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"Two things fill me with unceasing wonder:

the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."


The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) labored to clarify what kinds of knowledge we can and cannot have. In the Critique of Pure Reason he argued that we bring the structures of our to shape our experience. Some of these structures are common to all human beings. For example, human beings interpret events in terms of cause and effect. If we aspire to higher quality of thinking, to the proper use of reason, we must respect the principles of each domain of thought.  For example, we can know material causes, and we can know that every event must have a cause; but we cannot properly use our category of cause outside the realm of sensory things. For example, we cannot gain philosophical knowledge of God (as a First Cause). (Nevertheless, we may have rational motives to make use of an Idea that we cannot prove.) Kant affirms that moral reason knows the supreme principle of morality. Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals is one of several books that he wrote on ethics, in addition to the Critique of Practical Reason, the Metaphysics of Morals and Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. The Grounding clarifies and defends only the key principle(s) of morality.  In this context the term metaphysics means the study of the central principles of a given area.

References to the Grounding and the Metaphysics of Morals will usually use the page numbers in the Hackett edition; sometimes these numbers are preceded by the numbers found in the margin, numbers that link to the scholars' standard, the Preussische Akadamie Ausgabe (Prussian Academy edition).  Sometimes I will refer to pages from the MM simply by writing "II" and giving the page number--the Hackett edition begins page numbers all over again as it prints the last half of the MM after the GMM in its collection titled Ethical Philosophy.



Summary #1 (of 3--the quickest one)


1. Each rational being is to think for himself or herself and to exercise self-determination--not to let external authorities or emotions determine one's decisions and actions. The point is not that one is forbidden to get ideas (or projects for action) from outside one's reason, but that one must not accept such ideas (or projects) unthinkingly. Only those ideas which one's own reason has validated are consistent with our functioning as autonomous agents. Kant's essay, "What Is Enlightenment?" expands on this thought.

2. Each person is worthy of respect because of their capacity for rational, moral self-determination. The dignity of the person puts an absolute limit on what we may do.

3. The maxims on which we act must be capable of functioning as universal principles. What is a maxim? A maxim is an individual's principle for acting in a particular situation. Expressed fully, a maxim states three things: the action to be performed, the conditions under which it is appropriate to perform this action, and the motive.

4. There is an historical dimension to Kant's ethical thought that is implicit in Kant's talk about the kingdom of ends. Kant's essays, "Idea for a History with a Cosmopolitan Intent" and "Perpetual Peace," expand upon this dimension. The kingdom of ends is an advanced civilization in which everyone functions according to the moral law. Could our maxims function as principles in such a civilization?

5.  Kant articulates his philosophy of morality in contrast to several competing approaches in ethics:

·        religious ethics, which commands the individual to love God and the neighbor, or exhorts the agent to imitate a moral exemplar (e.g., Jesus of Nazareth)

·        ethics whose goal is one's own happiness (understood in terms of physical-emotional feeling)

·        ethics whose goal is happiness, understood in terms of (variable) moral feeling or intuition

·        ethics based on a concept of perfection, as an undefined concept (presupposing morality)

·        ethics based on a concept of perfection, conceived as the will of God (which must either conform to our own concepts of morality . . . or violate them).

6.  To what extent is the development of Kant's moral philosophy compatible with religious ethics?  Kant may be thought of as one who tried to put Christian ethics through a filter of reason.  Kant recognizes nothing higher than reason to which or to Whom one may appeal for guidance; any "higher inspiration" would have to justify its guidance to reason--otherwise how could we be sure that the guidance is indeed superior (or "of God")?  In the Grounding see pages 21.1 (page 21, first indented paragraph), 47.1, and 34.1 (Hackett edition).  Though we may hope for divine aid to strengthen our devotion to goodness and to restrain our radical evil (this idea comes from Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone), it is the job of reason is to "make the will good."  Kant criticizes the golden rule (37 note) and offers his own interpretation of the command to love (12.4).  Kant conceives of human nature as having just two main dimensions: (1) reason and (2) material aspects--the body and most feelings; there is no actual or potential spiritual level or "kingdom within."



Waking up the question.  The Preface.

  1. What is our ordinary concept of duty?
  2. What does it feel like to perform one's duty? Are there different kinds of case in which you would give different answers?
  3. What does it feel like to fail to perform one's duty?
  4. What is the difference between duty as defined politically or by social authorities and duty in Kant's sense?
  5. What is wrong, according to Kant, with an anthropological approach to morality?
  6. What does Kant mean by an "apriori" component in ethics?
  7. Why is "a power of judgment sharpened by experience" needed in addition to a knowledge of moral laws (p. 3)?
  8. What is the primary purpose of the Grounding (p. 5)?

First Section

  1. What, according to Kant, is the key to a good character (p. 7)?
  2. What is Kant's point in insisting that consequences do not affect the moral worth of one's action (7-8)? Would Mill disagree?
  3. What does Kant mean by "pathological" love (p. 12)?
  4. What does Kant mean by "practical" love (p. 12)?
  5. Does it make sense to command an emotional response?
  6. Can love be commanded?
  7. What is wrong, according to Kant, with thinking of morality as the pursuit of happiness?

