Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals

The best way to understand Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) is to read it as a continuation of the philosophy laid out in Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Otherwise it is likely to be dismissed, as it was by his disciple Hegel, as putting too much faith in reason to determine moral action. But the charge is unfair, for Kant is very clear on this point, and he doesn’t expect the overly rational mind to be guided by towards moral rectitude, in fact the opposite.

He trusts far more the common and untutored attitude of the masses to discover morality, a point to be made. Contingent reason does not deliver morality; only pure reason is capable of doing so. Being mired in a maze of contingent reason, it is very difficult for the lettered to arrive at morality. Those expecting a hard and fast rule of morality from Kant – and Hegel must be counted among their number – come away disappointed and having misunderstood purpose of why a metaphysics of morals is necessary.

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A metaphysics of human understanding is what Kant had spelt out in the Critique, and more plainly in Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783). The central precept presented here was that human mind possesses synthetic a priori faculties that impose meaning upon the sensible world beyond, which comes to it as chaos of sense perceptions. It provides such pure concepts as “cause and effect” that allows the sensible world to be understood, even though as a “thing in itself” the external world is really unknowable. Pure reason thus resides within the human mind, and gives rise to contingent reason in the phenomenal world, that which enables understanding.

Metaphysics is defined as reason turned inwards and examining itself. Kant makes this out to be an impossible endeavor, for understanding is only geared to the phenomenal world, and is unable to grasp pure reason. But this does not mean that reason and metaphysics be abandoned, and skepticism be embraced, as was done by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who had first emphasized the point, and thereby had stirred Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers”. Kant realized that to abandon reason was to surrender one’s humanity, for man is justified by reason alone.

Even if he tried he could not abandon metaphysics, for reason never rests and is spurred on by unflagging curiosity. If metaphysics leads to despair then it can only be because it lacks clarity and solid foundations. To provide this is Kant’s endeavor, and is indeed a moral mission for him. At stake was the very essence of man; so Kant perceived it as an emergency.

At several points Kant makes it clear that he is acting out of duty. The claims he made of the importance of the Critique sound outrageous to the ears of many. He made it an obligation on any one who had any inclination to serious metaphysics, that they should read the Critique, or else abandon that pursuit altogether. (Prolegomena, 6) For the unlettered, and those incapable of metaphysics, he devised the categorical imperative, a simple rule of thumb to judge morality, resembling the Golden Rule of Christianity.

The rule is supposed to have the same purifying effect as does metaphysical clarity. Thereby a link is pre-established between pure metaphysics and the metaphysics of morality. Metaphysics is not possible, in the sense that we cannot understand pure reason with any degree of finality. But clarity in metaphysical thinking is not only possible, but is indeed a binding obligation.

In other world, pure reason leads us to morality. The morality cannot stop with thinking, but must carry on into action. The next logical step, therefore, is to put the metaphysics of morals on a foundation, just as has been done with pure metaphysics. Kant starts out by putting the study in its context.

The Greeks had divided knowledge into three disciplines – physics, ethics and logic. Logic is a pure discipline; the other two are divided between a “pure” study, which deals with concepts a priori., and an “empirical” study, which analyses events a posteriori, i.e. from experience. Ethics, as derived from experience, is a practical science, and is better described as psychology, and does not touch the sphere of morality. That which is to be studied as morality is properly the “pure” branch of ethics. Kant’s first important observation is that all the organs of the human have their rightful function, and have forms that are in complete harmony with their functions.

The human being has reason, which considered as an organ must too have a rightful function. Now, if the function of reason were to effect happiness and self-preservation – the common inclination – then it would seem to be a most imperfect arrangement on the part of God, for reason is hesitant and bungling:Now in a being which has reason and a will, if the proper object of nature were its conservation, its welfare, in a word, its happiness, then nature would have hit upon a very bad arrangement in selecting the reason of the creature to carry out this purpose. For all the actions which the creature has to perform with a view to this purpose, and the whole rule of its conduct, would be far more surely prescribed to it by instinct, and that end would have been attained thereby much more certainly than it ever can be by reason. (Grounding, 56)

Indeed this is exactly how instinct works, providing an automatic mechanism that works instantaneously towards self-preservation and well-being. This being the case it must be investigated as to what the true function of reason is. From what we learn from Critique, the function of reason is not to effect the contingent good, but rather the universal good, i.e. morality.

