Recently I gave some lectures on Kant’s moral philosophy in my introductory ethics class. After explaining the “first formulation” of the Categorical Imperative — act only according that maxim which you can will to be a universal law — and working through a few toy examples, I pointed out the common objection that the CI seems often to be indeterminate. In most cases, it seems, a single action will conform to many different maxims, some of which pass the “universalisation” test and some of which fail. If I give the would-be murderer false information regarding the location of his intended victim, am I to reflect on the maxim “tell lies whenever the fancy takes you” or instead on the maxim “tell lies when doing so will prevent a murder”?
My students seemed to catch on quickly, prompting one to ask “doesn’t that make the Categorical Imperative completely useless?” To which, I must confess, I replied “well, yes, I think it does.” So far as I can tell (and perhaps this only reveals my gross ignorance of the literature), the indeterminacy objection is quite devastating.
My question for Kantians, then, is this: what is the current view among Kantians on this issue? Are there those who think the CI, in its first formulation, can be salvaged by proposing some principled way in which to single out one maxim for each action? Or are Kantians more apt to abandon the first formulation and rest their case on the second instead?