42 Kant the Moral Order

Kant: The Moral Order

Having mastered epistemology and metaphysics, Kant believed that a rigorous application of the same methods of reasoning would yield an equal success in dealing with the problems of moral philosophy. Thus, in the Kritik der practischen Vernunft (Critique of Practical Reason) (1788), he proposed a “Table of the Categories of Freedom in Relation to the Concepts of Good and Evil,” using the familiar logical distinctions as the basis for a catalog of synthetic a priori judgments that have bearing on the evaluation of human action, and declared that only two things inspire genuine awe: “der bestirnte Himmel über mir und das moralische Gesetz in mir” (“the starry sky above and the moral law within”). Kant used ordinary moral notions as the foundation ffor a derivation of this moral law in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals) (1785).

From Good Will to Universal Law

We begin with the concept of that which can be conceived to be good without qualification, a good will. Other good features of human nature and the benefits of a good life, Kant pointed out, have value only under appropriate conditions, since they may be used either for good or for evil. But a good will is intrinsically good; its value is wholly self-contained and utterly independent of its external relations. Since our practical reason is better suited to the development and guidance of a good will than to the achievement of happiness, it follows that the value of a good will does not depend even on the results it manages to produce as the consequences of human action.

Kant’s moral theory is, therefore, deontological: actions are morally right in virtue of their motives, which must derive more from duty than from inclination. The clearest examples of morally right action are precisely those in which an individual agent’s determination to act in accordance with duty overcomes her evident self-interest and obvious desire to do otherwise. But in such a case, Kant argues, the moral value of the action can only reside in a formal principle or “maxim,” the general commitment to act in this way because it is one’s duty. So he concludes that “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.”

According to Kant, then, the ultimate principle of morality must be a moral law conceived so abstractly that it is capable of guiding us to the right action in application to every possible set of circumstances. So the only relevant feature of the moral law is its generality, the fact that it has the formal property of universalizability, by virtue of which it can be applied at all times to every moral agent. From this chain of reasoning about our ordinary moral concepts, Kant derived as a preliminary statement of moral obligation the notion that right actions are those that practical reason would will as universal law.

Imperatives for Action

More accurate comprehension of morality, of course, requires the introduction of a more precise philosophical vocabulary. Although everything naturally acts in accordance with law, Kant supposed, only rational beings do so consciously, in obedience to the objective principles determined by practical reason. Of course, human agents also have subjective impulses—desires and inclinations that may contradict the dictates of reason. So we experience the claim of reason as an obligation, a command that we act in a particular way, or an imperative. Such imperatives may occur in either of two distinct forms, hypothetical or categorical.

A hypothetical imperative conditionally demands performance of an action for the sake of some other end or purpose; it has the form “Do A in order to achieve X.” The application of hypothetical imperatives to ethical decisions is mildly troublesome: in such cases it is clear that we are morally obliged to perform the action A only if we are sure both that X is a legitimate goal and that doing A will in fact produce this desirable result. For a perfectly rational being, all of this would be analytic, but given the general limitations of human knowledge, the joint conditions may rarely be satisfied.

A categorical imperative, on the other hand, unconditionally demands performance of an action for its own sake; it has the form “Do A.” An absolute moral demand of this sort gives rise to familiar difficulties: since it expresses moral obligation with the perfect necessity that would directly bind any will uncluttered by subjective inclinations, the categorical imperative must be known a priori; yet it cannot be an analytic judgment, since its content is not contained in the concept of a rational agent as such. The supreme principle of morality must be a synthetic a priori proposition. Leaving its justification for the third section of the Grounding (and the Second Critique), Kant proceeded to a discussion of the content and application of the categorical impetative.

The Categorical Imperative

Constrained only by the principle of universalizability, the practical reason of any rational being understands the categorical imperative to be: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” That is, each individual agent regards itself as determining, by its decision to act in a certain way, that everyone (including itself) will always act according to the same general rule in the future. This expression of the moral law, Kant maintained, provides a concrete, practical method for evaluating particular human actions of several distinct varieties.

Consider, for example, the case (#2 in the text) of someone who contemplates relieving a financial crisis by borrowing money from someone else, promising to repay it in the future while in fact having no intention of doing so. (Notice that this is not the case of finding yourself incapable of keeping a promise originally made in good faith, which would require a different analysis.) The maxim of this action would be that it is permissible to borrow money under false pretenses if you really need it. But as Kant pointed out, making this maxim into a universal law would be clearly self-defeating. The entire practice of lending money on promise presupposes at least the honest intention to repay; if this condition were universally ignored, the (universally) false promises would never be effective as methods of borrowing. Since the universalized maxim is contradictory in and of itself, no one could will it to be law, and Kant concluded that we have a perfect duty (to which there can never be any exceptions whatsoever) not to act in this manner.

