Lecture Supplement on Kant’s Foundations for the Metaphysic of Morals [1785][1]


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


I. Preface:


284 The present treatise is…nothing more than the investigation and establishment of the supreme principle of morality….”    


283 ...a law, if it is to hold morally (i.e., as a ground of obligation), must admit that the command: “Thou shalt not lie” does not apply to men only as if other rational beings had no need to observe it. 


--the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed but a priori[2] solely in the concepts of pure reason. 


283-284 As long as rules rest on an empirical basis, they can not be called moral laws.  A metaphysics of morals is therefore necessary, because morals themselves remain subject to all kinds of corruption as long as the “supreme norm” for their correct estimation is lacking.  Moreover, “in order that an action be morally good, it is not enough that it conform to the moral law, but it must also be done for the sake of the law, otherwise that conformity is only very contingent and uncreertain….” 


-Why is a “metaphysic of morals” necessary?  As we shall see, Kant contends that only a metaphysical foundation can ultimately secure a “pure” morality whose laws are “absolutely” necessary!  Only a “metaphysic of morals” can explain the objective necessity of these laws, while allowing for their “subjective contingency. 


Philosophy which mixes pure principles with empirical ones does not deserve the name



II. Chapter 1: Transition from Common Sense Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical:


285 A look at the overall structure of this work shows that we are about to begin “The First Section: Transition from Common Sense Knowledge to the Philosophical” [pp. 285-291].  Next we will encounter the “Chapter 2: Transition from Popular Moral Philosophy to the Metaphysics of Morals” [pp. 291-309], and, finally, we will encounter the “Chapter 3: Transition from the Metaphysics of Morals to the Critical Examination of Pure Practical Reason” [pp. 309-317].  In this progression we will obviously move from common sense morality to the a priori metaphysical ground and nature of moral principles.  This progression, as Kant clearly states does not constitute a move from empirical evidence to theory which is based upon this ground.  Instead we move from common sense considerations to the true, and a priori, moral realm.  This first section is divided into a number of subparts. 


  A. The Good Will:


In this section, Kant clarifies what a good will is. 


285 Nothing...can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a GOOD WILL. 


-The sight of someone with talents and gifts of fortune but without a good will will never bring pleasure to an impartial observer. 


-Moderation, self-control, calm disposition, etc. are good only when accompanied by a good will (coolness of a villain).  A good will isn’t good because of its effects. 


285-286 A good will is good only because of its willing. 


  B. Why Reason Was Made to Guide the Will:[3]


286 Kant is a noted proponent of “pure” (or “speculative”) reason, and in works like his The Critique of Pure Reason he explains the role and importance of reason in this guise.  In this work we are talking about practical reason however—reason as it relates to action rather than to knowledge.  In this section Kant maintains that we have practical reason not to provide for survival, nor to provide for happiness, but, rather, to guide the will.  If either of the other two were to be the purpose of reason, we would be better served by relying upon the instincts. 


291 ...no organ will be found for any purpose which is not the fittest and best adapted to that purpose.  Now if its preservation, its welfare, in a word its happiness, were the real end of nature in a being having reason and will, then nature would have hit upon a very poor arrangement in appointing the reason of the creature to be the executor of this purpose.”  Instinct would serve such functions far better! 


286-287 Reason’s proper function is a practical one—it must influence the will (that is, produce a will which is “good in itself,” and not one good merely as a means). 


  C. The First Proposition of Morality: Acting From Duty:


287 Kant will present us with three propositions (or principles) of morality.  In this section he maintains that the good will must be understood by discussing duty—here the will is exposed to certain subjective limitations and obstacles which allow it to shine forth.  The good will will be one that is impelled by its duty.  That is, his “first proposition of morality” is: to have moral worth an action must be done from duty.  At this stage (as we are “transitioning” from common sense morality to philosophical morality), these propositions are explained by appeal to examples, but not given an ultimate metaphysical grounding. 


Acting in accordance with duty vs. acting from duty—inclinations must be avoided and the agent must be “impelled by his/her duty.” 


-Example (a duty to others): the grocer and not overcharging of inexperienced customer—if the “motivation” is selfishness, then it is not praiseworthy. 


-Example (a duty to oneself): maintaining one’s life while suicidal—but only because it is a duty to do so.  The important thing is that one does one’s duty because it is one’s duty. 


