On Kant’s ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’​ — Good will hunting — Part One

‘Still life with Bible’, c. 1885, Vincent Van Gogh

How far that little candle throws his beams!

So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

- William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Act 5, Sc. 1.

Are you a good person?

Do you know a good person?

What criteria do you employ in judging whether a person is good or not?

‘And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God’.

- ‘Luke’ 18:19

Do you agree with our Lord?

How do you know God is good?

Ethics is a deceptive subject. In my undergraduate days studying philosophy I opted for a module in moral philosophy assuming it to be a soft option while I struggled my way through other modules in philosophical logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and so on. As it turned out it was the module for which I got the lowest mark. Well, I put the blame on my tutor, he was a Christian you know, not that he brought it up in the course although he did discuss Thomas Aquinas, (1225–1274), and conscience, (not something that usually comes up that much in moral philosophy strangely enough or perhaps not), quite a lot, but the giveaway was when I was in his room I observed a cross, so on reflection perhaps I would have done better in my assignments had I stressed that discoursing endlessly upon morality is all very well but as our Lord said: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’. (‘John’ 14:6). Anyway I digress, yes, many have the impression that ethics or moral philosophy is relatively easy, (after all every one of us has our own views about it), easier than epistemology, or logic, and this is a misleading impression. Logic is the easy part, you just need a modicum of intelligence and industry and you have cracked it. Logic only appears to be extra difficult because you have to be more exact and you need to demonstrate conclusively where something has gone wrong. But then you need to be exact elsewhere in philosophy too, and to achieve anything in moral philosophy you must proceed carefully and systematically. Showing ethical views to be wrong is a measure of the difficulty of ethics, as opposed to logic. Take the matter of a just war for instance, (something that Aquinas wrote about. Spoiler alert: his thoughts concerning what makes a war just are of no help at all), where the issues would perhaps be easier to resolve were the parties involved to have had a little background in logic. Linkage, now there’s an ambiguous term, if one country invades another (US invasion of Iraq) and a third invades a fourth for no reason (Russia invasion of Ukraine), in one sense one can say there’s no linkage, but if one says of the second invasion ‘well, what’s source for the goose …’, so there is a linkage, and then for the UN to take action over any or all invasions thereby showing them to be morally comparable … this all turns on the term linkage, and politicians are certainly very confused about these matters. Ethics is no easy ride.

Are you a realist about morals?

If I promise you that if you buy me a coffee here:

then I will write an article on any subject of your choosing, and if you believe that the claim that I thereby have a moral obligation to keep my promise is just like the claim that the cat is sitting on the mat, that is, both claims purport to report a fact and are true if things are as the claims purport, then you are a moral realist. Moral realists believe that in these respects things should be taken at face value, moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right, and furthermore at least some moral claims actually are true, albeit some moral realists see this as involving additional commitments, for instance to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practices, or to those facts being objective in some specified way. (Note how that innocent little word ‘should’ got slipped in there. What does ‘should’ mean? A moral ‘should’? Can discourse upon the subject of morality ever not move around in circles?) Consequently, those who reject moral realism are either those who believe that moral claims do not purport to report facts in light of which they are true or false (moral non-cognitivists) or those who think that moral claims do carry this purport but deny that any moral claims are actually true (moral error theorists).

The most famous moral realist is probably Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804). Although as you can probably guess there is some dispute as to whether he actually was one. Perhaps he could more accurately be thought of as a moral constructivist? Moral constructivism, the view, that is, that the moral principles we ought to accept are the ones that agents (necessarily free ones) would agree to or endorse were they to engage in a hypothetical or idealized process of rational deliberation. (But how is that word ‘ought’ operating there? A moral ought? It maybe a word we use freely and unthinkingly, but ought (?) we not do so when we are engaging in moral philosophy?) Underlying moral constructivism there certainly seems to be a pre-supposition concerning the objectivity of moral values, (‘rationality dictates …’ a most chilling opening to a sentence at least in the context or moral decision making. Think Mr. Spock), and concerning their authority and our obligation to follow them, as rational creatures. So I will stick with Kant the moral realist, for now.

Be that as it may, he presents his case for moral realism in his ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’ of 1785.

Let us see how he gets on.