Second Section

  1. Explain the different kinds of imperatives--rules of skill, counsels of prudence, and commands of morality.
  2. Memorize and explain the categorical imperative (in its universal-law formulation, p. 30).
  3. Explain and illustrate Kant's four types of duties.
  4. What does Kant affirm as the one end of absolute, intrinsic worth--an end-in-itself, not merely something to be used as a means?
  5. How does Kant attempt to prove that we should regard others as being ends-in-themselves?
  6. How does Kant's affirmation of human dignity square with footnote 14 on p. 14 (AK 402) and with the bottom of p. 40 (AK 435)?
  7. On what basis are persons worthy of respect?
  8. Explain how Kant applies the respect-for-persons formulation of the categorical imperative to his four types of duties.
  9. What does "autonomy" mean?
  10. What does it mean to "legislate for a kingdom of ends"?
  11. What problems with religious ethics does Kant raise (p. 47)?

Third Section

  1. What is the sense of Kant's axiom, "'Ought' implies 'can'"?
  2. Why, according to Kant, am I unable to p r o v e that I or anyone else ever acts morally?
  3. Can you prove that you are free?
  4. Why, according to Kant, am I unable to p r o v e that I am free?
  5. If we cannot prove our freedom, what should we do?
  6. What concept of human nature does Kant work with? What is to be said for and against his concept?
  7. What are the two perspectives from which actions can be regarded according to Kant?
  8. What evidence does Kant give of recognizing feelings that are not mere material emotions (recall also note 14, p. 14)?
  9. How does Kant's conclusion show "how an apriori moral principle is possible"?



Summary #2--a little more detailed


Classical philosophy has a three-part structure:


A metaphysics of ethics is needed since acting morally means acting on principle.  The motive must not be confused.  Empirical considerations must be set aside.  Philosophy alone can exhibit moral principle in its purity as an "a priori" law (based on reason alone; not "a posteriori," based on experience).


First Section: From ordinary understanding to philosophy

Derivation of the first formulation of the categorical imperative

1.     Do your duty!  (This is a command that every person acknowledges, based on moral reason, which we all have)

2.     Do your duty, not just what you feel like doing.  (False freedom [not Kant's term], the notion that freedom means doing whatever one feels like doing, is in fact a form of slavery to one's lower nature.  True freedom is self-governance in accord with the truest and highest within oneself: moral reason.)

3.     Do what every rational being should do.  When we follow moral reason, we all follow the same guidance.

4.     Do what the moral law requires. 

5.     Make your reason for acting--your maxim--one that any rational being can use.

6.     Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.


Kant in this section intended simply to unfold the implications of the moral reason that we all possess.  He is not intending to create some striking new theory.  If he is successful, then if we understand him, we should agree that this is in fact a way to express clearly what we all already think.


More First Section ideas

The only unqualified good is a good will.

The purpose of reason is to make the will good.

The ordinary concept of duty implies that

1.     An action must be done from duty to have any moral worth.

2.     An action done from duty has its moral worth in its maxim.

3.     Duty is the necessity of an action done out of respect for the [moral] law.


Beneficence, not feelings, can be commanded.  Only in this sense is it meaningful to command love of the neighbor.


Second Section

The Second Section, structurally speaking, does two main things.

I.  The Section establishes and explains three major formulations (there are more variations if you count carefully) of the categorical imperative (the supreme principle of morality):

1.     Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law (pp. 19-35).

2.     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 (pp. 35-37).

3.     [Act as though your will were legislating autonomously for a kingdom including all rational beings (pp. 37-44).

II.  The Section contrasts autonomy with heteronomy (44-48).


A more detailed look

The concept of duty is based on reason, not on experience (because [1] we are never certain that we observe an action purely motivated by duty and [2] duty binds all rational beings).  We are obligated to act from duty, not inclination; therefore human beings experience duty as constraint (since we have a double nature, a lower, material aspect of desires and fears, inclinations and aversions, as well as our higher nature of moral reason).

Of the different types of imperatives (rules of skill about how to accomplish certain tasks that one may have, counsels of prudence about what you have to do to be happy, and categorical imperatives--yes this term may meaningfully be used in the plural), only a categorical imperative can be a (moral) law.

Even though we cannot yet ('til the Third Section) address how we can be obligated by a categorical imperative, we can figure out what a categorical imperative must be: there are two elements: a categorical imperative includes

1.     a law and

2.     the necessity that the maxim should accord with the law.

Thus there is only one categorical imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law (p. 30).


Types of duties (notes from the Metaphysics of Morals)


There are perfect (exceptionless, negative) duties to oneself:

I.  As an animal being

·        Do not commit suicide

·        Do not misuse your sexual powers

·        Do not stupify yourself through the immoderate use of food and drink . . .

II.  As a moral being

·        Do not lie

·        Do not excessively deprive yourself

·        Do no be servile

·        Judge according to conscience, as though all duties were divine commands

·        Estimate the moral purity of your actions: know yourself, morally speaking


There are imperfect duties to oneself

A rational being necessarily wills that all his faculties should be developed, inasmuch as they are given him for all sorts of possible purposes (GMM 31).  To neglect these capacities is inconsistent with the advancement of humanity as an end (GMM 37). 

