Lectures on Kant's Ethics
for PHIL 350 (Fall 2004)

Dr. Jan Garrett

Not for direct citation in scholarly work

This page revised 12 October 2004

The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Moral) by Immanuel Kant (published in 1785) is one of the most often studied texts in the history of moral philosophy. It is best known for its endorsement of what Kant calls the Categorical Imperative, which he gives in several formulations, of which the Universal Law and Humanity as End formulation are the best known.

Although it is widely studied, it is doubtful that Kant's position is widely believed or even widely understood beyond academia, even if it is agreed by many that Kant highlighted some important themes in ethics. One fact that makes it hard initially to understand Kant is that he presents a form of dualism that strikes most people, philosophy students included, as extreme.

But with our tools of metaphorical analysis from cognitive linguists, we can understand Kant and even sympathize with him, even if in the end we are not persuaded to become Kantians.

Kant in fact is starting from two folk theories that were widespread in the Enlightenment period (18th century), the first of which is assumed by the second. The first is Metaphorical Folk Theory of Faculty Psychology. According to this Folk Theory, as described by Mark Johnson (Moral Imagination (University of Chicago, 1993):

The mind is a society with at least four members, perception, passion (inclinations), will, and reason.

Each of these may be understood as a person, but while the other members of the society of the mind may be understood metaphorically in other terms the will must be so understood.

The will can freely make decisions to act. Thus it must be a person.

Passions or inclinations become active through bodily experience. They exert force on the will, are unpredictable, and are difficult to control. They are metaphorically people, wild animals, or forces of nature (e.g., floods, fire, storms).

Reason calculates and also formulates principles, such as action-guiding commands instructing us as to how to act. It may be understood as a machine or as a person.

Reason can exert force on will and thus direct action.

Will "stands between" reason and passion. Passion and reason exert opposite forces upon the will.

It can always resist reason and at least sometimes the force of passion. The stronger the will, the better it can resist the force of passion.

Kant also subscribed to what Mark Johnson calls the Moral Law Folk Theory. This assumes the Folk Theory of Faculty Psychology.
Dual human nature. Humans have a mental dimension and a physical dimension. Our passions or inclinations are connected to the body; we are driven by them to pursue pleasure, that is, satisfaction of our bodily needs. Our wish to avoid pain and harm is based in the body.

Our passions and desires are not in themselves rational. Therefore, there is an ongoing tension between our bodily and rational parts.

There are non-moral values, such as the things that contribute to happiness and their opposites.

Problem of Morality. The problem of Morality depends upon these things:
(1) People can harm or help other people.
(2) Humans have free will
(3) Human reason enables humans to formulate principles about how to act.
Can Reason give will guidelines that instruct it how to act?

Moral Laws. The answer is that Reason generates Moral Laws and tells us how to apply them to particular cases. We are to analyze situations to see how they fall under concepts contained in moral laws.

Two comments:
(1) The conception of reason here is Classical Reason, with concepts conceived as Classical Categories, not Radial Categories.

(2) This Folk Theory differs from the Natural Law Ethics which held that we could discover by a kind of self-conscious introspection what the basic human goods were. (Whatever additional premises Gomez-Lobo added to his empirical premises concerning the basic human goods, he never conceived of deriving particular norms from non-empirical premises alone.)

Moral motivation. The actions of animals are determined by passion, but human beings have reason. We are better than animals because reason can guide our actions. We are essentially rational animals. It's better to be guided by reason than by passion. When will allies with passion, it is being immoral. When will cannot resist passion, it is weak. To be worthy of being admired, the will must be strong and be guided by reason.

Some comments on the Kant reading (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals):

"G" in what follows refers to page numbers in volume IV of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences edition of Kant's works.

1. The purpose of the FPMM is to discover the principle of practical reason, which for Kant is the one rule that serves to determine how we should morally act.

Kant will argue that there is just one rule. Although it can be expressed in various ways (scholars have counted up to five), these are, he claims, equivalent to one another. This one rule is purely formal, but it can be used to defend more specific moral maxims (such as One should not lie and One should keep promises) as specific moral laws. Although the one rule is formal, it is not true by definition, as Gomez-Lobo's formal principle seems to be.

The first section of the book is entitled "Transition from the Common Rational Knowledge of Morality to the Philosophical." Kant is merely trying to clarify what he thinks every mature human being already knows. He seems to understand the ordinary adult human as the ordinary German of his acquaintance, who was a Protestant Christian.

2. The claim with which he starts is that there is but one unqualifiedly good thing, and that is the good will.

Unqualified goods are contrasted with qualified goods. Sometimes the words "absolute" and "relative" are used. Sometimes the words "unconditional" and "conditioned" are used. Sometimes "objective" and "subjective."

Kant defines the will (G 427) this way: "a faculty of determining itself to action in accord with the representation (=thought) of [action-guiding] laws". Remember that, if Lakoff and Johnson are right, Kant is unconsciously using a conceptual metaphor of the will as a person.

3. Things that we deem good as a result of inclination are at best qualified goods, conditioned on our having the corresponding inclination.

An inclination is a propensity based in the body as a part of physical nature;

It is roughly equivalent to desire or aversion; it is found in humans and in nonhuman animals

We are aware of inclinations through experience, so they are knowable empirically (a posteriori).

They are linked to pleasure because inclinations produce need, which if unsatisfied is painful; satisfying need and following inclination is pleasant.

Greedy acts, cowardly acts, and other obviously immoral acts can occur from inclination. But so can acts that outwardly conform to ordinary morality, such as the shopkeeper's practice of not overcharging his customers so he will continue to receive their business. So can acts of altruism if a person is so constituted that she receives pleasure from generous acts and is generous to receive such pleasure.

