Discover more from Beyond Thought
Discovering the Complexities of Practical Reason: Kant's Exploration of Moral Decision-Making and the Establishment of Universal Laws - The Critique of Practical Reason
The Critique of Practical Reason - Book Overview and Thoughts
As we can know by now “practical reason” for Kant is our guiding light when it comes to moral decision-making. But we may still have questions about how practical reason works and how people get interested in following ethical rules.
The book “Critique of Practical Reason” is going to help us understand the complexity of this and how it makes us able to establish moral laws that aren’t fueled by inclination or desire.
Before we dive in, here are some highlights:
Practical reason is distinct from theoretical reason and focuses on how we affect others through our will.
The concept of private happiness cannot serve as a universal practical law as it is subjective and incompatible with creating a harmonious way of life for everyone.
Moral laws cannot be deduced from empirical evidence and require intellectual intuition and reasoning.
According to Kant, we are driven to follow moral laws by a moral feeling that precedes our actions. Furthermore, he says that our sense of moral law limits and suppresses our desires and inclinations in order for them to conform to the law.
Kant distinguishes between pleasure and pain, as well as between good and evil. He claims that the former are essentially ideas that need empirical evidence, and hence cannot serve as moral laws. Furthermore, he says that when we consider something to be good or bad, we must consider it as a possible outcome of our power to make choices, rather than as a thing in itself.
Kant introduces the concept of the summum bonum, which refers to the highest good. It is the ultimate goal that combines both moral virtue and happiness.
Kant discusses the postulates of practical reason, such as God's existence and the immortality of the soul, and acknowledges that, while these concepts cannot be proven through theoretical reason, they are a practical need that our reason assumes for the fulfilment of the moral law and the realization of the summum bonum.
Now, let’s dive deep into it!
First, to refresh our minds a bit, let’s recall that ordinary reason, or sometimes called theoretical reason, is the type of reason we use every day for synthesizing information and getting an understanding of the world around us. On the other hand, practical reason is concerned with how we act, and how we behave, that is, on how we affect other objects through our will.
Now, as we may recall from our post on “The Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant outlines a methodology and builds an entire system on how pure reason works; starting from perception, all the way up to how our minds interpret and synthesize information using certain categories of the understanding.
Similarly, in the case of practical reason, Kant wants a method for explaining how this form of reasoning works. However, as we said in our last post, practical reason cannot be gained through the senses since we need to find a more objective reality that is applicable to all rational beings. This is because if we begin with the senses, we would end up with subjective inclinations and desires, which we do not want when establishing moral laws. As a result, we have to start with principles and concepts and then move on to the senses, which is the opposite of what we do for theoretical reasoning.
Now, you may wonder, how can we derive principles from nothing? To answer this question, Kant believes that if we assume pure reason has a practical purpose, we can infer that it has some practical laws; otherwise, we would simply have maxims, which are subjective desires that apply to everyone separately.
Moreover, we can't create subjective laws; thus, imperatives are objectively valid and maxims are only principles, because they expect a desired effect from a certain act.
What’s more, as we saw in the Groundwork post, conditioned acts cannot be ethically valuable. This also implies that when an effect precedes the act, such as the concept of an object generating pleasure, it might be seen empirical and hence conditional, meaning that it cannot be used as a moral act. This is because pleasure and pain differ from person to person and cannot be determined without evidence from experience.
Furthermore, Kant emphasizes that if we base an act on how agreeable it is, people will only choose acts based on how much and how great pleasure they will get from them.
On top of that, think about it for a second. In nature there are laws that make a perfect system and ensure that every single organism works in perfect harmony with one another. Similarly, Kant says that the same thing must happen among humans with reason and free will, and that for this we need laws that create a harmonious way of life for everyone.
With this in mind, we can say that using private happiness as a universal practical law because it is universal for all human beings would result in the opposite of harmony, because private happiness is just that, private and subjective among all rational beings, and it would thus destroy the maxim itself and its purpose, which was happiness.
Now, since moral laws can't be deduced from empirical evidence, it means that we cannot really know them at first glance. Rather, we get an idea of them because we know they exist. As a result, we can see that this idea is completely non-empirical; it is something that we are reasoning out. In other words, morality makes us presuppose freedom of choice which means that when we do this we are relying on intellectual intuition.
