An Imaginary Interview with Immanuel Kant on Moral Philosophy

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised: October 16, 2007

Single copies may be made by students for their personal use.

I. Mr. Kant, I've heard you are the creator of a revolutionary new moral philosophy.

K. Some people say that. I myself claim merely to have formulated some important truths in relation to morality and put them into a systematic philosophical framework that I find more satisfactory than other philosophical systems.

I. I've heard that you think there is only one truly good thing.

K. That's right. The only unqualifiedly good thing, in this world or out of it, is the good will.

I. I suppose you think human beings have wills?

K. Yes, but probably not everybody's will is good. (Nor is a good will necessarily permanently good, nor a will that is not good necessarily permanently flawed.)

I. And God?

K. If God exists and has the qualities I believe he has, His will would be good. However, moral philosophy is chiefly about human beings and their wills.

I. What do you mean by the term "will"?

K. The faculty of practical reason, by which we can rationally decide or choose whether to do something.

I. Is nothing else good except for the good will? I mean: aren't talents and intelligence good? Isn't reduction of suffering good? Aren't courage and the other moral virtues good?

K. What I said was that only the good will is unqualifiedly good, that is, good in all circumstances and all respects. Talents and intelligence are qualifiedly good, perhaps, good when associated with a person who has a good will, but in a scoundrel, they are not good. As for courage, apart from the good will it becomes mere audacity. An audacious villain is no better than a cowardly one.

I. The reduction of suffering, isn't that good?

K. Not unqualifiedly so. Do you not think that punishment is sometimes deserved? And punishment involves some kind of suffering or discomfort?

I. OK, only the good will is unqualifiedly good. How can we tell when a will is good?

K. There's no completely satisfactory empirical test, because the will is not like pain or pleasure, of which we have sensory evidence. But we all have a concept of what is required to have a good will. Someone who has a good will acts from duty, out of respect for the moral law. He will do the right thing because it is right.

I. Explain please.

K. Consider a student who has a term paper due in a short period of time. She is inclined to avoid the effort, so she considers plagiarism. She might give into the temptation and plagiarize. That would be an action contrary to duty and motivated by her inclination, i.e., inclination to avoid effort, which is somewhat painful.

Or, the student might resist the temptation because she has heard that the professor is very skilled at catching plagiarists and that when she does, she gives them a failing grade. So the student decides not to plagiarize. That would be an action that conforms to duty-it conforms to duty not to plagiarize--but it is still motivated by inclination, in this case, by fear. It's not from duty. It's not out of respect for the moral law.

I. I take it you have no respect for actions done out of inclination, even if they correspond to duty.

K. I don't think that anybody does. After all, our hypothetical plagiarist merely does what seems to be the right thing out of fear of personal consequences.

I. Well, consider this. Suppose I happen to be a very generous person. I get a lot of pleasure out of helping other people. I see a person in pain and I immediately do what seems best to alleviate their pain. If they are hungry I feed them. If they are grieving and I can do something to lighten their grief, I do so. And so on. Is this an example of the good will?

K. Are you doing it out of inclination or because it is the right thing to do? It sounds to me as if you are doing it from a benevolent inclination. You didn't consider whether it conforms to the moral law or not. My guess is that such an act would be an act from inclination. It may or may not conform to the moral law.

I. Well, what is this moral law that we are supposed to respect?

K. What's left in a human being if you set aside her inclinations, their appetites and their passions, which, by the way, vary widely from person to person and from situation to situation? What is universal to all human beings?

I. I suppose you mean their rationality, their reason?

K. Reason indeed is universal to human beings, shared among all of them, except the most defective. Moreover, it has universality as its content.

I. I don't understand.

K. If you strip away the use we make of reason to pursue the objects or goals pursued by our inclinations, what is left is pure reason, reason relating to itself. This sort of reason is universal, and universality is the content of the moral law.

I. I'm not sure I follow.

K. Pure theoretical reason is the type of reason that we use in natural science and mathematics. It is the capacity for understanding the laws of nature and the laws of number. Pure practical reason, reason related to action and choice, is the capacity each rational being, each moral agent, has for following universal moral laws.

I. Does that help our wills determine what we ought to choose?

K. Yes, pure practical reason, following the moral law, can ask whether we can will, or wish, our actions to be universal laws.

I. Can I will my action to be a universal law? Is that what you say people ought to ask when they are contemplating an action?

K. To be precise: we should only act on maxims that we can reformulate as universal laws that people could act upon, and will to be universal laws.

I. A maxim? What is that?

K. What do you think it is?

I. A guideline that a person adopts for himself?

K. That's the general idea. It's my view that whenever moral agents, rational beings, do something they are using some kind of rule, whether they are aware of doing so or not.

