THE ETHICS OF KANT

 

Baton, H.J. The Moral Law, Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals’, trans, and analyzed by Paton, Eiceritus Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Oxford, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, reprint 1961.

 

My comments follow Kant’s own division of the Grundlegung into a Preface and three Chapters.

 

PREFACE

 

The most important section of the Preface is pp. iv-ix, headed by Paton “the need for pure ethics.” Notice the structure of Kant’s argument:  the “common idea of duty and the laws of morality purport to have ‘absolute necessity’; but they cannot have absolute necessity if they are valid merely for men and not for other rational beings (if any); therefore all attempts to base obligation upon ‘the nature of man’ or ‘the circumstances of the world in which he is placed’ must be false” (p. vi).

 

CHAPTER I

 

The principle thing to remember about this chapter is its title: in it Kant studies ‘the moral knowledge of ordinary human reason’ in order to find its  ‘first principle’ (p. 20). Kant confesses that ordinary human reason does not conceive the first principle of its moral knowledge abstractly, but maintains that ‘it does always have it actually before its eyes and-does use it as a norm of judgment’ (p. 20). That first principle is: ‘I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’ (p. 17).

 

Besides eliciting the first principle of moral knowledge, Kant tries to establish the following propositions:

 

(1) Nothing is good without qualification except a good will (pp. 1-7); Kant even says that it is ‘impossible to conceive’ an exception to this. However, the alleged exceptions he does consider are limited to things which a man may have or be, viz. gifts of nature (talents and qualities of temperament), gifts of fortune, and qualities helpful to a good will (e.g. moderation, self-control, sobriety of judgment). Aristotle might well reply that a good race horse or a good apple tree may be good without qualification. Very diffidently, I suggest that Kant was concerned with what without qualification makes a man a good man. No doubt, the only plausible candidate is: a good will. But we may well ask: is there anyone thing that will do so?   Can a good-willed fool, who ruins every enterprise in which he engages, be described as ‘good without qualification?

 

If Kant replies, ‘His will is, but he is not’, then we my reply to Kant, ‘On the very same ground, we may say that gifts of nature are good, but that the man who possesses them may not be,’

 

            (2)  A human action is morally good only if it is done for the sake of duty (pp. 8-13).    This does not imply that the agent could not have been inclined to do it; but only that the motive “can’t been otherwise (pp. 48-55).

 

(3) An action done from duty is done from the formal maxim.- do your duty whatever it may be (pp. 13-14). A principle is said to be a  ‘maxim’ so far as somebody acts on it. Strictly speaking a maxim is always somebody’s maxim, and it is his maxim only in as much as he acts on it.

 

(4) Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law (pp. 14-16). Notice what Kant says about reverence in the footnote to p. 16. The remark, ‘Reverence is properly the idea of a value which demolishes my self-love,’ is perhaps fundamental.

 

CHAPTER II

 

The core of this chapter begins half-way down p. 36: the preceding pages repeat and reinforce -the arguments of the Preface for a pure (i.e. non-empirical) moral philosophy.

 

The following terms are important:

 

objective principle’ - a principle according to which reason requires that all rational beings should act (pp. 36-37; cf. p. 15 note)

 

‘Imperative’ or ‘command of reason’ - an objective principle so far as it applies to a will subject to inclination as well as reason.

 

According to Kant, God acts according to objective principles; but, since he is not subject to inclination, he does not act according to Imperatives. His will is holy rather than (merely) good (p.- 39).

 

Imperatives may be classified as follows (pp. 39-44):

 

 

 

 

Imperatives

 

 

 

 

 

            /

Hypothetical

 

 

 

Categorical

(Moral Laws

 

 

Problematic

(Rate of Skill)

 

 

Asseroteric

(counsels of prudence)

 

 

 

Kant argues that both kinds of hypothetical imperative are analytic, but that categorical imperatives are synthetic (pp. 44-49). (See L.W.Beck’s article, ‘Apodictic Imperatives’.

 

Categorical imperatives are a priori (since moral principles are non-empirical); but they are also synthetic (etymological sense).

