A Beginner’s Guide to Kant’s Moral Philosophy
This is a brilliant introduction – notes taken from a leading Kantian, Christine Korsgaard, explaining the logic of Kantian Ethics. Don’t give up on Kant. He really is a giant – we owe him a lot.
Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals – A Beginner’s Guide to Kant’s Moral Philosophy
- Much of what follows draws extensively on Christine Korsgaard’s ‘Introduction’ to the Cambridge Edition of The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
- Immanuel Kant was born, and died, in the city of Königsberg, East Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad, in Russia) .
- Kant (whose grandfather was Scottish, and who can therefore be claimed, with David Hume and Adam Smith, as a son of the Scottish Enlightenment!) was brought up as a Pietist (a form of Puritan Protestantism which emphasized inner experience, self-examination and morally good works), and it would seem fair to say that the influence of his religious background is discernible in his moral philosophy. It’s interesting to see how these Pietist themes come up in the Groundwork.
- Kant was famous for the dull and predictable nature of his life – he never once left the environs of Königsberg in his entire life, never married, and took the very same walk at the same time every day. Legend has it that he interrupted his routine only twice: once when he was so excited by reading Rousseau’s Emile that he could not bring himself to leave his house, and once when he paused during his walk, during a summer’s day in 1789, to read a newspaper billboard which announced that there had been a revolution in France. (Interestingly, Kant was a vociferous supporter of the Revolution).
- Kant was a phenomenal polymath, and taught not just Philosophy at the University of Königsberg, but mathematics, physics, geography and anthropology as well.
Kant’s Philosophical Project
- Kant was a great theoretical philosopher as well as a great moral philosopher. His major work in ‘pure’ philosophy, The Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781 (2nd edition, 1787).
- In terms of his works in moral philosophy, The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals was published in 1785, and was followed by The Critique of Practical Reason in 1788, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone in 1793, and The Metaphysics of Morals in 1797. (So, it’s worth bearing in mind that the book which we’ve been reading is merely one part of a larger system.)
- In both parts of his philosophy, Kant saw himself as conducting a revolution in philosophy as fundamental as the ‘Copernican Revolution’ in natural science, which had placed the Sun, instead of the Earth, at the centre of the Solar System. Kant saw his own ‘Copernican Revolution’ as going in roughly the opposite direction – he wanted to place humanity itself at the centre of his philosophy, rather than any ‘external’ rational order.
- Kant wanted to argue that this rational order is neither something that we discover through experience (as Empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume believed), nor something which we can know through reason alone (as Rationalists like Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza believed). Rather, for Kant, this rational order is something that human beings themselves impose on the world – both in the construction of our knowledge (w.r.t. his ‘theoretical’ philosophy, where he called his position ‘Transcendental Idealism’) and through our actions (as we see in his moral philosophy).
The Major Themes of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
- Some of the central themes of the Groundwork, which have become familiar parts of our modern moral outlook, include the following:
- We are all, as human beings, ends in ourselves, and not to be used as mere means by others;
- Respect for one’s own humanity involves respect for others;
- Morality is itself identical with freedom, and acting immorally involves being enslaved.
- It is also well worth keeping in mind, when you study the Groundwork, that the book is essentially one long argument, which runs from the beginning to the end of the book. Two Important Kantian Distinctions:
- The first piece of technical language which you’ll come across in the Groundwork is Kant’s use of two kinds of distinctions which come from his earlier, theoretical philosophy, and which apply to our judgements. These are:
- The Analytic/Synthetic distinction . This concerns what makes a judgement true or false. Analytic statements are true by virtue of the meanings of the words involved (e.g. ‘All dwarves are short of stature’). Synthetic judgements are judgements which are true in a more substantive sense – ie these are judgements which add something new to our knowledge of the subject in hand. Kant thought that, because they had to tell us something substantive, moral judgements had to be synthetic (or else they would tell us only about the meanings of the words which we were using).
- The A Priori/A Posteriori distinction . This concerns how we come to know of a judgment’s truth. A judgement is known a priori if it is know independently of any particular experience, but is known a posteriori if it is known only through our experience of the world. All analytical truths, it is claimed, are known a priori – eg we know that ‘All dwarves are short’ even before we have any experience of dwarves in the world. Most synthetic truths – eg ‘Lenny the Giant is the most successful dwarf in his profession’ – are known a posteriori: that is, those judgements come to be synthesized through experience.
