Anthology Extract Commentary : Edexcel Paper 2 Extract 2: Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785).

Taken from: Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Allen W Wood (Yale University Press edition, 2002), Text, second section, pp 29–47.

NOTE: This commentary (combined with the one on Aristotle) also covers the following aspect of the Edexcel syllabus:

A comparison of the work of Immanuel Kant and Aristotle with regard to Deontology and Virtue Ethics respectively.

NOTE: Copyright issues may come into play at this point. So what you will find below are the FIRST and LAST couple of sentences of the section that is commented on followed by the commentary itself. If anyone finds this commentary useful, feel free to cut and paste the text of the Groundwork and combine it with these notes.

The full extract can be found HERE

Introduction

Kant (1724 – 1804) is one of the very greatest (if not the greatest) Western philosophers. Unfortunately, his writing can be quite difficult to understand. Other philosophers have a reputation for the elegance of their prose (e.g. Plato) or its clarity (e.g. Descartes). This is not the case with Kant. One reason for this is, apparently, because he wrote quite a few of his best known works towards the end of his life. Not knowing how much time he had left to live, his aim was to get as many of his ideas down on paper as fast as he could. Fluency of style and comprehensibility therefore seem to have both been sacrificed in this process. But any reader of Kant has to realize that he was trying to find ways of expressing profound ideas that were radically different from anything anyone had expressed before, and doing it in a language (German) that had never previously been used for this kind of purpose.

So if what you encounter below can seem a bit like a foreign language, there’s a reason for it.  The trick is to not be intimidated. Fortunately, these days there are some very good explanations of Kantian ethics in lots of textbooks. The course notes you have already been given are based on them. So when you revise Kant, go back to your original handouts and look up what terms like ‘good will’, ‘hypothetical imperative’, ‘categorical imperative, ‘end in themselves’, ‘means to an end’, ‘ought implies can’ and ‘summum bonum’ all mean. Then start re-reading this extract. This should make things easier for you. 

In this commentary, what I will do is comment on bite-sized chunks of Kant. In each of these comments sections I will try to give you the gist of what he is going on about.

So let’s get started.

Everything in nature works in accordance with laws. Only a rational being has the faculty to act in accordance with the representation of laws, i.e., in accordance with principles, or a will…..Hence imperatives are only formulas expressing the relation of objective laws of volition in general to the subjective imperfection of the will of this or that rational being, e.g. to the human being.

Comment

I doubt very much that they would give you anything from the above section to comment on. But anyway, Kant is stating that only beings that are rational are capable of acting morally and that only reason can provide a basis for morality. Rational beings therefore constitute a moral community, a ‘kingdom of ends’ (as he calls it elsewhere). 

Moral decision-making is therefore a purely rational process. It has nothing to do with, say, following our inclinations (so he would presumably reject the basis for Natural Law theory) or feelings or past/present personal experience or predicted consequences (as in teleological theories like Utilitarianism and Situation Ethics). For Kant, moral laws/maxims should be followed simply because they are rational. A ‘good will’ is therefore one which conforms to reason. Only actions performed with such a will are moral. Moral decisions based on anything else result in a potentially harmful morality and confusion about right and wrong.

In nature, everything operates according to objective laws but only rational beings possess a will that can allow them to engage with those laws, to represent them (think about them) using reason as a tool to do so.

Reason is needed to derive actions from those laws. The ‘laws’ in this case are maxims that have been formulated, tested out and shown to be ‘categorical’ i.e. rationally binding so that they must be followed. This process is described a bit further on in the handout.

However, we do not always behave in a rational manner and we disobey objective moral commands presented to us by reason. In other words, we often end up doing things that we know are bad for us. So the trick is never to stray from the path of rationality, to always do what is logical (like Mr Spock tries to in Star Trek).

