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How Do We Define What It Means to Be Morally Wrong? A Guide to The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals - Book Overview and Thoughts
In the last newsletter, we spoke about Kant and his work on the Critique of Pure Reason, and we may have felt that he didn't accomplish or say much.
However, after finishing this book, Kant wrote a number of further works that, while not as ambitious, dive deeper into the principles he outlines in the book, particularly on ethics.
The first book that touches on these ideas is The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. We already saw in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason how he demonstrated that we cannot know if there is a god or a soul, and that all of these things are ideas we cannot understand because mankind interacts only with phenomena, making the noumena inaccessible to us.
Now, the fact that we can have an experience of the truth, or the noumenal realm, as Kant claims, proves its existence. This is because we know we have perception, and we know that our perceptions come from something outside of us.
Humans, according to Kant, are built in the same way. We have a part of ourselves that we cannot reach because when we reflect on ourselves, we do so through our senses or through reason acquired through our sense-based experiences.
What’s more, Kant argues that since it is impossible for us to imagine something without reason, we are not truly free; rather, we are constrained by a predetermined cause, which means that our choices are already determined by past events even when we believe we are making free choices based on reason and deliberation. In other words, when we think about it, our decisions are always influenced by previous actions, which limits our capacity to choose.
The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals touches on these topics, on freedom of choice and actions, on how morality should work, and how starting from the metaphysics we can develop an ethical system that works for all rational beings.
This book is not the final theory on his ethics; he further develops these concepts in his book The Critique of Practical Reason, and even in his later work The Metaphysics of Morals. However, this book touches on some of the most important subjects that form the basis of all his theory.
Before we dive in, here are some highlights:
Kant claims that logic and metaphysics can coexist. Knowledge that is simply formal is called logic, but knowledge that is limited by ideas of the understanding is called metaphysics. With this, the concept of metaphysics of nature and metaphysics of morals emerges.
Kant believes that if anything can be called "good," it is good will, and that it most of the time manifests itself in our world as "happiness," which is contentment with one's state. However, Kant thought it couldn't be the foundation of morality.
The famous categorical imperative sets its formula of universal law in the following way: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”
A maxim is a subjective desire. I can claim I believe something is good because it benefits me or makes me feel good, but it does not necessarily imply that it benefits everyone.
Kant claims that for an action to be morally valuable, it must be done out of duty rather than inclination or desire.
An imperative is a command coming from the will, and it can either be hypothetical or categorical. When we do something that is conditioned, meaning that it will give us something, we can call the act hypothetical.
The second formulation of the categorical imperative says the following: “All humans subjectively regard themselves as ends in themselves making it an objective practical ground.” Meaning that we should treat people as ends in themselves.
The third form of the categorical imperative says that once we act on the imperative that we should only do actions which are universal, and that we accept and act on the autonomy of every rational being as an end in itself. We can then agree on the concept that all rational beings must see themselves as part of the Kingdom of Ends.
“To be free,” for Kant, is to not be affected by outside forces.
We have a part of ourselves that we cannot reach because when we reflect on ourselves, we do so through our experiences in the world of phenomena. That shows that we have a noumenal side that is not subject to the laws of cause and effect. As a result, this side of us is consistent with moral law.
Now, let’s dive deep into it!
The Aim of The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
To start, Kant introduces the Greek approach to philosophy, which involves three distinct areas of study: physics, ethics, and logic. He suggests that these three categories can be further divided into two categories: material and formal.
Formal knowledge is concerned with logic and our understanding of the physical world, while material knowledge deals with objects and their determination, as well as the laws they are subject to.
Kant identifies logic as a formal science, and ethics and physics as material sciences. Physics is concerned with natural science and the study of the physical world, while ethics explore human behavior and what actions are necessary to be considered “good” in this world.
This means, as we can infer from the Critique of Pure Reason, that material knowledge is empirical in the sense that it is concerned with how things behave within the realm of phenomena; and because it is empirical, it may be founded on experience.
Additionally, natural science sees laws of nature as something known through experience; and ethics consider laws of the human will as they are affected by nature.
Now comes the fascinating part: Kant wants to add that formal knowledge is divided into two parts. He begins by claiming that logic and metaphysics can coexist. Knowledge that is simply formal is called logic, but knowledge that is limited by ideas of the understanding is called metaphysics.
