Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Analysis

Immanuel Kant

Context

Immanuel Kant holds in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals that ethics, like physics, is partly empirical and partly a priori. This work deals only with the a priori part in that it is based entirely on the use of reason without recourse to experience. Everyone must recognize, Kant writes, that since moral laws imply absolute necessity, they cannot be merely empirical. For example, “Thou shalt not lie” applies not merely to all human beings but to all rational beings. Its ground, therefore, must be found in pure reason. Moreover, what is done morally must be not only in accordance with law but also for the sake of law; if this were not its motivation, different circumstances of the agent would call forth different responses.

This book, issued as a preliminary to an intended metaphysic of morals, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; The Critique of Practical Reason, 1873), comprises a critical examination of purely practical reason and establishes the supreme principle of morality. The order of inquiry is from common moral knowledge to the supreme principle (analysis), then back to application in practice (synthesis).

Good Will

Kant begins by claiming, “Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will”—not intelligence, wit, judgment, courage, or the gifts of fortune. Possession of these is a positive evil if not combined with good will, which indeed is the indispensable condition even of worthiness to be happy. Although moderation, self-control, and calm deliberation are all conducive to good will, they can also characterize the cool villain and make that evil person even more abominable. The goodness of the good will does not depend on its accomplishments; it “would sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself,” even if external circumstances entirely frustrated its actions.

The good will is the rational will. Why has nature appointed reason to rule the will? Not for the sake of adaptation, which would be more efficiently accomplished by instinct. Moreover, when a cultivated reason makes enjoyment its end, true contentment rarely ensues. Reason, then, is intended for something more worthy than production of happiness. Being a practical faculty, yet not suitable for producing a will that is good merely as a means (instinct would do better), reason must be given us to produce a will good in itself. Everyone knows, at least implicitly, according to Kant, the concept of a will good in itself. We need only bring to light that to which we give first place in our moral estimate of action.

Duty

Kant considers the concept of duty, distinguishing between what is done in accordance with duty (but motivated perhaps by a natural inclination or a selfish purpose) and what is done from duty. Moral import is clearly seen only in those cases in which, on account of absence of inclination, duty is exhibited as the motive. It is our duty to be kind, and amiable people are naturally inclined to kindness. However, do they act from duty or from inclination? Ordinarily we cannot be sure which; however, suppose that someone in such deep sorrow as to be insensible to the feelings of others yet tears himself out of this condition to perform a kind action. We see, then, that that person’s action has genuine moral worth. Conversely, we know a person who by nature is unsympathetic yet behaves beneficently; that person must be acting from duty, not from inclination.

Moral worth attaches to action from duty even with respect to the pursuit of happiness, according to Kant. Everyone has an inclination to be happy, and particular inclinations toward what are regarded as the particular constituents of happiness. Still, all these subtracted, the duty to pursue one’s happiness would remain, and only the dutiful pursuit would have true moral worth. (Pursuit of happiness is a duty because unhappiness could tempt one to the neglect of other duties.) The commandments to love our neighbors and our enemies should be read as requiring us to exercise beneficence from duty; love cannot be commanded.

A central idea in Kant’s work is that the moral worth of action performed from duty lies not in its purpose but in the maxim (rule, or principle) by which it is determined. Otherwise, moral worth would depend on inclinations and incentives, which, as we have seen, cannot be the case. “Duty is the necessity of an action executed from respect for law,” writes Kant. One cannot have respect for a mere consequence or inclination, but only for what can overpower all inclination; this can be no other than law itself. To be an object of respect is the same as to be valid as a source of command. The law determines the will objectively; subjectively one is determined by respect for the law; this subjective element is the maxim of one’s action, that one ought to follow the law whatever...

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Imperatives

Kant argues that if reason, which tells us what principles of action are objectively required, infallibly determined the will, we would always choose the good. However, in fact, the will is affected also by subjective incentives that clash with the dictates of reason. Thus the will, when not completely good (as it never is in human beings), experiences the pull of reason as constraint. This command of reason, the objective principle constraining the will, is also called an imperative. A perfectly good or holy will, being always determined to action only by objective laws, would not experience constraint.

