Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (+ Critique of Practical Reason)

By Immanuel Kant, 1797

Earlier thinkers—such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine—had considered ethical matters, but almost always as part of a general discussion of what behavior best accords with reason, where “because it’s your duty”, “because it’s good for you”, and “because it’ll make you happy” are all valid considerations.  Immanuel Kant was, to my knowledge, the first to consider only the first consideration, duty, to the explicit exclusion of the other two.  Arguably this makes him the founder of the modern discipline of ethics, and it so revolutionized the way we categorize arguments that we are often surprised when we read an earlier thinker, like Cicero or Aquinas, appealing to both duty and self-interest in the same writing.  Surely these pre-Kantian thinkers were confusing hypothetical and categorical imperatives?  No, they just weren’t doing ethics in the specialized sense that we now take it.

Kant’s goal is to understand duty.  The first thing he notices is that you can’t understand duty through incentives, i.e. “do X so that you can have Y”.  This is a hypothetical imperative.  Suppose I say “well, I don’t want Y”.  Then the command “do X” loses all its force.  Duty can’t be like this; it must be rooted in a categorical imperative, i.e. something of the form “always do Z”.  “Always do Z” can have no motivation outside itself.  Kant thinks it must be utterly independent of any consequences that follow from Z, e.g. it mustn’t be that we do Z because it promotes H.  Why is this?  After all, Aristotle also saw the need for moral reasoning to rest on an axiomatic first principle, but he concluded from it that there must be something that is good in itself which it is always right to pursue for no other purpose than itself.  Why not say “Z is to be done because it promotes the supreme good, H”?  Kant won’t allow this for two reasons, both of which are fundamental to his whole philosophical enterprise.  First, for Kant, everything in the human consciousness is either imposed by the mind itself, or is experiential data.  There is no third thing.  Furthermore, we can tell what comes from where, because these two components of our experience have different characters.  That which comes from the ordering functions of the mind, “reason”, has the character of necessity.  That which comes from outside is contingent.  From this follows Kant’s refusal to believe—as the scholastics and phenomenologists claim—that we can apprehend essences.   If these were anything other than organizing principles in the mind, they would have to be something like sense perceptions, meaning they could be wrong.  Furthermore, they could only refer to the essence I perceive right now, so they could never be universal, as essences are supposed to be.  I have not found an explicit argument for this belief; it seems to be a sort of intuition on which the philosophy rests.  Anyway, Kant also thinks the apprehension of value or goodness is also like this.  I may think H is the supreme good, but because it’s something outside myself, I can’t be sure of it (e.g. how do you know the beatific vision is so great?), so a morality based on H is ultimately uncertain.  The second reason Kant rejects the idea of basing ethics on a good to be pursued is that it would mean that the will would be fixed by something outside itself.  He calls this “heteronomy”, and he thinks it a degrading condition.  The will should not be constrained, even by human nature.  The moral law must come from reason itself, uncontaminated by external motivations.  Only thus will the will be autonomous, i.e. self-determining and free.  Absolute devotion to duty is Kant’s ideal of freedom.

From the above, we can imagine how the true categorical imperative is to be found:  we must simply subtract off everything that has to do with my (or anyone else’s) external incentives, and see what’s left.  What’s left will be something universal and impartial, and it’s fair to say that Kant’s categorical imperative consists of nothing but universality and impartiality.  His main statement of it is to only do what you could will to be universal law.  That is, if you wouldn’t want everyone to do it, don’t do it yourself, because you’re no exception.  Another version of the imperative (Kant thinks they’re all equivalent, but I’m not sure how to see this) is to always treat every person as an end, not just a means.  This is, I think, a profound statement, one that arguably is the basis of all morality.  It certainly has the ability to clarify a number of moral problems, and one can see from it why consequentialism is immoral.  On the other hand, the command is rather too abstract as it stands.  How are we to treat other people as ends if we don’t have a fixed (non-empirical) idea of what is good for them?  Kant has abolished Aristotle’s moral teleology, and in doing so arguably burned the bridge between his imperative and its application.  One way out is liberalism:  treating people as ends means promoting each person’s preferences without favoritism between people or negative judgment of anyone.  Another way out, the Thomist route, is to re-admit teleology, but one that includes the imperative intrinsically.  Another way is that of the value ethicists, to postulate objective values which it’s good for people to appreciate and share.  Finally, there’s the Hegelian solution, that abstract morality only becomes concrete in a rational social context.

