Monday, February 7, 2011
Immanuel Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals aims to isolate and examine a “pure moral philosophy completed cleansed of everything that can only be empirical and appropriate to anthropology.” Through a “critique of pure practical reason,” Kant attempts “to seek out and establish the supreme principle of morality.” He begins by asking what is unconditionally good? He rejects a number of obvious answers (such as achieving good results, conforming to moral principles) as being too qualified or restricted. Instead, he argues that a “good will” is “good in itself,” that is, good even if it has no or even negative consequences. To support this claim that a good will is unconditionally good, Kant turns to the function of reason. Starting from the assumption that everything in nature has a purpose, he asks what is the purpose of reason? The instincts are adequate for obtaining self-preservation (and often happiness), so what function does the organ of reason serve? His answer is that the purpose of reason “is to have influence on the will; its true function must be to produce a will which is good, not as a means to some further end, but in itself.” Reason produces a will that allows the individual to act morally good for “the sake of duty.” Rather than acting according to inclinations or to achieve a specific purpose, a rational being is able to act out of a “reverence” for the law. This good will is unconditioned by any specific or individual interests, and therefore its principle can be restated in more universal terms: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” At this point, Kant attacks popular philosophy, which relies too much on examples. He argues that moral concepts are not derived from contingent, empirical experience but from a priori reason. “Only a rational being has the power to act in accordance with his idea of laws—that is, in accordance with principles—and only so has he a will.” For a perfect being, such as god, reason and will would be in complete agreement, and there would be no need for the former to correct the latter. For mankind, however, reason is not always in perfect accord with the will: there can be a divergence of objective and subjective principles. Reason therefore acts upon the will through a command, an “imperative.” “All imperatives are expressed by an ‘ought.’ By this they mark the relation of an objective law of reason to a will which is not necessarily determined by this law in virtue of its subjective constitution.” There are two general categories of imperatives: “hypothetical” and “categorical” imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives state what actions are required to achieve a specific end (These take the form: If I want to achieve A, I must do B). In contrast, “A categorical imperative would be one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself apart from its relation to a further end.” Hypothetical imperatives may be disregarded according to one’s subjective inclinations (one can always choose not to do what is best, to act imprudently or unskillfully), but a categorical imperative, being unconditioned necessity, commands obedience, even against one’s inclinations. There is one categorical imperative, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law.” Or in a slightly modified form, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” Kant proceeds to add some matter to this imperative by considering the “value” of rational beings. Whereas non-rational beings can be treated as “things,” as means to an end, “man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will.” This leads to a more practical restatement of the categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” Extending the concept of each individual who, making and subjecting himself to universal law, is an end in himself to the totality of rational beings leads to the Idea of a “kingdom of ends,” which would consist of “a systematic union of rational beings under common objective laws.” Kant argues that the concept of duty is not as oppressive as it might appear because the rational being creates the very law to which he subjects himself, and thereby gains “dignity.” Kant writes, “although in the concept of duty we think of subjection to the law, yet we also at the same time attribute to the person who fulfils all his duties a certain sublimity and dignity. For it is not in so far as he is subject to the law that he has sublimity, but rather in so far as, in regard to this very same law, he is at the same its author and is subordinated to it only on this ground.” Kant ends with a discussion of the antinomy of freedom. The will’s “autonomy” “is the property the will has of being a law to itself.” But how can this free, rational causality be reconciled with the necessity of natural laws? Kant of course defends the Idea of freedom by making the correlationist distinction between things as they appear to us and things in-themselves, a distinction between the sensible and intelligible worlds. Considered as belonging to the intelligible world, a rational being has autonomy, though, like all Ideas, this Idea of freedom can never be directly experienced in intuition. Because this freedom can never be explained, it is also impossible to explain the existence of “moral feeling,” the “interest” man takes in moral laws.