Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

Illustration of PDF document

Download Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 254

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939

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 one’s inclination. Respect, the conception of a worth that overrides self-love, can be present only in a rational being.

The only kind of law the conception of which is capable of determining the will without reference to consequences must be the notion of conformity to law as such. That is to say: Never act in such a way that you could not also will that your maxim should be a universal law requiring everybody in these circumstances to do this action. This is what the common reason of humankind has constantly in view in moral matters, Kant claims.

For example, might one extricate oneself from a difficulty by making a false promise? A prudential calculation of consequences might or might not recommend this course. However, to determine whether it is consistent with duty, one need only ask whether one could wish that everyone in difficulty might extricate himself or herself similarly. One sees that the maxim would destroy itself, for if it were a universal law, no one could derive any help from lying, since no promise made in a difficult situation would be believed. Hence there is no difficulty in deciding whether a proposed course of action would be morally good; one need only ask oneself whether one’s maxim could become a universal law. If not, it must be rejected and the action forgone. Reason compels respect for universal legislation. Every other motive must defer to duty.

Common reason habitually employs this test: “What if everybody did that?” It is the advantage of practical over theoretical reason to be everybody’s possession. Ordinary people are as likely to hit the mark as philosophers—indeed, more so, being less liable to be led astray by subtle fallacies. Nevertheless, philosophy is called upon to buttress reason against the assaults of inclination and against specious arguments on their behalf. That is why a metaphysic of morals is required.

Although only what is done from duty has moral worth, it is not possible to be certain in even one instance that an action was in fact done from duty. Some philosophers have indeed attributed all motivation to self-interest. They may be right as a matter of psychology, for how can we be sure that what we most sincerely and carefully conclude to be action from duty was not in reality prompted by some hidden impulse of inclination?

Duty, therefore, is not an empirical concept, according to Kant. Moreover, its universality and necessity also show its nonempirical nature. Nor could it be derived from examples, how would we know in the first place that the cases were fit to serve as examples if we did not presuppose knowledge of the concept? Even if we consider the actions of God, we must antecedently possess the concept of duty in order to judge them as moral. Duty, therefore, is a concept a priori. While this fact is obvious, it nevertheless needs to be explicitly argued for, on account of the popularity of empirical rules recommended as bases of morality. It is a mistake to try to popularize morality by holding out the inducement of happiness. On the contrary, the picture of disinterested duty has the strongest appeal—even to children—because here reason recognizes that it can be practical.

Imperatives

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923

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 nature but not willed to be, illustrate meritorious duties. If we were perfectly rational, then every time we thought of transgressing duty, we would notice a contradiction in our will. However, in fact, we experience no such contradiction but only antagonism between inclination and what reason prescribes. This does show us, however, that we acknowledge the validity of the categorical imperative.

Kant contends that the form of the categorical imperative can also be deduced from the consideration that “rational nature exists as an end in itself.” Rational beings (persons) do not exist as mere means to some other end but as themselves bearers of absolute worth. Every person thinks of his or her own existence in this way, and the rational ground for so doing is the same for all others. It is therefore not a merely subjective principle of action, but objective. The categorical imperative can thus be phrased as follows: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” This principle also condemns suicide (which is using oneself merely as a means to maintaining a tolerable life up to its conclusion) and false promising, and it shows the merit of self-development and altruism.

The notion of rational beings as ends leads, in Kant’s ethics, to another formulation of the categorical imperative. We can form the conception of a universal realm of ends, an ideal society of completely rational beings. Such beings would act toward each other not from interest but from pure practical reason; that is, they would always do their duty. This action would be in conformity to the laws of reason, which they had imposed upon themselves. Therefore, “Act always as if you were legislating for a universal realm of ends.”

The categorical imperative, in all its forms, is the principle whereby a rational being gives a law to himself or herself. It is thus the principle of autonomy (self-legislation). All other principles, based on interest, are heteronomous (other-legislation), the “other” being the object determining the will: riches, say, or happiness, or any external object of interest. All heteronomous principles are spurious. The worst is that based on happiness, which is neither empirically nor conceptually connected with morality and virtue. It undermines morality by making the difference between virtue and vice to be a mere matter of calculation instead of a difference in kind. The appeal to a moral sense can furnish neither an objective standard of good and bad nor a basis for valid judgment; nevertheless, it does have the merit of ascribing intrinsic worth and dignity to virtue. Morality based on an ideal of perfection is empty and involves circular reasoning, as it does not explain our moral ideals but presupposes them. Theological morality, based on the notion of the divine will, either presupposes an independent standard or tries to base morality on the notions of glory, dominion, might, and vengeance—a system directly opposed to morality. All these heteronomous moralities look not to the action itself but to the result of the action as incentive: “I ought to do something because I will something else” is a hypothetical imperative, and hence not a moral imperative.

