THE GROUNDING OF THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS

A More Thorough Summary

Preface.  What is this book up to? Much knowledge we gain from experience--"empirically"--we explore the world to confirm or disconfirm knowledge claims. But there is some knowledge we gain purely from an investigation of basic concepts and associated principles (such investigation is not experiential, according to the limits Kant associates with the notion of experience), e.g., logic, the metaphysics of nature, and the metaphysics of morals. There is a pure foundation of morality and a supreme principle of morality which people commonly know implicitly by recognizing duty. There is a need for a specially focused treatment to clarify and establish that principle, and this is the purpose of Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Ellington trans., Hackett edition used here). Note the recognition on p. 3.1 that moral laws "require, furthermore, a power of judgment sharpened by experience, partly in order to distinguish in what cases they are applicable . . . ."

            Why does K insist that morality cannot be based on anthropology? There are several reasons. The main reason is that anthropology is an empirical science; its claims can be confirmed or disconfirmed by experience in the world. The principles of moral reason, however, are not so confirmable and disconfirmable. Worldly wisdom may be of some help for someone seeking happiness ("honesty is the best policy"; "he profits most who serves best"), but experience can never convey the universal force of the imperative, "Be loyal to the truth."

Another reason why ethics is not based on anthropology is that there are (or may be) angels or other types of rational beings. They, too, are morally obliged to decide and act according to morality. Human beings are capable of experiencing the temptation of physical feelings leading to betray moral reason; for humans, morality is experienced therefore (potentially or actually) as a compulsion--duty.

 

First Section

A good will, the only thing of unconditional worth in this world or beyond it, and the essence of genuine character, is a will that acts in the light of this three-fold standard of morality, the categorical imperative.

The first three paragraphs of the First Section of the Grounding (GMM) emphasize that only a good will is good without qualification. Other excellent qualities, if linked to a will that is not good, may make the evil doer more dangerous. If a person has a good will, even though the person may not succeed in carrying out his or her noble projects due to (perhaps) unforseeable circumstances beyond control, that will still shines as supremely good. (Note: Despite Kant's clash with consequentialism, Mill could agree on this point, since the good will has qualities that tend to express themselves as happiness-maximizing actions; moreover, the fact that a particular action doesn't achieve its end (due to unforseeable and uncontrollable circumstances) can still be esteemed, since the action is of a sort that tends to maximize happiness.)

The following notes from the Metaphysics of Morals (MM) are not an added reading assignment. The pages are supplemental, to be read (at times) in class, and available as extra help.  The introductory material that we have from Kant's Metaphysics of Morals has references to virtue in part II, pp. 36, 41, 53, 64ff, and 69. They may be summarized as follows. Virtue is strength in carrying out one's duty in the face of strong and conflicting emotions (MM 380, 394 [7, 53]). It is the only true glory of a human being, invulnerable to chance. "In its possession alone is man free, healthy, rich, a king, etc." (MM 405 [65]). "Virtue in its whole perfection is . . . to be represented not as if man possessed virtue, but as if virtue possessed man" (MM 406 [65]). We speak of many virtues, but they are but expressions of the single principle of virtue in relation to various objects [situation types?] (MM 406 [65]). "Virtue is always in progress and yet always begins at the beginning. The first follows from the fact that, objectively considered, virtue is an ideal and unattainable; but yet constantly to approximate it is nevertheless a duty. The second is founded subjectively upon the nature of man, which is affected by inclinations. Under the influence of these inclinations virtue, with its maxims adopted once for all, can never settle into a state of rest and inactivity; if it is not rising, it inevitably declines" (MM 409 [69]). Virtue is not merely a habit acquired by long practice, but a habit resulting from "resolute and firm principles ever more and more purified"--and thus fortified against surprises (MM 41).

There is a nice discussion of imperfect duties on p. II. 48.  Ideas about feelings are found at II. 21,33,57,67f.  Kant's definitions of key terms begins at II 22.  Can there be a conflict of duties? See II 24 and compare the notion of prima facie duties.

To say that you ought to do something is not merely to say that I want you to do it; nor is it merely to say that if you do it, you will get some reward and that if you don't you'll be punished. The recognition of moral duty cannot be reduced to feelings of approval or to anticipation of rewards and punishments. To recognize moral duty is to recognize what everyone ought to approve, what ought to be rewarded by happiness (however differently the world is seen to run).

