for someone to deny that would themselves be lying. Yet we still have the logical ability to determine a lie from the truth. Therefore, his case does not support how lying would fail due to it’s universal implications, and is simply relying on the FF for truth to make the case.

Premise 1 & Conclusion

My opponent has not directly responded to these refutations, and said that his premise 2 supports them. Because his second premise is flawed, the rest of his argument falls to pieces and remain un-refuted. Extend the argument that the denial of argumentation does not extend to universality. Extend the argument that universalization is not necessarily a requisite for argumentation.


My opponent has not shown a clear example of why someone should act only on universal laws; whereas I have shown a clear, un-refuted example of why one would act upon something that was not universal. Furthermore, I have shown how actions that we take can lead us to happiness or suffering, and acting upon the greatest amount of happiness is the most appropriate standard to a set of moral values.

Debate Round No. 3


Intrinsic good

Con, in her argument for the intrinsic goodness of happiness, mistakes someone wanting something for something actually being good. A drug addict wants heroin but why should that mean that heroin is good? Con asks why people want to be happy. The answer is that it feels good, it's pleasurable. However, my opponent still has not provided a link between something feeling good and that same thing actually being good. The two are not synonymous. I will not comment for or against my opponent's conclusion though that if an intrinsic good be found, that actions taken to bring that would be instrumental goods for the necessary premise for making that conclusion (that happiness is an intrinsic good) has not been proven.


As the consequences argument rests on the intrinsic good argument as a necessary requisite, disproving it will disprove the consequences argument. As I have done this, no further comment is necessary on this argument.

The FF supports the PU

On my opponent's example of a man pondering whether to take a high risk job, she again misinterprets the first formulation. My opponent argues that Kantianism would not support this action and therefore cannot be sufficient as a moral rule since in some circumstances, it could be beneficial. However, even as my opponent's initial reasoning is faulty, it also does not correctly represent the first formulation. So even if Kantianism was correctly represented, my opponent's conclusion would not follow.

Begging the question

My opponent basically argues that the first formulation does not conform to consequentialism, therefore it must be false. My opponent argues that there are beneficial arguments which are not universalizable, therefore the first formulation is false and insufficient. However, this argument begs the question for it first assumes the validity of utilitarianism as a premise in showing why Kantianism must be false, thus proving utilitarianism as superior.

Cultivation of skills

But on to my opponent's representation of the first formulation, it does not correctly represent the conclusion which adherence to the first formulation would bring. Cultivating one's skills was argued by Kant to be an imperfect duty on one's part. It wasn't a perfect duty since universalizing a world in which no one cultivated their skills was at least conceptually possible. However, it resulted in a contradiction in will if universalized.

The reasoning being that no one is able to provide for every single one of their needs, no one is completely self sufficient in the world. This means that one's being rests on the ability of other people to provide for these needs i.e. making food (a cook at a restaurant), building a house (a construction worker), etc. From this it follows that willing that no one would cultivate their skills or natural talents would result in willing that no one would cultivate the skills necessary for one's own well being which is a contradiction in one's will. So even if my opponent's initial reasoning didn't beg the question, it would not be a sound criticism of the first formulation.

Circular reasoning of the FF

My opponent argues that I am being inconsistent in my application of reasoning to the negative and affirmative cases respectively.

Universal lying and the ability to discern the truth

My opponent argues that even in a world of lying, one could still apply logic to determine the truth value of a proposition. I completely and utterly agree with this proposition and I actually used it to show that in a world of only lying, everyone would not necessarily believe any ridiculous thing that anyone said since the faculties of logic are presumably still available. My opponent argues though that this fact proves that in a world of lying, people would still be able to determine what is really the truth. Arguing this, I believe my opponent has misunderstood my initial argument. I argued that since a framework of general truth telling is necessary for someone to believe a lie, everyone lying would undermine the credibility if most if not all lies, meaning that to lie would be to implicitly will that no one would believe that lie. This results in a contradiction of will and thus the FF condemns it. Nowhere in my argument did I argue that no one would know whether or not someone was telling the truth in a world where everyone lies at all times.

Premise 1 and conclusion

My opponent argues that since my premise 2 is flawed, the rest of my argument fails. I will not comment further on this argument since the argument concerning the soundness of my premise 2 is still ongoing. My premise 2 covers the denial of universalization as a necessary contradiction.


My opponent's supposed refuting example of a person who would benefit more from taking a risky job as against the FF has been shown to be faulty on two counts. First, it relies on an implicit assumption of the validity of utilitarianism as a premise for the conclusion of the validity of utilitarianism, therefore it employs circular reasoning. Second, it ignores the fact that the FF supports the cultivation of one's skills as an imperfect duty. My opponent has also only shown happiness to be desired, not that it is intrinsically good. Nor has my opponent shown the link between someone wanting something and that thing necessarily being good for them. Since my opponent could not show the intrinsic goodness of happiness, she has provided no reason to believe that acting so as to bring happiness is moral.