On the other hand, consider the less obvious case (#4 in the text) of someone who lives comfortably but contemplates refusing any assistance to people who are struggling under great hardships. The maxim here would be that it is permissible never to help those who are less well-off than ourselves. Although Kant conceded that no direct contradiction would result from the universalization of such a rule of conduct, he argued that no one could consistently will that it become the universal law, since even the most fortunate among us rightly allow for the possibility that we may at some future time find ourselves in need of the benevolence of others. Here we have only an imperfect duty not act so selfishly, since particular instances may require exceptions to the rule when it conflicts either with another imperfect duty (e.g., when I don’t have enough money to help everyone in need) or a perfect duty (e.g., if the only way to get more money would be under a false promise).

Kant also supposed that moral obligations arise even when other people are not involved. Since it would be contradictory to universalize the maxim of taking one’s own life if it promises more misery than satisfaction (#1), he argued, we have a perfect duty to ourselves not to commit suicide. And since no one would will a universalized maxim of neglecting to develop the discipline required for fulfilling one’s natural abilities (#3), we have an imperfect duty to ourselves not to waste our talents.

These are only examples of what a detailed application of the moral law would entail, but they illustrate the general drift of Kant’s moral theory. In cases of each of the four sorts, he held that there is a contradiction—either in the maxim itself or in the will—involved in any attempt to make the rule under which we act into a universal law. The essence of immorality, then, is to make an exception of myself by acting on maxims that I cannot willfully universalize. It is always wrong to act in one way while wishing that everyone else would act otherwise. (The perfect world for a thief would be one in which everyone else always respected private property.) Thus, the purely formal expression of the categorical imperative is shown to yield significant practical application to moral decisions.

Alternative Formulae for the Categorical Imperative

Although he held that there is only one categorical imperative of morality, Kant found it helpful to express it in several ways. Some of the alternative statements can be regarded as minor variations on his major themes, but two differ from the “formula of universal law” sufficiently to warrant a brief independent discussion.

Kant offered the “formula of the end in itself” as: “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.” This places more emphasis on the unique value of human life as deserving of our ultimate moral respect and thus proposes a more personal view of morality. In application to particular cases, of course, it yields the same results: violating a perfect duty by making a false promise (or killing myself) would be to treat another person (or myself) merely as a means for getting money (or avoiding pain), and violating an imperfect duty by refusing to offer benevolence (or neglecting my talents) would be a failure to treat another person (or myself) as an end in itself. Thus, the Kantian imperative agrees with the Christian expression of “The Golden Rule” by demanding that we derive from our own self-interest a generalized concern for all human beings.

Drawing everything together, Kant arrived at the “formula of autonomy,” under which the decision to act according to a maxim is actually regarded as having made it a universal law. Here the concern with human dignity is combined with the principle of universalizability to produce a conception of the moral law as self-legislated by each for all. As Kant puts it,

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 as legislator he is himslf subject to the will of no other.

A rational being must always regard himself as legislator in a kingdom of ends rendered possible by freedom of the will, whether as member or as sovereign.

In this final formulation, the similarity of Kant’s moral theory with his epistemology should be clear. Just as the understanding in each of us determines the regulative principles of natural science that all must share, so the practical reason in each of us determines the universal maxims of morality that all must obey.

Autonomy of the Will

In fact, this final formula for the categorical imperative brings us back to the original concept of the will itself as that which is good without qualification. At this point in the argument, Kant can provide a more technical statement of its intrinsic moral value by distinguishing between autonomy and heteronomy of the will.

A heteronomous will is one in obedience to rules of action that have been legislated externally to it. Such a will is always submitting itself to some other end, and the principles of its action will invariably be hypothetical imperatives urging that it act in such a way as to receive pleasure, appease the moral sense, or seek personal perfection. In any case, the moral obligations it proposes cannot be regarded as completely binding upon any agent, since their maxim of action comes from outside it.