Ideas about feelings are found at II. 9 ,33,57,67f. Here is a summary. Desire or aversion always has pleasure or displeasure connected, the susceptibility to which is called feeling (MM 211[9]). "Feeling is always physical" (377 [33]). Every person has moral qualities: "moral feeling, conscience, love of one's neighbor, and respect for oneself (self-esteem). These feelings arise from consciousness of a moral law (MM 399 [57-58]). "Emotions belong to feeling, which, preceding reflection as it does, makes reflection more difficult or even impossible. . . . Passion is the sensible appetite grown into a lasting inclination (e.g., hatred in contrast to anger). The calmness with which one indulges passion permits reflection and allows the mind to frame principle for it" (MM 407-08 [67-68]).

Can anything be said, in general, about what we ought to do? First, I always act (more or less consciously) on the basis of some (primary) motive or purpose. If I take the trouble to make this motive explicit, I can state it in the form of a principle ("maxim"), and I can ask whether it would satisfy moral reason for everyone (in the same type of situation) to act on that same principle. Some maxims violate reason because it would be flatly contradictory to imagine everyone acting on them; other maxims, if acted upon universally, would be rationally unsatisfactory (they would lead e.g., to a world in which people would neglect to develop their own talents or in which people would neglect beneficence).

Second, I must treat every person (including myself) with profound respect for that individual's capacity for free, rational, moral self-determination.

Third, I must choose my principles as though I were legislating for a "kingdom of ends." A kingdom of ends may be envisioned as a heavenly realm beyond this life (where we may hope that those worthy to be happy are actually happy). We may also envision the kingdom of ends as an advanced civilization, where international peace is enforced through international law and people treat one another morally. But we are here and now members of a kingdom of ends if we act in accord with universal, rational principles.

Turning to a more detailed exposition now, this section argues that a good will subordinates happiness to duty--as expressed in the form of a law or principle. This section articulates what Kant regards as implicit in the moral sense of the ordinary (not philosophically trained) person: (1) A good will alone is unconditionally good; there is, in other words, a doctrine of virtue here, with one single, central virtue elevated in isolation. We note that insofar as moral worth is concerned, we are prepared to honor the virtue of someone whose projects are frustrated (let us assume, through circumstances beyond the agent's control). (2) For what purpose do we have reason and will? It cannot be simply to pursue happiness--the satisfactions of human needs and desires. We are so lacking in the ability to secure our own happiness that we'd do better, if that were the goal, to operate with instinct, like an animal. The purpose of reason's capacity to govern the will must be to make the will good. (3) A person who has a good will excels at willing, and this is what it means to be moral. (4) A good will is one that resolves to perform its duty; and the concept of duty implies that there may be inclinations of human nature that run contrary to duty. The notion of duty implies that it is something that "you have to do, whether you feel like it or not." (Duty here is determined by practical reason, which may differ from social expectations. Duty can only be genuinely fulfilled if done from the motive of a good will. (5) The ordinary concept of duty implies (a) that the claims of duty inherently take precedence over the claims of inclination (what one "feels like doing") and (b) that you should "act only on maxims which you can consistently will to be universal law (acted upon by everyone in similar circumstances) (in the next section this maxim will be presented as the first formulation of the categorical imperative, a product of philosophy, not common sense). Finally, (6) philosophy is needed to safeguard and clarify this concept. This is because the strict application of reason in some cases seems to go against our tender sentiments, and ordinary thinking is in danger of compromising the purity of reason and ending up with an incoherent mix of notions instead of a genuine ethical philosophy. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a philosophic articulation of moral law.

Second Section

The Second Section opens with an exhortation to go beyond a philosophy based on examples. A rational being is defined (p. 23.3) as having a will, defined as "the power to act according to . . . principles . . . independently of inclination." To say that a being stands under an obligation is to say that being might possibly act following a contrary inclination; a holy or divine will, unlike the will of a human or (fallible) angel, does not experience the thing to be done as an obligation, as something which one ought to do (24).

An imperative is a principle that one is rationally required to follow in order to do something. There are different types of imperatives: rules of skill (about effective or efficient technique), counsels of prudence (about how to pursue happiness), and commands (laws) of morality; the first two types are hypothetical, i.e., if you have a certain goal, then you should do X. The third type (if there really is such a law) is an unconditional, "categorical" imperative.

 

The first formulation of the categorical imperative.  Kant repeatedly asks whether and how a categorical imperative is "possible" (27-29). This may be because, as the third section sets forth, the possibililty of moral law points to the crucial concept of freedom in a human being who also lives in the midst of nature. Maybe, Kant muses, the categorical imperative is covertly hypothetical, i.e., if you say, unconditionally or "categorically, "Do not commit murder," you really mean, in the last analysis, "If you want to avoid trouble with the Authorities, do not commit murder." Just entertaining the concept of a categorical imperative does not prove that there really is one, but an analysis of the idea of a categorical imperative can produce the "general formula" of a categorical imperative (a formula, which Kant acknowledges, lacks content, implies nothing concrete). The categorical imperative requires action in accord with law; this is the first formulation, mentioned in the previous section (29-30). (A maxim is a policy for acting; if I keep my promise to my friend, I might act on the maxim of being generous to people that are nice to me that day, or I might act on the maxim of keeping my promises. [Which maxim would qualify as a moral maxim under the test of the first formulation of the categorical imperative? Why?] Maxims can be very general or highly specific.)