Returning to our concept of private happiness, we know that if an action has a material and empirical object of desire, the action becomes merely conditioned and turns into the principle of private happiness. As a result, we can never assume the presence of a specific desire in all rational beings, but we may include the happiness of others, which would mean reducing our own desires to universalize a law, and thereby adapting it to practical reason.
Finally, there is something that Kant needs to say about violating the moral law, and that is the concept of punishment. He claims that punishment should be justified in that way, and that the person who violates the moral law must understand why he is punished. In other words, punishment should not be interpreted as a natural result, but rather as a consequence imposed by the moral law. Which leads us to the idea of the moral feeling.
Why do people care about the Moral Law? Moral Feeling and Motive
Now we can get to the bottom of the question he asked in his book The Groundwork.
How can we determine why people care about following moral laws?
First, Kant argues that in order to see me struggling with mental dissatisfaction as a result of my actions, I must imagine myself as morally good. This means that the concept of morality should be preceded by the idea of satisfaction. That is, a person should be able to experience what Kant refers to as a moral feeling, which presents itself as a sense of respect for the moral law.
Now, one important thing to say is that Kant claimed that the effect of the moral law on us is mainly negative. This is because it restricts and suppresses our desires and inclinations, which can cause us to feel a sense of discomfort.
Moreover, Kant adds that all of our desires and inclinations together make our self-regard, or how we perceive ourselves. This can be either an excessive love for oneself, which can be referred to as selfishness, or being extremely satisfied with oneself, which is known as self-conceit.
However, according to Kant, pure practical reason only limits selfishness, that is, it acknowledges that we naturally have selfish tendencies but restricts them to align with the moral law. This limited form of self-love is called rational self-love.
For instance, as sensible beings, we are naturally predisposed towards certain desires and our affected self, even though it is unfit for universal laws, wants to prioritize its own desires and make them seem as they are the most important. This inclination can be called self-love, and when it tries to act as a practical principle, it becomes self-conceit.
As a result, the moral law completely excludes the influence of self-love on its practical principle, and when we compare our physical desires to the moral law, we are humbled and diminished in self-conceit. Therefore, for Kant, anything that makes us question our own judgment deserves our respect as a positive and guiding concept.
Now, as said before, when we restrict our inclinations we get a negative feeling that goes against our desires, but in relation to the restrictive principle of pure practical reason, it creates a positive one that comes from our ability to reason, thus making it a feeling that isn’t founded on our experiences but is known beforehand through reasoning. In other words, it is not empirical but a priori, since it is produced by an intellectual force.
In summary, Kant says that people have a moral incentive to follow the moral law, which provides an interest. This interest is the reason why individuals follow the moral law, which Kant considers to be the highest condition of practical reason.
To put it another way, this respect for the law is the awareness of voluntarily submitting our will to the law through reason, despite the restrictions it places on our desires. This positive impact, which could be interpreted as self-approval, leads to a practical incentive that is in line with the moral law. Therefore, any action that is objectively practical under this law is considered, according to Kant, a “duty.”
Object of Pure Practical Reason and The Categories of Freedom
As we recall from the Groundwork, Kant claims that we are a part of the world of the senses and the world of noumena, that is, the things in themselves that we do not have access to.
Additionally, we may remember that the moral law is a part of the noumena, where people are free agents and hence free from the laws of cause and effect. With this in mind, we know that we cannot have any experience of freedom in the case of the world as phenomena, and we can thus assume that we are also members of the world of noumena, that is, the world of the understanding; resulting in no contradiction to the idea of free will and giving it a practical purpose.
Now, just as Spinoza, Kant thinks that good and bad are merely concepts of the human mind.
With this it follows that a concept of practical reason is an idea of an object as an effect possible to be produced by freedom.
In other words, for an object to be considered as practical, it depends on the relationship between our will and the action we take, that is our desires. Therefore, to assess whether something is an object of pure practical reason, we need to figure out whether we can will an action that would make that thing a reality, and thus if it has a moral possibility.
Moreover, this means that the only objects of practical reason are good and evil. The first one is an object desired by reason, and the second is one that must be avoided.
This is a significant claim made by Kant, because, as Spinoza pointed out, we desire more of what benefits us, therefore determining what is good or bad without experience is impossible. As a result, the moral law’s existence is jeopardized, and these concepts paradoxically get meaning only from the moral law itself.