We have reason so that we may choose the right way, not the useful or productive way. A corollary to this is that the moral act cannot coincide with inclination, for the latter is described as that which depends of instinct and feeling to attain the goals of happiness and self-preservation. Next there is interest, in which we exercise judgment, through empirical means, calculating so that we may obtain happiness. But even our best calculations cannot confirm to us that the happiness will be permanent, so and interested action cannot be a moral one either.

Morality is not the product of the best reason, but of pure reason, and therefore cannot allow imperfection in its aim. One may be inclined to give charity because it satisfies one’s moral sense, or makes one feel worthwhile. But such a reason is contingent, and therefore the act cannot be a moral one. Not to pursue moral sense, but to abide by moral law, this is the criteria for judging whether an act is moral or not.

Hereby is introduced the concept of duty. Kant describes it thus: “Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the [moral] law.” Those who understand what it means know that duty is done for duty’s sake alone, and not for any particular “reason”. If there was a reason it would be one measured towards gaining something – happiness, respectability, honor etc – and so would be an interested act, and would cease to be a duty.

As such, duty determines the moral law. It is above all petty interest, or inclination, and must have a rationale that is universal. Kant admits that it is not possible to determine what is moral or not in terms of designated “dos” and “don’ts”, for we cannot escape a motivated approach to such a scheme. So he opts for compromise – probably the only occasion he does so in his vast corpus.

He suggests that, not particular reasons, but maxims are to be followed. The maxims should be worded so as to aim for the universal good. And thus he proposed the categorical imperative: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (Ibid 63) The categorical imperative has thus far been established as an option. But in order to embody morality it needs to be framed as a binding law.

This is achieved by the consideration of free will. Any reasoning creature is able to comprehend that it is free; the very act of reasoning is an act of freedom. But when we come to consider degrees of freedom we realize that things are quite the opposite of what we expect. Any exercise of reason mires us in antinomies – mutually contradicting assertions, both of which can be shown as valid.

The act is thus binding, and not at all allowing for freedom. It binds us to contingent reality. But then we recall that conscious reason consist of pure concepts of understanding, like the concept of causation, which are meant for understanding the sensory world, and not for metaphysics. Freedom is obtained only by overcoming the binds of contingent reason.

When the will is guided by contingent reason then it is “heteronomous”. Only through overcoming such reasoning does it become “autonomous”. Therefore, contrary to expectation, autonomy is not gained by an interested exercise of the will, but through the rejection of it. When the will has before it a particular object of interest, external to itself, it is dependent on that object.

The object in turn is dependent on another, giving rise to an endless chain of dependency. Autonomy is only gained when the act of reason is an end in itself. In this way Kant asks us to imagine a “kingdom of ends”, where all rational acts are ends in themselves. In such a place there is freedom and the moral law has been established.

Where does this law come from? It comes from rational beings exercising free will. The autonomous will is the source of moral law. We can sum up by saying that, free individuals are the lawgivers in the kingdom of ends. The common complaint against Kant’s metaphysics of morals is that it has no practical use.

In no society is morality determined by considering the deepest dynamics of it metaphysics. To the contrary, morality is result of wisdom that has accrued through history. Even then it is not the learned circles that are the upholder of morality, but rather the common unlettered lot, whose pious ways and robust common sense are responsible. This is exactly Hegel’s complaint.

Recognizing the significance of Kantian antinomies, he went on to elaborate on it, and came to develop what is known as the Hegelian dialectic. It is the centrally most influential idea of the modern era, and many see it as the starting point to all modern philosophy in the West. The Hegelian dialectic was found useful, whereas the Kantian antinomies were not, for the simple reason that the former tool was applied to history, whereas the latter did not escape metaphysics.