With this, the concept of metaphysics of nature and metaphysics of morals emerges. Just as physics and ethics coexist within the realm of material knowledge, the same is true for logic and metaphysics in formal knowledge. The metaphysics of morals is thus the combination of this part of formal knowledge known as metaphysics of morals and the material knowledge of ethics, which together help us solve questions of moral philosophy.
Now, the way Kant wants to prove this theory is that, even if we do not know the noumenal world, we know it exists. We know the noumenal world builds the phenomenal world with a structure that we can perceive with the senses. Based on this, Kant infers that the noumenal world has an organizing principle, similar to the cause and effect relationship in the phenomenal world, and that this principle could allow us to set up moral laws that are not distorted by our perception of the phenomenal world.
Furthermore, Kant understood that if we disconnect too much from our experience, the laws we come up with won't be practical. Therefore, he emphasized finding a balance between using reason to establish laws and testing them in the real world to make sure they work. Additionally, Kant tried to explain how the will - a person's ability to control their behavior - works in the phenomenal world by using reason.
The Good Will, Duty and The Categorical Imperative
So far, we know that "will" for Kant refers to an individual's power to control their behavior. He says that the will lives within the thing itself and manifests itself in the phenomenal world.
Now, Kant believes that if anything can be called "good," it is good will, and that it most of the time manifests itself in our world as "happiness," which is contentment with one's state.
However, Kant has something very important to say about happiness. He thought it couldn't be the foundation of morality. This is because happiness is a feeling of joy, a desire that we manifest in the phenomenal world, and that draws us away from the truth of the will that exists in the thing-in-itself. In other words, happiness is subjective, since it pulls people away from the thing-in-itself and towards their own desires and impulses. As a result, someone working out of a moral law must do so for the sake of doing so, not because it will bring them anything in return.
So, once again, Kant argues that "the good will" is incompatible with happiness, and one of the arguments he uses to support this claim is that organic beings are built in such a way that their organs serve a specific purpose, and the organ that is most suited for that purpose is always the one that is chosen.
For example, if a being with reason and will, such as humans, was meant to be happy, nature would make a poor decision in relying on reason to achieve this goal. Kant then adds that instinct, rather than reason, would be better at guiding acts towards that end. This is due to the fact that instinct would provide a more precise guideline for reaching this goal. And, if you think about it, it's kind of true; instinct gives us an appropriate path to survival and welfare, and hence to a better state.
Moreover, this leaves reason, that extra capacity we have as humans, untouched. In view of this, Kant builds up the idea that reason could be used as “practical reason” to think about what is the good will, and not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. In other words, reason has a practical function: the establishment of a good will.
This brings us to the famous categorical imperative, which is a very important concept in Kant's system, and that sets its formula of universal law in the following way: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”
Now, let's try to translate this from Kantian to regular language so we can understand it better.
First, what is a maxim? A maxim is a subjective desire. I can claim I believe something is good because it benefits me or makes me feel good, but it does not necessarily imply that it benefits everyone. We can see why Kant believed happiness could not be the foundation of morality in this context. Consequently, the categorical imperative tells us not to act on our maxims if they are not universal. That is, if they are not equally good to everyone.
Now, Kant goes on to say that for an action to be morally valuable, it must be done out of duty rather than inclination or desire.
So, what does "duty" mean to Kant?
According to him, “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.” In other words, it sets aside the influence of inclination for an action, and does not depend on the result we expect from it.
But, is that even possible? How can we tell whether someone is acting for the sake of it?
First, Kant argued that in order to find these types of moral laws, we must engage in an action that has not yet been observed, as we need to start with reason and then move towards the phenomenal world. This process begins with distinguishing between ordinary and practical reason.
Ordinary reason, or theoretical reason, is the one we use every day for cognitive processes of the understanding. Whereas practical reason is more developed and cultivated, and could be interpreted as judgment.
To put it another way, practical reason acts in a more abstract, universal manner rather than being dependent on empirical data or circumstances. This means that it allows humanity to make moral judgments that are not influenced by subjective experiences, and it works as a dialectic to find solutions.
Now, everything in nature has its own set of laws, and everything in nature acts in line with those laws. Humanity is the only being that acts and works in line with its own ideas of laws, rules that stem from their will. That is, "the will" is essentially "practical reason."
Furthermore, it means the will can choose what is good and necessary, but reason is subject to impulsions and desires, which, of course, are incompatible with objective laws. This means that "the will" almost never agrees with reason, making certain actions seem necessary even when they are not.