Now, according to Kant, the root cause of these issues comes within language itself.
For instance, in the majority of languages, there seems to be no difference between "good" and "pleasant," or "evil" and "unpleasant." Instead, these concepts often fall together as either good or bad, with no clear distinction.
However, Kant highlights that such concepts do possess clear boundaries. Take German, for example, where "Das Gute" signifies "well" while "das Wohl"translates to "good." This linguistic distinction helps us have a clearer distinction between what is good and what is evil, or between the concepts of joy and pain.
As a result, we know that we desire what brings us joy and avoids pain, leaving good and evil as concepts decided by the law of reason, completely detached from a person's feelings.
Now, this leads to the rise of the method of practical reason, which says that the concept of good and evil should not be determined before the moral law, but only after it. This is because if we were to name something “good” in order to deduce from it a law, this concept would turn at the same time the sole concept determining the principle. Leaving to our criteria whatever something is good or evil based on pleasure or pain.
In other words, whether we think of anything as good or bad, we need to think of it as a possible result of our ability to make choices. Meaning that since freedom is where the ideas of good and evil originate, they have an indirect relationship to observable reality through this category of causality.
However, causation through freedom only becomes apparent in the world of appearances when our freedom of choice, supported by practical reason, determines the direction of an action.
In this sense, Kant considers good and evil to be “modi of a single category,” and they are never direct modes of observable reality since they can only be applied to objects that can be understood as the outcome of our freedom to choose, and not as things in themselves.
Now, here comes a part that is very confusing. I had to do more research to see if there was an explanation, and it appears that many scholars are confused. This is because Kant does not provide any additional explanation. Ralf M. Bader, on the other hand, provides a highly insightful viewpoint, which I will use here.
To begin, after Kant guides us to the idea of good and evil, he provides what he refers to as the categories of freedom in the form of a table. These ideas exist independently of physical nature; which recall, are theoretical concepts that we apply to experiences.
Moreover, these categories determine the will in relation to the ideas of good and evil, and they organize desires and establish practical rules. These categories include quantity, quality, relation, and modality, with some being mathematical categories concerned with practical rules or experience taken apart from any relation in which they exist; and dynamical categories, which address the connections to other things.
Furthermore, a third category results from a unique synthesis of the first two categories, reflecting a requirement for a synthetic unity with three elements: a condition, a conditioned element, and a concept formed by their combination. That being said, there is no further explanation to what he refers to on the table, and I reserve myself from any further explanation.
The Summum Bonum and The Antinomy of Practical Reason
Reason in its two forms has a dialectic. This is because human reason requires the concept of the unconditioned, which refers to something that is not limited or determined by anything else.
Following this, Kant says that this unconditioned thing cannot be found in our experience of the world because our knowledge is based on appearances, which are always limited by our senses. This makes us apply the idea of the “unconditioned” to appearances, creating an illusion of them as “things in themselves.” Which, in turn, becomes apparent when reason conflicts with itself, realizing that it cannot find the unconditioned within the chain of appearances.
This is what Kant refers to as “the antinomy of reason,” and it is resolved when reason seeks to discover a way to escape from it.
Now, we may recall a similar confusion when it comes to theoretical reason and how it gets solved by several claims Kant made, for instance, the conflicting views on determinism, that is of cause and effect, and freedom of choice.
However, to understand the conflict in practical reason, we need to know that there is a clash between the demands of practical reason and the limitations imposed by our desires.
To start, Kant introduces the concept of the summum bonum, which represents the highest good that practical reason strives to achieve. However, Kant argued that this concept could not be the determining principle itself. Instead, the moral law should be the only determining principle for a pure will. In other words, the moral law separates from specific objects of desire and focuses only on moral principles, leaving the summum bonum as the thing that encompasses the entire object of pure practical reason, but not as the dominant principle determining human actions.
Moreover, Kant claims that this distinction is critical because it prevents misinterpretation of the moral law and assists us in avoiding accepting other objects as determining principles, which would lead to external factors setting our actions, compromising the moral principle itself.
Now, what exactly is the summum bonum?
Kant starts off by saying that different philosophical schools, such as the Epicureans and Stoics, tried to create the union of virtue and happiness by focusing on either sense or reason as the fundamental notion. However, their attempts to identify happiness and virtue as identical concepts were based on misguided efforts to reconcile two very different concepts.