- Kant thought – and this is a very central aspect of his conception of morality – that all moral judgements must be a priori. That is, he thought that all judgements of morality have to be completely independent of any contingent facts about how the world happens to be, and thus have to be derivable in abstraction from any particular experience, and can instead be derived from pure reason alone. This means that, for Kant, moral judgements have to be of a very particular kind: they have to be synthetic a priori judgements. Kant’s claim was that such judgements were possible, and that the judgements of morality, philosophy, mathematics, and geometry were all of this special kind.
The Preface to the Groundwork
- We here see Kant’s argument as running something like this: given that moral judgements deal with how the world ought to be, and not with how it is, it must be the case that they cannot be derived from experience, which can only tell us how things are. Thus, moral judgements must be a priori, as they are independent of how the world happens to be. By the ‘Metaphysics of Morals’, Kant means that collection of knowledge of pure, a priori judgements about morality. This book is a Groundwork for that ‘Metaphysics of Morals’, in the sense that it sets itself the task of establishing the foundations on which that ‘metaphysics’ will come to rest – that is, Kant is setting himself the task of showing that there is a domain of laws which apply to our behaviour as rational beings, and that (what, for him, follows from this) there is such a thing as morality.
- As Kant tells us, the purpose of the book is that of “seeking out and establishing of the supreme principle of morality” (392).
- Kant thinks that the principle which tells us that we ought to behave according to moral laws must itself be a synthetic a priori principle, for ethics to exist at all.
- The Groundwork is thus designed to prove that such a principle – which Kant calls the Categorical Imperative – does exist. For Kant, this is identical to showing that morality, as such, exists.
- The Categorical Imperative is, at base, simply the principle that our actions should have the form of moral conduct; which is to say (for Kant) that our actions should be derivable from universal principles.
Section 1 – Transition from the ordinary rational knowledge of Morality to the Philosophical
- The purpose of Section 1 is to “proceed analytically from ordinary knowledge to a determination of the supreme principle” (392). Which is to say that Kant intends here to move from our ordinary ways of thinking about morality, analyzing them to discover the principles which lie behind them.
- Here, Kant is trying to prove something antecedent to the fact that we have moral obligations – he is trying to show what it is that he has to establish in order to show that morality is possible.
- Kant’s starting point in his argument (he assumes that everyone would agree with this belief) is that a “good will” is the only thing to which we attribute unconditional moral value. What he means is that the ‘good will’ is the only thing which has value completely independently of anything external to it, and which it therefore has in all circumstances, independent of contingent empirical facts.
- Kant thinks that we cannot detract from the value of an action done from a good will, even if that actions turns out to be unsuccessful. The value of such an action is independent of “what it effects or accomplishes” (394). (Compare this view with the consequential structure of utilitarianism).
- Thus, Kant’s project becomes that of “elucidating” the concept of a good will (397): Kant is going to find out what principle the person of good will acts on, in order to establish what the moral law tells us to do.
- Kant focuses on actions done from duty. Duty is the good will operating “though with certain subjective restrictions and hindrances, which … far from hiding a good will and making it unrecognizable, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shin forth more brightly.” (397). By these ‘subjective hindrances’, Kant has in mind the person who has other motives which would mean that, in the absence of a sense of duty, that person would not be motivated at all to perform the morally right action.
- Kant identifies three kinds of motivation for action:
- Duty – you perform the action because you think that it’s the right thing to do
- Immediate Inclination – you simply enjoy doing actions of a particular sort
- Instrumental Inclination – you perform the action because of some independent end which it serves
- Kant thinks that right actions performed from duty have a special value which right actions performed from one of the other kinds of motivation lack.
- Kant gives the example of the ‘prudent merchant’, who acts fairly towards his customers because this will secure his reputation, but not for its own sake. (The merchant has type-3 motivation).
- More controversially, Kant thinks that the actions of the naturally beneficent or sympathetic person, who does not act from duty, but does good because he is naturally inclined towards doing the right thing, and enjoys doing so, also has no moral worth, insofar as it is not action from duty, and hence does not evince a good will. (ie type-2 motivation) “I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however dutiful and amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth.” (398).
- Kant thinks that, for an action to be morally worthy, it has to be performed for the reason that you think that it is required of you (Duty) – if it is simply the case that it pleases you to do the morally right thing, then that is not enough for moral worth, as your action is not independent of the contingent fact that you happen to have certain preferences which incline you towards performing it.
