Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals
Chapter 2 - Part 1
It is generally recognized that actions are not truly moral if they are performed in conformity with duty but not for the sake of duty alone. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to find examples of actions performed exclusively out of a sense of duty. Nearly every action we observe can be attributed to some motive other than pure duty. Indeed, it is often impossible to know whether even our own true motives are pure.
The lack of examples of pure moral action may seem disheartening. Yet we may take heart in the fact that all rational beings may recognize that reason imposes clear moral demands.
Furthermore, we should recognize that it would be impossible for us to derive universal moral laws from specific events and experiences; since all events are contingent upon specific circumstances, none of our experiences can be a source of moral principles that apply in all cases and all circumstances. Even our idea of God, the perfect being, is not based on experience, but rather on our a priori idea of moral perfection. Developing a clearer understanding of a priori moral concepts can help to reinforce our moral sense against the distractions of competing interests and motivations.
Rational beings may align their "will" either with the objective laws of reason and morality or with subjective needs and interests. Reason's demands may be called "imperatives." "Hypothetical imperatives" command that a particular action is necessary as a means to some purpose, such as the attainment of personal happiness. "Categorical imperatives" command that some action is necessary in and of itself.
Hypothetical imperatives are regular and obvious occurrences. Anytime someone settles upon some purpose or objective, reason may make clear to them what course of action they should pursue. This undertaking is more complicated in the case of indeterminate objectives like happiness, where it is difficult to know what particular actions will bring about the goal. Nevertheless, we have no problem understanding that people have chosen to act in a certain way as a result of a hypothetical imperative.
By contrast, we cannot find evidence for categorical imperatives in the decisions and actions we observe. People may appear to act in a certain way because of a pure demand of reason, yet we can never be sure that they do not have some circumstantial interest or ulterior motive other than a pure categorical imperative. Categorical imperatives must therefore be derived a priori.
Since an imperative with universal and intrinsic validity cannot include any circumstantial considerations, the only possible categorical imperative is that actions must conform to a requirement of universal validity. Thus the categorical imperative may be formulated as follows: act only in such a way that you could want the maxim (the motivating principle) of your action to become a universal law. This statement can also be given this formulation: act as if your action would establish its maxim as a universal law of nature.
Four examples demonstrate how common notions of duty conform to the categorical imperative. First, people have a duty not to commit suicide, because it clearly cannot be a law of nature for all people to kill themselves; if everyone died, nature itself would cease to exist. Second, people have a duty to borrow money only if they have the intention of paying it back, because if everyone failed to pay their debts no one would ever lend money. Third, people have a duty to cultivate their talents, because if everyone spent their life in idleness no one would benefit from human capacities. Fourth, people have a duty to assist others in need, because if all of us were heartless then none of us could find assistance in times of need.
In each of these cases as in all cases where people neglect their duties, individuals are involved in a contradiction: they accept the objective validity of the law, and yet they want an exception to be made for them.
Chapter 2 picks up where Chapter 1 left off. Kant again defends his efforts by noting that a clearer understanding of a priori principles can help to strengthen our moral sense. He reiterates that actions are moral if and only if they are performed out of a pure sense of duty. And he again emphasizes that pure moral principles must be grasped a priori.
Kant adds an important new twist to these by now familiar arguments, however. In Chapter 1 Kant argued that only a priori ideas could have the purity and universality that we expect of moral principles. All other ideas, he observed, are dependent on specific circumstances and situations. At the start of Chapter 2 Kant points out an important implication of this analysis: because all actions depend on specific circumstances, it would be impossible for us to derive a priori ideas from examples in our experience.
In order to understand this point, it may be helpful to recall Kant's arguments about causation that were summarized in the Context section. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that it would be impossible for us to derive our notion of causation from our observations of the world. ##David Hume## argued that the notion of a cause- effect relationship is simply a manner of speaking that we use when we talk about events that regularly occur one after another. Kant countered Hume's view by arguing that our notion of causation is too fundamental to be simply a manner of speaking. In Kant's view, causation is an a priori concept; it is an idea that occurs to us automatically whenever we think about the world. Whether we are observing events or imagining possibilities, we cannot help but think in terms of causation.
Recall the analysis of the free will/determinism debate that Kant drew from this account of causation. (This argument will also be presented and discussed in Chapter 3.) Anytime we look around us, Kant argued, we see a world of causes and effects. Anytime we analyze the events in our experience, we will come up with causal explanations for why things happened as they did. But our analyses do not end up this way because the world "really" is deterministic. Rather, the world appears deterministic to us because causation is a fundamental concept of reason. The world as it "really" is could just as well include free agency.
Kant's observations about morality at the start of Chapter 2 are similar to this analysis of free will and causation. When Kant says that universal moral laws cannot be based on experience, he is arguing that our fundamental moral ideas have the same status as fundamental cognitive principles like causation. Just as causation is too fundamental an idea to be based on experience, so are our moral ideas too fundamental to be based on specific examples in our lives. The moral law is an a priori idea, just like causation.