An autonomous will, on the other hand, is entirely self-legislating: The moral obligations by which it is perfectly bound are those which it has imposed upon itself while simultaneously regarding them as binding upon everyone else by virtue of their common possession of the same rational faculties. All genuinely moral action, Kant supposed, flows from the freely chosen dictates of an autonomous will. So even the possibility of morality presupposes that human agents have free will, and the final section of the Grounding is devoted to Kant’s effort to prove that they do.

Human Freedom

As we might expect, Kant offered as proof of human freedom a transcendental argument from the fact of moral agency to the truth of its presupposed condition of free will. This may seem to be perfectly analogous to the use of similar arguments for synthetic a priori judgments in the First Critique, but the procedure is more viciously circular here. Having demonstrated the supreme principle of morality by reference to autonomy, Kant can hardly now claim to ground free will upon the supposed fact of morality. That would be to exceed the bounds of reason by employing an epistemological argument for metaphysical purposes.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Each case of moral action may be said to embody its own unique instance of the antinomy between freedom and causal determination. For in order to do the right thing, it must at least be possible for my action to have some real effect in the world, yet I must perform it in complete independence from any external influence. Morality requires both freedom and causality in me, and of course Kant supposes that they are. I can think of myself from two standpoints: I operate within the phenomenal realm by participating fully in the causal regularities to which it is subject; but as a timeless thing in itself in the noumenal realm I must be wholly free. The trick is to think of myself in both ways at once, as sensibly determined but intelligibly free.

Kant rightly confesses at the end of the Grounding that serious contemplation of morality leads us to the very limits of human reason. Since action in accordance with the moral law requires an autonomous will, we must suppose ourselves to be free; since the correspondence of happiness with virtue cannot be left to mere coincidence, we must suppose that there is a god who guarantees it; and since the moral perfection demanded by the categorical imperative cannot be attained in this life, we must suppose ourselves to live forever. Thus god, freedom, and immortality, which we have seen to be metaphysical illusions that lie beyond the reach of pure reason, turn out to be the three great postulates of practical reason.

Although the truth about ourselves and god as noumenal beings can never be determined with perfect certainty, on Kant’s view, we can continue to function as responsible moral agents only by acting as if it obtains. Things could hardly have been otherwise: the lofty dignity of the moral law, like the ultimate nature of reality, is the sort of thing we cannot know but are bound to believe.

Morality and Peace

Kant‘s interest in moral matters was not exclusively theoretical. In Die Metaphysik der Sitten (Metaphysics of Morals) (1797) he worked out the practical application of the categorical imperative in some detail, deriving a fairly comprehensive catalog of specific rules for the governance of social and personal morality. What each of us must actually will as universal, Kant supposed, is a very rigid system of narrowly prescribed conduct.

In Zum ewigen Frieden (On Perpetual Peace) (1795), Kant proposed a high-minded scheme for securing widespread political stability and security. If statesmen would listen to philosophers, he argued, we could easily achieve an international federation of independent republics, each of which reduces its standing army, declines to interfere in the internal affairs of other states, and agrees to be governed by the notion of universal hospitality.

Kant’s Third Critque

The final component of Kant‘s critical philosophy found expression in his (Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgment)1790). Where the first Critique had dealt with understanding in relation to reality and the second had been concerned with practical reason in relation to action, this third Critique was meant to show that there is a systematic connection between the two, a common feature underlying every use of synthetic a priori judgments, namely the concept of purpose. In the last analysis, Kant supposed, it is our compulsion to find meaning and purpose in the world that impels us to accept the tenets of transcendental idealism.

In aesthetics, for example, all of our judgments about what is beautiful or sublime derive from the determination to impose an underlying form on the sensory manifold. Like mathematics, art is concerned with the discovery or creation of unity in our experience of the spatio-temporal world. Teleological judgments in science, theology, and morality similarly depend upon our fundamental convictions, that operation of the universe has some deep purpose and that we are capable of comprehending it.

Kant’s final word here offers an explanation of our persistent desire to transcend from the phenomenal realm to the noumenal. We must impose the forms of space and time on all we perceive, we must suppose that the world we experience functions according to natural laws, we must regulate our conduct by reference to a self-legislated categorical imperative, and we must postulate the noumenal reality of ourselves, god, and free will—all because a failure to do so would be an implicit confession that the world may be meaningless, and that would be utterly intolerable for us. Thus, Kant believed, the ultimate worth of his philosophy lay in his willingness “to criticize reason in order to make room for faith.” The nineteenth-century German philosophers who followed him quickly moved to transform his modest critical philosophy into the monumental metaphysical system of absolute idealism.


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