“Critique of Practical Reason” by Immanuel Kant

I’ve enjoyed reading Kant so far, not because of any originality of his idea, but because of the clarity and architecture of his logic. To me it’s like listening to the music of Bach in a way.


Freedom is the ratio essendi of the moral law, while the moral law is the ratio cognoscendi of freedom. For had not the moral law been previously distinctly thought in our reason, we should never consider ourselves justified in assuming such a thing as freedom, although it be not contradictory. But were there no freedom it would be impossible to trace the moral law in ourselves at all.

The union of causality as freedom with causality as rational mechanism, the former established by the moral law, the latter by the law of nature in the same subject, namely, man, is impossible, unless we conceive him with reference to the former as a being in himself, and with reference to the latter as a phenomenon- the former in pure consciousness, the latter in empirical consciousness. Otherwise reason inevitably contradicts itself.

The Pursuit of Happiness

The pursuit of happiness without a priori principle of morality is pleasure-seeking in essence, and therefore brutish, if not utterly futile. Without an a priori principle, happiness must be empirically determined, on the grounds of feelings of pleasure and pain. Science has been used primarily as a tool to reduce pain and enhance pleasure for man, thus rendering him no different from a pleasure-seeking animal. This, according to Kant, is a misuse and waste of the faculty of reason, for the instinct of man is better suited for that purpose.

Aristotle writes in Nicomachean Ethics that all men aim for happiness, which is the object of morality. That is an error, says Kant. Happiness which is dependent upon feelings of pleasure and pain is too empirical, infinitely diverse and uncertain to be used as a law of morality. Kant’s argument is similar to Meno’s paradox, on the one hand, you can’t aim for something, unless you already know what it is; on the other hand, if you know what happiness is, you have no more need to pursue it. Just as Socrates counters Meno with the concept of recollection, Kant asserts a priori moral principles, and argues that good consists not in external objects of desire, but solely in pure reason which is the determining principle of will. In other words, what determines whether an action is good is not the end result at which it aims, but the source of determining principle from which it issues.

Morality and Holiness

According to Kant, the highest morality, i.e.,holiness, is an absolute uniformity between will and reason, which he attributes to the Infinite Being, or Supreme Intelligence. Holiness is “above all practically restrictive laws, and consequently above obligation and duty”, because obligation and duty imply a constraint between will and reason, which is superfluous in case of absolute uniformity.

Finite rational beings are “creatures affected with wants and physical motives”, although their will is free, i.e., not determined by physical wants, desires and passions, yet it is affected by them, and not in absolute uniformity with reason, thus falling short of holiness. Plato most vividly illustrates the conflict between reason and desire in the analogy of the charioteer in Phaedrus. Both Kant and Plato seem to believe that only when human beings are stripped of their bodies (with their external dependencies, desires and passions) can they attain highest morality as pure intellect, i.e., form without matter.

Kant seems to suggest that, because the existence of man is dependent on external causes, the causality of which is determined by laws of nature, man is not free to obey the laws of morality in an absolute manner. The mind is willing but the body is weak. This idea seems to contradict his assertion that moral law apply universally to all rational beings, independent of their diverse nature. If the universal moral law is abstracted from and independent of human nature, how then can the obedience to the law be impaired and even precluded by human nature?

There are two problems with Kantian morality, as I see it. Firstly, he assumes the transcendence of reason, which is itself part of human nature, and therefore not transcendent, imo. There may very well be Pure Intellect that transcends all physical laws of nature, but it is likely quite different from human reason as we know it. Secondly, Kant attempts to attain universality by multiplication, rather than abstraction. This is also due to the limitations of the reasoning faculty of human beings. As a result, Kantian morality appears rather like Procrustes’ bed: The form is absolutely binding yet not truly universal, so the content never fits the form, and tragic consequences invariably follow.

Moral Law, God and Immortality of the Soul

A fitting imagery of Kant’s conception of the relation between moral law, immortality of the soul and God would be the compass, although Kant would perhaps object to the use of imagery in representing pure reason which is independent of the senses.

The moral law is the determining principle of the will in accord with reason, just as the compass determines the choice of direction we make; The compass cannot point to the North unless the law governing the movement of the compass is in harmony with the law governing the Earth’s magnetic field, the moral law cannot lead to the Supreme Good (where each person’s happiness is proportional to his worthiness) unless the laws of nature and laws of morality are in harmony, authored by one and the same wise Lawgiver and Judge who renders to each man according to his deeds; The road to the North is long, the path to the Supreme Good is infinitely long, as finite beings we can only infinitely approach the Supreme Good, therefore immortality of the soul is required.

Kantian Morality vs Christianity

Kant concurs with Christianity in his idea of holiness, IMO. However, he is at variance with Christianity in identifying the cause as to why human beings fall short of holiness. For the Son of God took the form of a human being, with physical wants, desires and passions, and yet he was holy. “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin”. (Hebrews 4:15)

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