--Note the extreme picture these examples present!  It is not that Kant wants the good will to manifest itself only in dreary contexts.  Instead, he recognizes that it is an impossible epistemological problem trying to determine whether a will is a good one, because we cannot easily separate actions done from duty and those which are done from inclination (or where the two are both active).  The only time we can be sure that the motivation of the will is duty is where all one’s inclinations lead one in a radically different direction from that specified by duty!  Rae Langton provides an excellent discussion of Kant’s “extreme” picture here.[4] 


-287-288 Example (another duty to others): beneficial acts and one so soured by circumstances that all sympathy is extinguished.  If the kind acts are still done from duty, the acts are right:


--288 “Put the case that the mind of the philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own, extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that, while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility, and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty then first has his action its genuine worth.” 


-Example (another duty to oneself: the duty to assure one’s happiness: the sufferer who preservers because of the duty to seek happiness. 


Biblical command to love one’s neighbor (you can’t command love): “for love, as an affection, cannot be commanded, but beneficence for duty’s sake may; even though we are not impelled to it by any inclination—nay, are even repelled by natural and unconquerable aversion.  This is practical love and not pathological—a love which is seated in the will, and not in the propensions of sense—in principles of action and not of tender sympathy; and it is this love alone which can be commanded.” 


  D. The Second Proposition of Morality:


Kant advances what he calls “the second proposition of morality: “that the moral worth of an action derives from its maxim and not from its consequences. 


288 An action done from duty does not have its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim whereby it is determined.  Its moral value, therefore, does not depend on the realization of the object of the action but merely on the principle of the volition by which the action is done irrespective of the objects of the faculty of desire. 


  E. The Third Proposition of Morality:


Kant maintains that duty is acting from respect for the law. 


289 Only what is connected with my will as a principle (rather than as an inclination) can command respect—only law can command. 


“Now an action done from duty must wholly exclude the influence of inclination and with it every object of the will, so that nothing remains which can determine the will except objectively the law, and subjectively pure respect for this practical will, and consequently the maxim that I should follow this law even to the thwarting of all my inclinations.” 


  F. The Supreme Principle of Morality: The Categorical Imperative:


Thus Kant gives us the first statement of his fundamental moral principle—the summation of the above three propositions of morality:


289 “As I have deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any law, there remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle, i.e., I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.  Here, now, it is the simple conformity to law in general, without assuming any particular law applicable to certain actions, that serves the will as its principle and must so serve it, if duty is not to be a vain delusion and a chimerical notion.” 


-289-290 May I make a promise with the intention not to keep it?  We must not simply be concerned with consequences here!  “The shortest way…to discover the answer to this question….is to ask oneself “Should I be content that my maxim….should hold good as a universal law….Then I presently become aware that while I can will the lie, I can by no means will that lying should be a universal law.  For with such a law there would be no promises at all, since it would be in vain to allege my intention in regard to my further actions to those who would not believe this allegation….my maxim, as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself.” 


--That is, the maxim is contradictory—it would “destroy itself” if universalized. 


Common sense reason (the practical faculty of judgment) recognizes the categorical imperative and needs no instruction here.  Theoretical reason (the theoretical faculty of judgment) is easily mislead—that is, philosophical speculation is difficult.  Wouldn’t it be easier to remain within the practical sphere and settle for the case where ordinary individuals can have the knowledge which philosophers can have? 


-290-291 We can easily be led astray from duty by our inclinations, however, and, thus, theoretical knowledge of our duty becomes important.  A dialectic between our inclinations and our duty works on the will—one wherein the inclinations attempt to question, undercut, and doubt the dictates of rational duty.  [291:] “…the common reason of man is compelled to take a step into the field of practical philosophy, not to satisfy any speculative want…[but] in order to attain in it information and clear instruction respecting the source of its principle, and the correct determination of it in opposition to the maxims which are based on the wants and inclinations, so that it may escape from the perplexity of opposite claims and not run the risk of losing all genuine moral principles through the equivocation into which it easily falls.”  


III. Chapter 2: Transition from Popular Moral Philosophy to the Metaphysics of Morals:


In this section Kant moves us from “common sense morality” toward a “metaphysics of morals,” deepening our understanding of our duty, the categorical imperative, and the ground of both.  This section does not take us all the way to the ground of morality, however—that awaits the “third chapter [pp. 309-317]. 