"Man owes it to himself to be a useful member of the world" (MM 109).

"Cultivate your powers of mind and body [including math, logic, philosophy, memory, imagination, gynmastics, etc., MM 109) so as to be able to fulfill all ends which may arise for you, uncertain as you may be which ends might become your own" (MM, 51).There is latitude in these duties, for example, in the choice of an occupation, and because of human frailty (MM 110).

It is one's duty to raise oneself from an animal-level way of living to a truly human way of living (MM 44-45).

"Be holy," i.e., purely motivated to do what is right (MM 110). 

"Be perfect," i.e., in constant progression toward perfection ( MM 110-111).


Third Section

We must assume that we are free--free from the dominance of natural causation, even though our actions, like all other phenomena that we experience in the world, are part of the natural realm governed by causal laws.

We must assume what we cannot prove.  Reason does not function reliably when it tries to go beyond the realm of experience in space and time, to which the categories of our understanding properly apply.  We cannot prove that the soul--as a metaphysical entity—is free.

Whenever we deliberate about what we ought to do, we cannot help assuming that we have a real choice to make, in other words, that we are free.

We can consider an action from two points of view:


1.     as causally determined and

2.     as determined in accord with moral law


Taking the latter standpoint places us on a higher level (57.2).




Summary #3, the most detailed one in this document

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.



        This is the book Kant wrote in 1797, twelve years after he wrote the Grounding.  He gives more detail about the four types of duties, and he shows more maturity on the topic of feelings.


Kant on Duties to Oneself

1. What's wrong with suicide (and, by extension, euthanasia)? (MM 421-24 [82-85])  According to Kant, every individual has a natural drive to self-preservation, a drive contrary to suicide. (This is a standard "natural law" argument, popular in the Roman Catholic tradition.) What is the main argument against suicide? Who are we? What does it mean to be a human being? Are we persons whose basic goal in life is to enjoy our life, such that when we no longer enjoy it (or expect to enjoy it) are morally permitted to exit the scene? We are, above all moral beings. It would pervert our true humanity to destroy humanity in our own person because of physical or emotional unhappiness. If we are going to take the ethical question seriously, we must recall that we all have duties of various sorts. To destroy one's life is to exempt oneself from our duties.

Note two additional points. First, Kant acknowledges that the very notion of duties to oneself is problematic and that duties to oneself may be derived from duties to others.

Second, he gives a series of questions about applying this principle to hard cases, implying that some acts that might seem to be classified as unjustifiable suicide are in fact not properly so classified. An example is provided by Alan Donagan: "The suicide of Captain Oates, in Scott's antarctic expedition, in order not to retard his companions as they struggled back to their depot, is rightly considered an act of charity as well as of courage."


2. What about sex?

Note: If you disagree with some of Kant's particular judgments, you may still agree with some of Kant's broader ideas and be sympathetic with his desire not to be extreme, harsh, and needlessly rigorous. Be careful to differentiate these levels as you respond to Kant.


3. What's wrong with getting drunk, using drugs, and gross overeating? (MM 427-28 [88-90])  Everyone (quite properly) wants to be happy. To be healthy is an important part of happiness, and thus it is a matter of prudence for a person to use good judgment about eating and drinking. It's foolish to act contrary to prudence. Kant offers some information about drugs. "Stupefying agents such as opium and other products of the plant kingdom . . . are misleading in that they produce for a while a dreamy euphoria and freedom from care, and even an imagined strength. But they are harmful in that afterwards depression and weakness follow and, worst of all, there results a need to take these stupefying agents again and even to increase the amount. . . . [They] make one taciturn, withdrawn, and uncommunicative."

Beyond this counsel of prudence, however, are moral considerations. We have a duty not to make ourselves "temporarily incapacitated for activities that require adroitness and deliberation in the use of our powers."


4. Truthfulness, Self-Deception, and Lying (MM 429-31 [90-93])

Kant is famous for his position that it is never justified to tell a lie. What if a prospective murderer asks you the whereabouts of an intended victim? See the brief essay at the end of our text for his answer. (Is there a way of saying that telling a lie in this case is actually fidelity to truth in a higher sense?) If we disagree with Kant, however, we should nevertheless learn all we can from him about the significance of truthfulness ("veracity") and lying (including self-deception).

See what broad terms Kant uses to indicate his appreciation of the virtues of truthfulness: "Veracity in one's statements is called honesty, and when these statements are at the same time promises, sincerity. But veracity in general is called uprightness."

Kant describes subtle forms of religious hypocrisy as instances of self-deception.


5. "Avarice" (MM 432-34 [93-96])

Enjoy life! Don't deprive yourself so much (e.g., in order to save money) that you make yourself miserable.  Note Kant's critique of the Aristotelian idea that virtue is a mean between extremes!  Compare this section with the exhortation toward the end of the book to be cheerful (MM #53, 484-85 [154-55]).


6. Servility (acting so as to betray self-respect) (MM 434-37; 96-100)

Human beings have no special significance as part of nature, one species on this planet alongside other species. However, because of the moral humanity within each person, each human being has an infinite dignity. Self-esteem is a duty. No one must stoop to the false humility of denying that s/he has any moral worth or of pretending to be inferior as a human being (no matter how one might be superior or inferior in other respects). Don't bow and scrape or let anyone trample upon your rights. Don't put yourself in a position to become unduly indebted to another person. Don't whimper and complain. Don't try to get others to pity you. Don't kneel down—even before God!