Kant begins with two points: (a) the categorical imperative, enjoins that our maxims should conform to the moral law; (b) but the moral law contains no reference to any conditions of human nature or the human situation (see Ch.1 on both); he concludes that ‘there remains nothing over to which (our maxims must) conform except the universality of a law as such’ (p. 51). In short, Kant holds that, since the moral law is independent of the human condition, whether or net a maxim conforms to it must also be independent of the human condition. On what, then, can it depend? Only on some formal property, and Kant’s analysis in Ch.1 has shown what that formal property must be, namely, conformity to the universality of a law; as such.

 

But what is that? Kant offers two answers, of which the second amplifies the first. A maxim conforms to the universality of a law as such:

 

(1) if you can at the same time (as you act on it) will that it should become a universal law (p.  52)

 

(2) if you can act as if it were to become through your will a Universal Law of Nature (p.   52).

 

For Kant’s conception of a Law of Nature see The Moral Law pp. 30-31, and The Categorical Imperative, pp. 146-64. Note that Kant’s application of his first principle depends on the second formula. The firsts by itself, is not strong enough.

 

Kant divides duties into perfect (i.e. those which leave nothing to be determined by inclination) and imperfect, (N.B. Paton in The Moral Law p.-31 corrects The Categorical Imperative pp. 147-8; see his note to p. 53 footnote No. 1.) This division traverses the traditional one according to which perfect duties were toward others, imperfect ones were towards oneself (p. 53 note).

 

(a) Perfect duty towards oneself: Do not commit suicide when life promises more-evil than pleasure.    If the maxim of committing suicide under those conditions were a law of nature, it would under certain circumstances end all human life;’ but a law of nature has the function of furthering, not destroying the system of nature.    Therefore the maxim of suicide cannot consistently be willed as a law of nature (pp. 53-54).

 

(b) Perfect duty towards others: Do not, when it suits you, make promises you know you cannot” fulfill. If the maxim of making false promises when it suited you were to become a universal law of nature, i.e. if everybody were to act on it,  ‘it would make promising, and the very purpose of promising itself impossible’ (p. 55).  In short, by willing it as a universal law of nature, you would will the disappearance of the very thing which your maxim proposes to exploit - i.e. you would contradict yourself (pp.  54-5).

 

(c) Imperfect duty towards yourself: Do not neglect to cultivate your talents in order to indulge in pleasure. Kant admits that the maxim of neglecting to cultivate talents can be conceived without contradiction as a universal law of nature, but that it cannot be willed as such a law, because “a rational being necessarily wills that all his powers should be developed.”    This example shows the importance of the phrase ‘through your will’ in Kant’s second formula.

(d) Imperfect duty toward others: Do not refrain from helping others struggling with hardships whom you can easily help. Again Kant admits that this could be conceived as a universal law of nature; and even that mankind would be better off than it now is if everybody looked after himself and simply refrained from injuring others.  But he denied that such a maxim can be willed as a universal law of nature on the ground that each of us can conceivably find himself in a situation in which, through no fault of his own, he needs help which another can give; and that, in such a situation, no rational being can will not to be helped. Notice that this is not prudential. It holds, however unlikely it may he that you will find yourself in a situation in which you need help (p. 56).

 

Kant describes these four examples as derivations of actual duties from his principle (p. 57). What is the general structure of such derivations? Notice that the duties in all four examples are negative; we are forbidden to act upon certain maxims. Kant says that  ‘Some actions are so constructed that their maxim cannot even be conceived as a universal law of nature without contradiction’ (i.e. those contrary to perfect duty), and that of other actions, ‘it is impossible to will that their maxim should be-raised to the universality of a law of nature, because such a will would contradict itself (i.e. those actions contrary to imperfect duty) (p. 57).  It is natural to infer that Kant derived actual duties from his formula by the following procedure:

 

(1) identify the various motives on which you are acting (a given act may have several motives) and formulate them as maxims;

(2) of each maxim, inquire whether you can act as if that maxim were to became through your will a universal law of Nature,

(3) and, if not, conclude that it is your duty not to do any act which falls under that maxim.

 

If this is Kant’s procedure, then no duty can be inferred from the mere fact that a maxim can be willed as a universal Law of Nature. If Kant intended his description on p. 57 of how actual duties are derived to be complete, then duties are only derived by finding that a proposed maxim cannot be so willed.

