Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

by: Immanuel Kant

Chapter 1

Summary Chapter 1

The major criticism of Kant's approach is that it is too abstract to be useful. The nineteenth-century philosopher Hegel is generally credited with developing this argument against Kant. Hegel argued that our thinking is structured by the beliefs, institutions, and traditions of the society in which we live. In criticism of Kant, he pointed out that you cannot know what actions will appear self-contradictory to people unless you know something about their society.

Take the prohibition against theft, for example. We live in a world of property. In our world, it is contradictory to steal, because when you steal you expect others to recognize your ownership of what you have stolen even though you failed to respect the ownership of the person who originally possessed it. So far, Kant's analysis holds. Yet we can imagine a world without property rights, a world where everything is collectively owned. In such a world, there would be no such thing as theft because there would be no such thing as personal property.

The same analysis can be applied to nearly every moral principle. In our society, it is unethical to cheat on your spouse, because you contradict yourself when accept the marriage vows of your spouse and yet break those vows yourself. Yet we could imagine a world with different family institutions where affairs might not be considered unethical. Similarly (to use Kant's example), it is unethical in our society to make false promises. In our society, there is such a thing as a promise, and when people make promises we expect that they will keep them. But lying might mean something different in a society with different expectations.

According to Hegel's analysis, Kant is correct to recognize that the principle of non-contradiction is an element in moral thinking, but he is wrong to think that we can develop moral principles without considering the circumstances of our world. Morality is not something for automatons living a life of pure rational thought. It is a consideration for human beings who must sometimes subordinate their personal interests to the basic principles of their community.

In defense of Kant against Hegel, some philosophers (##Kierkegaard##, for instance) have criticized Hegel for overemphasizing the role that social institutions play in forming our beliefs. By some accounts, Kant has the advantageous of allowing us greater freedom in reasoning about which morals make sense to us, independent of the society around us. We will continue to consider this and other views on Kant as we consider his further arguments in Chapters 2 and 3.

As a small side note, it may be of interest to note that Kant wrote the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals over half a century before ##Charles Darwin## formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection. From a modern-day perspective, Kant's statement that an organism's needs are generally served by the most-suited organ might seem a little strange. An evolutionary biologist would say that our organs and faculties have developed over time in order to serve the needs of survival. According to this perspective, we wouldn't have organs or faculties unless they served our survival needs (or had served those needs at some time); the point is that our organs and faculties should work, not that they perform the tasks for which they are best suited. Kant's outdated view of nature is not of critical importance to his argument, however, so this is not a major problem. It may be interesting nonetheless to observe that ideas about instinct and self- preservation were established long before Darwin included them in his theory.

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