7. Conscience (MM 437-440 [100-103])

When we realize that we may have done wrong, we ought to submit our act to an examination by conscience. Conscience works like a court or tribunal in which we face an ideal (imagined) judge, a "searcher of hearts"—God as an Idea (not proven to be real beyond this inner forum). The voice of conscience is inescapable.


8. Moral self-examination is a duty (MM 441-42 [103-04])

Examine the purity of your motives. Do not fall into self-contempt (or contempt for humanity) if your self-examination uncovers much that is unworthy. Remember that your very capacity to notice it critically is a badge of great distinction for humanity!

"Prayer is only an internal wish declared before a searcher of hearts."


9. Our duties regarding (not to) other kinds of beings (MM 442-44 [105-07])

Strictly speaking, we have duties only to human beings. But we ought to take care for natural beauty and to avoid cruelty to animals. It demeans us to do otherwise. Regarding God, we cannot prove the existence of God, though we can regard God as an ideal projected by moral reason. Religion bids us regard all duties as divine commands; but specific religious duties fall outside the realm of philosophical ethics.


Moral Feelings in Kant's Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals

"Don't let your emotions run your life. Make sure that your best thinking (reason) is in the driver's seat." This motto captures in a simplified way Kant's attitude toward emotions.

The subordination of emotion to reason has drawn much criticism from feminists and others today, partly because women are thought, for biological or cultural reasons, to be somewhat more emotional and less logical then men. Sometimes criticism has taken the form of accepting the generalization about gender (of course realizing that the generalization expresses a statistical tendency) while inverting the implied valuations. In other words, some feminists celebrate women's emotional nature and criticize abstract, male reason.

Kant's view is actually more complex than the simplified picture, since he makes room for moral feelings, feelings that originate in the mind's response to moral reason. Kant mentions "moral feeling, conscience, love of one's neighbor, and respect for oneself (self-esteem)" (MM 399 [57]).

It would not make sense to tell someone who utterly lacked these feelings that he had a duty to have them. Every normal-minded human being, however, does have them (MM 400 [59]). What, then, is our duty regarding them? "The obligation here can only extend to cultivating [the moral feeling] and even strengthening it through wonder at its inscrutable origin. This cultivation comes about through seeing how just by the mere representation of reason this feeling is excited most strongly, in its purity and apart from every pathological stimulus" (MM 400 [58]). Consider what Kant says about the feeling of conscience: "The duty here is . . . to cultivate our conscience, to sharpen our attention to the voice of this internal judge, and to use every means to get it a hearing . . ." (MM 401 [60]).

Despite Kant's emerging doctrine of moral feeling (presented only in the germ in the Grounding), his talk about love of humankind in the Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals) continues the same line of analysis that he had presented earlier. In GMM, Kant refers to "passages of Scripture which command us to love our neighbor and even our enemy:

For love as an inclination cannot be commanded; but beneficence [doing good] from duty, when no inclination impels us and even when a natural and unconquerable aversion opposes such beneficence, is practical [pertaining to action], and not pathological [pertaining to emotion] love. Such love resides in the will and not in the propensities of feeling, in principles of action and not in tender sympathy; and only this practical love can be commanded. (GMM 399 [12])


Kant's account in the Introduction to MM (XII,c, 401-402 [60-61]) continues the same line. Kant recognizes that love and duty are qualitatively different motivations: "All duty is a necessitation, a constraint, even though it might be self-constraint according to a law. And what one does from constraint does not come about from love." When we experience duty as a burden, something we have to do (even though we would prefer to do something else), we are experiencing morality as composite human beings, beings with material emotions as well as reason. There is always the possibility of a conflict between what we feel like doing and what we ought to do. The motto, "Obligation takes precedence over opportunity," expresses the correct priority.

            Can we have a duty to love? Kant puts it bluntly: "Love is a matter of sensation, not of willing; and I cannot love because I would, still less because I should (being obligated to love). Hence a duty to love is nonexistent. . . . When therefore it is said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," this does not mean you should directly (at first) love and through this love (subsequently) benefit him; but rather, "Do good to your neighbor," and this beneficence will produce in you the love of mankind (as a readiness of inclination toward beneficence in general). Benevolence--wishing good for humankind--falls in between; it can be commanded, since it is not merely a feeling, but it is not the same as love.

            On the topic of love and duty, if we affirm material emotions and the duty of beneficence, is it possible to add anything? [In other words, this paragraph represents my view, not Kant's.]  Perhaps it is true that we can each find something wonderful deep within the mind, a source of purpose, energy, creativity, meaning, and love. Religious teachers of diverse traditions identify this source within as the indwelling spirit gift of a loving God. Spiritual love would then be a soul feeling, not a biological affection. The duty to love, then, does not mean than one has to push some a non-existent emotion button. Love cannot be manufactured; nor do we need to try to manufacture it, since it is already there within. Paradoxically, the duty to love can only be fulfilled by transcending the standpoint of duty-consciousness. Sometimes we are loving spontaneously. When love is blocked, however, what we need to do is turn to the divine source of love within, open ourselves to it, and express it. "Love is the outworking of the divine and inner urge of life. It is based on understanding, nurtured by unselfish service, and perfected in wisdom."