  A. The Impossibility of an Empirical Moral Philosophy:


292 “…unless we deny that the notion of morality has any truth or reference to any possible object, we must admit that its law must be valid, not merely for men but for all rational creatures generally, not merely under certain contingent conditions or with exceptions but with absolute necessity, then it is clear that no experience could enable us to infer even the possibility of such apodictic laws.” [5] 


294 Thus, according to Kant we must not only advance “...from the common moral judgment…to the philosophical, as has been already done, but also from a popular philosophy, which goes no further than it can reach by groping with the help of examples, to metaphysic (which does not allow itself to be checked by anything empirical and, as it must measure the whole extent of this kind of rational knowledge, goes as far as ideal conceptions, where even examples fail us), we must follow and clearly describe the practical faculty of reason, from the general rules of its determination to the point where the notion of duty springs from it.” 



--Criticism: in his Moral Knowledge, Alan Goldman maintains that: “if my spouse or children thought that I am moved to provide first for them primarily because I perceive this as the rational thing to do, they would be repelled by my peculiar psychology.  We would dismiss any conception of rationality that did not hold these things reasonable to do; we are not guided by an independent conception of rationality or of a rational agent as such in wanting to do them.  It is true that I am motivated to avoid doing what I consider irrational, but that is because clearly irrational behavior is normally counterproductive in my attempts to satisfy my first- and second-order desires, not because my deepest desire is to be a rational agent.  (Indeed, I remain unsure that I have a concept of a rational agent apart from that of someone who tries efficiently to satisfy desires that humans ordinarily have.)”[6] 


  294-296 B. Imperatives: Hypothetical and Categorical:


294 Here we have several centrally important paragraphs for understanding Kant:


-Everything in nature works according to laws. 


-Only rational beings may act according to conceptions of laws. 


-Reason is requisite for derivation of actions from laws. 


-If there was some creature whose reason necessarily determined the will, then this sort of creature would not distinguish those acts which are objectively necessary and those which are subjectively necessary! 


-We are not such creatures!  The acts we recognize as objectively necessary are subjectively contingent. 


-Imperatives (that is ‘ought’ statements) are formulas for objective principles which constrain our willing. 


--All imperatives are expressed by an “ought” and thereby indicate the relation of an objective law of reason to a will which is not in its subjective constitution necessarily determined by this law. 


--A perfectly good will [he will come to call such a will a “holy will”]...would be equally subject to objective laws of the good, but it could not be conceived as constrained by them to accord with them, because it can be determined to act by its own subjective constitution only through the conception of the good. 


294-295 Hypothetical Imperatives vs. Categorical Imperatives:


Hypothetical Imperative:

Hypothetical Imperative:

Categorical Imperative:


(not ends for all)

(Imperatives of Skill)  

To will the end is to will the means


(ends for all)          

(Counsels of Prudence)  

Because we don’t know what happiness is, these are merely counsels


(ends for all)

(Laws of Morality)

Unlike the other two, these can’t be justified empirically (that is they must be justified a priori)


-295 “If now the action is good only as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical; if it is considered as good in itself and consequently as necessarily the principle of a will which of itself conforms to reason, then it is  categorical.” 


  C. The Rational Foundations of Hypothetical Imperatives:


295-297 Kant raises the question “How are imperatives possible (what is their ground)?”  He notes that we can understand the imperatives of skill and prudence easily, but those of morality are a different sort altogether, and this question is difficult in their case. 


296 How an imperative of skill is possible requires no special discussion.  Whoever wills the end, so far as reason has decisive influence on his action, wills also the indispensably necessary steps to it that he can take. 


Imperatives of prudence would be no less analytic than those of skill except for the fact that we don’t know what happiness is and, thus, this imperative is nearly empty.  Hence the imperatives of prudence cannot, in the strict sense, command...they are to be taken as counsels rather than as commands. 


  D. The Rational Foundation of the Categorical Imperative:


297 Kant discusses the foundation of the moral imperative (the categorical one), noting that this ground (or “possibility”) must differ from that for the imperatives of skill and prudence. 