‘Allegory of Goodness’, c. 1564, Tintoretto

The principal ideas forwarded in the ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’ are as follows:

1. Nothing is unconditionally good except the good will.

2. The good will, which is the rational will, acts not merely in accordance with duty but from duty.

3. The good will wills as obedient to the moral law.

4. Duty consists in observing the categorical imperative: Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

5. A second form of the categorical imperative is: Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.

6. A third form of the categorical imperative is: Act always as if you were legislating for a universal realm of ends.

Ethics, like physics, so Immanuel Kant holds, is partly empirical and partly a priori, and this is a work dealing only with the a priori part in that it is based entirely on the use of reason without recourse to experience. Everyone must recognize, Kant asserts, (what’s to bet that we don’t?), that since moral laws imply absolute necessity they cannot be merely empirical. For instance, ‘Thou shalt not lie’ applies not merely to all human beings but to all rational beings, hence its ground must be found in pure reason. Furthermore, what is done morally must be not only in accordance with law but also done for the sake of law, were this not its motivation, different circumstances of the agent would call forth different responses.

This work was issued as a preliminary to an intended metaphysic of morals, the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’, and comprises a critical examination of purely practical reason and establishes the supreme principle of morality. The order of inquiry is from common moral knowledge to the supreme principle (analysis), then back to application in practice (synthesis). Kant starts off by claiming that ‘Nothing in the world — indeed nothing even beyond the world can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will’. Not intelligence, wit, judgment, courage, or the gifts of fortune, possession of them is a positive evil if not combined with good will, which indeed is the indispensable condition even of worthiness to be happy. And although moderation, self-control, and calm deliberation are all conducive to good will, they can also characterize the cool villain and make him even more abominable (think of a James Bond villain). The goodness of the good will does not depend upon its accomplishments, it ‘would sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself’, even if external circumstances entirely frustrated its actions.

The good will is the rational will. Why has nature appointed reason to rule the will? Not for the sake of adaptation, which would be more efficiently accomplished by instinct. Furthermore, when a cultivated reason makes enjoyment its end, true contentment rarely ensues. Reason, then, is intended for something more worthy than production of happiness. Being a practical faculty, yet not suitable for producing a will good merely as a means (instinct would do better) reason must be given us to produce a will good in itself. Everyone knows, at least implicitly, according to Kant, the concept of a will good in itself. We need only bring to light that to which we give first place in our moral estimate of action. Kant considers the concept of duty, distinguishing between what is done in accordance with duty (but motivated perhaps by a natural inclination or a selfish purpose) and what is done from duty. Moral import is clearly seen only in those cases where on account of absence of inclination, duty is exhibited as the motive. It is our duty to be kind, and amiable people are naturally inclined to kindness. But do they act from duty or inclination? Ordinarily we cannot be sure which, but suppose that someone in such deep sorrow as to be insensible to the feelings of others yet tears himself out of this condition to perform a kind action. We see then that his action has genuine moral worth. Or we know a man who by nature is unsympathetic yet behaves beneficently, he must be acting from duty, not inclination.

Moral worth attaches to action from duty even with respect to the pursuit of happiness, according to Kant. Everyone has an inclination to be happy, and particular inclinations toward what are regarded as the particular constituents of happiness, nonetheless were all these subtracted the duty to pursue one’s happiness would remain and only the dutiful pursuit would have true moral worth. (Pursuit of happiness is a duty because unhappiness could tempt to the neglect of other duties. ) The commandments to love our neighbours and our enemies should be read as requiring us to exercise beneficence from duty, love cannot be commanded.

A central idea in Kant’s work is that the moral worth of action performed from duty lies not in its purpose but in the maxim (rule, principle) by which it is determined, otherwise, moral worth would depend upon inclinations and incentives, which cannot be the case. ‘Duty is the necessity of an action executed from respect for law’, writes Kant, I cannot have respect for a mere consequence or inclination, but only for what can overpower all inclination: this can be no other than law itself. To be an object of respect is the same as to be valid as a source of command. The law determines the will objectively, subjectively I am determined by respect for the law, this subjective element is the maxim of my action, that I ought to follow the law whatever my inclination may be. Respect, the conception of a worth that overrides self-love, can be present only in a rational being.

The only kind of law the conception of which is capable of determining the will without reference to consequences must be the notion of conformity to law as such. That is to say, never act in such a way that you could not also will that your maxim should be a universal law requiring everybody in these circumstances to do this action. This is what the common reason of mankind has constantly in view in moral matters, Kant claims. For instance, may I extricate myself from a difficulty by making a false promise? A prudential calculation of consequences might or might not recommend this course but to determine whether it is consistent with duty I need only ask whether I could wish that everyone in difficulty might extricate himself similarly. I see that the maxim would destroy itself, for if it were a universal law no one could derive any help from lying, since no promise made in a difficult situation would be believed, so there is no difficulty in deciding whether a proposed course of action would be morally good, I need only ask myself whether my maxim could become a universal law. If not, it must be rejected and the action forgone. Reason compels respect for universal legislation.