 

Kant sums up what has so far been demonstrated as follows: (1) that if there is such a thing as duty it can only be expressed in categorical imperatives; and (2) that such a categorical imperative has the content set forth in Kant’s four kinds of example. It remains to ask: Is there such a thing as duty? In other words: Is there ‘an imperative of this kind ,…a practical law which by itself commands absolutely and without any further motives’ (p.  59)?

 

Kant answers that if there were something that is an end-in itself, then the existence of duty would follow; for all rational beings must will the existence of whatever is an end in itself (pp. 63-64).

 

Kant argues (pp. 64-66) that “Rational nature exists as an end in itself, which gives rise to the imperative:

 

(3)  Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether yourself or any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end (pp.  66-7).

And, since the application of this formula will give results identical with those of applying formula (2) above (pp. 67-9), this shows that the moral law as determined by formula (2) is a genuine categorical imperative.

 

Other Vital Problems in Kant

 

A. Autonomy (self-governed) and Heteronomy (other than self-governed).

B. The Kingdom of Ends (all rational beings are member of).

C. The Problem of Free Will as raised in ch. 3 of Grundlegung.

D. The Empirical and Transcendental Unity of Apperception.

E. Transcendental Ego (the above are not subject to the manifold of sensibility).

F. The Critique of Pure Reason presents Kant’s epistemology (i.e. theory of knowledge

G. ‘Knowledge’ in the first critique is only attainable through a correlation, of the manifold of

sensibility and understanding.

 

Basic Kant Bibliography

 

Primary Sources:

 

Kant, I. Werke, ed. by W. Weischedel, 6 volumes, 1956 —

 

I.          Vorkritische Schriften bis 1768.

II.         Kritik der reinen Vernunft.

III.       Schriften zur Logik und Metaphysik.

IV.       Schriften zur Ethik und Religionsphilosophie.

V.        Kritik der Urteilskraft und naturphilosophische Schriften.

VI.       Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Fadagogik

 

R. Eisler’s Kantlexion (Berlin, 1930) is a useful aid to the study of Kant.

 

Kantstudien, the periodical founded in 1896 by H. Vaihinger, contains many important articles

on Kant.

 

There are various collections of articles on Kant, e.g.:

 

Revue internationale de philosophic, n. 30; Brussles, 1954.

A Symposium on Kant, by E.G. Ballard and others.

Tulane Studies in Philosophy, vol. III. New Orleans, 1954.

 

Inaugural Dissertation and Early Writings on Space. Trans, by J. Handyside. Chicago, 1929.

Critique of Pure Reason. Trans, by N.K. Smith. London, 1933 (2nd ed.). Also see his

Commentary on Kant’s first critique - Best in English.

Immanuel Kant:  Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy. Trans,

and edited by L.W. Beck. Chicago, 1949.

 

           

Cassirer, A.W. A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. London, 1938.

________. Kant’s First Critique: An Appraisal of the Permanent Significance of Kant’s Critique

of Pure Reason. London, 1955.

Coninck, A. de. L’analytique de Kant (Part I: La critique kantienne). Louvain, 1955.

Duncan, A.R.C.  Practical Rule and Morality: A study of Immanuel Kant’s Foundations

            for the Metaphysics of Ethics. London, 1957.

Ewing, A.C. Kant’s Treatment of Causality. London, 1924.

________. A Short Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. London. 1938. (In idealistic

tradition, the best short commentary available).

Jones, W.T. Morality and Freedom in the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Oxford, 1940.

Klausen, S. Die Freiheltsidee in ihrem Verhaltnis zum Naturrecht und positivsm Reeht bei Kant.

Oslo, 1950.

Korner, S. Kant. Penguin Books, 1955.

Kroner, R. Von Kant bis Hegel. 2 vols. Tubingen, 1921-4.

Harechal, J., S.J.  Le point de depart de la metaphysique. 5 vols. Bruges, 1923-46. (Cahiers 3 and

5 - compares Kant and Aquinas - Excellent.’)

Miller, O.W. The Kantian Thing-In-itself or Creative Mind. New York, 1956.

Ross, Sir D. Kant’s Ethical Theory, A Commentary on the  ‘Grundlagen zur Hetaphysik der

SittelPT. Oxford, 1954.

 

Dr- James D, Strauss

Philosophy/Theology