“…the objective necessity which [the categorical imperative of morality] presents cannot rest on any hypothesis, as is the case with the hypothetical imperatives.  Only here we must never leave out of consideration that we cannot make out by any example, in other words empirically, whether there is such an imperative at all, but it is rather to be feared that all those which seem to be categorical may yet be at bottom hypothetical.” 


The possibility of the [categorical] imperative of morality, then, will have to be established completely a priori. 


But, he adds, this imperative can not be true analytically and necessarily, since it is to be an imperative of practical reason.  Thus, it must be a synthetical a priori proposition!  Such propositions are characterized by “transcendental” (rather than “logical”) necessity—that is to say, if we are to have the character, experience, and knowledge that we do, these propositions and judgments are necessary. 


-In his “Royce: The Absolute and the Beloved Community Revisited,” John E. Smith maintains that “the quest for the conditions which make the actual possible is the task of transcendental philosophy.  This reflective enterprise is novel in that it cannot be carried out on the basis of either of the two classical forms of thought: deduction, and induction or probable inference.”[7] 


-That is, where a priori propositions are characterized by logical necessity, and while synthetic propositions are characterized by logical contingency, this “new” set of propositions are supposed to be neither.  They are transcendental propositions which describe the preconditions which make the possible actual—they, then, have what might be called transcendental necessity.  Consider what J.W.N. Watkins and K. Popper call “all and some propositions:” (x)($y)Fxy (e.g.: “Every event has a cause”) they are unverifiable and unfalsifiable:


such propositions certainly could not be known a posteriori; if true, they must be known a priori if they are to be known at all.  The difficulty is just this—how are they to be known at all?  Thus, it may be better to distinguish between a priori propositions and non-empirical propositions of this kind.  A priori propositions are those which can be known to be true and whose truth is ascertainable by a procedure that makes no reference to experience; non-empirical propositions of the kind in question are not like this, for their truth is, strictly speaking, not ascertainable at all.  If we accept them, it must be as mere postulates or as principles whose force is regulative in some sense.[8] 


Philip Kitcher helps us characterize these propositions using another sort of example:


frequently...it is maintained that only necessary truths can be known a priori.  Behind this contention stands a popular argument.  Assume that a person knows a priori that p.  His knowledge is independent of his experience.  Hence he can know that p without any information about the kind of world he inhabits.  So, necessarily p. 

  ...there are propositions which could not both be false and also be believed by us in particular definite ways.  Obvious examples are propositions about ourselves and their logical consequences: such propositions as those expressed by tokens of the sentences “I exist,” “I have some beliefs,” “There are thoughts,” and so forth.  Hence the...[argument above]...breaks down and...[we must allow] for the possibility of a priori knowledge of some contingent propositions.”[9] 


This “new” sort of proposition is necessary if we are to produce the proper sort of ground for a universal law of practical reason—one which can be have the requisite objective and subjective (necessary and contingent) character. 


  297-299 E. The First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: Universal Law:


297 There is only one categorical imperative:


-“...act only on that maxim whereby which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” 


-298 In talking about what this imperative commands, we need to distinguish the cases of “perfect” and “imperfect” duties: the former are absolutely required actions wherein there is no “free play” for personal discretion or variation regarding how or when to perform the actions; while the latter require action, at least at times, from individuals but leave open to the individual the choice of actions to fulfill the goals.  As Michael Bayles and Ken Henley note, “a maxim that proposes a violation of perfect duty cannot be universalized, for the state of affairs in which it would be universally adopted cannot be consistently described.”[10]  “A maxim that proposes a violation of imperfect duty cannot be universalized, for although its universal adoption can be consistently described, the agent cannot will such universal adoption without a conflict.”[11] 




1. The tragic suicide case. 


Contradiction in the maxim. 


2. Borrowing money with a lying promise case. 


Contradiction in the maxim. 


3. The reluctant talent development case. 


Contradiction in the attempt to will the maxim. 


4. 298-299 The unconcerned benevolence case. 


Contradiction in the attempt to will the maxim. 


299 “We must be able to will that a maxim of our action should become a universal law.  This is the canon of the moral appreciation of the action generally.  Some actions are of such a character that their maxim cannot without contradiction be ever conceived as a universal law of nature, far from it being possible that we should will that it should be so.  In others this intrinsic impossibility is not found, but still impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law of nature, since such a will would contradict itself.” 


When we transgress against duty we don’t will that our maxim be a universal law, instead we make an exception for ourselves! 