4. If we had a stable idea of happiness and tried to pursue it, that pursuit would be an activity from inclination.

Kant understands the idea of happiness as that of "complete well-being and contentment with one's condition" (G 393), but denies that we have a stable enough conception of happiness to guide our action.

5. A good will is a will that acts does not act from inclination but from duty; not merely in accord with duty but from duty.

acts from inclination contrary to duty (do not express a good will)
acts from inclination in accord with duty (do not express a good will)
acts from duty (do express a good will)
6. Duty is the necessity of an action done out of respect for the (moral) law. (G 400)

The moral law is the metaphorical strict father in Kant's Community of the Mind. The good will is the metaphorical child that is obedient to the command of the moral law. The attitude exhibited by the good will is respect.

We will see that for Kant the moral law is not identical to God, because it is in some sense in the human being as such.

7. The moral law emerges through the use of pure practical reason.

That is, it has not empirical content in itself. It is purely formal. It expresses the universal conformity of a person's actions to law in general. (TKA para 13; G 401n14)

8. The moral law is "Always act so that you could also will that your maxim could become universal law."

This is the "universal law" formulation of the categorical imperative. Maxims are the rules of action which a person actually considers or would consider if he reflected, at least briefly, upon what he was about to do. The CI provides a formal test of such maxims. If a maxim cannot really be conceived as a universal law, then one should not act upon it. If it can be conceived as a universal law but not one that you could wish to become a universal law, then you should not act upon it.

Kant claims that this is a purely rational principle, that has nothing to do with the imagination, but in fact it depends upon a conceptual metaphor, actually two conceptual metaphors. Universal law here is metaphorically a universal law of nature, in the modern scientific sense familiar since Isaac Newton. The notion of a scientific law of nature is a conceptual metaphor deriving from law in the legal sense, a rule enacted by a political sovereign.

A law or command of morality involves a concept of necessity-unconditional, objective, and universally valid (for all rational beings); reference to "necessity" means that it (morally) must be obeyed even when it instructs us contrary to inclination. (G 416)

The second section of Kant's FPMM is called "Transition from Popular Morality to a Metaphysics of Morals." In Kant's mind, this section is fully philosophical while the first was closely entwined with pre-philosophical thinking.

9. Kant is in search of understanding of pure practical reason. This idea relies upon the following distinctions

a. theoretical v. practical reason
b. pure v. impure practical reason

* Practical reason is "the power of reason to determine the will on (some sort of) grounds, either objective or subjective." Grounds refers to reasons actively entertained.
* By contrast, theoretical reason is a capacity of knowing not necessarily motivated by a wish to produce any results.
* Impure practical reason would involve premises given a posteriori, i.e., arising in experience. Another name for such premises is empirical. Impure practical reason takes orders, so to speak, from inclination.
* By contrast pure practical reason "determines the will (to choice or action) by means of a priori grounds." (G 408) That is, by something other than inclination.
10. Pure practical reason must rely upon motives and act for objective ends. Kant is using two deliberate contrasts here:

a. incentives v. motives
b. subjective v. objective ends

Kant says this about incentives. They are subjective conditions of the will. They are created by inclinations, which produce subjective ends. (G 413, 428, 431)

Kant claims, although he has not proven, that the will can be moved by respect for the moral law grasped by practical reason. Thus he can speak of "motive" in contrast to incentive.

Subjective ends are ends given in experience. (G 431) We feel hunger and desire to eat. We feel a desire to be kind to a particular person, and so we offer to help her carry her heavy packages. Objective ends are not given in experience, but are grasped by pure practical reason. Upon such ends rest motives valid for every rational being. (G 427)

11. In the history of philosophy from Aristotle on, ends correspond to principles. Practical principles are mental notions understood as being able to shape our actions. Kant distinguishes between material and formal principles. He says that material ends are merely relative. That is, the goods they represent are qualified at best, not absolute. They vary with our psychological and biological states. By contrast, proper formal principles correspond to absolute ends. A principle is a (practical or moral) law only if it holds for the will of every rational being, not merely some rational beings, not merely sometimes, and not just humans. (However, because humans are not by nature good, they are the only rational beings that experience the moral law as a command.)

12. Philosophers, especially among the ancients, regarded happiness as an absolute end. Kant denies that happiness can function as a stable end, which is needed for a practical principle. Kant sees happiness as a fluctuating, unstable end. In an individual's life it varies from moment to moment, depending on the priority he gives to responding to his various felt needs. And one person's notion of happiness differs from another's.

13. The only kind of end that can serve as an objective principle, according to Kant, is an independently existing end.

This would be an end that is not produced by action, that is not an effect of our causal intervention in nature. (G 437)

This would be an end not altered by relations we have with things outside us.

This would be an end that is not merely "for us" at the moment, contingently:

a) not affected by our bodily states
b) not even a result of our generic human nature (such as, e.g., a universal human need for people to talk to or a universal need for love)
14. Inclinations produce ends only of conditional or relative value:
(1, P) Inclinations produce need.
(2, A) Need is experienced as unpleasant. (not stated)
(3, IC) Every rational being wishes to be free from inclination. (G 428)
(4, A) What every rational being wishes to escape cannot be an unconditional good.
(5, C) Inclinations can only provide conditional goods.
15. An unconditional end must be supplied by something other than inclinations.
Rational beings, according to Kant, are called persons because their nature marks them out as ends in themselves. An end in itself is one that has objective value, not merely subjectively for us; it is an unconditional end, not a merely contingent one.
16. From this it follows that our humanity (rational nature) sets a supreme limiting condition on our freedom of action: Always act so as to treat humanity as an end, never as a means only.