Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Kierkegaard may have made me indecently happy, but my emotional reaction to Kant was much stronger, albeit in the opposite direction. Perhaps it was lack of sleep, perhaps it was stress from spontaneous travel, but whatever it was, I was sobbing (on the inside) while trying to read Kant. Except for when I was following along certain previous texts in Latin, and the ones originally in English, this was the first time this year I made a concerted effort to read one of these texts in its original language. I suspect my efforts were fruitless – I can’t claim to understand Kant in English, much less in German. Anyway… Kant’s metaphysical system of morality.*

Kant has at least one main aim in mind in the Groundwork, or so I may have gathered.** He is searching for the principle on which all our moral judgments are based, because that definitely exists. If you are skeptical that it does or can exist, well, it does; we are autonomous and therefore moral demands have authority over us. I’m reasonably certain he does not successfully prove autonomy of the will, and attempts to prove this backwards in Critique of Practical Reason. Does there seem to be a gap here? Kant doesn’t see it, or doesn’t admit that he does.

This fundamental principle, which is later revealed as the categorical imperative, must be found a priori because we are searching for the structure or nature of duties and values – what is a duty? what is good? So this principle appears to be metaphysical, and Kant himself insists that it must be found without regard to empirical facts. A strange insistence, because Kant frequently appeals to experience: he claims that our wills are determined by practical principles, among other problematic things. Perhaps he believes that he has established the categorical imperative without appeal to empirical facts, but it is not clear that the arguments have the same force without them.***

Before I go on, I should not make Kant’s mistake by rambling on without trying to explain his use or meaning of a term. There are two that are crucial at this moment: duty and will. Kant writes that: “duty is the necessity of an action from respect for law” (4:400). The will, he asserts with less clarity, “stands between its a priori principle, which is formal, and its a posteriori incentive, which is material, as at a crossroads; and since it must still be determined by something, it must be determined by the formal principle of volition as such when an action is done from duty, where every material principle has been withdrawn from it.” The will is, Kant asserts, formed by reason: “Everything in nature works in accordance with laws. Only a rational being has the capacity to act in accordance with the representation of laws, that is, in accordance with principles, or has a will” (4:412). Actually, if you really want to understand will and reason, read some philosophy bro.

Kant goes on to argue that moral worth is found only in actions of duty, but not actions from other inclinations. Someone with a good-natured or sympathetic disposition may act in a way that is identical to another who acts from duty, but the moral worth is in the action done from duty. A man who is not naturally disposed to help others, or perhaps he even despises it, but does so out of duty, has a moral worth that those who act out of other inclinations do not. Duty is the only motivation that expresses good will: “To be beneficent where one can is a duty, and besides there are many souls so sympathetically attuned that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I assert that in such a case an action of this kind, however it may conform with duty and however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth…” For Kant, a good person is one whose will is ‘determined’ by moral law.

Let me pause for a moment and discuss duty, because having read the above paragraph, one ought to have some immediate and severe issues. Duty for Kant is adherence to lawfulness, which might make it seem that those who follow laws, whatever they may be, are acting dutifully and therefore morally. Those who followed the Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany were certainly adhering to the law; we would balk to call those actions moral. In general, we follow federal, civic, etc. laws that align with our values, but not those that violate our morals, which we see as a separate thing. However, Kant doesn’t mean just any laws – he means laws of reason, and therefore laws of morality. These are laws that we have because we are rational beings, and thus they apply to all rational beings, i.e. they are universal. This is how Kant reaches (with many steps and explanations I am ignoring here) the fundamental principle of morality, or the categorical imperative: “There is therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421). The maxims which make up the system of moral, rational laws follow this pattern: I will (or will not) do action  in circumstance y in order to produce end z: “the universal imperative of duty can also go as follows: act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature“(4:421).

One of the less troublesome, or very appealing, I should say, aspects of Kant’s moral philosophy (for many) is his appeal to Humanity, i.e. the claim that all rational beings are ends in themselves and ought never to be used solely as means to an end.**** “The concept of every rational being as one who must regard himself as giving universal law through all the maxims of his will, so as to appraise himself and his actions from this point of view, leads to a very fruitful concept dependent upon it, namely that of a kingdom of ends” (4:433). Kant’s moral ideal is that all rational beings treat each other as ends in themselves – which means we are vested in the ends of others, and not just in using them as means to our own end, although of course this is something that is not avoidable (one relies on others for clothes, food, furniture, teaching, etc). “A rational being belongs as a member to the kingdom of ends when he gives the universal laws in it but is also himself subject to these laws. He belongs to it as sovereign when, as lawgiving, he is not subject to the will of any other.” This certainly seems more compatible with what most people look for in a system of morality.

At the end of the Groundwork, in its final chapter, Kant means to show that freedom is the key to understanding the autonomy of the will: “Will is a kind of causality of living beings insofar as they are rational, and freedom would be that property of such causality that it can be efficient independently of alien causes determining it, just as natural necessity is the property of the causality of all nonrational beings to be determined to activity by the influence of alien causes” (4:446). As rational creatures belong to the world of sense, they operate under laws of nature, and as being intelligent, they are kept under laws that are not at all empirical, but grounded in reason. We might expect that Kant would go in this direction, even if we were unfamiliar with him in any other sense, because it is hard to base a system of morality on the will if we don’t imagine rational beings to have some kind of freedom.

Being a rational creature with a will, I desire this post to end now. If I change this into a maxim – whenever someone is writing about Kant, and they want to cry/scream, they ought to just stop writing and focus on more enjoyable things – I assert this is something that is both 1. not logically contradictory and 2. something I can will into universal law. Ici il finit.

*I found a note I wrote myself in one of the margins in the English text: “Check if Zizek has a wife.” ??? To answer, Wikipedia writes: “Žižek was formerly married to Renata Salecl, another notable Slovene philosopher, and to fashion model Analia Houniea, daughter of an Argentine Lacanian psychoanalyst.” ??? !!! So anyway that’s what I learned reading Kant.

**assume this about everything in this post

***Kant also says that the good person – the truly moral person (an ideal) – deserves happiness. In the Critique of Practical Reason, the highest good is complete moral virtue with complete happiness, and the former is our condition for deserving the latter. He writes in the Groundwork that “all the elements that belong to the concept of happiness are without exception empirical.” …

****The “ground” of the categorical imperative is: “rational nature exists as an end in itself.”


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