Traditionally, duties were classified as (1) duties to others and duties to self and (2) duties which could never be violated ("perfect duties") and duties of benevolence or self-cultivation that are not binding in every opportunity (30-32). We can see that there is one thread running through all these duties—a single, categorical, principle of pure reason, for all rational beings (32-35). Such a principle is a formal principle, since it abstracts from all subjectively provided content; that is, the categorical imperative holds no matter what goals or ends the agent may envision.

The reasoning thus far may be summed up as follows.  1. Happiness (the satisfaction of needs and inclinations) is important and necessary, but must be subordinated to duty in case of a conflict.  2.  An action has moral worth only if it is done "from duty" (400-401).  3. Whenever we act, we do so according to some maxim.  If fully articulated, a maxim has the following elements in its structure:  In situations of type S, I will do actions of type A, from a motive of type M.  4. The same maxim could be acted on by the agent or by others on other occasions, whenever situations of type S occurs.  5.  In some cases, it would be rationally satisfactory if the maxim were made a universal law ("If everyone did that . . ."); in those cases the maxim is morally acceptable.  6. If every empirical element is set aside (which could motivate action based on the desire for happiness), there is only one way left that allows us to say, in general, what the moral law requires: that one's maxim must be able to be a (rationally satisfactory) universal law.  "I SHOULD NEVER ACT EXCEPT IN SUCH A WAY THAT I CAN ALSO WILL THAT MY MAXIM SHOULD BECOME A UNIVERSAL LAW." (402)  "ACT ONLY ACCORDING TO THAT MAXIM WHEREBY YOU CAN AT THE SAME TIME WILL THAT IT SHOULD BECOME A UNIVERSAL LAW." (421) 

Transition: Every action is directed toward some sort of object or end.  In the case of actions directed toward happiness, this is the end to be reached by the means to be chosen by prudence.  In the case of actions governed by duty, there must be some objectively valid end, equally valid for all rational beings.  What could such an end be? (427)

 

The second formulation of the categorical imperative.  Is there another path along which we could find an unconditional moral law? "But let us suppose that there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute worth . . . . Now I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will" (35). This affirmation provides a second ground for a categorical imperative: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means"--the second formulation of the categorical imperative (36). The examples of the four types of duties are reviewed from the new perspective (36-37).

For Kant, persons--rational beings who can freely determine their actions in accord with universal laws--have a dignity that is beyond all price (40-41). What we fittingly respect in people is, above all, their humanity. This is respect that is appropriate to accord to everyone alike. We have a duty to treat each person as an end in herself or himself, never merely as a means. Strictly speaking, we do not have a duty to feel respect (II, 113). Respect is a feeling which is our "subjective" response to the recognition of the moral law (14n).

By their actions, some people deserve little respect (II, 112). There are "varieties of respect" to be manifested toward others according to differences such as age, sex, birth, strength, or status; these are not involved in "the pure rational principles of respect" (II, 133). Sometimes we do feel respect toward someone who is superior to us in some way (II, 113), but such variables of respect are secondary to the basic maxim of treating persons as beings of human dignity II, 113).

 

The third formulation of the categorical imperative.  Act as though your will were legislating universal law for a kingdom of ends. 

What is a kingdom of ends?  A social structure in which people treat themselves and others with regard for the dignity of rational beings in a postulated world to come (not proven, but postulated since the moral demands of justice are not fulfilled in this world). 

A realm in which all members treat one another as rational beings.  A possible, hoped-for, advanced civilization could only be an approximation to this Idea of perfection.  Kant is careful to set forth the idea of an advanced civilization as just that: an Idea (see the summary of Kant's essay, "An Idea of History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View" toward the end of this document).

In the Grounding Kant seems to imply that we can will as though we were already living in an ideal realm.  Such idealism, however, runs into problems that he clearly sees in his 1795 essay, "Toward Perpetual Peace" (see notes toward the end of this document). 

What is the issue at stake?  Sometimes Kant seems to expect agents to choose maxims as if they were legislating for a kingdom of ends. At other times (in his essays on history and politics) he acknowledges that sometimes the proper policy is a strategic approach to that advanced civilization (for example, nations should gradually reduce armaments and armies as they progress toward enduring peace).