Consequently, our moral principles cannot be based on an analysis of the actions we observe. Whenever we look at people's actions, we will see circumstantial motivations. Just as no evidence can be found for free will, so is it difficult (if not impossible) to find evidence of pure moral motives. But this does not mean that pure moral actions do not exist. The concept of pure moral motivation is an a priori idea. We do not need to refer to examples in our experience to defend our notion that people can and should behave according to pure moral principles. To the contrary, we may develop an a priori understanding of the demands that the pure moral law places on us. The goal of Chapter 2 is to develop a more precise understanding of these demands.
Kant defines the demands of the moral law as "categorical imperatives." Categorical imperatives are principles that are intrinsically valid; they are good in and of themselves; they must be obeyed in all situations and circumstances if our behavior is to conform to the moral law. Again, Kant points out that we cannot base our understanding of these imperatives on observations of specific decisions and actions. Categorical imperatives must be grasped a priori.
Kant's formula for the categorical imperative is essentially the same as the moral law formulated in Chapter 1. Again, Kant faces the problem of coming up with a law or imperative that relies exclusively on a priori concepts. The validity of an a priori imperative must be independent of all circumstantial considerations. Thus the categorical imperative cannot stipulate that you must do or not do this or that in such and such circumstances. It can only stipulate that your actions should be undertaken according to universally valid, self-consistent principles. If your motivation is valid only in particular circumstances, then your motivation is circumstantial. You are acting in accordance with a principle that you would not want others to adopt in different circumstances. Your action is therefore not universalizable; it is selfish and hypocritical.
Kant's examples provide useful illustrations of how Kant expects us to apply the categorical imperative in everyday practice. In each case, individuals have a duty to choose the course of action that appears most valid as a universal principle.
Yet Kant's examples are also useful in that they demonstrate the limits of his moral philosophy. Recall Hegel's criticism of Kant (summarized in the Commentary on Chapter 1). Hegel pointed out that Kant's formula of the moral law is useless unless we know something about social institutions and expectations. Kant's examples bear out this observation, for the examples of duty that Kant picks turn out to have a lot to do with the institutions and expectations of his society. Kant values integrity, hard work, and philanthropy. He argues that it is wrong to destroy your life, to embezzle money, to waste your life in idleness, or to neglect people that you could easily help. Most of us would probably agree with Kant's sentiments. But can we really say that these values are absolute imperatives of reason? Don't they have a lot to do with the values our families and communities have instilled in us?
Consider the second example. Kant says that it is wrong to borrow money without the expectation of paying it back. If everyone did this, Kant argues, then institutions of lending would collapse and it would become impossible to borrow money. This would cause great harm to others who wanted to borrow legitimately.
Surely Kant is correct that institutions of credit and lending work to the benefit of great numbers of people. But what about the desperate person he describes in his example? Is this person really supposed to subordinate his own survival needs to the abstract consideration that society would collapse if everyone followed his example? The fact is that most people won't follow this person's example, because most people won't find themselves in such desperate circumstances.
Furthermore, what if we imagine a situation where this desperate individual faced a choice between borrowing illegitimately and dying of starvation? Isn't this person's survival more important than the institution of borrowing and lending? What if this person found himself in such a desperate situation as a result of social circumstances beyond their control? In that case, couldn't we say that it is immoral for society to place a person in such circumstances? Wouldn't violating the laws of society by borrowing illegitimately then be a justifiable act of protest?
In sum, Kant's categorical imperative is a fascinating attempt to base moral thinking on the notion that self-contradiction is illogical, yet Kant's formula doesn't seem to do justice to the complexity of moral questions. Kant seems confident that everyone will come up with the same moral principles when they use the categorical imperative. But if people have different notions of duty or of what the universal "laws of nature" should be, then people may end up choosing different courses of action. On the other hand, if people constrain their moral thinking within a particular social context--as Hegel does, and as Kant appears to do in his examples--then they violate Kant's stipulation that moral thinking must set aside all considerations of time, place, and circumstances.
In the remaining portion of Chapter 2, Kant will reformulate his notion of the categorical imperative in terms of the intrinsic worth of all individual human beings. Some readers may find this version of Kant's theory more persuasive.
Before moving on, Kant's brief mention of God in this chapter merits a quick comment. Kant's comment that our idea of God comes from our notion of moral perfection is indicative of his views on religion. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that the principle subjects of traditional metaphysics-- free will, God, and immortality--involve insoluble questions. God, free will, and immortality are natural concepts of reason, but they are not possible objects of experience. Thus, Kant argues, we can have no knowledge of them (we cannot know whether or not God exists, for example); we can only know that we have a concept of moral perfection that produces an idea of the morally perfect being, God. (Kant's argument about God is discussed briefly in the Context section, and freedom of the will is a main topic in Chapter 3.)
These ideas were seen as a bit blasphemous in Kant's time. (He is suggesting, after all, that God may be nothing more than an idea.) When Kant presented his religious views in detail in 1793 in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, the Prussian government prohibited him from publishing further works on religious issues.
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