Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) spent all of his life in Königsberg, a small German town on the Baltic Sea in East Prussia. (After World War II, Germany's border was pushed west, so Königsberg is now called Kaliningrad and is part of Russia.) At the age of fifty-five, Kant had published much work on the natural sciences, taught at Königsberg University for over twenty years, and achieved a good reputation in German literary circles.
During the last twenty-five years of his life, however, Kant's philosophical work placed him firmly in the company of such towering giants as Plato and Aristotle. Kant's three major works are often considered to be the starting points for different branches of modern philosophy: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) for the philosophy of mind; the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) for moral philosophy; and the Critique of Judgment (1790) for aesthetics, the philosophy of art.
The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals was published in 1785, just before the Critique of Practical Reason. It is essentially a short introduction to the argument presented in the second Critique. In order to understand what Kant is up to in this book, it is useful to know something about Kant's other works and about the intellectual climate of his time.
Kant lived and wrote during a period in European intellectual history called the "Enlightenment." Stretching from the mid-seventeenth century to the early nineteenth, this period produced the ideas about human rights and democracy that inspired the French and American revolutions. (Some other major figures of the Enlightenment were ##Locke##, ##Hume##, ##Rousseau##, and Leibniz.)
The characteristic quality of the Enlightenment was an immense confidence in "reason"--that is, in humanity's ability to solve problems through logical analysis. The central metaphor of the Enlightenment was a notion of the light of reason dispelling the darkness of mythology and misunderstanding. Enlightenment thinkers like Kant felt that history had placed them in the unique position of being able to provide clear reasons and arguments for their beliefs. The ideas of earlier generations, they thought, had been determined by myths and traditions; their own ideas were based on reason. (According to this way of thinking, the French monarchy's claims to power were based on tradition; reason prescribed a republican government like that created by the revolution.)
Kant's philosophical goal was to use logical analysis to understand reason itself. Before we go about analyzing our world, Kant argued, we must understand the mental tools we will be using. In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant set about developing a comprehensive picture of how our mind--our "reason"-- receives and processes information.
Kant later said that the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) had inspired him to undertake this project. Hume, Kant said, awoke him from an intellectual "slumber." The idea that so inspired Kant was Hume's analysis of cause-and-effect relationships. When we talk about events in the world, Hume noted, we say that one thing "causes" another. But nothing in our perceptions tells us that anything causes anything else. All we know from our perceptions is that certain events regularly occur immediately after certain other events. "Causation" is a concept that we employ to make sense of why certain events regularly follow certain other events.
Kant took Hume's idea and went one step further. Causation, Kant argues, is not just an idea that we employ to make sense of our perceptions. It is a concept that we cannot help but employ. We don't sit around watching events and then develop an idea of causation on the basis of what we see. When we see a baseball break a window, for instance, we don't need to have seen balls break windows before to say that the ball "caused" the window to break; causation is an idea that we automatically bring to bear on the situation. Kant argued that causation and a number of other basic ideas--time and space, for instance--are hardwired, as it were, into our minds. Anytime we try to understand what we see, we cannot help but think in terms of causes and effects.
Kant's argument with Hume may seem like hairsplitting, but it has huge implications. If our picture of the world is structured by concepts that are hardwired into our minds, then we can't know anything about how the world "really" is. The world we know about is developed by combining sensory data ("appearances" or "phenomena," as Kant called them) with fundamental concepts of reason (causation, etc.). We don't know anything about the "things-in- themselves" from which sensory data emanates. This recognition that our understanding of the world may have as much to do with our minds as with the world has been called a "Copernican Revolution" in philosophy--a change in perspective as significant to philosophy as Copernicus' recognition that the earth is not the center of the universe.
Kant's insights posed a severe challenge to many earlier ideas. Before Kant, for instance, many philosophers offered "proofs" of the existence of God. One argument made was that there must be a "first cause" for the universe. Kant pointed out that we can either imagine a world in which some divine being set the universe in motion, causing all later events; or we can imagine a universe that is an infinite series of causes and effects extending endlessly into the past and future. But since causation is an idea that comes from our minds and not from the world, we cannot know whether there "really" are causes and effects in the world--let alone whether there was a "first cause" that caused all later events. The question of whether there "must" be a first cause for the universe is irrelevant, because it is really a question about how we understand the world, not a question about the world itself.
Kant's analysis similarly shifted the debate over "free will" and "determinism." (Kant presents a version of this argument in Chapter 3 of the Grounding.) Human beings believe that they have "free will"; we feel as though we may freely choose to do whatever we like. At the same time, however, the world that we experience is a world of causes and effects; everything we observe was caused by whatever preceded it. Even our own choices appear to have been caused by prior events; for instance, the choices you make now are based on values you learned from your parents, which they learned from their parents, and so forth. But how can we be free if our behavior is determined by prior events? Again, Kant's analysis shows that this is an irrelevant question. Anytime we analyze events in the world, we come up with a picture that includes causes and effects. When we use reason to understand why we have made the choices we have, we can come up with a causal explanation. But this picture isn't necessarily accurate. We don't know anything about how things "really" are; we are free to think that we can make free choices, because for all we know this might "really" be the case.
In the Critique of Practical Reason and the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant applies this same technique--using reason to analyze itself--to determine what moral choices we should make. Just as we cannot rely on our picture of the world for knowledge about how the world "really" is, so can we not rely on expectations about events in the world in developing moral principles. Kant tries to develop a moral philosophy that depends only on the fundamental concepts of reason.
Some later scholars and philosophers have criticized Enlightenment philosophers like Kant for placing too much confidence in reason. Some have argued that rational analysis isn't the best way to deal with moral questions. Further, some have argued that Enlightenment thinkers were pompous to think that they could discover the timeless truths of reason; in fact, their ideas were determined by their culture just as all other people's are. Some experts have gone as far as to associate the Enlightenment with the crimes of imperialism, noting a similarity between the idea of reason dispelling myth and the idea that Western people have a right and a duty to supplant less "advanced" civilizations. As we work through the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, we will return to such criticisms as they apply to Kant.