An objective moral law (or ‘maxim’) is put to human beings in the form of an ‘imperative’ or command. It is something we ‘ought’ to do because it is rational. We therefore have a duty to obey that law. However, a being with a divine or holy will, like the one God is meant to have, would not require imperatives to motivate them to act morally, because God wouldn’t need them. God’s actions or ‘volitions’ are obviously going to automatically conform to the ‘moral law’ because He is already morally perfect.

As a critical observation, note that Kant may be putting ‘all his eggs in one basket’ here. He recognises that we don’t always behave rationally in the moral arena but he seems to think that rationality itself is sufficiently motivating to get us to do what’s right. Well it isn’t, is it?

Now all imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former represent the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to attain something else which one wills (or which it is possible that one might will). The categorical imperative would be that one which represented an action as objectively necessary for itself, without any reference to another end…..But if I think of a categorical imperative, then I know directly what it contains. For since besides the law, the imperative contains only the necessity of the maxim, that it should accord with this law, but the law contains no condition to which it is limited, there remains nothing left over with which the maxim of the action is to be in accord, and this accordance alone is what the imperative really represents necessarily.

Comment

The examiners really might ask you a question about a bit of the above section. Kant is distinguishing here between ‘hypothetical’ and ‘categorical’ imperatives’. An imperative is a command, something we tell ourselves to do when we are thinking about how to solve a practical or moral problem in real life. These are usually set out in an ‘if/then’ format e.g. ‘If I want to go to Croydon, then I need to get the tram’, or ‘If I want to avoid divorce, I’d better not tell my husband/wife about the one night stand I had recently when I was very drunk’. You have already looked at hypothetical imperatives. They do involve the use of reason but they are goal driven and therefore teleological in character. And we have seen that for Kant, morality is never about consequences (‘what is to result from it’).

Note that there is a huge difference with Aristotle here (your syllabus requires you to compare his philosophy of Virtue ethics with Kantian ethics). SO WHAT FOLLOWS IS ALSO WHAT YOU NEED TO MAKE THAT COMPARISON AS WE MIGHT AS WELL GET THIS BIT OF THE SYLLABUS OUT OF THE WAY.

Aristotle and Kant Compared and Contrasted Part 1

First of all, Aristotle’s theory is teleological and goal-driven: it therefore involves the same style of thinking that we engage with when we formulate and act on hypothetical imperatives e.g. if someone wants to achieve a state of eudaimonia, then they should cultivate the virtue of courage whenever they get a chance to. This would be anathema to Kant, as Kantian ethics is based entirely on reason and is therefore deontological in character.

Aristotelian ethics is also agent-centered. It is about character development, whereas Kantian ethics is act-centered. It is to do with performing the right actions for the right reasons.

Kant also does not care about virtues and vices. Although sympathy and coldness may make adherence to rational moral laws easier or more difficult, and may influence the choices we make, Kant insists that we have to transcend qualities like these if we want to act morally. In other words, for Kant a person may be cowardly, greedy, envious, stingy etc. but still behave morally through a monumental effort of the will, which essentially involves fidelity to the moral law.

So vices and virtues are irrelevant to the process of moral decision-making. You may recall the example of the grocer who did not overcharge an inexperienced customer. For Aristotle, the shopkeeper might be said to be exhibiting the virtue of honesty. But Kant identifies the hypothetical motive at work in this situation, which can be put as follows: ‘If I want to preserve the reputation of my business, I had better charge the correct price.’

Additionally, whatever personal qualities we are in possession of are surely, at least in part, a product of events that have happened in our lives or our genes, and so are attributable to luck. For example, a person might be stingy because they grew up in poverty to begin with. Kant wants to ringfence true morality, to separate it from factors like this which may partly be due to circumstances beyond our control, such as whether we have rich or poor parents. Otherwise, we might then not be responsible for the moral choices we make.