Kant on Imperfect Duties to Oneself

You have a duty to cultivate your highest intellectual capacities, your broader faculties of mind, and your physical abilities, since you have many goals, including some goals that we will have in the future that we do not now forsee, that will call on these powers. Thinking rationally about the mode of life you select, you are free to choose what proportion of attention you will give to the cultivation of these various potentials. Nevertheless, you owe it to yourself to be a useful member of the world. Your self-respect requires you to develop a genuine competence. (MM 444-46 [108-110])

The ultimate moral command is "Be perfect." We frail human beings, however, cannot attain perfection in this life. Moreover, even if we did achieve wholeheartedness in our devotion to seeking and finding and choosing and doing the right thing (the core virtue), there are so many virtues [regarding different types of situation] that we cannot complete [=perfect] our growth on this earth. Therefore the command to be perfect must be interpreted to mean, "Strive for (moral) perfection." Every year should show progress toward the goal. (MM 446-47 [110-111].


Ethical Duties to Others

Sometimes we love someone who deserves little respect; sometimes we respect someone hardly worthy of love. But love and respect, in some measure, need to accompany each other. Since it can reduce one's self-esteem to receive a handout, we need to be careful about the manner of beneficence (#23). Love draws people closer; respect preserves distance (#24). In this context, "love" (as a duty) does not refer to an emotion (e.g., feeling attracted to someone) but to benevolence (which leads to beneficence): Love is the desire to do good to others. Respect for others is not merely the attitude toward someone superior, but a regard for another's human dignity. We have a strict duty not to exalt ourselves over others (to respect others), not to treat someone else as a mere means to our own ends. We have a broad duty to love others, to identify with and promote what they want (#25). We can have various general attitudes toward human beings (#26). According to something like the golden rule I am obliged to be benevolent toward all other humans (#27). At the same time, my obligations to those who are close to me are much greater than my obligations to remote others (#28).

We ought to be happy, to look out for our own flourishing, and also to be good to others (#29). We all have needs, and we are on this earth--united by nature--to help one another (#30). Beneficence should be done discreetly, so as not to make others feel like charity cases. I must not be paternalistic (imposing my own concept of happiness in what I do for others), but must do what makes the other person happy (except for minors and the mentally deranged). When bad government leads to gross inequalities in wealth, there is less merit in the generosity of the wealthy (#31).

We ought to be grateful to those who have benefited us. Gratitude helps motivate beneficence, and sometimes there is nothing we could do to adequately repay what has been done for us (#32). We should be aware of our great debt to previous generations without going to extremes. In attempting to reciprocate good done to us, we should try to do the same to our benefactor--or, if we cannot, to others. Our gratitude is determined by how much good we received and how pure the benefactor's motive was. We should accept good done to us as an occasion giving us reason to return or pass along good to others.

We have a duty to feel sympathy with others. As human beings, we naturally experience, to some degree, a contagion of feelings, rejoicing and sorrowing with others. Beyond this, we can will to share others feelings more extensively, and we have a duty to do so, to be sympathetic. Pity and useless commiseration, however, is not encouraged; it merely spreads pain around, and is no motive for beneficence, since it regards the other not as a being of dignity but merely as a poor, suffering creature (#34).

We can indirectly cultivate sympathetic feelings and should do so. They help motivate us to do our duty. We should not avoid exposing ourselves to scenes that will touch our sympathies.

For this world to be a beautiful moral whole, love of humankind, universal love for one's neighbor, must flourish. Beneficence, however, generates a certain asymmetry in a relationship, and some people are too proud to acknowledge their indebtedness to others (#35).

            Envy and jealousy, hatred, ingratitude, malice, and vengeance are vices (we must let the proper authorities deal with wrongdoers). Extremes of inhumanity are not properly called devilish, however, any more than extremes of beneficence are called angelic; those are just terms to indicate maximums (#36).

Proper respect for others prevents egoism, arrogance, and contempt (#37). We owe profound respect to every person (#38). We must respect the humanity of even a vicious person. "To think but little of some people as compared to others is indeed sometimes unavoidable," but we don't have to show contempt to that person. Respect for humanity forbids degrading punishments. We must never be abusive in response to another person's foolishness but rather relate to him in a way that sustains his respect for his own capacity to understand. We must never explode at wrongdoing in a way that injures the person's disposition to do good (#39). Self-respect is incompatible with acting in a dishonorable or indecent way. We must act in a respectable way, not, however, by becoming slaves to social custom, since it is sometimes virtuous to act contrary to custom (#40). It is more serious to violate the (negative) duties of respect for others than to fail to perform the (positive) duties of beneficence (#41).

Superb self-respect is worlds away from the pride that seeks to make others esteem themselves as little by comparison (#42). Gossip, even if based on fact, puts others down and tends to weaken the general love of humankind. Even seeking to find out the details of another person's moral life is inappropriate (#43). There are many shades of mockery, spitefully putting other people down. When you are seriously accused, it is best not to retaliate however or to give way to anger, but not to defend yourself at all or to do so with dignity (#44).