Hegel described thesis as begetting antithesis, in the same way as Kant did, but he also posited that there is a synthesis of the two, which occurs in history, i. e. in human development. In a continual, omnipresent and unceasing process, thesis begets antithesis, and both are resolved through synthesis, and this is the dynamic of the progress of civilization. Morality is thus a product of history and local circumstance.

But it is unfair to suggest that all this escapes Kant. He did admit that the reasoning mind is prone to the most immoral tendencies, whereas the unlettered masses have far better instincts for what is moral, and affinity towards the moral life. Reason is not only a lure, it is also ineffective in bringing about the happy and moral life:[W]e find that the more a cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the enjoyment of life and happiness, so much the more does the man fail of true satisfaction. … [A]fter calculating all the advantages they derive … from the sciences … they find that they have, in fact, only brought more trouble on their shoulders, rather than gained in happiness; and they end by envying, rather than despising, the more common stamp of men who keep closer to the guidance of mere instinct and do not allow their reason much influence on their conduct.

The impossibility of defining morals in nowhere denied in Kant’s philosophy. In fact the premise of the argument is that a metaphysics of morals is impossible, just as metaphysics itself is impossible. But the fact is that as rational creatures we cannot help being metaphysical, just as we cannot help searching for the moral way. In order that we do not become misguided in these endeavors, our metaphysical effort needs to be laid on solid foundations, and this is what Kant pleads for, and tries to provide.

He is saying that, only when our own house is in order can morality ensue. In fact the position of Kant is hardly different from that of Socrates, who spoke two thousand years earlier. The motto of Socrates was: “Know thyself!” If the vast profusion of Kant’s philosophy could be condensed into two words it would coincide exactly with the Socratic profession. For Kant, too, is asking that we examine ourselves, indeed making it the sole criterion of our investigation.

Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (qtd. in Templeton, 73). The Sophists were the masters of philosophy in his day, and at the end of their learning they has arrived at the conclusion that nothing can be known, that probabilities are our only guide, and these should be used towards material gain alone. Against the hegemony of the Sophists Socrates preached the message of self investigation.

The Sophists were right, he admitted, but only in so far as the sensory world in concerned. However, their version of the truth leaves out the “self”, he contended. Only when we come back to examine the “self” are we able to come to true knowledge. This knowledge does not come to us in discursive terms, so that we know explicitly what it is.

Rather it appears as wisdom. This is what rules the world for in it is contained the natural law. It comes from the self, and therefore the rational being is a lawgiver. The last description is deliberately put in the terms of Kant in order to bring out the exact similitude between the two philosophies. Thus, the messages of Socrates and Kant are identical, even though their approaches are vastly dissimilar. Kant reasoned from a tiny corner in Konigsberg, confined to his study. It is reputed that he never left his hometown his entire long life. Socrates, on the other hand roamed the world, through all the strata of society.

He accosted people in all walks of life, from princes to the most minor peasant, engaging them in debate in their very own terms, without any pretensions to pompous leaning, so that nobody could say that they didn’t understand Socrates. Against this Kant uses the most obscure language possible, aiming for scientific exactitude rather than intelligibility. At the center of Kant’s philosophy is the dialectic between mutually contradicting pairs of antinomies. It is the tension involved in this dialectic the provides the basis for a critique of pure reason, that which resolves contradiction.

Socrates, too, is engaged in dialectics. The Socratic method is characterized by endlessly probing debate into the essential nature of things. The participants in the debate with him are time and again baffled by the conflicting consequences drawn out, which Socrates seem only to want to exacerbate, and does not care to resolve. Describing this method, Hegel says that it “by its nature must be dialectic. However he failed to appreciate that there could be substance beneath the surface dialectics. He does not appreciate Socratic irony, and instead calls it ignorance, and debate for the sake of debate (385). So Hegel misses the central point of Socrates, just as he does that of Kant. If he did not then he would have understood that the point made by each is the same.