- So, Kant now has an account of what makes morally worthy actions have their special worth. They get their moral worth from the fact that the person who performs them acts from respect for moral law, and not through any reason independent of that moral law.
Section 2 – Transition from Popular Moral Philosophy to a Metaphysics of Morals
- Kant’s project in Section 2 is to “present the practical faculty of reason from its universal rules of determination to the point where the concept of duty springs from it.” (412). In other words, Kant wants to lay out a theory of practical reasoning, which shows how the moral law is part of the principles of practical reason.
- Kant sees the laws of practical reason as a series of imperatives, telling us what we ought to do.
- He distinguishes two kinds of imperatives: (a) Hypothetical Imperatives – tells you what you ought to do, given that you will some end. (b) Categorical Imperatives – tells you unconditionally what to do.
- As we’ve already seen, as Kant thinks that morality must tell us what to do independently of our contingent wills or preferences, it must be governed by a categorical imperative.
- The Categorical Imperative tells us to act on principles which are themselves laws. It gets its first formulation at (421), in what is called the Formula of Universal Law formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. This is immediately followed by what is called the Formula of the Law of Nature formulation: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”
- Kant thinks that there is a test, derivable from the Categorical Imperative, which will allow us to identify which duties we have, and which actions are morally permissible. In each case, one has to perform a kind of though experiment, to see whether you could will your maxim to be a law of nature in a world in which you yourself were going to be a part.
- Taking the example of the person who falsely promises to pay back some borrowed money, we can work through the test like so:
- We have to formulate the maxim of the action. A maxim combines an action, with a purpose for which that action is performed, and so has the general form ‘I will do Action-A in order to achieve Purpose-P’. Thus, the maxim in this case might be “I will make a false promise in order to get some ready cash”
- We then formulate the corresponding ‘law of nature’, which would be: “Everyone who needs some ready cash makes false promises.”
- We then imagine a world in which everyone obeyed this ‘law’.
- We then imagine ourselves in that world, attempting to secure some ready cash by way of a false promise.
- Finally, we have then to ask whether one could will the state of affairs in (3) at the same time as one tried to will the action in (4). We have then to see whether this would lead to any contradiction.
- In this case, Kant thinks, a contradiction directly ensues. As he puts it, “For the universality of a law which says that anyone believing himself to be in difficulty could promise whatever he pleases with the intention of not keeping it would make promising itself and the end to be attained thereby quite impossible, inasmuch as no one would believe what was promised him but would merely laugh at all such utterances as being vain pretences.” (421). Thus, given this contradiction, Kant has taken himself to have shown that giving a false promise is morally impermissible.
- Kant thinks that similar thought-experiments work for his examples of (1) suicide, (3) cultivating talents and (4) giving to the poor. (The false promise is example no. 2).
- Kant thinks that there are two ways in which such contradictions can arise. In cases (1) and (2), Kant thinks that there is a contradiction in the very conception of the universalized maxim being a law. In such cases, Kant thinks that this shows that such maxims are in violation of strict or perfect duties. In cases (3) and (4), Kant thinks that the contradiction comes later, in willing that the given maxim be a universal law. In such cases, Kant thinks that this shows that the maxim is in violation of wide or imperfect duties.
- Generally, if a maxim passes the Categorial Imperative test, then that action is morally permissible. If it fails the test, then that action is morally forbidden, and, therefore, the opposite action is morally required.
Other Formulations of the Categorical Imperative
- NB: Kant’s claim is that all of the different formulations of the Categorical Imperative are, in fact, equivalent with one another, and would permit and forbid exactly the same actions.
- The Formula of Humanity, (429):
” 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 as a means”.
- Which is to say that, as human beings are of absolute value, they should not sacrifice themselves or one another for merely relatively valuable ends. This formula enjoins us to respect each other as rational beings.
- The Kingdom of Ends Formulation (434):
- ” 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 sovereign”.
- This is intimately connected with Kant’s notion of autonomy. If we think of ourselves as legislating universal law through our maxims, then Kant would suggest that we should think of moral motivation as autonomous. Kant’s belief was that moral obligation arises from, and can only be traced to, the human capacity for autonomous self-direction.
- Kant now thinks that what it remains for him to show is that are autonomous beings, who are capable of being motivated by a conception of ourselves as legislative citizens in a Kingdom of Ends. He thinks that, if he can show that we are autonomous, then he will have shown that we are bound by the moral law as given by the Categorical Imperative.
