Front Page Titles (by Subject) Meeting Objections to the Universalizability Test - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Meeting Objections to the Universalizability Test - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Meeting Objections to the Universalizability Test
We must first of all note that, even in Kant and in Kantian writers other than Hayek, such as R.M. Hare and John Rawls, the test of universalizability does far more than rule out reference to particular persons or special groups. The test of universalizability does indeed, in the first instance, impose a demand of consistency as between similar cases, and in that sense imposes a merely formal requirement of non-discrimination. This is the first stage or element of universalization, the irrelevance of numerical differences. But the next stage of universalization is that of asking whether one can assent to the maxim being assessed coming to govern the conduct of other towards oneself: this is the demand of impartiality between agents, the demand that one put oneself in the other man's place. And this element or implication of universalizability leads on to a third, that we be impartial as between the preferences of others, regardless of our own tastes or ideals of life—a requirement of moral neutrality. I do not need to ask here exactly how these elements of universalizability are related to one another, to ask (most obviously) if the second is entailed by the first in any logically inexorable way, or similarly the third by the second. It is enough to note that there is a powerful Kantian tradition according to which strong implications do link the three phases of universalization, and that this is a tradition to which Hayek himself has always subscribed.84
Applying the full test of universalizability to the maxims that go towards making a legal order, we find that, not only are references to particulars ruled out, but the maxims must be impartial in respect of the interests of all concerned, and they must be neutral in respect of their tastes or ideals of life. If it be once allowed that the test of universalizability may be fleshed out in this fashion, it will be seen as a more full-blooded standard of criticism than is ordinarily allowed, and Hayek's heavy reliance on it will seem less misplaced. For, when construed in this fashion, the universalizability test will rule out (for example) most if not all policies of economic intervention as prejudicial to the interests of some and will fell all policies of legal moralism. Two large classes of liberal policy, supposedly allowable under an Hayekian rule of law, thus turn out to be prohibited by it.
Hayek himself is explicit that the test of universalizability means more than the sheerly formal absence of reference to particulars. As he puts it:
The test of the justice of a rule is usually (since Kant) described as that of its ‘universalizability,’ i.e. of the possibility of willing that the rules should be applied to all instances that correspond to the conditions stated in it (the ‘categorical imperative’). What this amounts to is that in applying it to any concrete circumstances it will not conflict with any other accepted rules. The test is thus in the last resort one of the compatibility or non-contradictoriness of the whole system of rules, not merely in a logical sense but in the sense that the system of actions which the rules permit will not lead to conflict.85
The maxims tested by the principle of universalizability, then, must be integrated into a system of nonconflictable or (in Leibniz’ terminology) compossible rules, before any of them can be said to have survived the test.
Again, the compatibility between the several rules is not one that holds in any possible world, but rather that which obtains in the world in which we live. It is here that Hayek draws heavily on Hume's account of the fundamental laws of justice, which he thinks to be, not merely compatible with, but in a large measure the inspiration for Kant's political philosophy.86 As I have already observed, the practical content of the basic rules of justice is given in Hume by anthropological claims, by claims of general fact about the human circumstance. It is by interpreting the demands of universalizability in the framework of the permanent necessities of human social life that we derive Hume's three laws of natural justice.
[84.] I draw heavily here on the account of universalization given in J. L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London: Penguin Books, 1977, pp. 83-102.
[85.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, p. 168.
[86.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, pp. 116-117: “What Kant had to say about this µjusticeÕ seems to derive directly from Hume.”