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Critique of Practical Reason

Analytic: Chapter Two

Summary Analytic: Chapter Two


Here Kant positions himself on two philosophical issues that remain discussed to this day. The first issue is which of the morally upright person or the good states of affairs should be taken to be more fundamental to understanding ethics. The second issue is how we know which actions are morally right and which are wrong.

The position Kant holds, that moral rightness is fundamental and that moral rightness is a matter of following a rule, is called "deontology". In Kant's case, that rule is the categorical imperative, but we can imagine other possibilities, such as the Ten Commandments. Another view that takes the idea of moral goodness to be central is "virtue ethics," a view inspired by Aristotle as well as by 18th century "moral sense" theorists such as Hume and Hutchinson. The virtue ethicist takes the central idea of ethics to be not what particular actions are right or wrong, but rather the morally virtuous character as a whole. Kant's view can actually be seen as somewhere between virtue ethics and deontology, for although he takes the mark of the moral to be following the moral law, following the moral law is a matter of having the right inner motivation—acting from duty—and not simply outwardly conforming to a rule.

Opposed to taking moral goodness as being most basic to ethics is the idea of taking good states-of-affairs as basic, and seeing the right as definable in terms of their pursuit. Kant equates this with the view that the right is the pursuit of the pleasurable. If we take this to mean the pursuit of the greatest pleasure for everyone all around, this is Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism, summed up in his formula: "The greatest good for the greatest number." Utilitarianism is part of a broader class of "consequentialist" views, views that take the morally right to be production of good consequences, whether the value of the consequences is measured solely by amount of pleasure, or instead includes other possible goods like beauty, flourishing of nature, technological, artistic, and other achievements, etc.

Kant's place in this issue is somewhat confused by a problem in interpreting him. He explains good and evil in two ways: in one, they apply specifically to the will and are synonymous with following and breaking the moral law, while in the other, they are the object of the moral law and apply to states of affairs. Both of these usages presumably contrast with good versus bad, which refer to pleasure versus pain. We can be sure that Kant takes moral rightness to be basic, but less sure about how he interprets the concept of the good.

The second issue on which Kant takes a position in this chapter is the issue of how we detect the moral. Moral empiricism holds that we just look at the action and see—in the same way that we can see the color of the shirt of the person acting. Kant equates this with utilitarianism, and with a sort of utilitarianism that seeks only to maximize one's own pleasure, not the general pleasure. Although the equation is unfair, it is true that this is one variety of moral empiricism. Moral mysticism takes morality to be a supernatural matter. Seeing what is right is a matter of "seeing," but not using the normal senses.

We might be at first confused as to why Kant's rationalism is so different from empiricism. It seems that the cognitive and sensory faculties must cooperate either to detect when an action is satisfying the categorical imperative (rationalism) or when it is producing overall greatest pleasure (empiricism). The answer turns on the idea that we really can never be sure when we have witnessed a moral act on Kant's view, for the moral rightness of the act consists of its being caused in the right way from the noumenal world, which is by definition undetectable. But now we worry how we can ever have any idea when anyone else is acting morally. We can know when we ourselves are acting morally, for Kant claims that we have a special non-sensory grasp of the moral law and through it our noumenal autonomy. This means that at least we can know of our own moral goodness, but in a way which is suspiciously like that of the "moral mystic."

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