The Reading Room

What if everyone did that? Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Ethics (1785)

“The categorical imperative is therefore single and one: ‘Act from that maxim only which thou canst will law universal.’”—Immanuel Kant, Groundwork, Chapter II
Immanuel Kant makes a case for living by freely chosen maxims (private rules) that would be moral if made law for all. He essentially enjoins the individual, who ponders what to do in a moral situation, to ask herself: What if everyone did that?
Two fundamental empirical objections naturally arise:
  • In real life, maxims are not universal laws. For example, ‘Honesty is the best policy’ (a private maxim) is neither a universal social norm nor the law of the land. A 19th-century Sicilian proverb states: Cu’ dici la virità va ’impisu. (One who tells the truth be hanged.) In liberal states, laws against fraud and perjury are narrowly circumscribed.
  • An individual’s adherence to a moral maxim may not induce others to share the maxim. For example, ‘Turn the other cheek’ may inspire emulation—or may induce others to take advantage of adherents. The environment is strategic.
These empirical objections do not undermine the Kantian case for the rule of law and the liberal state. Rather, they remind us that the liberal state requires law enforcement, courts of justice, and special principles of diplomacy for relations among states.
Do these empirical objections undermine the categorical imperative—the purchase of the question, What if everyone did that?—in individual choices in civil society? Let me focus on this aspect of everyday moral psychology.
The paradox of (instrumental) voting
Consider a real-life situation at the interface of civil society and the liberal state: the paradox of voting.
In large elections the individual has no instrumental reason to vote, as a means to a political end, even if the election has great consequence. The chance that an individual vote will change the outcome is practically nil. The act of voting takes time and trouble. The actual bother of voting outweighs the negligible impact of the individual’s vote. Is it any wonder that voter turnout is sensitive to the weather? Hence the paradox of voting, a staple of political science.
A Kantian—and many voters—will reply, ‘If everyone abstains from voting, then democracy will collapse.’ Moreover, voters get irked when an abstainer invokes the paradox of voting. Emotional reaction is a sign that a voter feels that voting is a social norm—an informal rule that constitutes and binds a community.
Nonetheless there remains a stubborn fact. Unless the individual happens to be an influencer, her abstention does not determine whether others vote. (An influencer is the exception that proves the empirical rule.) Democracy does not collapse if an individual abstains. 
An individual might have social reason to vote, simply to avoid finger-pointing by voters who would enforce their norm. We are back to our previous point: Kant’s categorical imperative requires police, formal or informal, in the real world.
The paradox of voting for the lesser evil
Majority rule, a core institution of democracy, tends to induce formation of a two-party system—or binary coalitions of parties—that converge towards the median voter. This is another staple of political science.
Now picture a partisan Kantian, who takes a political side in the context of majority rule. Having already raised the stakes of abstention by asking, What if everyone did that?, the partisan Kantian then doubles down with the fallacy of the lesser evil. He presses the harried individual citizen, already primed to believe that democracy will collapse if she abstains, to vote for the lesser evil of the two main candidates, lest she waste her fateful vote. 
Q: ‘What if everyone who dislikes the greater evil disperses votes across minor candidates?’ A: ‘Then the greater evil will win.’ 
Individuals distant from the median voter then fear to vote for minor candidates. Thus, partisan Kantians deploy the categorical imperative ad hoc to address not only whether to vote, but also how: Vote for the lesser evil.
Yet the stubborn fact remains. An individual who votes for a minor candidate does not thereby change how others vote.
Expressive voting & expressive abstention
If, instead, the individual would take to heart the fact that her vote (or abstention) will not change the outcome of the election, she would have reason to switch from illusory instrumental voting to genuine expressive voting. She would not feel that she must hold her nose when she votes. She would vote for a candidate, however minor, who reasonably closely represents her priorities and values.
Instrumental voting is irrational because an individual vote is a drop in the ocean. By contrast, expressive voting is rational because it instantiates authenticity for the individual voter.
Abstention, too, may be expressive and rational as a tacit statement—a way of voting with one’s feet—about the lack of worthy candidates among the evils. Abstention may rationally express alienation, which otherwise would remain hidden and unregistered in Kantian voting.
An expressive vote or abstention may be socially informative, even though it does not determine the election’s outcome, insofar as it contributes a pixel of nuance to the social snapshot of heterogeneous beliefs and values in the electorate. Moreover, if expressive voting becomes general practice, it may also be instrumental, a means to an end, for the purpose of recording myriad authentic preferences on a pointillist canvas.
It is hard for an individual to make sure that an authentic vote is also a sound vote. Most people lack time, resources, ability, or inclination to master thorny issues around complex policy questions or to arrive at solid character judgements of candidates. Perhaps an individual can engage in wise deference and rely on political recommendations by others, whose competence she trusts, and whose values she shares. Alternatively, an individual who feels uninformed may wisely express cognitive humility by abstaining.
Evolutionary psychology & the categorical imperative
The categorical imperative is incongruent in large elections because the individual voter has neither weight nor influence. Why, then, does the categorical imperative nonetheless loom large in the psychology of whether and how to vote?
I conjecture an answer in the spirit of evolutionary psychology. Aspects of moral psychology evolved and became hard-wired when humans lived in bands of hunters-gatherers and in neolithic farming villages, at the dawn of human culture. Membership of a band or village was perhaps around 150 persons. Correspondingly, the number of relationships an individual can track and maintain—Dunbar's Number (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar)—is roughly in the same range.
Perhaps we are hard-wired to ask ourselves, regardless of scale, What if everyone did that?, because social norms were the fundamental, comprehensive governance institution in bands and villages. Everyone knew everyone else. Everyone monitored and shaped everyone else’s reputations, opportunities, and behaviors. 
Kant’s categorical imperative, then, is the informal law of primordial society, writ large, and writ abstractly, in the liberal state and modernity.
Acknowledgment: I thank Liberty Fund for organizing a Virtual Reading Group, “H. L. Mencken on Commerce, Culture, and Democracy” (September 2023), which prompted me to clarify my thoughts about the psychology of voting.