Transcendental blues II

November 29, 2007

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)
Immanuel Kant (Bobbs-Merrill, 1959)
108 p. First reading.

History of Philosophy, Vol. VI, Part II: Kant
Frederick Copleston, SJ (Image Books, 1964)
277 p. First reading.

Kant: A Very Short Introduction
Roger Scruton (Oxford University Press, 2001)
141 p. First reading.

This is the second part of my account of my first encounter with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. As I explained in the first part, I do not really grasp the essence of his system, but in these posts I am attempting to state those aspects that I do comprehend to some degree. They are unlikely to be of much use to anyone seeking clarification, but for certain minds, such as those attracted to car wrecks, they may have a certain allure.

The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is what it claims to be: an inquiry into the metaphysical foundations of moral reasoning. Kant intends to search for and establish the supreme principle of morality. The goal is to identify the a priori element of morals, that element which is universal and necessary, being independent of all empirical facts about the world or human nature. This foundational moral principle is to be discovered within reason itself. Note that Kant is not attempting to establish the fact of moral reasoning — he is not attempting to justify the validity of moral language and concepts to a skeptic — but rather he takes for granted that moral reasoning occurs and attempts to articulate its structure.

“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.” With this famous opening flourish Kant launches his project. He makes the startling claim that a good will is good of itself, because of its willing, and not because of what it wills. This seems to me very counter-intuitive, for surely the will is called good or evil on condition whether it wills something good or evil? But Kant is determined to examine the aspects of morality that do not depend on circumstances, and so he cannot permit any contingent or empirical considerations to enter. That being so, it raises the question of the sense in which the will is being called good.

A good will, he says, is a will that acts from duty. “The first proposition of morality is that to have moral worth an action must be done from duty.” In consequence, actions that are performed exclusively out of duty are especially admirable, and it must be admitted that this does tap into a basic moral intuition, for we do recognize the merit of fulfilling one’s duty even when doing so is difficult or dangerous. But this also seems to imply that when actions proceed from other motives, such as inclination or love, they are less praise-worthy. “I can have no respect for any inclination whatsoever,” he says. This appears to be expressly at odds with the moral theory of, for instance, Thomas Aquinas, who argued that the truly good man is the one who does the good out of love. It seems an unhappy beginning, but I must reserve my judgment, for later he seems to moderate these claims somewhat.

He makes an important distinction between actions done in accordance with duty and actions done for the sake of duty. It is only the latter which are moral in the sense he requires. I may fulfill my duty accidentally, or for ulterior motives, but this cannot be called good in an unqualified way. This too is consistent with our moral intuitions.

But what does it mean to act from duty? Kant answers that to act from duty is to act from reverence for law. “The necessity of an action is executed from respect for law”. Thus moral good exists in the conception of law as such. Since law is intrinsically rational, it follows that moral good is founded in rationality. Law is also universal, says Kant, and from this he draws important conclusions. Consider: if reverence for law is the essential characteristic of duty, which in turn sets the standard for moral goodness, then we should strive to act in accordance with law. Therefore we should invest our moral maxims with the form of law, which is universality, for by doing so we make them moral as such. Thus there is an intrinsic affinity between morals and universality, and this affinity is the justification for Kant’s famous categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law”. This, he argues, is the fundamental test of an act’s being moral.

We must be careful to interpret the categorical imperative rightly. Kant has insisted throughout that the ground of morality is rational, necessary, and free of everything empirical, such as consideration of consequences. What then can be meant by the word “can” in the categorical imperative? By what criteria shall we decide whether we “can” affirm a maxim to be a universal law? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I believe that Kant has in mind a logical test: can the maxim be affirmed without logical contradiction? For example, suppose I am wondering whether it is moral to make a promise to pay for something without any intention of honouring the promise. Is it possible for me to affirm that this promising-without-keeping should be a universal law? No, for consistent promise-breaking would devalue promises. Yet — and here is the contradiction — my plan assumes that promises have value. So the maxim which I am contemplating defeats itself, and for that reason cannot consistently be affirmed.

(This raises the odd possibility that Kant considers goodness as such to consist in logical consistency. Can it really be so?)

The categorical imperative is the objective principle of morality; it is the principle that secretly underlies all our moral reasoning, and it is issued by reason itself. It happens, however, that in the real world our subjective principles are often in conflict with this objective principle. We are subject to desires and self-love, and they tempt us to courses of action other than those approved by the categorical imperative. This, says Kant, is the origin of the sense of obligation, when we want to do one thing but know we should do another. We experience obligation to the extent that our will is opposed to the objective moral law. A perfectly good will, on the other hand, is subjectively in union with the objective law and so never experiences a conflict; it wills the good without being constrained to do so. In this sense, Kant moderates his earlier statements about inclination tarnishing the lustre of duty. A holy person does good naturally, because they do their duty naturally.

Kant expressly opposes his account of morality to the Aristotelian theory based on human nature and the search for happiness. All rational creatures, says Aristotle, desire happiness. Moral acts are those which tend to advance a person toward true happiness, and prudence is the virtue by which one discerns which acts are moral and which are not. Kant rejects this theory on the grounds that it is based on a hypothetical, rather than a categorical, imperative. A hypothetical imperative says that if you want to achieve happiness then you should do such-and-such. But no-one knows in what true happiness consists. Therefore prudence can never be better than empirical and suggestive, and it can never oblige or command. But this is at odds with moral experience and with the relevance of duty. Happiness, says Kant, is an ideal of the imagination, not of reason.