“...if we considered all cases from one and the same point of view, namely, that of reason, we should find a contradiction in our own will, namely, that a certain principle should be objectively necessary as a universal law, and yet admit of exceptions” 


  299-300 F. Transgression of the Moral Law and The Need for an A Priori Proof:


Kant explains how we go morally wrong, and notes that we are after fundamental moral principles which can not come out of merely contingent facts: reason alone can dictate them! 


300 “Thus every empirical element is not only quite incapable of being an aid to the principle of morality, but is even highly prejudicial to the purity of morals, for the proper and inestimable worth of an absolutely good will consists precisely in this, that the principle of action is free from all influence of contingent grounds, which alone experience can furnish.” 


-300 Thus we will have to take up the (pure) metaphysics of morals—we will have to precind from all that is empirical: “...the question then is: “Is it a necessary law for all rational beings that they should always judge of their actions by maxims of which they can themselves will that they should serve as universal laws?”  If it is so, then it must be connected (altogether a priori) with the conception of the will of a rational being generally.  But in order to discover this conception, we must, however reluctantly, take a step into metaphysics, although into a domain of it which is distinct from speculative philosophy, namely the metaphysics of morals.  In a practical philosophy, where it is not he reasons of what happened that we have to ascertain, but the laws of what ought to happen….” 


--Criticism: in her “The Place of Emotions in Kantian Morality,” Nancy Sherman maintains that: “beneficence is not a moral principle for angels, but for human beings whose rational capacities happen to be finite and who therefore need the collaborative assistance and resources of others.  A maxim that seeks to gain self-advantage by denying mutual aid is incoherent in the universalized world of that maxim only because the agent of such a maxim will be denied what she needs for effective human willing.  It is because of our human condition that a policy of mutual disinterest is impermissible, and its opposite, beneficence, morally required.  Put differently, dependence is a contingent matter for us, and the obligation to be beneficent requires appeal to that empirical premise.  We contradict our wills by a maxim of nonbeneficence insofar as we deny a standing fact about our wills....the other substantive human virtues and the categorical imperatives that correspond to them are similarly justified by appeal to certain empirical facts.  But if this is the case, then not only how we express what we are morally required to do is contingent upon our constitutions, but equally, what we are morally required to do.  That is, substantive moral principles or ends depend upon empirical facts.”[12] 


  G. Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: Humanity As An End In Itself:


300-302 Kant offers the second of his three formulations of the categorical imperative.  The first was: “act according to that maxim which one may will should be a universal law”.  The second formulation deepens our understanding of the relationship of the imperative to reason. 


300-301 Kant notes that only rational beings are able to determine their wills in accord with conceptions of laws.  In cases where we are dealing with objective (rather than subjective) purposes, the will must be determined by reasons that would be accepted by all rational agents.  That is, if we are dealing with actions that serve merely relative purposes, we will get only hypothetical imperatives.  To get a categorical imperative, one must suppose [301] “...that there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute worth, something which, being an end in itself, could be a source of definite laws; then in this and this alone would lie the source of a possible categorical imperative, i.e., of a practical law. 

  Now I say man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end.” 


-301 “If then there is a supreme practical…it must be one which...is necessarily an end for everyone because it is an end in itself....rational nature exists as an end in itself....So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of any other, in every cases as an end withal, never as a means only. 


301-302 Illustrations [though examples shouldn’t be used as we are to have moved to the metaphysical foundations, he uses them here to clarify the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative—his use of them is pedagogical rather than justificatory or philosophical]:


1. The tragic suicide case. 


-Treats oneself as a means only. 


301-302 2. Borrowing money with a promise case. 


-Treats others as means only. 


302 3. The reluctant talent development case. 


-Treating humanity—in the “body” of the self—as means only (tending only to the maintenance of humanity and not to its promotion/development). 


4. The unconcerned benevolence case. 


-Treating humanity in general as a means only rather than as an end. 


  302-303 H. Third Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: The Autonomy of the Will as Universal Legislator:


In this section Kant provides the deepest formulation of his categorical imperative, tracing it as fully as he can within the “metaphysics of morals” to its metaphysical grounding. 