The other charge leveled against Kant is that his philosophy does not allow room for human emotion, like love, or common virtues, like benevolence and empathy. This too is unfounded, for the motives that lead to love, benevolence and empathy are inescapably heteronomous. Love is always directed towards an external object. Many envisage pure love, without any taint from material concerns that can be discerned.

Filial love is close to this ideal, and so is romantic love, when the sensuous element has been eliminated from it. Such self-less love seems to be moral. However the categorical imperative does not bear this out. To love one’s own children is to love them more than the children of others, or at times against the interest of the other children.

We cannot accept a maxim as a universal law which says we love our children so much that we want them to outshine and outperform all other children. Neither can we accept as universal the maxim that says that we must go to war and die for the one we love. A Mark Antony, or a Paris, are inspirational examples, but we do not want “battles of Troy” all the time. The love that does meet the criteria of the categorical imperative is Christian love, which is based on the biblical teaching: “love thy neighbor as thy self” (Leviticus 19:18).

There are many who have indeed drawn parallels between Christian love and the categorical imperative. Any maxim that can be willed as a universal law must necessary involve Christian love, as indeed it involves benevolence and empathy too. Therefore Kant does take into account love and the common virtues. He differs from the common teachers of morality in that he does not place undue emphasis on them.

For to do so would be to “commodify” virtues – make them into commodities, in other words, teachable precepts. Kant takes pains to point out that this is an ill-advised venture. Moral education was once a part of the curriculum in Christian societies, and the results, Kant observes, are very far from the anticipated morally upright citizenry. This is because,the teachers themselves have not got their own notions clear, and when they endeavor to make up for this by raking up motives of moral goodness from every quarter, trying to make their physic right strong, they spoil it.

This is the theme of the Socratic dialogue Meno, presented to us by Plato. In it Meno, Socrates’ adversary in argument, puts to him the question, “Can virtue be taught?” Socrates insists that this is the wrong question to ask, and that we cannot know whether virtue is taught or not until we know what virtue is. But on Meno’s insistence the investigation begins anyway, at the end of which two conclusions are reached. The first conclusion is that virtue can be taught, because it has been identified with wisdom, which in turn is the epitome of knowledge.

If it is knowledge then it can certainly be taught. But the second conclusion, contradicting the first, is that it cannot be taught, because the teachers of virtue are not to be found. A survey is made among statesmen, philosophers, diviners and poets, and none fit the criteria exactly of being a teacher of virtue. The statesman, for example, governs by right opinion, for without such governance would be impossible.

Therefore, the statesman is in possession of wisdom, in the form of right opinion. But he is unable to convey this wisdom to others. If he were able to do so he would certainly have taught his sons the same wisdom. But observing what the great leaders and statesmen of Athens have done they find that they were anxious only to teach their sons horsemanship and wrestling.

This demonstrates that not only were they unable to teach wisdom to their sons, but were indeed ignorant of the fact that they had it themselves (Plato, 4). However, the gist of the argument is not that they have failed to come to a conclusion on the question of whether virtue can be taught. It is that they have discovered, with far greater impact, the central  importance of the question that Socrates had wanted to pursue in the first place, i.e. “What is virtue?” Not that he expects a cut and dried answer to that question. But to ask such a question is tantamount to exploring the self, and thus putting, as Kant would say, the metaphysics of morals on a solid foundation.

Kant too makes the observation that morality cannot be taught with a prescribed set of “dos and don’ts”, and that all efforts in this direction have proved disastrous. As a guiding principle he would only give us the categorical imperative, so that, using this rule of thumb, our motivations are guided towards the universal good instead of the particular.

This is why he was wary of stressing love, or the other commons virtues, as ready made prescriptions for the establishment of morality. But it is not true that he does not allow place for them in his scheme.

Works Cited

  1. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Freidrich. Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Translated by E. S. Haldane, F. H. Simson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995
  2. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Boston: Hackett Publishing, 1999.
  3. Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2005.
  4. Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Translated by James W. Ellington. Boston: Hackett Publishing, 2001.
  5. Plato. Meno. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
  6. Templeton, John. Wisdom from World Religions: Pathways Toward Heaven on Earth. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002.

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