“Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” by Immanuel Kant

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Encountering Kant

This is the first book by Kant that I ever read firsthand. If I were not already familiar with the writings of Plato and the Stoics, I would perhaps find Kant’s conception of morality and freedom fascinating, even profound, but as it is, Kant’s moral philosophy (his conception of freedom, in particular) is essentially the same as the Stoics’, who derived their teaching from Plato.

Has there been no progress at all in philosophy in the past two thousand years?

The cover image serves as an excellent picturesque representation of the Kantian notion of reason: on the one hand, reason must be separated from external causes and influences through the senses, i.e., reason is not subject to the laws of nature; on the other hand, it does not and must not receive revelations or directives from a Supreme Being, as it must maintain its autonomy, i.e. freedom, and be a law unto itself. It is suspended between heaven and earth, as it were, on a narrow staircase. As Kant himself wrote, “Here then we see philosophy brought to a critical position, since it has to be firmly fixed, notwithstanding that it has nothing to support it in heaven or earth.” Upon close examination, however, Kantian morality has its foundation in the senses, just as the narrow staircase in the picture was built from the ground up, though the latter is almost hidden from view.

I chuckled over the following passage, as it seems to be written by someone who aspires to and admires purity and sublimity in thought, even his own.

“No doubt my conclusions on this weighty question, which has hitherto been very unsatisfactorily examined, would receive much light from the application of the same principle to the whole system, and would be greatly confirmed by the adequacy which it exhibits throughout; but I must forego this advantage, which indeed would be after all more gratifying than useful, since the easy applicability of a principle and its apparent adequacy give no very certain proof of its soundness”

Speaking of soundness, there are several questions that Kant hasn’t addressed adequately in this book:

Is Reason Autonomous and Infinite?

Reason, passion and desire are all part of human nature. If the latter two are subject to the laws of nature, it is not far-fetched to suppose that reason is also subject to the laws of nature, and therefore it is not autonomous, but limited by laws of nature like the other two.

Even when we accept the notion that man belongs to two worlds, the world of reason and the world of senses, which are independent of each other, and that reason is not subject to the laws governing the world of senses, it doesn’t follow that there are no laws governing the world of reason itself.

How to Discern Good vs. Evil?

Kant’s Categorical Imperative (CI) commands thus, “Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”.

It dawned on me that the mathematical representation of CI is infinite multiplication. But, zero multiplied infinitely is still zero. Without any knowledge or sense of good and evil, CI itself won’t take us far in developing morality. To use an analogy, CI is like a magnifying glass. It allows you to see a thing more clearly, but you have to know the thing itself beforehand to recognize it.

Kant tries to prove that evil is self-contradictory, and therefore must fail the test of the Categorical Imperative. I can raise two objections to that. Firstly, if evil is self-contradictory, it doesn’t need to be “multiplied” to contradict itself. IOW, CI is superfluous. Secondly, if evil contradicts some other presupposed purposes, one could argue that even the good does that, so that’s not a valid criterion to discern good vs. evil.

For instance, Kant argues that, if everyone lies, nobody would believe other people, rendering lies impossible and the society paralyzed. Therefore, “You shall not lie” must be a universal maxim. There are two problems with this argument: First, lies are not self-contradictory, they contradict the truth. Second, Kant is using the potential consequences of lying to determine its worth, the very thing he objects to.

Rational Being as the End?

For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.

Rationality and human being are two distinct entities, therefore they cannot constitute one sole end. For instance, if someone is more rational than others, and rationality is the end, then shouldn’t the less rational being serve as means to the more rational? To say that a rational being has infinite worth, because rationality itself is of infinite worth is a rather weak attempt to gloss over the differences between rationality and human being, between the infinite and the finite. This type of approach is bound to run into myriads of difficulties.

Besides, setting the rational human being as the ultimate end is rather self-serving, on the part of the human being, as well as reason. Even Reason is selfish, why else would it set itself as the ultimate end? Why doesn’t it pay deference to passion and desire, which are also part of human nature like itself? Even Kant concedes that Reason doesn’t extend beyond the human mind, and therefore it is not truly universal or infinite.


[Note: This post is the upshot of a stimulating discussion on ethics I had with another WP blogger, who recommended this book to me.]


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