Now, when we get an objective principle that tells us what we need to do, we call it a command of reason, or an imperative, if we want to use the formula. The imperative is thus a command coming from the will, and it can either be hypothetical or categorical.
When we do something that is conditioned, meaning that it will give us something, we can call the act hypothetical. Which are basically acts that are means to an end.
Additionally, when the end is something that can help us achieve something else, we usually refer to it as a skilful or useful hypothetical imperative. Finally, when referring to an act that every rational being seeks by nature, we may refer to an imperative as pragmatic. This means that happiness can be included in this category because it is something that everyone desires, yet it is subjective and depends on experience.
Lastly, as mentioned before, the categorical imperative is an unconditioned act that is not based on any end. These are the kinds of acts that are morally good to Kant, and can be done only if the person that is going to make the act is willing to universalize it.
To give an example, Kant visualizes a situation in his book where he needs to decide whether to lie about keeping a promise. He then realizes that lying might be more convenient for him, but he reflects further and asks himself if he would want his maxim of lying to be a universal law. He realizes that if everyone lies to get out of difficulties, there would be no point in making promises in the first place, so lying cannot be universal. Therefore, he concludes that he must keep his promise, even if it is inconvenient for him, because keeping promises can be seen as universal.
Kant's example shows us that we should always act according to principles that could be universal laws, even if they may be inconvenient for us personally. This highlights the essence of the categorical imperative, which is duty that is not constrained by any conditions. However, it can be challenging to come up with examples on this, so it's essential to reflect carefully on them.
The End In Itself: Principle of Humanity
We can now move to the second formulation of the categorical imperative, which says the following: “All humans subjectively regard themselves as ends in themselves making it an objective practical ground.” To put it another way, it means that we should see and treat everyone as an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end. It is to recognize that not only actions, but also people, are ends in themselves.
For example, slavery treated people as mere means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves with inherent worth and autonomy. This is not possible if you follow this principle.
Furthermore, Kant believes that once we accept that everyone should be viewed as an end in themselves, everyone positively tries to further the ends of others as far as they can. He argued that this principle of treating people as ends in themselves can become a practical law that guides our actions in the world, helping us to determine whether our actions are moral or immoral based on whether they respect the dignity and autonomy of others.
The Kingdom of Ends
This brings us here to the third form of the categorical imperative. Kant says that once we act on the imperative that we should only do actions which are universal, and that we accept and act on the autonomy of every rational being as an end in itself. We can then agree on the concept that all rational beings must see themselves as part of the Kingdom of Ends.
Now, the “Kingdom of Ends” is a hypothetical group, in which all human beings participate to create their own laws based on universal validity, putting aside personal interest and seeing each other as ends in themselves. Furthermore, Kant knows that we aren’t God, and that no one will automatically comply with the moral law. This is because no rational being has a direct connection between the phenomenal and the noumenal world, meaning we do not have access to the realization of the moral law at first glance.
This takes us to how he represents moral principles by describing how to understand a maxim, which is evidence of moral law in the world of experience.
First, he says that maxims should only be considered if they are universal laws of nature. Second, we should consider them as matter or content, that is, as an end that leads to the formulation of all merely relative ends. People's choices must be limited by and subordinated to the status of rational beings, which are not chosen as ends but are ends by their very nature and are thus ends in themselves.
Finally, a complete determination of all maxims via the expression "All maxims ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends." In other words, every rational being as an end in himself should be able to see himself as a creator of universal law through his maxims.
In short, these are the forms that the maxims should have in order to establish goodwill.
It is important to mention that Kant believed that for the Kingdom of Ends to work, we would need to make laws through maxims, that is through self-imposed rules. This is because laws must be freely accepted and adopted by each individual.
This is where the Kingdom of Ends differs from the Kingdom of Nature, where everything operates according to causal laws, and everything that happens is determined by prior causes and conditions.
Now, as we said, the Kingdom of Ends comes into existence through the categorical imperative, with laws that are equal for all rational beings. However, even if a person were to follow a rule religiously, he cannot count on everybody doing it; despite this the law of “act on maxims only if they are universal laws” remains a command that is categorical. This means that we have a law that is free and independent from personal interests.