Every other motive must defer to duty. Common reason habitually employs this test: ‘What if everybody did that?’ It is the advantage of practical over theoretical reason to be everybody’s possession. Ordinary people are as likely to hit the mark as philosophers, indeed, more so, being less liable to be led astray by subtle fallacies. Nevertheless, philosophy is called upon to buttress reason against the assaults of inclination and against specious arguments on their behalf. And that is why a metaphysic of morals is required. (My note: And what is metaphysics? Being qua being, as Aristotle, (384–322 BC), helpfully defined it, or the first principles and causes of being, or the primary sense or senses of reality, or its fundamental categories, and ethics is concerned with the goodness of persons, or the rightness of actions, or the best value in consequences. Kant defines metaphysics in terms of ‘the cognitions after which reason might strive independently of all experience’. With Kant’s moral theory as presented here being a priori, non-empirical, then it is metaphysical).

Although only what is done from duty has moral worth, it is not possible to be certain in even one instance that an action was in fact done from duty. Some philosophers have indeed attributed all motivation to self-interest. Thomas Hobbes, (1588–1679), for instance, for whom moral actions are voluntary actions, and all voluntary actions aim at happiness or at some good to the agent. (My note: ‘Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin/ As self-neglecting’. — William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘Henry V’, Act 2, Sc. 4). They may be right as a matter of psychology for how can we be sure that what we most sincerely and carefully conclude to be action from duty was not in reality prompted by some hidden impulse of inclination? Duty, therefore, is not an empirical concept, according to Kant. Moreover, its universality and necessity also show its non-empirical nature. Nor could it be derived from examples. How would we know in the first place that the cases were fit to serve as examples, if we did not presuppose knowledge of the concept? Even if we consider the actions of God himself, we must antecedently possess the concept of duty in order to judge them as moral. Duty, therefore, is a concept a priori. While this fact is obvious it nevertheless needs to be explicitly argued for on account of the popularity of empirical rules recommended as bases of morality. It is a mistake to try to popularize morality by holding out the inducement of happiness, on the contrary, the picture of disinterested duty has the strongest appeal even to children, because here reason recognizes that it can be practical.

Kant argues that if reason, which tells us what principles of action are objectively required, infallibly determined the will, we would always choose the good, but in fact the will is affected also by subjective incentives that clash with the dictates of reason. Thus the will when not completely good (as it never is in human beings) experiences the pull of reason as constraint. This command of reason, the objective principle constraining the will, is also called an imperative.

‘Allegory — possibly on war or evil’, between 1824 and 1828, Francisco de Goya

A perfectly good or ‘holy’ will, being always determined to action only by objective laws, would not experience constraint. According to Kant, imperatives arc either hypothetical, commanding something to be done in order to achieve a desired end, if you want X, do Y, or categorical, commanding an action as objectively necessary: Do A (never mind what you desire). Hypothetical imperatives are further subdivided into rules of skill, which tell what to do in order to achieve some end which one may or may not wish to achieve, heal a person, or poison him, and counsels of prudence, telling what to do to achieve happiness, the one end that all rational beings in fact do have. But the counsels of prudence are still hypothetical, depending on what the agent counts as part of his happiness. Only the categorical imperative is the imperative of morality.

How are imperatives possible? How can reason constrain the will? There is no problem with respect to rules of skill, since it is an analytic proposition that whoever wills the end wills the indispensable means. Because the notion of happiness is indefinite and infallible, means for attaining it cannot be prescribed, counsels of prudence do not strictly command, but only advise. Still, there is no difficulty here as to how reason can influence the will. The puzzle arises only with respect to the categorical imperative. We cannot show by any example that a categorical imperative does influence the will. When someone in trouble tells the truth it is always possible that not the categorical ‘Thou shalt not make a false promise’ influenced his will but the hypothetical ‘If thou dost not want to risk ruining thy credit, make no false promise’. Hence the question of the possibility of the categorical imperative must be investigated a priori.

Furthermore, the categorical imperative is synthetic a priori, a priori in that the action prescribed is necessary, synthetic in that the content of this action is not derived analytically from a pre-supposed volition. The categorical imperative is simply the demand that the subjective principle of my action, my maxim, should conform to the objective law valid for all rational beings. Therefore Kant contends, there is only one categorical imperative: ‘Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ Here are some of Kant’s examples:

l. Suicide. Maxim: Out of self-love I shorten my life. But a system of nature in which this maxim was a law would be contradictory, the feeling impelling to improvement of life would destroy life. Therefore the maxim could not be a law of nature, and the action is contrary to duty.