According to Kant, virtue is considered the supreme condition for all that we find desirable and the foundation of our pursuit of happiness. Thus, virtue is seen as the supreme good. However, this does not mean it is the complete picture that rational beings seek. For that, happiness is also necessary, not only from an individual perspective but also from the viewpoint of reason that values all individuals as ends in themselves.
Therefore, the summum bonum is the combination of virtue and happiness, where virtue is always the supreme good since it has no condition above it; and happiness, on the other hand, relies on morally right behavior as its condition.
Now, Kant says that when two things are necessarily linked in a concept, their connection can be understood through an analytical or synthetic connection. The first one happens when two elements are seen as logically connected. Meaning that, in this case, being virtuous and seeking happiness are not separate actions but are essentially the same thing. Which will then mean that there is no need for a separate moral principle because pursuing happiness itself becomes the guiding principle for being virtuous.
On the other hand, the second way is through synthetic connection, where virtue is seen as causing happiness, similar to how a cause leads to an effect. In this case, virtue produces happiness as something distinct from the awareness of being virtuous.
Now, Kant emphasizes that the principles of virtue and private happiness are fundamentally different, and their combination poses a challenge. Furthermore, he claims that these two notions cannot have an analytical relation, since they aren't the same thing, but rather they need a synthetic relation. In other words, they need a causal connection by means of actions.
However, he claims that claiming it as a practical connection of cause and effect leads to something similarly impossible, because if we claim that virtue causes happiness, we are arguing that our will is established by determination, which means that we set our will without the freedom of choice. On the other hand, if we claim that the desire for happiness produces virtue, we are putting the concept of private happiness as a determining principle for the moral law, which, as we now know, is not moral.
Finally, this means that the combination of these two concepts needs a deeper philosophical synthesis in which they are combined and adapted, or, as he would put it, we must make a transcendental deduction, which essentially means that we must establish the justification of the concept of the highest good through a priori principles of cognition.
In other words, we have to assume the combination of these two elements as a natural part of how the mind works without prior experience in the same way that our minds generate the concept of God.
This is the antinomy of practical reason, and it happens when considering the combination of virtue and happiness in the summum bonum, which are two elements that contradict each other.
But how do we deal with this?
First, we can remember that the antinomy of theoretical reason is solved when we see ourselves as acting beings in both the world of senses and the world of noumena. We can see from this that our activities in the world of senses are dictated by natural laws, but our noumenal selves can be guided by a principle that isn't restricted by those laws.
Furthermore, Kant claims that the proposition that a virtuous mind produces happiness isn’t completely false, and it is in fact, only false if we consider it to be a part of the sensible world.
However, since individuals also exist as noumena in the world of the understanding and possess the moral law as a purely intellectual determining principle, it is possible for moral virtue to be connected to happiness through an intellectual force.
Finally, despite the conflict, this connection leads to the possibility of the summum bonum. But, how exactly do we get this idea of virtue into our world of senses?
First, Kant claims that the sense of duty and obligation from the law doesn't feel the same as pleasure, even though they have similar effects on our desires. This helps us ensure that our actions are motivated by moral growth rather than just doing what feels good.
Furthermore, he says that we have a word that represents a different kind of satisfaction than happiness. This is self-contentment, and it means being satisfied with ourselves and feeling like we don't need anything else. Kant refers to this as negative, because it comes from the absence of wanting or needing anything, and, according to Kant, genuine moral actions should not be motivated by self-contentment or personal happiness.
On the other hand, he claims that intellectual contentment is not dependent on feelings of pleasure, but rather on a sense of freedom and independence from our inclinations or desires. In other words, this contentment comes from the ability to follow the moral law and act on moral maxims without being persuaded by personal desires, like in the case of self-contentment.
Therefore, this means that by using our pure practical reason, we can gain a sense of control over our desires, which leads to independence from them. This contentment isn’t like happiness because it doesn't depend on positive feelings or complete independence from desires and wants. Instead, it is similar to bliss because our will is free of the influence of desires.
Following this, Kant claims that morality is the highest good and the primary condition for the summum bonum, while happiness is its second element, but only in the sense that it is dependent on and a necessary result of morality.
