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Kant’s Categorical Imperative and the Golden, Silver, and Platinum Rules

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Theology, and Thinking Out Loud

I. The Rules Everyone Knows

A. The Two “Normal” Rules

A lot of people confuse the Golden Rule with the Silver Rule. Here’s the Golden Rule:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12, NRSV)

Many people confuse this with the Silver Rule:

What I do not wish others to do unto me, I also wish not to do unto others. (Analects 5.12, Slingerland translation)

The Golden rule tells you what to do, while the Silver Rule tells you want not to do.


B. The Suspicious, Weird Rule

But if the Silver Rule says, “Don’t do things to other people that you wouldn’t want them to do to you,” and the Golden Rule says, “Do for other people the things that you would like them to do for you,” the Platinum Rule would say:

Do unto others what they would have you do unto them.

In other words, the “altruistic trajectory” established by the Sliver and Golden Rules allows us to speculate about an “even higher” rule — a rule that bases what you do for other people on what they want you to do.


II. Kant’s Version of All Three Rules

A. The Two Normal Formulas

It just so happens that Kant gives us all three — Silver, Gold, and Platinum — in his three “formulations” of the Categorical Imperative. Okay, so the correspondence is rough, but take a look:

Formula 1: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals II, p. 421

[English: 30])

This is the Silver Rule. It tells you what not to do by saying, “Don’t do anything that is irrational — that is, don’t do anything that would be inconsistent with reason if reason were to command that everyone do it.” (See p. 424 [English: 32]).


Now, take a look at the second way Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative.

Formula 2: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” (Grounding II, p. 429 [English: 36]).

This formula is positive, first and foremost. It tells us how to treat other people — treat them like beings for whom it is worth doing things. Why? Because that is how we treat ourselves (p. 429 [English: 36]).

It’s also negative (it would be irrational/inconsistent to treat yourself as a “goal” and other people as mere “means”) but the idea is to treat other people the way you treat yourself.


B. The Third, Weird One

Now, here’s the Platinum Rule. It’s found in the third way Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative.

Formula 3: “[E]very rational being . . . must regard himself as legislating universal law by all his will’s maxims.” (Grounding II, p. 433 [English: 39])


We have to follow Kant’s reasoning a little further to see what he’s saying. Formula 3 “leads to another very fruitful concept . . . that of a kingdom of ends” (p. 433 [English: 39]).

A rational being belongs to the kingdom of ends as a member when he legislates in it universal laws while also being himself subject to these laws. He belongs to it as sovereign, when a legislator he is himself subject to the will of no other. (Grounding II, p. 433 [English: 40])

Now, it just so happens that “[a] rational being must always regard himself as legislator in a kingdom of ends” (p. 434 [English: 40]).

But what does that mean?


Here’s what it means: If you were to live in a “Kingdom of Ends,” you would have a very strange experience. You would see that everyone followed the same rules, but if you asked any of them who made up those rules, each of them would claim that she or he was the one.

If you ask Bob, “Why do people in this Kingdom treat each other so kindly?” Bob would say, “Because that’s the rule I made for everyone.” But if you asked Sally the same question, she would say, “Bob made that rule? Lols. No, I made that rule. I’m the one in charge of this country.” And if you asked Sam or Wilma the same question, you’d get the same answer each time.


So, that means Formula 3 amounts to this:

Formula 3′: “Always follow rules that everyone (including you) could make for themselves and everyone else.”

That is, treat others the way they would choose for everyone to act. It’s just that to make this assumption consistently, you have to assume that everyone is rational and thus would choose for everyone to act in the same ways.


C. Conclusion

So, Formula 1 is, “Don’t do things (to other people) if you couldn’t choose for everyone to do them (to you)” (Silver Rule). Formula 2 is, “Treat other people in the same way you treat yourself” (Golden Rule). And Formula 3 is, “Do what everyone would choose for you to do” (Platinum Rule).


  1. Ezra

    Good ol’ Kant was morally consistent with his categorical imperative because he never allowed any exceptions, but I wonder if he really believed that people could really live according the the categorical imperative when other people didn’t?

    July 30, 2015
  2. That’s a good question. I haven’t read enough of his other writings/lectures on moral issues to know. I do know that he thinks it will take an infinite amount of time for each of us to become morally perfect, and thus — since each of us has the moral obligation to be morally perfect, and you cannot have an obligation to do something impossible — each of us will be given an infinite amount of time to work on it. (His proof of the afterlife.)

    July 30, 2015

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