            Philosophic principles of morality cannot tell you exactly how to adjust your treatment of others in the light of significant variables: the moral purity or depravity of their conditions, in crude or refined circumstances, with educated or uneducated people, regarding differences of status, age, sex, state of health, affluence or poverty, and so on (#45).

Perfect friendship is an ideal that we can approach, if never attain. It is the union of two persons through equal mutual love and respect. Friendship gives "the sweetness of the sensation arising from that mutual possession which approximates a fusion into one person." Respect keeps a certain distance. We must never seek complete intimacy, to know "everything" about the other. True friendship cannot be based merely on each person's need for the other. Meeting the other's needs becomes an endless project; moreover, the true friend tries to make the friend unaware of what he does for him. Friendship is so tender that it needs something more than feelings to guide it: moral principles (#46).

            It is wonderful to be able to share your opinions freely with someone else, and to reveal yourself without fearing rejection. "Moral friendship (as distinguished from emotional friendship) is the complete confidence of two persons in the mutual openness of their private judgments and sensations, as far as such openness is consistent with mutual respect."

            A friend of humankind rejoices in others' happiness and will never disturb it without regret.

A lover of humankind also has human equality in mind--"the idea of all men as brothers under one common father, who wants happiness for everyone" (#47).

There is a duty to cultivate social virtues: the practice of accessibility, affability, courtesy, hospitality, mildness. These qualities make an appearance of virtue and create an atmosphere that indirectly promotes virtue. One must not, however, associate with the wicked (#48).







English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived through a period of anarchy precipitated by civil war. Such a period is called an "interregnum" since it falls between (inter) the reign (regnum) of order. Hobbes described two basic kinds of human situation:

Our duties depend on whether or not we find ourselves in a civil society. According to Hobbes, in a state of nature, we have a right to defend ourselves by any means necessary, whereas in civil society, government has a monopoly on the use of force; private revenge yields to a law-governed system of police and courts. In a state of nature our only duty is to try to get out of such a miserable condition, to try to gain agreement on a social contract that will establish civil society. In civil society, we may reasonably enter into all sorts of contracts and undertake all sorts of duties, since it is reasonable to assume that others will cooperate; in case they do not, one may go to court to have things set right.

German (more accurately: Prussian) philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) saw among nations the same problem that Hobbes observed among individuals in a state of nature. (See Kant's essays, "An Idea of History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View" and "On Perpetual Peace.") Just as Hobbes saw that the misery of the state of nature was solved by establishing a national government, so, according to Kant, the misery of unstable peace--with enormous military expenditures, and the horror of war breaking out here and there, from time to time--requires the establishment of a world government that can effectively outlaw war. Although Kant was not the only thinker to propose this solution, his ideas were an important part of the history behind two twentieth century attempts to solve the problem of war. After the horrors of WW I, the nations formed the League of Nations, an organization that remained vulnerable to the very forces of nationalism that it was trying to overcome. After the even greater horrors of WW II, the nations formed the United Nations, an organization that has had some limited success and that is struggles to evolve today.

Here are the theses Kant advanced in his sketch of the meaning of world history, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent” (1784).  The introduction sets it forth that even though human beings may not consciously pursue any goal as the end of history, it may be possible to discern one by surveying history on a large scale.


First Thesis.  All of a creature’s natural capacities are destined to develop completely and in conformity with their end.


Second Thesis.  In man (as the sole rational creature on earth) those natural capacities directed toward the use of his reason are to be completely developed only in the species, not in the individual.


Third Thesis.  Nature has willed that man, entirely by himself, produce everything that goes beyond the mechanical organization of his animal existence and partake in no other happiness or perfection than what he himself, independently of instinct, can secure through his own reason.


Fourth Thesis.  The means that nature uses to bring about the development of all of man’s capacities is the antagonism among them in society, as far as in the end this antagonism is the cause of law-governed order in society.


Fifth Thesis.  The greatest problem for the human species, whose solution nature compels it to seek, is to achieve a universal civil society administered in accord with the right.


Sixth Thesis.  This problem is both the hardest and the last to be solved by the human species.


Seventh Thesis.  The problem of establishing a perfect civil constitution depends on the problem of law-governed external relations among nations and cannot be solved unless the latter is.


Eighth Thesis.  One can regard the history of the human species, in the large, as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about an internally, and for this purpose, also an externally perfect national constitution, as the sole state in which all of humanity’s natural capacities can be developed.


Ninth Thesis.  A philosophical attempt to work out a universal history of the world in accord with a plan of nature that aims at a perfect civic union of the human species must be regarded as possible and even as helpful to this objective of nature’s.


Kant held that progress to world peace would necessarily be a gradual, evolutionary process, since the lessons of reason become acceptable to the world powers only after they endure great suffering. In his essay, "Perpetual Peace," he therefore distinguished two types of principles for promoting planetary political evolution:


Here is his list.

  1. No treaty of peace that tacitly reserves issues for a future war shall be held valid.  [a strict requirement.  In other words, sometimes negotiators would secretly make peace while just waiting for the opportunity or an excuse to declare war again.]

