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Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

Chapter 2 - Part 1

Summary Chapter 2 - Part 1

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.

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: Popular pages