- Freedom, or autonomy, for Kant is obeying a law which you give to yourself. Thus, if he can show (in section III), that human beings can be genuinely autonomous, then he will have satisfied himself that the demands of morality as mapped out in sections I and II, do apply to rational human agents.
Section 3 – Transition from a Metaphysics of Morals to a Critique of Pure Practical Reason
- The Story so Far (in the words of Korsgaard):
“By analyzing our ordinary conception of moral value, and our conception of rational action, we have arrived at an idea of what the moral law says – it says to act on a maxim one can will as a universal law – and at an idea of the characteristic in virtue of which a person is governed by the moral law – autonomy of the will. To complete the argument, Kant has to show that we and all rational beings really have the kind of autonomous wills for which the moral law is authoritative.”
- Kant starts Section III with a good summary of his view of freedom (446),
“The will is a kind of causality belonging to living beings as far as they are rational; freedom would be the property of this causality that makes it effective independent of any determination of alien causes. [That is, independent of any factors extraneous to the will itself, including the merely empirical desires and inclinations of the agent in question.]”.
- Insofar as human action meets this condition, it is autonomous. Insofar as it fails to meet this condition, and does find itself under the influence of ‘alien causes’, then it is heteronomous.
- Kant thinks that freedom from such ‘alien causes’ is possible only when we act out of duty towards the moral law, as given by the Categorical Imperative. Thus, for Kant, ” a free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same.” (447). Thus, for Kant, there is an analytical connection between freedom and morality. So, the big question for Kant has to be that of whether we really are free: if we are, then he thinks that he has done enough to show that we must be subject to the moral law of the categorical imperative.
- Kant starts his defence of our freedom from what it’s like to be a rational being. When we choose between different options, we think that our choice is free, and that we are not compelled to go for any particular option. Thus, Kant thinks that, insofar as we are rational, we have to act under an idea of freedom. “Now I claim that we must necessarily attribute to every rational being who has a will also the idea of freedom, under which only such a being can act.” “Reason must regard itself as the author of its principles independent of foreign influences.” (448).
- Now, Kant acknowledges that there might be a problem with this assumption of freedom, in that our freedom to freely choose between different options might seem to contradict the natural necessity of the laws of science.
- Kant’s solution here is to say that, whilst this is true of human agents insofar as they are part of the empirical world, it is not true of them when they are considered as rational beings choosing between alternatives in the ‘realm of freedom’.
- This corresponds with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal realm of things as they appear, and the noumenal realm, of things as they are in themselves. Kant thinks that we can have knowledge only of the phenomenal realm, but that we can think of ourselves as rationally choosing courses of action within the realm of the noumenal (the ‘world of understanding’).
- Kant thinks that there are ‘two standpoints’, corresponding to the two parts of this distinction, from which we can think about ourselves, and that the nature of these two standpoints is such that they are unable to contradict each other :
“Therefore a rational being must regard himself qua intelligence (and hence not from the side of his lower powers) as belonging not to the world of sense but to the world of understanding. Therefore he has two standpoints from which he can regard himself and know the laws of the use of his powers and hence of all his actions: first, insofar as he belongs to the world of sense subject to laws of nature (heteronomy); secondly, insofar as he belongs to the intelligible world subject to laws which, independent of nature, are not empirical but are founded only on reason.” (452).
- So, just as there are two ways of viewing this representation of a cube – as either going ‘into’ or ‘out of’ the page – even though there is only one cube; and just as there is no real ‘contradiction’ between thinking of the cube in these two ways, so too does Kant think that we have two ways to think about human beings, which are essentially in disagreement, but which somehow manage not to contradict one another.
- Thus, Kant thinks that, because we inevitably think of ourselves as members of the world of understanding, we must think of ourselves, at the same time, as free and autonomous. And he thinks that this does not come into any conflict with our beliefs that human beings are part of the natural world, and hence subject to the same natural laws as all other matter.
- It is important to realize that Kant does not think it is possible to explain how this freedom is possible, as he thinks that we can have no knowledge of the noumenal realm in which we are free. Kant thinks only that (a) we are free and autonomous in the relevant sense and (b) that it is necessarily the case that we will be unable to give an account of quite how this is possible.
- If one accepts this Kant’s account of our freedom and autonomy, then, if we have accepted the rest of his argument about morality, we ought to accept that we are governed by the moral law as given by the Categorical Imperative. On the other hand, one might want to argue that, in the end, Kant’s account of human freedom is simply incoherent.