Now, according to Kant, morality consists in the relation of actions to the autonomy of the will, that is through maxims as a possible way of constructing universal law. He then classifies different types of morality depending on their relationship with the autonomy of the will. He starts by mentioning permitted morality, which is an action that can coexist with the autonomy of the will; because, remember, the will is autonomous and has an end itself, as opposed to heteronomous where it would be existing only for the sake of something else.
After this, he mentions forbidden morality which is one that does not harmonize with the autonomy of the will. Thirdly, holy morality, which is absolutely good and has its maxims in total harmony with the laws of the autonomy of the will. Then, there is obligation, which happens when a will isn't completely good and seeks orders or obligations in order to be good. And lastly, we have duty, which is the objective necessity of an action formed by obligation. In other words, it is a sense of responsibility that comes from recognizing what is objectively necessary to act in accordance with morality.
The Concept of Freedom
You may be wondering now. How, Kant? You claim that in the realm of phenomena, we are conditioned by external causes, yet in order for me to have morality, I would need to be free to choose, that is, I would need to have freedom. And it is only at the end of the book that Kant raises this question.
How can we tell if morality is more than simply a concept? And, more importantly, does it even exist?
We can conclude from all we have learned that the “will”' is a kind of causality that all rational beings possess, and we also know that will is “practical reason.” We know that in the phenomenal world we have cause and effect, and that in the noumenal world we do not have that. This means that freedom would then be the property of the “will,” which exists in the thing in itself, and that this is how it can work independently of determination by external forces.
This is where Kant says that to be free is to not be affected by outside forces. We know that this isn’t true in the phenomenal world or in the Kingdom of Nature, since everything is connected through cause and effect, but then how can we claim that freedom exists and that it has anything to do with moral laws?
As said earlier, we have a part of ourselves that we cannot reach because when we reflect on ourselves, we do so through our experiences in the world of phenomena. That shows that we have a noumenal side that is not subject to the laws of cause and effect. As a result, this side of us is consistent with moral law, which is the argument he makes here and throughout the Critique of Practical Reason. He essentially wishes to prove that moral law and freedom are linked.
Moreover, Kant wishes to ask why someone would subject himself to a moral law, if there is freedom of choice. He then claims that this "I should" is necessarily an "I will" that applies to all humans. This necessity is expressed as "I should" for beings who, like humans, are affected by sensibility, that is, desires and impulsions, and who do not always act on reason; thus the subjective necessity differs from the objective necessity. However, the only answer he has to the question of why someone would follow a law if he considers himself free is insufficient at this point, the only thing he claims is that freedom wants precisely that, compliance with the moral law.
Now, we know that reason is the bridge in between the noumena, or the intelligible world as Kant calls it, and the phenomena, which can also be called the world of sensibility. We therefore know that reason is in a sense free. This is because if we did not have reason we wouldn’t be able to choose, and we would be determined by cause and effect entirely, this therefore means that reason belongs to the intelligible world. With this, it follows that we know that there must be freedom that comes to us in our phenomenal world, and that as a consequence, brings moral laws with it. We also know that freedom comes from the “will” that exists in the noumenal world, which means that it has its own principles, which are the moral laws that we bring into our world.
What’s more, he also says that if humans were only members of the intelligible world, they would act in perfect harmony with the autonomy of the will, and in the other hand, if they were only members of the sensible world, they would act only according to the laws of nature, that is, by pure determination, which includes instinct, desires, and inclinations. This proves that as humans we are subject to the intelligible world, that is by the idea of freedom, and by that with the autonomy of the will. As a result, we need to look to the noumenal world for laws that can make humanity conform to certain principles.
Kant finishes this book by acknowledging the difficulties of understanding freedom, as well as the impossibility of explaining what makes men interested in moral law. However, he claims that we can infer freedom exists, and he has proved that in this book. In his next text, The Critique of Practical Reason, Kant completes this argument.
To conclude, Kant's moral theory invites us to strive for something greater, something that transcends our specific desires and expresses our shared identity as humans in a world that often seems to prioritize self-interest. It encourages us to think critically about the values we have and the decisions we make, and to always strive to act in accordance with reason and respect for others.
May we all take to heart the lessons of The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and may they inspire us to lead lives of purpose and compassion, guided by the timeless principles of morality and the enduring values of our shared human experience.
Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. HarperPerennial.
Kant, I. (1804). Critique of Practical Reason. DOVER Philosophical Classics.
Scruton, R. (2001). Kant: A Very Short Introduction.
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