Free Will

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

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 regard to conceptions that come to us without our choice, such as those of the senses, we can know only how they appear, not how they are in themselves. This applies even to one’s self-concept: One knows oneself only as one appears to oneself and is ignorant of the reality underlying the appearance. However, a person finds in himself or herself the faculty of reason, which transcends the conceptions given through the senses. A person must therefore conclude that his or her ego, as it is in itself, belongs to the intelligible world (world of things-in-themselves). The upshot is that an individual has a dual citizenship. In the world of the senses, one’s actions are explainable in terms of natural causation, thus heteronomously. As a denizen of the intelligible world, however, the causality of one’s will is and must be thought of under the idea of freedom, as autonomous.

If we belonged only to the intelligible world, all our actions would conform to the law of freedom and would be moral. If we belonged only to the sensible world (as nonrational animals do), all our actions would be effects of natural causation—that is, determined by incentives. Belonging as we do to both worlds, we experience the dictates of practical reason as ought; even in following material incentives, we are conscious of what reason requires. We must assume, although we cannot prove, that there is no ultimate contradiction between natural necessity and freedom in human action. The assumption is justified, for there is no contradiction in a thing-in-itself’s being independent of laws to which the thing-as-appearance must conform. In this way we can “comprehend the incomprehensibility” of the unconditional necessity of the moral imperative.

Additional Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

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, 1981. Written by an important twentieth century philosopher, this book offers a readable intellectual biography of Kant.

Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. A reliable reference guide that helps to clarify key concepts and ideas in Kant’s philosophy.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Copleston devotes several lucid chapters to Kant and his significance in the history of philosophy.

Guyer, Paul. Kant and the Claims of Taste. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. A careful and detailed study focusing on Kant’s understanding of beauty and goodness and how we make judgments about them.

Guyer, Paul, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Helpful essays by contemporary Kant scholars shed important light on key aspects of Kant’s theory of knowledge, metaphysics, ethics, and religious thought.

Hare, John E. The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A study of the strengths and weakness of Kant’s influential moral philosophy.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969. Provides a good starting point for readers who want a clear and basic introduction to Kant’s philosophy.

Kemp, John. The Philosophy of Kant. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. A brief, readable account of Kant’s theory of knowledge, moral philosophy, and aesthetics.

Kuehn, Manfred. Kant: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. The first major biography of the philosopher in fifty years. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography.

Schönfeld, Martin. The Philosophy of the Young Kant: The Precritical Project. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A study of the philosopher’s work before the Critique of Pure Reason.

Schott, Robin May, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Immanuel Kant. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. Essayists bring the perspectives of feminist scholarship to bear on Kant’s method and thought.

Walker, Ralph. Kant. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Wolff, Robert Paul, ed. Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967. Important scholars contribute essays on a wide range of themes and issues in Kant’s philosophy.

Patricia Cook John K. Roth

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

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, 1981. Written by an important twentieth century philosopher, this book offers a readable intellectual biography of Kant.

Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. A reliable reference guide that helps to clarify key concepts and ideas in Kant’s philosophy.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Copleston devotes several lucid chapters to Kant and his significance in the history of philosophy.

Guyer, Paul. Kant and the Claims of Taste. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. A careful and detailed study focusing on Kant’s understanding of beauty and goodness and how we make judgments about them.

Guyer, Paul, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Helpful essays by contemporary Kant scholars shed important light on key aspects of Kant’s theory of knowledge, metaphysics, ethics, and religious thought.

Hare, John E. The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A study of the strengths and weakness of Kant’s influential moral philosophy.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969. Provides a good starting point for readers who want a clear and basic introduction to Kant’s philosophy.

Kemp, John. The Philosophy of Kant. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. A brief, readable account of Kant’s theory of knowledge, moral philosophy, and aesthetics.

Kuehn, Manfred. Kant: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. The first major biography of the philosopher in fifty years. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography.

Schönfeld, Martin. The Philosophy of the Young Kant: The Precritical Project. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A study of the philosopher’s work before the Critique of Pure Reason.

Schott, Robin May, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Immanuel Kant. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. Essayists bring the perspectives of feminist scholarship to bear on Kant’s method and thought.

Walker, Ralph. Kant. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Wolff, Robert Paul, ed. Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967. Important scholars contribute essays on a wide range of themes and issues in Kant’s philosophy.

Previous

Summary