Kant’s Ethics

Below are Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Practical Reason.

Metaphysics of Morals:

Kant, Immanuel. General Principle of the Metaphysics of Morals, The Great Books Series (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1952).

Kant is the perfect embodiment of modern liberalism.  Imagine one of your neighbors.  He’s a nice guy, does all the right things.  All he wants is for everyone to be nice.  At worst, he might want the State to enforce niceness.  This isn’t that different from late 20th century America.  It’s completely useless, however, against nihilism and revolution.

This is a lucid treaty which introduces you to Kant’s famous maxim, “Don’t do something if you aren’t willing to make it a universal law.”  That actually works quite well in a Christian, or at least moral society.  There are problems in Kant’s ethics, to be sure, but he does cover all the requisite ground and deals with the same issues you would find in Aquinas on happiness.

All rational knowledge is either concerned with the object of knowledge or with the form of understanding itself.  Kant’s goal is to construct a pure moral philosophy.  Such a moral philosophy will not only conform to moral law, but will do so out of a sense of duty (and that is the main point for Kant).

Indeed, what makes a good action good?  Kant’s answer is very simple: a good action is good simply by virtue of its volition (256).

Surprisingly enough, Kant argues that reason can’t be the guide.  He correctly notes that reason can’t satisfy all of our wants and perhaps even multiplies them.  Rather, our duty is to follow the law. If we must have emotions, then we should have respect for the law. What kind of law should determine my will?  Kant gives us his famous secularized golden rule: “never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (260).

Persons and Things

A person is a rational being who is an end in himself.  A thing is a being whose end is relative to another end (272).

Kingdom of Ends

A kingdom for Kant is a union of rational beings in a system by common laws (274). This definition, while inadequate, is not too far from Augustine’s “common objects of love.”  Ends for Kant are determined by abstract, universal laws.  For example, I must treat everyone as though he were an end in himself and not my means to another end.

Kant nicely summarizes his project this way. Morality has three modes: 1) a form, consisting in universality; 2) a matter, such as the end or goal; and 3) the ability to characterize all maxims in the previous two modes (275).

A Will that is Free

Kant has a standard account of free will.  Such a will is independent of external, determining forces, etc.  It has an internal causality.  That brings Kant to a problem of which he is very much aware. It’s not really coherent to speak of my making laws to which I am subject.  It’s a circle, as he notes: “we laid down the idea of freedom because of the moral law only that we might afterwards in turn infer the latter from freedom” (282).  What is his solution? It’s not clear but I think he says such an intuition of freedom allows us to transcend ourselves.  I’m not really sure what that means.

There is a bigger problem, though.  If the world of nature is mechanistically determined, then how am I free? Kant says that for all practical purposes, we are free. If we don’t presuppose that, then we can’t make sense of human actions.


Kant is not unaware of problems with his system.  For example, if I have a direct inclination to an action, say, caring for my wife, my passion and strong feelings towards my wife might actually cloud the nature of duty (258). In fact, in order to truly appreciate the duty of caring for my wife, I shouldn’t let my emotions or feelings come into play at all! (Only an unmarried bachelor like Kant could have imagined this).  If I have conjugal relations with my wife and I enjoy it, that’s good and all but irrelevant.  All that matters is we have performed our duties. Have fun with the therapy.

Perhaps more to the point.  I have a duty to preserve my life.  Most men in fact do this.  Here is the problem:  Are they doing this just out of natural habit or from the specific command, “You must act according to the duty to preserve your own life”?  Almost everyone acts from the former and they are not wrong to do so. Kant, however, would say they failed to act ethically.

The same applies to helping the poor.  Unless you do it from the perspective of “I have a duty to be beneficent,” the action has no moral worth.  This doesn’t seem right.

Moreover, with Kant we see the modern commitment to ethical autonomy.  Consider the following chilling passage: “Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognize him as such” (263).

Kant’s system is beautiful and elegant, yet cold and austere.

Critique of Practical Reason

Introductory thoughts: Freedom is the only idea of speculative reason that we can know a priori (291).  Freedom is the condition of the moral law.  Ideas like God are conditions of the practical use of our pure reason (i.e., God is a limiting concept.  You need God to make other ideas work).

To say it another way: God is an application of our will to a determined object.

Problems Kant must solve:

1) He had previously denied that we could know supersensible reality, yet he specifically posits this for morality (the freedom of our will).

The thinking subject internally intuits itself as a phenomenon (292).

The imperative: these are rules that I do not make up for myself.  They transcend me. It is closer to the realm of causality.  A Law is much stronger.  It actually determines the will.  As such they are categorical.

Theorem I: a principle which presupposes an empirical object of desire can furnish no practical laws (298).

Theorem 2: all material practical principles fall under the category of self-love or private happiness.

A refined pleasure is one that does not wear out and increases our capacity for enjoyment.

Kant proceeds to speak on what is “a good or an evil in itself” (317).  That language is surprising, given his agnosticism on knowing anything “in itself.” Kant is cheating.  He (rightly) says the moral good “is something whose object is supersensible” (319).  He correctly wants to avoid the is-ought fallacy.  On the other hand, one wonders how he can possibly know this, given that the supersensible are noumena and off-limits to our knowing. He says by way of conclusion that “It is therefore allowable to use the system of the world of sense as a type of a supersensible system of things” (320).  I had always suspected Kant was a secularized Plato.  Now I am sure.

Motive: subjective ground of determination (321).

Kant defines personality as “freedom and independence on the mechanism of nature.”

Kant’s most notorious move is his positing God, the soul, and the moral law as postulates of pure reason.  He knows he needs these categories in order for his system to work.  Unfortunately, they are empty concepts. Kant doesn’t seriously think that God will act in history and bring judgment.  Yet that is precisely what Kant’s God would need to do in order for a moral universe to work.  At the end of the day, as Nietzsche would later point out, Kant doesn’t really need God at all.

Kant’s take on human freedom and determinism bears our consideration.  How can we be free if we live in a Newtonian universe of cause and effect?  Kant’s analysis here is quite similar to Jonathan Edwards’.  As long as we remain in a time-bound universe, we cannot be free.  Kant believes in freedom, though. He maintains that the time-bound universe is the world of appearances, akin to the phenomenal world.  You aren’t free in that world.  However, you do have a transcendental freedom.  Determinism only applies to the sensible world of appearances.

I think he is wrong, but his take isn’t that strange.  As Reformed Christians, we hold free will in suspicion, yet we also believe we are active moral agents who make meaningful choices.  And if we hold to Edwards’ analysis of determinism, it’s not clear how different we are from Kant, practically speaking.

Kant’s writing is elegant and austere and could have only been written during the Enlightenment.  This text is fascinating in some regards because Kant begins to walk back some of his stronger claims in the First Critique.


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