I. Explain how that would work in the plagiarism case.

K. The plagiarist's maxim might be this:

If I wish to avoid the discomfort of labor, I may falsely present somebody else's work as my own.

I. So how does the good will deal with that maxim to decide what she should do?

K. She should try to restate it as a universal law that everyone could act upon.

I. All right, if I restate the plagiarist's maxim as a universal law, it comes out like this:

If anyone wishes to avoid the discomfort of labor, he may falsely present somebody else's work as his own.

K. Now, ask yourself, is it even possible that this law might go into effect?

I. It seems to be.

K. Please think again. Really try to imagine everyone pretending to be the author of work actually done by somebody else. Under that situation, would anyone trust a claim by even one person to be the creator of a product he claims to have produced?

I. No, nobody would trust anybody who claimed to have produced something.

K. And then, because successful plagiarism requires that people be taken at their word, nobody could successfully plagiarize.

I. So the attempt to restate the plagiarist's maxim as a universal law that might be acted upon fails.

K. Exactly. And for similar reasons, the maxim of a person who wants to make false promises or take the property of another person without her consent would fail.

I. Then, I take it, if a person's maxim fails this test, one should not do the action that the maxim would have approved.

K. Yes, that's how the moral law tells us what is morally wrong.

I. That's useful.

K. I must point out that sometimes a maxim passes this test, that is, we can transform it as into a universal practical rule and conceive it going into effect, and yet we cannot will it--really wish it--to be a universal law. Consider the case of a Bad Samaritan. He passes by a person who is in desperate need of help and is in no position to pay him, he could help, but it would inconvenience him slightly. He is inclined not to help. His maxim is

If I have no contractual obligation to help a person in desperate need and she cannot pay me, I may ignore her need.
Can you universalize that?

I. Well, I think so. I can conceive of a world in which everybody follows the Bad Samaritan's maxim.

K. But would you will that maxim to be a universal law? Would you want that world, in which everyone is a Bad Samaritan, to be the actual world?

I. No, because sometime I might be in desperate need myself and be very glad even for short-term assistance.

K. You could conceive Bad Samaritanism as a universal law but you could not will it to be such.

I. So, I guess, I should not act upon the Bad Samaritan's maxim.

K. Thus you see how the moral law gives us guidance.

I. Your rule, Act only on those maxims that you could will to be a universal law, I've heard it's called the Categorical Imperative.

K. Yes. Imperatives are objective commands to action that recommend themselves to reason.

I. Why "categorical"?

K. Because it's not qualified, it's not a hypothetical imperative. It does not say, "if you want to get rich, then act . . . ." or even "if you want to be happy, then act . . ." but just "Act . . ."

I. Is there only one Categorical Imperative?

K. There is only one basic moral principle that is called the categorical imperative. It does, however, have two formulations, the universal law formulation we have been discussing and a second formulation, which produces the same results as the first.

I. What is the second formulation?

K. Always act so as to treat humanity, in thyself or in another person, as an end in itself and never as a means only.

I. And that rules out plagiarism too?

K. It does. When a person plagiarizes he is not treating the person from whom he is plagiarizing as an end, he is not respecting her free, creative rationality. He is using her as a means. Nor is he respecting the teacher as an end, and allowing her to perform her primary teaching function, providing feedback to the student who has supposedly composed his own paper. The plagiarist is using the teacher as mere means to get a grade without performing the work.

I. Mr. Kant, I'm puzzled about something. On the one hand, you say that the only thing that is truly good and worthy of our respect is the good will, and yet you also say that we should never use another person as a means only but always regard her as an end too.

K. Why is that puzzling?

I. Surely you do not think that every human being has a good will, all the time.

K. Correct.

I. Then what quality do all human beings have that I should respect?

K. They each have a free will, which they can use to follow the moral law and act out of duty. It's this free will and the potentiality for goodness that we must respect in other people. Free will is the basis for the inherent dignity of every rational being. But the only thing good without qualification is still the good will.

I. One more question. What do you think about utilitarianism, Mr. Bentham's view that our moral duty is to act so as to produce the greatest possible total happiness in society?

K. And how is happiness understood?

I. In terms of pleasure.

K. Our desire for pleasure is an inclination, based in the body. Morally, it does not matter whether we act to promote our own pleasures or the pleasures of somebody else. In either case, we are catering to inclinations, not the respecting the nobility of practical reason and the free will. I do not find this a satisfactory moral approach at all.

I. Is there any other reason for rejecting utilitarianism?

K. Yes, the fact that it determines moral rightness by consequences of action. My approach focuses on the quality of the reasoning behind the choice, not the consequences.

I. On the intention, then?

K. As long as you do not regard as intentions as adequate if they are based on inclinations, such as the mere wish of a benevolently inclined person to reduce the suffering of others. My focus is on the logical quality of one's decision: can the corresponding maxim be universalized and willed to be a universal law?