302 “This principle, that humanity and generally every rational nature is an end in itself (which, is the supreme limiting condition of every man’s freedom of action), is not borrowed from experience, firstly, because of it is universal, applying, as it does to all rational beings whatsoever, and experience is not capable of determining anything about them; secondly, because it does not present humanity as an end to men (subjectively), that is as an object which men do of themselves actually adopt as an end; but as an objective end, which must as a law constitute the supreme limiting condition of all our subjective ends, let them be what they will; it must therefore spring from pure reason.  In fact the objective principle of all practical reason lies (according to the first principle) in the rule and its form of universality, which makes it capable of being a law...but the subjective principle is in the end; now by the second principle the subject of all ends is each rational being, inasmuch as it is an end itself.  hence follows the third practical principle of the will, which is the ultimate condition of its harmony with universal practical reason, viz.: the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislative will. 

  On this principle all maxims are rejected which are inconsistent with the will being itself a universal legislator.  Thus the will is not subject simply to the law, but so subject that it must be regarded as itself giving the law and, on this ground only, subject to the law (of which it can regard itself as the author).” 


303 Here we need to distinguish heteronomy from autonomy.  


  303-306 I. The Kingdom of Ends:


In this section, Kant discusses the “location” of the autonomous wills. 


303 By a kingdom I understand the union of different rational beings in a system by common laws.” 


-Rational beings are both subjects and sovereigns in such a realm!  A rational being belongs to such a realm of ends as a member when he gives universal laws which he is subject.  He belongs to it as sovereign when legislating as he is subject to the will of no other [that is, he is autonomous]. 


-304 Dignity vs. value—things which have the latter can be replaced by something else of equivalent value.  Things which have dignity are without equivalence. 


304-306 According to Kant, the three versions of the Categorical Imperative are all the same! 


Criticism: in his “Trust, Affirmation, and Moral Character: A Critique of Kantian Morality,” Laurence Thomas offers the following critique of Kantian ethics: “...wholly rational moral selves do not need one another for moral support and affirmation.  Since all are metaphysically constituted so that of necessity they act in accordance with the moral law, there can be no sense in which their moral endeavors sustain one another.  Indeed, if their moral endeavors did, then they could not be members of the kingdom of ends, since in that case they would not be acting for (and only for) the sake of the moral law.  With wholly rational moral selves we have absolute autonomy, but we lack moral community. 

  I cannot see why human beings should embrace this moral ideal.  For it is an ideal that tells us that human life at its very best nevertheless misses the moral mark.  The good life, if only we could achieve it, is one where individuals are mutually supportive of one another and trust abounds, where individuals find strength in one another’s moral victories and learn from one another’s moral shortcomings, and where in general the biological capacity for love...and the good will anchored in it give morality a foothold in our lives that it would not otherwise have.  I can see nothing frail or imperfect in life thus lived.  Nor can I see that we should want to think of life thus lived as at best a limited expression of what living morality is all about.”[13] 


Criticism: in his “A Critique of Kantianism,” Richard Taylor maintains that: “Kant peoples a veritable utopia, which he of course does not imagine as existing, with these Ends in Themselves, and calls it the Kingdom of Ends.  Ends in Themselves are, thus, not to be thought of as those men that live and toil on the earth; them are not suffering, rejoicing, fumbling, living, and dying human beings; they are not men that anyone has ever seen, or would be apt to recognize as men if they did see them, or apt to like very much is he did recognize them.  They are abstract things, reifications of Rational nature, fabricated by Kant and now called Rational Beings or Ends in Themselves.  Their purpose, unlike that of any creature under the sun, is not to sorrow and rejoice, not to love and hate, not to beget offspring, not to grow old and die, and not to get on as best they can to such destinies as the world has allotted them.  Their purpose is just to legislate—to legislate morally and rationally for this rational Kingdom of Ends.”[14] 


 306-307 J. The Autonomy of the Will as the Supreme Principle of Morality:


In this section Kant maintains that the principle of autonomy is a synthetical proposition and, thus, cannot be proven to be an [the practical] imperative by an analysis of its terms. 


 307-309 K. Heteromony of the Will as the Source of All Spurious Principles of Morality:


Kant notes that when the will looks outside itself for its laws or imperatives, it finds only hypothetical imperatives. 