Finally, Aristotle allows for emotions to play a part in his theory. Aristotle connected emotions closely with the beliefs we hold and the judgements we make, and held that emotions can be cultivated through moral education to be important components of a virtuous character. This is a point we shall look at in more detail when we study an extract from The Nicomachean Ethics. However for Kant, as we have noted, feelings and emotions are irrelevant to moral decision-making.

Now back to the previous section of Kant. At the end of the passage Kant is pointing out that hypothetical imperatives are specific and limited in scope. They don’t need formulating until a problem arises and can be abandoned if we decide that we want to do something else and pursue a different goal. Contrastingly, categorical imperatives are universal in scope and binding on all members of the ‘kingdom of ends’. As they are inherently rational, their objectivity is secure and their range of application absolute. They must be relevant to all those in possession of a good will and the ability to make rational decisions and, must be acted upon in all circumstances. 

The categorical imperative is thus only a single one, and specifically this: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.…Because the universality of the law in accordance with which effects happen constitutes that which is really called nature in the most general sense (in accordance with its form), i.e., the existence of things insofar as it is determined in accordance with universal laws, thus the universal imperative of duty can also be stated as follows: So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

Comment

We are now into the tests of rationality that make an imperative categorical. Having first of all formulated a maxim, the potential moral principle on which we possibly intend to act (e.g. ‘Should I lie to this would-be murderer?’), the first thing to do is to universalise the action.

This is test of logicality. In effect, we are being required to see whether the maxim would be logically coherent if all rational beings adopted it?

This version of the categorical imperative can be confusing, as it seems to be asking us to figure out what would happen if everyone did what we are thinking about doing. But Kantian ethics is not about ‘what would happen’. It is not about consequences. The test of universalisability is a test of logic not consequences. To illustrate this point, Kant used the example of promise making. Suppose we make a promise that we had no intention of keeping? For Kant, acting on a maxim like this fails the test because if everyone acted this way, the world simply could not function because promises would then be worthless. The whole notion of promise making would collapse.

NOTE: don’t be afraid to use your wider knowledge of Kant in order to explain any extract you are asked about. This could include referring to illustrative examples discussed by Kant elsewhere in the Groundwork. Or you can invent your own, like I have done in my comment on the next section.

Now I say that the human being, and in general every rational being, exists as end in itself, not merely as means to the discretionary use of this or that will, but in all its actions, those directed toward itself as well as those directed toward other rational beings, it must always at the same time be considered as an end…..The practical imperative will thus be the following: Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means. We will see whether this can be accomplished.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative involves checking to see whether we are treating people as ‘ends’ rather than a ‘means to an end’. In other words, are we using or manipulating anyone to get what we want? If we are, we are treating them as a ‘means’. So, someone on The Apprentice who co-operates with and behaves in a friendly manner towards a fellow contestant might be said to be using them because, in the end, they want to win the competition. Eventually, they will have to stab them in the back. Similarly, a male who seduces lots of women by making them believe that he loves them, is really treating then as a ‘means’ to sexual self-gratification, rather than as an ‘end’, someone worthy of respect.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative is admired because it includes the notion of human rights that utilitarians such as Bentham ignore. Simply because we are human and rational, we are entitled not to be badly treated by others. So this element of Kantian thinking appeals to people fighting for equality, like anti-racists or feminists.

Note that Kant also points out that we are at our most free when we rise above our mere ‘inclinations’ (i.e. feelings/emotions/selfish desires). He thinks that we really wish to be liberated from the burden that they impose on us, as when we don’t do something we are meant to do because we don’t feel like it, or we treat someone badly, a fellow rational being that is, just because we are in a ‘bad mood’. Our feelings therefore drag us down, whereas rationality uplifts us.

Finally, at the end the phrase ‘objective principle’ receives a couple of mentions. Here, Kant is suggesting that the moral law really is part of the fabric of reality as it is in itself. As they say in The X-Files, ‘The Truth is out there.’ Something ‘objective’ can be said to be factual. So, for Kant, there are moral facts to be discovered and our ability to be rational gives us access to them.