According to Kant, imperatives are either hypothetical, commanding something to be done in order to achieve a desired end (If you want X, do A), or categorical, commanding an action as objectively necessary (Do A, and never mind what you desire). Hypothetical imperatives are further subdivided into rules of skill, which tell what to do in order to achieve some end that one may or may not wish to achieve (heal a person, or poison him) and counsels of prudence, telling what to do to achieve happiness, the one end that all rational beings in fact do have. However, the counsels of prudence are still hypothetical, depending on what the agent counts as part of his happiness. Only the categorical imperative is the imperative of morality.

How are imperatives possible—how can reason constrain the will? There is no problem with respect to rules of skill, since it is an analytic proposition that whoever wills the end wills the indispensable means. Because the notion of happiness is indefinite and infallible, means for attaining it cannot be prescribed; counsels of prudence do not strictly command, but only advise. Still, there is no difficulty here as to how reason can influence the will. The puzzle arises only with respect to the categorical imperative.

The Categorical Imperative

We cannot show by any example that a categorical imperative does influence the will. When someone in trouble tells the truth, it is always possible that not the categorical “Thou shalt not make a false promise” influenced his will but the hypothetical “If thou dost not want to risk ruining thy credit, make no false promise.” Hence, the question of the possibility of the categorical imperative must be investigated a priori. Moreover, the categorical imperative is synthetic a priori—a priori in that the action prescribed is necessary, synthetic in that the content of this action is not derived analytically from a presupposed volition.

The categorical imperative is simply the demand that the subjective principle of one’s action, one’s maxim, should conform to the objective law valid for all rational beings. Therefore, Kant contends, there is only one categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Here are some of Kant’s examples:1. Suicide. Maxim: Out of self-love, I shorten my life. However, a system of nature in which this maxim was law would be contradictory: The feeling impelling to improvement of life would destroy life. Therefore, the maxim could not be a law of nature, and the action is contrary to duty. 2. False promises. A universal law of nature that people in trouble escape by making false promises is incoherent, as they would never be believed. 3. Is it alright to amuse oneself at the expense of failing to develop one’s talents? While it could be a law of nature that all people do this, a rational being could not will it to be a law of nature, for rationality entails willing that faculties be developed. 4. Should we help other people, or is “Every man for himself” morally permissible? A world could exist without altruism; but again, a rational person could not will it, for that person’s will would conflict with itself. There must often be occasions when a person needs the love and sympathy of others, from which he would be cutting himself off.

Examples 1 and 2, in which the idea of the maxim as law of nature is self-contradictory, show strict duties. Examples 3 and 4, in which the maxim could be law of...

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Free Will

Kant attempts to show not that the autonomous will is actual but that it is possible. To show even this much is difficult, Kant admits, inasmuch as if nature is a system of effects following by natural laws from their causes, and if human beings are part of nature, it seems that every human action is necessitated by natural causes, and thus could not be otherwise than it is. The will could not then be autonomous, “a law to itself,” unless it is free.

Kant’s strategy in establishing the possibility of freedom depends on the distinctions, elaborated in Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), between things as they are in themselves and things as they appear to us. With...

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Additional Reading

Allison, Henry E. Idealism and Freedom: Essays on Kant’s Theoretical and Practical Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An important interpreter of Immanuel Kant explores relationships between Kant’s theory of knowledge and his moral philosophy.

Bohman, James, and Matthias Lutz-Backmann, eds. Perpetual Peace: Essays on Kant’s Cosmopolitan Ideal. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. The contributors appraise Kant’s theories about and hopes for a universal rationality that would encourage shared moral understanding and reduce political conflict.

Cassirer, Ernst. Kant’s Life and Thought. Translated by James Hayden. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press,...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Allison, Henry E. Idealism and Freedom: Essays on Kant’s Theoretical and Practical Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An important interpreter of Immanuel Kant explores relationships between Kant’s theory of knowledge and his moral philosophy.

Bohman, James, and Matthias Lutz-Backmann, eds. Perpetual Peace: Essays on Kant’s Cosmopolitan Ideal. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. The contributors appraise Kant’s theories about and hopes for a universal rationality that would encourage shared moral understanding and reduce political conflict.

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(The entire section is 468 words.)