Kant thinks that certain ideas are presumed by ethical reasoning.  Most obviously, ethical deliberation presumes free will.  I wouldn’t be thinking about what I should do if I didn’t have the idea that I have the power to decide.  Thus, free will is a “truth” of practical reason.  We can’t in any way prove from this that the will really is free.  If it isn’t, then our moral reasoning doesn’t make sense, but so what?  Maybe our moral reasoning doesn’t ultimately make sense.  Whether it does or not, we can’t avoid moral deliberation, so we can’t escape its logical presuppositions.  Therefore, Kant suggests, it’s reasonable to go ahead and believe them.  He also thinks that we can derive the existence of God and the immortality of the soul that way.  If these things aren’t true, our day-to-day moral reasoning doesn’t make sense.  Nevertheless, they might not be true, but that’s not a useful thing to consider.  The argument given from morality to God is pretty weak, but I think good arguments could be made for this claim.

Kant was the greatest philosopher since Aristotle, and his ethical writings are deservedly regarded as masterpieces.  In my opinion, his ethical doctrines are correct as far as they go, but incomplete.

4 Responses

  1. […] I’ve reviewed a couple of classics:  Aristotle’s Politics and Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Maybe I’m getting lazy, reviewing stuff that I read a long time ago, but hopefully it […]

  2. I find it weird that you accept “treat people as ends, not means” so easily, as it is most likely the No. 1 basis of the modernity / Enlightenment you disagree with.

    Don’t you as a religious person see yourself as a mean of, tool of God? Don’t you think whenever people have a strong ethic of service, seeing themselves as means serving some other end, such as in The Last Samurai, it is pretty much the easiest way to define what is truly noble? Do you suspect that this service ethic is probably the basis of a happy life because it really helps keeping the ego, vanity etc. in check?

    Is it not very defensible that the very basis of a noble life is to see ourselves as a mean for some higher end?

    But if we do so with ourselves, why would see others different? If we see others as ourselves: as means, it creates the basis for empathy and compassion. The kind of camaraderie between soldiers serving the same cause, and the kind of grim respect between soldiers serving opposing causes.

    In short, didn’t Kant screw it up by simply assuming that we can see others this way or that we, we surely see ourselves as ends? Wasn’t that the ur-mistake of modernity? Shouldn’t people have immediately rejected Kant as “No, I am not an end, I am a mean. I exist to serve and take great pride in that. So why should I see you differently?”

  3. In classical theism, the distinction disappears. A human being’s highest fulfilment is to love and worship God. In a sense, he is his service to God, because the particular homage he gives is the highest truth about him.

    Kantian ethics is certainly incomplete in that it doesn’t tell us what it actually means to treat people as ends. On the other hand, “Love your neighbour as yourself” could be accused of the same thing. Both need to be filled out. But both do capture something important about the way we are to treat people. We are means, but not mere means, because we participate directly in the good that we serve.

  4. I would put it this way: everything begins at home, and in “love thy neighbor as yourself” the first question is how exactly you want to love yourself. For example do you want to let yourself get away with easy excuses when you did something wrong? And so on.

    Somehow in Western philosophy it is not that often asked? A certain amount of self-centeredness is assumed? I spent half a day of googling for contemporary interpretations of Kant and it was always like “when you pursue your goals, make sure that…” – wait, why do we just assume we pursue our own goals?…

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