  2. No independent nation, be it large or small, may be acquired by another nation by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or gift.  [gradual requirement]

  3. Standing armies shall be gradually abolished.

For they constantly threaten other nations with war by giving the appearance that they are prepared for it, which goads nations into competing with one another in the number of men under arms, and this practice knows no bounds.  And since the costs related to maintaining peace will in this way finally become greater than those of a short war, standing armies are the cause of wars of aggression that are intended to end burdensome expenditures.  Moreover, paying men to kill or be killed appears to use them as mere machines and tools in the hands of another (the nation), which is inconsistent with the rights of humanity.  The voluntary, periodic military training of citizens so that they can secure their homeland against external aggression is an entirely different matter.  The same could be said about the hoarding of treasure (for of the three sorts of power, the power of an army, the power of alliance, and the power of money, the third is the most reliable instrument of war).  Thus, except for the difficulty in discovering the amount of wealth another nation possesses, the hoarding of treasure could be regarded as preparation for war that necessitates aggression.

  1. No national debt shall be contracted in connection with the foreign affairs of the nation. [gradual requirement.  In the mid-18th century, Great Britain had invented national debt, borrowing on the credit of the government, enabling it to win its war against France.]

  2. No nation shall forcibly interfere with the constitution and government of another.  [strictly required]

. . . .  It would be different if, as a result of internal discord, a nation were divided in two and each part, regarding itself as a separate nation, lay claim to the whole; for (since they are in a condition of anarchy) the aid of a foreign nation to one of the parties could not be regarded as interference by the other in its constitution.  So long, however, as this internal conflict remains undecided, a foreign power’s interference would violate the rights of an independent people struggling with its internal ills.  Doing this would be an obvious offense and would render the autonomy of every nation insecure.

  1. No nation at war with another shall permit such acts of war as shall make mutual trust impossible during some future time of peace: Such acts include the use of assassins, poisoners, breach of surrender, instigation of treason in the opposing nation, etc.

These are dishonorable stratagems.  Some level of trust in the enemy’s way of thinking must be preserved even in the midst of war, for otherwise no peace can ever be concluded and the hostilities would become a war of extermination.  Yet war is but a sad necessity in the state of nature (where no tribunal empowered to make judgments supported by the power of law exists), one that maintains the rights of a nation by mere might, where neither party can be declared an unjust enemy (since this already presupposes a judgment of right) and the outcome of the conflict (as if it were a so-called “judgment of God”) determines the side on which justice lies.  A war of punishment between nations is inconceivable (for there is no relation of superior and inferior between them).  From this it follows that a war of extermination—where the destruction of both parties along with all rights is the result—would permit perpetual peace to occur only in the vast graveyard of humanity as a whole.  Thus, such a war, including all means used to wage it, must be absolutely prohibited.  But that the means named above inexorably lead to such war becomes clear from the following: Once they come into use, these intrinsically despicable, infernal acts cannot long be confined to war alone.  This applies to the use of spies, where only the dishonorableness of others (which can never be entirely eliminated) is exploited; but such activities will also carry over to peacetime and will thus undermine it.

 [Some principles] do permit, depending on circumstances, some subjective leeway in their implementation as long as one does not lose sight of their end. . . .  Delay is permitted only to prevent such premature implementation as might injure the intention of the article.  

“To Perpetual Peace,” trans. Ted Humphrey (Hackett Press, 1983), pp. 107-08.


Kant distinguished three types of politicians: (1) some make a show of ethics but were actually motivated by the pursuit of personal or national self-interest; (2) some have high principles but are moral fanatics who would use power to demand that changes happen now that can realistically can only be achieved over time; (3) some combine high principles with evolutionary wisdom.

Kant is notorious for insisting in his moral philosophy that a variety of duties, including the prohibitions on lying, theft, suicide, are perfect duties of justice that have no exceptions under any conceivable circumstance. Why does he take such a hard line in his philosophy of morality in contrast to the flexibility we find in his philosophy of history and politics?

It is possible that Kant interpreted morality partly under the influence of a particular interpretation of the New Testament Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters 5-7; see the discussion in The Golden Rule, pp. 60-63). That collection of the teachings of Jesus includes many elements setting forth a very high standard of morality. There are two ways to interpret the high standards of the Sermon.

1. Some interpret those high standards as requirements for the twelve apostles and others who would go forth as representatives of the kingdom of God, the family of God. As ambassadors of the future, they are to live--at whatever personal cost--in accord with the highest universe standards of personal conduct, not defending themselves, loving their enemies, and general living a level of perfection beyond what is expected of the ordinary believer. In other words, not every follower of Jesus is expected to conform to the high, apostolic standards.

2. Some interpret the Sermon's high standards as requirements for every believer now, here on earth.

Taking the second interpretation leads toward Kant's inflexible moral rigorism. We see that tendency in Kant's discussion in the Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals where he requires autonomous agents to choose principles that could serve as legislation in a "kingdom of ends"--an advanced civilization (or heavenly realm). It would arguably be wiser to require that our maxims be such as to promote progress, not to act as though we were already living in an advanced civilization.

As civilization advances, the more you can trust your neighbor and enjoy the benefits of cooperation. As civilization declines, the more you need to look out for yourself and the groups with which you identify.