You might think that, having arrived at the objective principle of morality, Kant would set down his pen and rest on his laurels, but in fact he is just warming up, for though he has shown, to his own satisfaction, what the categorical imperative is, he has not shown that it actually exists, and that is the task of the next portion of the Groundwork. His first move is a perplexing one: the ground of the objective principle of morality (the categorical imperative) is, he says, that “rational nature exists as an end in itself”. How can this be so? Does he mean that the categorical imperative is a consequence of the end-in-itselfness of a rational being? I don’t see how that is so. Unless it is this: a rational being which is an end-in-itself also legislates for itself, without being subject to anything else; it promulgates the law which it itself obeys. And this is exactly what is meant by the categorical imperative. I do not know whether this is a sound understanding of what Kant means, nor, if it is, do I understand how it demonstrates that the categorical imperative actually exists, unless it is first taken for granted that rational beings are indeed ends-in-themselves.

If we accept the idea that rational beings are ends-in-themselves, then a few consequences follow. First, we must always treat rational beings as ends, never merely as means. Second, rational nature possesses an intrinsic dignity. In addition, when we consider rational nature under the aspect of its legislating for itself by expressing universality through its will, we arrive at the concept of the “autonomous will”, the will that issues laws for itself under no constraints other than those imposed by reason. It is the autonomous will that ultimately issues the universal laws that are the foundation of moral reasoning; the autonomy of the will is the supreme principle of morality.

This principle of the autonomy of the will is only possible, however, if it draws on the idea of freedom. The freedom of a rational being, for Kant, means its being the author of its own principles. Freedom — or, at least, the idea of freedom — is a practical necessity for all morality. Ultimately it is freedom — or, at least, the idea of freedom — that makes laws. This somewhat paradoxical notion is stated forthrightly by Kant: “a free will and a will under moral laws are identical”. Freedom, like morality, is implied by rationality as such. This insight is the pinnacle toward which Kant has been struggling, and its revelation brings the Groundwork to a close.

It is a basic moral insight that morality is intrinsically dependent upon freedom. Without freedom, the “ought” of moral language is meaningless. I am pleased, therefore, to see that Kant derives a deep connection between freedom and morality, but I am not pleased by the convoluted reasoning that leads from the one to the other. Freedom, autonomy of the will, end-in-itselfness, universal legislation, duty, and finally morality: it seems such a long journey, and some of the bridges appear to be pretty rickety.

This final sense of discouragement is heightened by the manner in which Kant equivocates at the very moment of triumph: at the same time that he uncovers freedom at the root of all morality, he allows that the “idea of freedom” will serve just as well. You see, Kant has a problem: he is committed to the metaphysical proposition that the physical world is entirely governed by causal necessity. But we are part of the physical world, and so are ourselves subject to causal necessity. But this seems to imply that freedom is impossible. Kant tries to salvage the situation by claiming that, from a practical point of view, to act under the idea of freedom is to be free. Freedom, indeed, is only an idea, and according to Kant’s epistemological theory developed in the Critique of Pure Reason, no possible experience can justify its objective reality. The best we can do, therefore, is point out that it stands as a necessary presupposition of moral reasoning, and leave it at that. What a let-down.

A great many questions crowd into my field of view as I consider the arguments Kant has developed. It is not entirely clear to me, for instance, why acting in accordance with duty should be considered especially worthy of praise. Isn’t duty what one is expected to do? We don’t reward someone for doing their duty. Perhaps that is exactly his point. But where, then, does Kant’s moral theory take account of actions which are not part of one’s duty, but which are nevertheless deserving of praise for their moral excellence? I also wonder about the categorical imperative itself, which seems strangely empty. Kant has given a few examples of how it sanctions some acts and forbids others, but is the principle really sufficient to completely delineate the moral sphere? Imagine I am considering whether to go for an evening walk. Kant instructs me to ask whether I could legislate that going for a walk should be a universal practice. I see no reason to object. Does it therefore follow that evening walks are a moral obligation? Something is wrong. It may be that the categorical imperative can forbid, but not recommend, just like Socrates’ daemon. But Kant himself uses an example of the categorical imperative commanding compassion toward others, so he must have some other relevant condition in mind to prevent the categorical imperative being used to convert benign activities into moral obligations. Furthermore, the connection between freedom, autonomy, and dignity on one hand, and duty, law, and the categorical imperative on the other is very obscure, and leaves me scratching my head.

On the other hand, there is much in Kant’s theory that is admirable. In his little book, Roger Scruton praises Kant’s moral philosophy on a number of grounds. It does succeed at explicating certain basic moral tenets: respect for oneself and for others, the unacceptability of exceptions in one’s favour, as well as the proscription of basic evils like murder, suicide, theft, fraud, and dishonesty. It is very much worth noting how it accounts for the force of morality, for the difference between desire and duty, and the manner in which moral principles are known and felt even when we defy them. It places emphasis on the intent of the will, rather than strictly on the consequences of action, which accords well with the common moral instinct to limit blame for unforeseen or unintended consequences. It makes room for the concept of a moral agent who acts not just from causes, but from reasons. Indeed, his whole system is praise-worthy for the way it grounds morality in reason, not in emotion or pleasure or calculation.

My concluding thoughts are somewhat muddled. I admire Kant’s intention in attempting to ground our moral judgment in reason, but I am less than convinced about certain aspects of his system, at least in part because I fail to understand them. This is one of the exasperating things about his theory: I have strained hard, but when I turn my eyes away for a moment it seems to evaporate. The long chain of reasoning is simply so tenuous, the impression so diffuse, that his general view of morality has not condensed into a coherent picture. I’m aware that this may well be my own fault.

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