Unfortunately, I do not have much time so I will have to make this very breif

Intrinsic Good Of Pleasure

Intrinsc good is defined by something that is inherently good. Happiness is a state of conciousness that is inherently good, so all pleasure is an intrinsic good. My opponent brings up the point that herion makes one feel happiness even though it is not good. This has more to do with the instrumental good of heroin rather than the intrinsic good of pleasure. The state of pleasure that one achieves by heroin can still be considered an intrinsic good. It makes one feel good and therefore it is good. However, the instrumental good, the act of taking the heroin to achieve the pleasure, is where the fault lies. There are more beneficial ways of one achieving a state similar to a high, such as excercising, meditation, saring love with someone, etc.

FF Supports the PU

My opponent brings up the point that I beg the question because I rely on utilitarianism to disproove the theory. I would like to ask the readers what they would do in a situation where your family needed money to survive. Would you do the best for your family and take a risky job, or would you not take it because it does not support universbility?

Circular Reasoning

My opponent here says that his orginal premise remains cohesive due to the fact that lying undermines that lie and wills it to fail. Again, this is relying on the premise of universability because lying does not will for that lie to fail unless everyone were to lie. In reality, everyone does lie and people get away with it al the time.


My main point has been that the best way to maximise ones actions is to achieve the most amount of pleasure for the most amount of people. I showed why this is the most sound framework for one's actions because it allows for us to reach an intrinisic good. Also, I have shown how my opponents case fo universability is not sound because there are instinces where it does not apply to the real world. It should therefore not be a standrard for our real world actions.

I apologize for the short response but again, I do not have enough time to bring about a detailed response. I thank my opponent for this interesting topic. I have learned quite a bit, and I wish him luck!
Debate Round No. 4
12 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by Raisor 4 years ago
Con had a very very weak R4.

Intrinsic Good- Con wins that happiness/pleasure is an intrinsic good. It isnt really an awesome strategy for Pro to rest most of his case on "Con needs to prove this"- just hit it off with offensive arguments like the heroin one that is presented far too late in R4.

Pro is right that the FF doesnt rely on utilitarianism- this is a common critique that I think is very misguided and easily refuted.

Con's circularity argument is also sort of confused. She misses the heart of Pro's argument about performative contradiction. At the same time Pro could have been a little clearer in his response on this topic. I think he responds effectively, I would just say that there is room for improvement in clearly and succinctly getting his point across.

Con's strongest argument is her critique of the concept of universalizability in general (the dangerous job argument). Unfortunately, this argument sort of loses direction during the debate (it doesnt prove that the FF supports PU- which is where it is mixed in later in the round) and just isnt used as forcefully as it could. Pro makes a huge mistake not replying to it immediately, but his late response in R4 is compelling and is not met with a response in Con's R4.

This was a close debate until R4, where Con just sort of dribbled out an argument instead of typing out the quality argument needed to respond to Pro.

Vote: Pro
Posted by socialpinko 4 years ago
I'd like more than one vote before the voting period ends.
Posted by Mestari 4 years ago
I'll vote on this debate when I finish reading it later.
Posted by OMGJustinBieber 4 years ago
This debate was interesting, but it's important to note that moral universalism is not incompatible with utilitarianism. Con notes this in the conclusion "Universalizability can only be determined through what is good for humanity in whole" and I don't think it's ever responded to. I find the marriage of discourse ethics and Kant to be a little confusing, and I think Pro should have focused more on Kant's original case and the specific conditions he argued rather than the amorphous nature of discourse theory. Discourse ethics is fundamentally a procedure, and IMO Con would have done better exposing commonly cited "bad cases" of utilitarianism (i.e. how the traditional utilitarian calculus fails.)
Posted by socialpinko 4 years ago
Yeah this debate was really fun for me. Good luck in the voting period. Forgot to say that in the last round.
Posted by Lickdafoot 4 years ago
great last round! I will have my work cut out for me :)
Posted by Lickdafoot 4 years ago
:( that really sucks
Posted by socialpinko 4 years ago
I was writing up my rebuttal and my entire argument just got deleted. I'll have it up before my time runs out though.
Posted by Lickdafoot 4 years ago
heh, i'm not at all but i'm coming up with some decent arguments I think :P we'll see...
Posted by OMGJustinBieber 4 years ago
Spinko, we should start a dialogue as I just finished a 14 page paper on discourse ethics. This is gonna be really tough for Lickdafoot if she isn't well-versed in this area -- good luck!
3 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Vote Placed by RoyLatham 4 years ago
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Total points awarded:30 
Reasons for voting decision: A good debate by both sides in making difficult material clear. Con did not find a sustainable counterexample to the FF. The debate indicated to me that principle of utility requires the categorical imperative to tell what is good. Individual pleasure seeking fails, so some broader principle must be asserted. The utility principle of itself does not provide that, but the CI does. (Nit: "hereon" > "hereinafter")
Vote Placed by Raisor 4 years ago
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Total points awarded:30 
Reasons for voting decision: RFD in comments
Vote Placed by OMGJustinBieber 4 years ago
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Total points awarded:03 
Reasons for voting decision: RFD in comments.