IV. Third Section: Transition from the Metaphysic of Morals to the Critical Examination of Pure Practical Reason


In this section Kant moves us from a “metaphysic of morals” toward a “critical examination of Pure Practical Reason.”  According to him, to understand morality and the categorical imperative, we must understand how the will, reason, and freedom are intertwined.  This discussion requires a distinction between the empirical and a posteriori world of our experience, and the a priori world of reason (or rationality).  The objective [universal] laws of the empirical world apply to us heteronomously (they are imposed upon us).  In contrast, objective [universal] moral laws (that is, the Categorical Imperative) apply autonomously to us, and this means that they must be subjectively contingent.  Here we encounter statements which Kant calls “synthetic a priori.”  Such statements are characterized by “transcendental” (rather than “logical”) necessity—that is to say, if we are to have the character, experience, and knowledge that we do, these propositions and judgments are necessary. 


     In his A History of Western Philosophy: Philosophy From the Renaissance to the Romantic Age, A. Robert Caponigri offers the following useful characterization of Kant’s “critical” orientation in metaphysics and epistemology:


the critical problem has at its base the desire of Kant to evade...scepticism, by raising and resolving the basic issue: how is it possible for objects to correspond to the concepts of the understanding.  This is equivalent to the question, how are the philosophical disciplines, that is, sciences which reach their objects independently of experience of the senses, possible.  The clue to his resolution of that problem has already been suggested in the manner in which, in the Dissertation, he had solved the problem of the objects of the senses. 

  The formal statement of the problem is made by Kant...in terms of the logic of propositions.  The typical statement of the sciences that proceed by analysis is an analytical proposition.  The character of such propositions is that all that is explicated in the predicate is already contained implicitly in the concept of the subject....Synthetic propositions are those in which the predicates affirmed of the subject are not to be discovered by analysis of its concept.  Such synthetic propositions would, according to the prevailing view, have all to be derived from experience and have a value as knowledge that is wholly a function of experience. 

  We are confronted, therefore, Kant believes, by the unhappy alternative of believing that there are sciences of experience, which proceed by a method of synthesis “a posteriori,” which have genuine objects in experience and which are dynamic and expansive in that they are always open to the novelty of the content of experience, but which can never have that character of universality and necessity which is the classical attribute of science.  On the other hand, there are sciences that proceed by a method of “a priori” analysis, which have, indeed, an indisputable character of universality and necessity within the limits of their terms and methods, but which have no objects in the order of existence. 

  Consequently, between the wings of these alternatives, Kant introduces a third possibility that alone, he believes, could correspond to the concept of science.  That is to say, an order of sciences which should indeed proceed by a method “a priori,” but by a method at the same time synthetic, a method which would, consequently, assure them both of universality and necessity, and at the same time, of an order of objects in existence and a dynamism which is the quality of existence itself. 

  Such sciences, consequently, would consist of propositions, in their positive aspects, which would be neither analytical “a priori” nor synthetical “a posteriori,” but rather synthetic a priori.  The most formal way, consequently, in which this critical problem can be put is this: how are propositions synthetical a priori possible?[15] 


  A. The Concept of Freedom Is the Key That Explains the Autonomy of the Will:


In his “We Can Act Only Under the Idea of Freedom,” Henry Allison maintains that: “...freedom is not simply a property that we may attribute to ourselves as rational agents on heuristic grounds; it is rather the defining feature of this very conception.” [16]  In this section, Kant clarifies the importance of the concept of freedom for the will. 


309 “The will is a kind of causality belonging to living beings in so far as they are rational, and freedom would be this property of such causality that it can be efficient, independently of foreign causes determining it; just as physical necessity is the property that causality of all irrational beings has of being determined to activity by the influence of foreign causes.” 


-“On the hypothesis, then, of freedom of the will, morality together with its principle [the Categorical Imperative] follows from it by mere analysis of the conception.  However, the latter is a synthetic proposition….[and] such propositions are only possible in this way: that the two cognitions are connected together by their union with a third in which they are both to be found.  The positive concept of freedom furnishes this third cognition, which cannot, as with physical causes, be the nature of the sensible world….” 


  B. Freedom Must Be Presupposed as the Property of the Will of All Rational Beings:


In this section Kant maintains that since morality applies to all rational beings, its laws must be universal and rational.  According to him morality also requires “the Idea of freedom:”


310 “Now I affirm that we must attribute to every rational being which has a will that it has also the idea of freedom and acts entirely under this idea.  For in such a being we conceive a reason that is practical, that is, has causality in reference to its objects.  Now we cannot possibly conceive a reason consciously receiving a bias from any other quarter with respect to its judgments, for then the subject would ascribe the determination of its judgment not to its own reason, but to an impulse.” 