How do Kant’s ideas relate to the following principles developed in that branch of ethics called just war theory?  Is war ever justified?  A war has been held to be just if . . .


1.  It is legally declared by a public authority who is legitimately authorized to commit a people to war.


2.  It must be pursued for a morally just cause, such as self-defense.  A pre-emptive strike may be justifiable if there is “clear and present danger” (e.g., an imminent attack)—but what about going after Hitler in 1935?


3.  Those who fight must have a rightful intention—for a just end, not mere revenge.


4.  It is done only as a last resort.


5.  There must be a reasonable chance of achieving the goal.


6.  The war must be aimed at a goal that is proportional to the injuries the war will probably inflict; it must not produce more harm than good.


7.  The war must not be fought with immoral means, e.g., by inflicting more deaths than are truly necessary or by methods designed intentionally to kill innocent civilians.


Beyond extreme rigor in the conception of duty


            Can we find a satisfactory alternative to Kant's traditional classification of duties, an alternative that preserves rigorous thinking while avoiding extremes?  For every moral rule, one can imagine a situation in which many people would say that some other consideration overrides the rule.  For this reason Joseph Fletcher advocated “situation ethics” and taught that the only rule we can bring to a situation is the rule to love.  (Does this position go to the opposite extreme?)  W. D. Ross spoke of “prima facie” duties (duties at first sight—until you know what other rules may be relevant).  Attempting to preserve the insight that some duties are less important than others, while organizing the space of duties in a more systematic way, Richard Purtill, in Thinking about Ethics  (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1992), pp. 58-60, offers “one attempt at a list of moral rules.”

R1.  Do not harm persons, or perform actions which will probably harm persons, except

a.  When the action is for the long-term good of the person(s) being harmed and is done with their consent where feasible.

b.  When all other possible actions will cause greater harm to persons.

c.  When the person has by his own free choice deserved to be harmed and the person doing the harm is the appropriate person to inflict this harm.

d.  When an important obligation to make reparation to other persons or an extremely important commitment makes some harm or risk of harm to persons unavoidable.  Occasionally relatively minor harm to persons may be justified by extraordinarily important obligations to benefactors or the opportunity to give extraordinary help to deserving persons.


R 2.  If persons have been harmed, reparation must be made to them by the person responsible for harming them, except

a.  When making reparation would involve greater harm to persons.

b.  When the injured person with full knowledge and responsibility absolutely refuses reparation.

c.  When the more important reparation, or an important commitment or an extremely important obligation to a benefactor is incompatible with making a less important reparation.  Occasionally an extraordinarily important obligation to benefactors or opportunity to give extraordinary help to deserving or even undeserving persons may justify omitting relatively minor reparations.


R 3.  Keep whatever commitments have been made except

a.  When disproportionate harm would be done to persons by keeping the commitment or when an obligation to make reparation is incompatible with keeping the commitment.

b.  When the person to whom the commitment applies, with full knowledge and responsibility, releases the committed person from his commitment, or when the situation has changed to such an extent that the commitment has become pointless.

c.  When a more important commitment, or an important obligation to a benefactor, or a very important obligation to be fair is incompatible with a less important commitment.  Occasionally an extraordinary opportunity to help others, even if undeserving, or even to benefit oneself, will justify nonfulfillment of a relatively minor commitment.


R 4.  When a non-obligatory benefit is done to a person, that person must, if possible, return an otherwise non-obligatory benefit except

a.  When this would cause harm to persons, conflict with an obligation to make reparation, or conflict with a more important commitment.

b.  When the benefactor with full knowledge and responsibility absolutely refuses repayment.

c.  When the benefactor with full knowledge and responsibility absolutely refuses repayment.

c.  When a more important obligation to repay benefits, or an important obligation to be fair, or a very important obligation to help others is incompatible with a less important obligation to repay benefits.  Occasionally an extraordinarily important opportunity for self-improvement will justify omitting a relatively minor obligation to repay benefits.


R 5.  Treat persons fairly, that is, purely on the basis of their merits except

a.  When this would harm persons, conflict with an obligation to make reparation, conflict with a more important commitment, or conflict with a more important obligation to a benefactor.

b.  When the person or persons involved with full knowledge and responsibility waive their right to be treated on their merits. 

c.  When a more important obligation of fairness, or an important benefit to others, or a very important benefit to oneself is incompatible with a less important obligation to be fair.


R 6.  At some times, benefit persons who do not deserve these benefits under previous rules, except

a.  When this would cause harm to persons, conflict with an obligation to make reparation, or with a commitment, or with an obligation to repay benefits, or with an obligation at fairness.

b.  When those who would be benefited with full knowledge and responsibility absolutely refuse the benefit.

c.  When in every case where it was possible to benefit persons there was a more important obligation to self-improvement.


R 7.  At some times perform actions which are likely to lead to moral or intellectual or self-improvement or greater happiness for oneself, except

a.  When this would cause harm to others, or conflict with an obligation to make reparation, or with a commitment, or with an obligation to repay benefits, or with an obligation to fairness.

b.  When the self-improving action, either in itself or because of its membership in a series of actions, would preclude ever benefiting other persons.

c.  When the self-improving action would cause seriously greater harm to oneself.