KANT: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals [Preface, Section I]

Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant


  • Ancient Greek philosophy was divided into 3 sciences – physics, ethic, and logic.
  • Rational knowledge is either material or formal.
  • Logic is purely formal knowledge.
  • Physics is concerned with laws of nature. Ethics is concerned with laws of freedom.
  • Physics and Ethics can be either material or formal. Doctrines concerning determinate objects derived from a priori principles alone are “pure” philosophies.
  • The empirical study of ethics is practical anthropology. The formal study of ethics is called morality. The material study of physics is called physics. The formal study of physics is called metaphysics.
  • If a law is to have moral force – i.e. to be the basis of an obligation – the law must be necessary and universal. Such a moral law is possible because we presume that moral laws are binding for everyone at all times, regardless of the circumstances. The basis of obligation must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances of the phenomenal world, but in the conception of pure reason; for we are attempting to establish the supreme moral principle without consideration of empirical observations which are unique to humans. This moral philosophy will apply to all rational beings – think unknown intelligent life-forms who differ from us physically, but share the Reasoning faculty, and thus are subject to the moral laws of Reason.
  • Precepts formed on the least empirical basis might be practical rules, but they can never be moral laws.
  • For an action to be morally good, it must be in accordance with moral law, and done for the sake of the law itself. A principle which is not moral may occasionally produce behavior conformable to moral law, but it will also produce behavior contrary towards it.
  • Humans possess a will capable of prescribing moral laws to itself without any empirical motives.
  • This treatise is the investigation and establishment of the supreme principle of morality – i.e. a pure moral system developed solely through reason, a priori concepts, not empirical observations.

While doing some preparatory research to refresh my memory about Kant’s philosophy, I finally had a moment of epiphany regarding Kant’s theories about certain conceptual frameworks – categories – within our minds that influence our understanding of the world through a schematic process. In other words, we construct our experience of the world by processing external sensory data through certain frameworks hardwired within our minds such as time, space, and causation. The last one in particular – causation – is the concept that struck me while performing this research. I have always had difficulty with the free-will/determinism debate. Both arguments are not convincing, and I found the compatibilist argument to be utterly absurd and contradictory. However, I believe that Kant has solved this dilemma. By asserting that we impose our hardwired concept of causation onto the world, Kant argues that we interpret every phenomenon through the lens of cause and effect – i.e. it is impossible not to regard every occurrence and every action as the result of innumerable causes. This does not mean that this is how the world truly is; it means that we are only capable of understanding the world as such given the nature of our mental faculties. Some philosophers argue that one proof of God’s existence is that there must have been a first cause to the universe that was uncaused. But the question of whether there was a first cause is irrelevant because it is a question of how we understand the world, not how the world truly is in-itself. Back to the free-will debate, we feel as if we can make free choices, yet we also can give a causal explanation for all our actions. We do not know how things truly are, and the debate is irrelevant; any answer we give to the question of free will is pure conjecture, and an attempt to explain how we understand the world, not how the world is in-itself. I do not find his moral philosophy convincing, but his notions concerning free-will and our interpretation of reality is very insightful. His Critique of Pure Reason contains his philosophy of the mind. The Critique of Practical Reason contains his moral philosophy. And his Critique of Judgment contains his aesthetic philosophy.

Perhaps there is no moral imperative in some circumstances. For example, if one were to consider whether it is morally right to eat bread, it seems ridiculous. Is it as ridiculous to consider whether it is morally right to frequently eat large quantities of food to the point of death? One might argue that experience tells us that eating excessive quantities of food is detrimental to one’s health, but so is living. Eventually, all will die. Is there any place for moral judgments in circumstance such as these?

A person ought to be able to determine what is right and wrong according to nature because what intuition does not reveal to a person, experience does. For example, intuition might not be capable of preventing me from touching a hot pan because humans are not born into the world with such knowledge; they must either learn it from others, or learn it from the experience of touching the hot pan and burning themselves. However, this is not the sort of “pure” a priori moral system that Kant hopes to generate. I believe that we do not possess the faculties to make moral judgments in all possible situations without considering empiric data.