  C. The Two Points of View:


In this section, Kant clarifies the distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal vantage points and concerns.  They are introduced on p. 311. 


312 “…a rational being must[17] regard himself qua intelligence (not from the side of his lower faculties) as belonging not to the world of sense, but to that of understanding; hence he has two points of view from which he can regard himself, and recognize laws of the exercise of his faculties, and consequently of all his actions: first, so far as he belongs to the world of sense, he finds himself subject to laws of nature (heteronomy); secondly, as belonging to the intelligible work, under laws which being independent of nature have their foundation not in experience but in reason alone.”    


  D. How Is A Categorical Imperative Possible?


He allows the there appears to be a question-begging progression here from morality to freedom to morality.  But he contends that we can see that there really is no question begging here. 


313 “...what makes the categorical imperatives possible is this, that the idea of freedom makes me a member of an intelligible world….and this categorical “ought” implies a synthetic a priori proposition, inasmuch as besides my will as affected by sensible desires there is added further the idea of the same will but as belonging to the world of the understanding, pure and practical of itself, which contains the supreme condition according to reason of the former will; precisely as to the intuitions of sense there are added concepts of the understanding….” 


316 The question How is a categorical imperative possible,” can be answered to this extent, that we can assign the only hypothesis on which it is possible, namely, the idea of freedom; and we can also discern the necessity of this presupposition, and this is sufficient for the practical exercise of reason.” 


The “Concluding Remark brings this altogether. 




Notes: (click on the note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Supplement to T.K. Abbott’s translation of Kant’s Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals [1785] which was first published in 1873 which appears in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 282-319.  Subsequent references to the text will be accompanied with the appropriate pages in the reprint. 

[2] A proposition is a priori if it can be known (or justified) independently of sensory experience.  That is, if it can be known or justified through reason once its constituents are understood.  An argument is an a priori one if all of its premises are a priori. 

[3] I will not always adhere to the section headings of the editors and translator—sometimes those others have chosen seem preferable to me. 

[4] Cf., Rae Langton, “Duty and Desolation,” Philosophy v. 67 (1992), pp. 481-505. 

[5] That is laws which are demonstrable and indisputable. 

[6] Alan Goldman, Moral Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1988), p.107. 

[7] John E. Smith, “Royce: The Absolute and the Beloved Community Revisited” [1982] in Smith’s America’s Philosophical Vision (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1992), pp. 121-137, p. 126.  The essay originally appeared in Boston Studies in Philosophy and Religion, ed. Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1982).  Emphasis is added to the passage. 

[8] D.W. Hamlyn’s “A Priori and A Posteriori” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), v. 1, p. 142. 

[9] Philip Kitcher,  “A Priori Knowledge” in Naturalizing Epistemology, ed. H. Kornblith (Bradford Books: New York, 1985), p. 139. 

[10] Michael Bayles and Kenneth Henley, “Kant and Contractarianism,” in Right Conduct: Theories and Applications (N.Y.: Random House, 1989), pp. 58-69, p. 62. 

[11] Ibid., p. 63. 

[12] Nancy Sherman, “The Place of Emotions in Kantian Morality,” in Identity, Character, and Morality, eds. Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 149-170, p. 167. 

[13] Laurence Thomas, “Trust, Affirmation, and Moral Character: A Critique of Kantian Morality,” in Identity, Character, and Morality, op. cit., pp. 235-257, pp. 254-255. 

[14] Richard Taylor, “A Critique of Kantianism,” in Right and Wrong Basic Readings in Ethics, ed. Christina Hoff Sommers (San Diego: Harcourt, 1986), pp. 62-69, p. 67.  The essay originally appeared in Taylor’s Good and Evil (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1970). 

[15] Cf., A. Robert Caponigri, A History of Western Philosophy: Philosophy From the Renaissance to the Romantic Age (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1963), p. 449-450. 

[16] Henry Allison, “We Can Act Only Under the Idea of Freedom,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association v. 71 (1997), pp. 39-50, p. 42.  Emphasis added to the passage. 

[17] Which sense of `must’ is employed here? 

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