From this understanding, we can see that there might be a natural and necessary connection between being aware of our morality and expecting proportional happiness as a result. However, we can’t know or perceive this connection for certain, and we also know that pursuing happiness alone can never lead to true morality, at least according to Kant.
The Immortality of The Soul and The Supreme Being
Now we are going to talk about Kant’s views on religion and immortality of the soul. Which in my opinion, are a bit outdated for the modern reader, but nevertheless, part of his theory.
First, as we can know by now, pure practical reason gives moral laws to every rational being, and that itself includes the Infinite Being, or sometimes referred to as God; which is that presence that is entirely perfect.
Additionally, this implies that humans have a pure will but are affected by inclinations and desires. As a result, individuals are subjected to imperatives that command objectively and without conditions.
Now, humans aim to align their actions with a state of pure holiness. To achieve this, they construct the notion of God, which is devoid of personal inclinations or desires. This concept of pure holiness functions as a practical idea, providing guidance for human behavior and serving as a compass to direct their actions towards moral ideals.
Furthermore, Kant argues that in order to achieve the summum bonum, we would need to assume that the soul continues to exist beyond physical death. This is because in order to achieve moral perfection, it is important to define human nature as striving for continuous moral progress.
As a result, this notion allows us to establish a connection with the concept of God, recognizing its existence beyond the limitations of time. The reason for this lies in the fact that finite rational beings, such as humans, can only progress by continuously ascending from lower to higher levels of moral perfection.
Furthermore, the concept of God is entirely compatible with the moral law because it requires an allocation of the right portion of the highest good. This ultimate good can be realized only through a single intellectual perspective that includes the presence of all rational beings—an idea represented by the concept of God.
However, it is important to note that Kant was aware that these beliefs could not be proven, but he saw them as a necessary assumption based on practical reason.
Now, this leads us to the existence of God as a postulate of practical reason, which briefly says that in order for the summum bonum to be possible, there must be a connection between morality and happiness. However, since humans are not the cause of the world, there is no reason for this connection to exist.
As a result, we believe that God’s existence is a necessary condition for the possibility of the highest good. This is known as the "first cause," and its postulate of the highest good suggests the existence of a Supreme Being who is the cause of nature and the source of all harmony, including virtue and happiness.
Furthermore, as explained earlier, Kant claims that it is morally necessary to believe in the existence of God in order to fulfill our duty to promote the highest good, and he emphasizes that this is not meant to establish a foundation for all moral laws, which I believe is important to point out, but rather to support the pursuit of the highest good in our world. That is, to have a sense of progress so that things can improve ethically.
Finally, I believe I have covered all of the book’s essentials and would like to provide my view.
First of all, Kant is fascinating; I believe it is a clear example of genuinely wanting to prove something that we fundamentally believe to be true, as is sometimes the case with all philosophy.
However, as we saw in our post "William James's 'The Will to Believe': How Belief Shapes How We Reason," we can get lost in a never-ending search for something that may not exist.
Furthermore, despite his concerns about empirical evidence and objectivity, I still believe Kant is a rationalist, since he is particularly interested in establishing clear objective norms in the complexities of human psychology and nature.
Regardless, I find Kant fascinating, and it is amazing to read how he develops an extensive system with concepts and categories, with the goal of guiding humanity towards the construction of a harmonious way of life. What adds to the fascination is Kant's genuine concern regarding the implications these laws may have on our pursuit of happiness—a fundamental aspect that lies at the very core of humanity.
In the end, Kantian ethics is worth studying because it invites us to focus on the intricate details of human behavior and recognize how complex morality can get. It encourages us to understand how difficult it can be to develop laws and to recognize that doing so is not like baking a cake; it needs considerable analysis that may not even get us anywhere because human behavior is complex and subjective.
Nonetheless, his method is an excellent starting point for shaping the moral relativism maze that we sometimes confront in our current world.
M. Bader, R. (n.d.). Kant and the Categories of Freedom. PhilPapers. https://homeweb.unifr.ch/BaderR/Pub/Categories%20of%20freedom%20%28R.%20Bader%29.pdf
Kant, I. (1804). Critique of Practical Reason. DOVER Philosophical Classics.
Scruton, R. (2001). Kant: A Very Short Introduction.
Make sure to subscribe to be added to the mailing list and receive fresh content like this directly in your inbox!