            Kant's third formulation is often said to be about autonomy—a very important concept in his ethics. "Autos" means "self," and "nomos" means "law." The idea is that you should be the author of your own rational maxims, not merely follow guidance or pressure from outside. That outside could be parents, teachers, religious leaders, scientific experts, political leaders--and even your own emotions. Kant is saying that you should not let your (material) emotions run your life. [Note: the Metaphysics of Morals is distinguished for its more developed treatment of moral feelings as compared with the Grounding.] Your true self is your best self, your reason. You fall into heteronomy if you don't make your own decisions based on your own best thinking. (This does not mean that you cannot learn from others. Nor does it mean that you should never trust another person's judgment.) Have the courage to exercise your own humanity, to think for yourself. Treat others so as to help them do the same. This is Kant's message. Put in other words, the notion of autonomy emphasizes that a moral agent is not merely following someone else, some external authority, for example. Even where outside advice may be taken, the individual nevertheless does so responsibly and with eyes open, ready to revise reliance on the guide if need be. The opposite of autonomy is heternomy--letting someone else do your deciding for you.

Consider the following quotations from Kant.

1. "Teleology considers nature as a kingdom of ends; morals regards a possible kingdom of ends as a kingdom of nature. In the former the kingdom of ends is a theoretical idea for explaining what exists. In the latter it is a practical idea for bringing about what does not exist but can be made actual by our conduct, i.e., what can be actualize in accordance with this very idea" (436; 42, n. 28).

2. "All maxims proceeding from his own legislation ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends as a kingdom of nature" (436; 41-42).

In this expression, Kant does not require that the agent's universalized maxim be one that would be used in an advanced civilization; rather it must harmonize with it; in others words—as I interpret it—it may be the right maxim to progress toward such an advanced civilization from the position in which the agent finds him/herself.

3. "Always choose in such a way that in the same volition the maxims of the choice are at the same time present as universal law" (440; 44).

 

The moral law is a law of reason; reason legislates the law. When a person functions authentically as a moral subject, s/he does not rely on external sources for the law, but only on reason itself; in other words, the subject is autonomous (subject only to his or her own law) not heteronomous (depending on a law derived from what is other--even from one's own natural feelings) (38). Since reason produces universal laws, the (authentic) moral subject can be conceived as legislating for all rational beings, i.e., for a "kingdom of ends" (38-39). The third formulation of the categorical imperative might be constructed as follows: "Act on maxims that you formulate as though you were, in these maxims, legislating for the kingdom of ends (all rational beings)" (38). Things have a price; rational beings, capable of autonomy, have dignity (39-41).

In review, the three formulations are presented as forming an appealing system (41), in terms of which the good will may now be explicated (42-44).

 

Third Section

We paradoxical beings are part of nature (in that an extensive causal account of our actions can be given in physical-emotional terms); but when we deliberate about what we ought to do, "we put ourselves into relation with determining grounds of a different kind" (457), and thus we also transcend nature. Our capacity to determine our actions by our best thinking, by the free operation of moral reason, sets us apart from mere things as beings of profound dignity. Kant wrote in the Critique of Practical Reason, "Two things fill me with ever-increasing awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."

The drama of our freedom is that we can either let our actions be determined by our desires and fears, or else we can rouse ourselves to act in accord with duty. What we ought to do must always be accorded preference in any conflict with what we feel like doing.

This section has the task of explaining why a free will is necessarily subject to moral law. The will is understood as (1) a cause of actions which are somehow independent of natural causes; (2) able to determine itself; (3) (self-)governed by the categorical imperative.

            Human experience can never absolutely prove that any action we do is determined by our reason rather than by physical causes operating in the material-emotional realm. But in acting and in thinking about what to do, we must presuppose that we are free. In practice we do operate with this assumption and we are permitted to operate with this assumption in moral philosophy as well.

We can look at action from two standpoints (1) as caused by antecedent material factors, and (2) as deriving from rational will. Each standpoint is indispensable; and the two are compatible. (Kant regards nature--including human actions, taken as observable phenomena--as a realm characterized by the principle of causation.) We cannot experience our freedom: whatever we experience falls within the realm of materially determined phenomena. But whenever we think or act under the idea of duty--whenever we deliberate about what we ought to do--we cannot help presupposing that we are free. This is not a strict, theoretical proof that we are free; but is so compelling to our reason that we may indeed say that we have shown how a categorical imperative is possible. The categorical imperative is only possible--meaningful if we are free. If we are not free, if we are merely the playthings of natural and social influences and of inclination, then it makes no sense to say that we OUGHT to do something. We might as well address moral imperatives to the wind. Kant affirms both that we are part of nature and that we transcend nature.

 


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