SECTION I: Transition from the common rational knowledge of morality to the philosophical

  • A good will is the sole unambiguous good thing in the world. Intelligence, wit, wealth, honor, courage, etc. can be good or bad depending upon the manner in which the will uses them.
  • A good will is an indispensable quality of happiness; for no rational being would find pleasure in the sight of a being who is not adorned with a good will, enjoying unbroken prosperity.
  • A good will is good by virtue of its own volition, not because of what it performs, nor for its capacity to attain some end. In other words, the good will is good in itself. It is to be esteemed higher than anything that it may effect or be able to effect. Even if the good will lacked power to accomplish anything, it would still be valuable in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add nor take away anything from its value.
  • Instinct can attain happiness much more certainly than Reason can. The more a cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the attainment of happiness, the more the man fails of true satisfaction. The exercise of Reason, and all of the innovations it produces, only increase the misery of mankind.
  • The purpose of human life, and of Reason, is to create a will that is good in itself.
  • To develop a notion of a will good in itself, we must first consider the notion of duty, which contains within it the notion of a will that is good in itself. In order to understand duty, we must consider actions that are performed for the sake of duty itself, not for any other purpose. It is difficult to distinguish the motivations of individuals who act in conformity with duty but also have an inclination to do so. Are they truly acting to fulfill one’s duty, or are they merely acting according to their own self-interested motivations.
  • Some men preserve their life, as duty requires, but not because duty requires them to do so. The men that are unfortunate and wish for death, yet preserve their life without loving it- not from inclination or fear, but from a sense of duty, is truly moral.
  • Those who are beneficent, and take pleasure in helping others are not truly moral because they act according to selfish motives – i.e. the pleasure they derive from helping others. If they helped others purely from a sense of duty, then they would be moral.
  • Moral actions are done from a sense of duty, not inclination.
  • Scriptures command us to love our neighbor, even our enemy. We can interpret this as a command to love everyone with a respect to duty. Love, as affection, cannot be commanded; but love, for duty’s sake, can. This latter love is a love seated in the will.
  • An action derives moral worth from the maxim by which it is determined; it does not derive moral worth from the purpose of the action or even the actualization of the purpose of the action, but from principle of volition by which the action is committed.
  • Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law. In other words, every action must be performed according to the moral law even if the action would thwart all of one’s subjective inclinations. Respect is an awareness that one’s will is subordinate to a law.
  •  The moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect or even the intended effect.
  • The supreme moral law: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”
  • Consider the case of breaking one’s promise. If everyone broke their promises, then promise making would necessarily destroy itself, and there would be no opportunity to break a promise; thus, there is a moral law not to break promises.
  • Respect for the moral law is a condition for the existence of the good will, and the worth of a good will is higher than everything.
  • Reason issues commands that are sometimes contrary to our inclinations. The satisfaction of our inclinations is happiness. Thus happiness and our duty to the moral laws are often in conflict, so that we have a tendency to argue against the moral laws, or alter them to our favor.

“We find that the more a cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the enjoyment of life and happiness, so much the more does the man fail of true satisfaction.”

Kant reiterates Rousseau’s contention that Reason, and the fruits of its application, do not lead to greater happiness, but rather increased misery. These writers were two of the most well-known of the Enlightenment era, an era in which Reason was championed. It is interesting to consider that they were both wary of the potential dangers of Reason.

Kant does however proceed to demonstrate that happiness is not the ultimate goal of Reason, and therefore, happiness is not the goal of human life. According to Kant, there is a higher goal than happiness – i.e. to create a will that is good in itself by applying Reason to this effect; reason being the only thing in the world capable of guiding the will. This contradicts Aristotle’s opinion on the subject. Given the two arguments, I find Kant’s more persuasive. The adage “ignorance is bliss” is particularly relevant to this discussion. Stock characters in drama, such as the happy fool – Falstaff – and the miserable scholar – Hamlet – also support Kant’s claim.

Kant introduces the supreme moral law: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” Much debate has arisen around Kant’s categorical imperative. Some argue that Kant’s law is too abstract and unsound. Counterexamples to the first example Kant gives – promise breaking – have been given as proof that to adhere to this categorical imperative is plainly wrong. For example, if a crazed man who is armed with a gun asks you where your friend is so that he can kill him, Kant says that you cannot lie to the man. There are many other examples that illustrate Kant’s moral philosophy does not account for many of the complexities of moral questions.

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