Since it’s midterm time, you might find yourself on the business end of a request to improve a grade because “it’s really important that I get an A!” (I got one of these a little while ago: “I need to do well in your class because I’m not doing well in orgo!” My reply– why don’t you solve that problem by doing better in orgo?– was deemed unhelpful.) And you might be tempted to respond: that’s stupid, go away. Here’s how you can say something even better, namely, “I’d love to help you out, but the very nature of rational agency forbids it.” Or, here’s why Kant would tell you not to raise the grade.

Cartoon version of Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Kant thinks that morality rests on a single command, the categorical imperative.* Kant’s first (“universal law”) formulation of the categorical imperative is this:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. (Groundwork 421)

The idea, basically: the maxim of your act (the rule or principle behind it, roughly) has to be such that

(a) it can be made into a universal law without contradiction; and
(b) you can will that it is a universal law without contradiction.

If your maxim can be universalized, then the act is all right; if not, it isn’t.

Kant follows this up with four examples where people in the midst of some ethical quandary (kill myself? make a lying promise? develop my talents? help others?) stop long enough to wonder what a good Kantian would do. (Answers: no on the first two, sometimes on the latter pair.) The most famous of these is the lying promise case. Suppose I need money, but the only way to get it is to promise (falsely) that I’ll pay you back. The maxim of my action is something like this: for my own benefit, I’ll make a lying promise. But when that maxim is made into a universal law, there’s a problem. If everyone tried to make lying promises, there could be no promises. (In other words, the law is contradictory because it commands promises while making promises impossible.)

What’s neat about the case is the way that widespread violation of a social practice destroys the practice. It’s a nice way of illustrating the unfairness of the wrong action: your benefit from the lie is possible only if other people are willing to do the hard work of keeping promises while letting you skate by as a kind of free-rider. What’s unfortunate about the case is that it’s one of the few examples where the Universal Law formulation works so cleanly.

Luckily, the “change my grade for the wrong reasons” case is similar. A grade is what it is because it’s tied to the quality of a student’s work. If it were assigned, universally, on the basis of something else, it wouldn’t be a grade anymore (or, if you like, it wouldn’t be used for, say, med school admissions). So the maxim “I’ll assign grades based on how large a bribe you slipped me” cannot be a universal law because, once universalized, it destroys the social practice of grading. Grades lose their meaning, just as “I promise” loses its meaning in a world where lying promises are mandated by universal law.

The problem with the “I need a higher grade” student is that he’s asking to be an exception. He wants the rules linking grades to quality to govern everyone else’s grades, while his own are governed by his self-interest. So he’s asking you to act in one way in his case and another way in everyone else’s. Or, if you want it in more grandiose terms, he’s asking you to act on reasons that cannot serve as reasons in relevantly similar situations, namely, other students requesting grades for their benefit.

In the background, there’s an idea that what it is to act for reasons involves acting on universal, if highly specific, principles. Thus the idea of acting for reasons that can’t be taken as reasons by other agents in relevantly similar circumstances is a big problem.

“…and that’s why I can’t change your grade. It’s not my choice– I’m just bound by the moral law in virtue of my rational agency!” Works every time.

*an imperative (or command) is categorical when it gives reason for action that are independent of any desire or inclination the agent has– it applies to all rational beings as such.