2. False promises. A universal law of nature that people in trouble escape by making false promises is incoherent, as they would never be believed. (And so I always keep my promises, see above about buying me a coffee).

3. Is it all right to amuse myself at the expense of failing to develop my talents? While it could be a law of nature that all people do this, a rational being could not will it to be a law of nature, for rationality entails willing that faculties be developed. (Rationality entails … I do so hate that).

4. Should we help other people, or is ‘Every man for himself’ morally permissible? A world could exist without altruism, but again, a rational person could not will it, for his will would conflict with itself, there must often be occasions when he needs the love and sympathy of others, from which he would be cutting himself off.

Examples I and 2, in which the idea of the maxim as law of nature is self-contradictory show strict duties. Examples 3 and 4, where the maxim could be law of nature but not willed to be, illustrate meritorious duties. If we were perfectly rational, then every time we thought of transgressing duty we would notice a contradiction in our will. But in fact we experience no such contradiction but only antagonism between inclination and what reason prescribes. This does show us, however that we acknowledge the validity of the categorical imperative. Kant contends that the form of the categorical imperative can also be deduced from the consideration that ‘rational nature exists as an end in itself’. Rational beings (persons) do not exist as mere means to some other end but as themselves bearers of absolute worth. Everyone thinks of his own existence in this way, and the rational ground for his so doing is the same for all others. It is therefore not a merely subjective principle of action, but objective. The categorical imperative can thus be phrased as ‘Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only’. This principle also condemns suicide (which is using oneself merely as a means to maintaining a tolerable life up to its conclusion) and false promising, and shows the merit of self-development and altruism.

The notion of rational beings as ends leads in Kant’s ethics to a third formulation of the categorical imperative. We can form the conception of a universal realm of ends, an ideal society of completely rational beings. Such beings would act toward each other not from interest but from pure practical reason, that is, they would always do their duty. This action would be in conformity to the laws of reason, which they had imposed upon themselves. Therefore: ‘Act always as if you were legislating for a universal realm of ends’.

The categorical imperative, in all its forms, is the principle whereby a rational being gives a law to himself, it is thus the principle of autonomy (self-legislation). All other principles, based on interest, are heteronomous (other-legislation), the ‘other’ being the object determining the will, riches, say, or happiness, or any external object of interest. All heteronomous principles are spurious. The worst is that based on happiness, which is neither empirically nor conceptually connected with morality and virtue. It undermines morality by making the difference between virtue and vice to be a mere matter of calculation instead of a difference in kind. The appeal to a moral sense can furnish neither an objective standard of good and bad nor a basis for valid judgment, nevertheless it does have the merit of ascribing intrinsic worth and dignity to virtue. Morality based upon an ideal of perfection is empty and involves circular reasoning, as it does not explain our moral ideals but pre-supposes them. Theological morality, based on the notion of the divine will, either presupposes an independent standard or tries to base morality on the notions of glory, dominion, might, and vengeance, a system directly opposed to morality. All these heteronomous moralities look not to the action itself but to the result of the action as incentive. ‘I ought to do something because I will something else’ is a hypothetical imperative, and hence not a moral imperative.

Kant attempts to show not that the autonomous will is actual but that it is possible. To show even this much is difficult, Kant admits, inasmuch as if nature is a system of effects following by natural laws from their causes, and if human beings are part of nature, it seems that every human action is necessitated by natural causes, and thus could not be otherwise than it is. The will could not then be autonomous, ‘a law to itself’, unless it is free. Kant’s strategy in establishing the possibility of freedom depends upon the distinctions, elaborated in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, between things as they are in themselves and things as they appear to us.

With regard to conceptions that come to us without our choice, such as those of the senses, we can know only how they appear, not how they are in themselves. This applies even to the individual’s concept of himself or herself, he or she knows him or herself only as he or she appears to him or herself and is ignorant of the reality underlying the appearance. However, a human being (I am updating Kant here in case you are wondering) finds in him or herself the faculty of reason, which transcends the conceptions given through the senses. A human being must therefore conclude that his or her ego as it is in itself belongs to the intelligible world (world of things in themselves). The upshot is that a human being has a dual citizenship, in the world of the senses his or her actions are explainable in terms of natural causation, thus heteronomously, but as a denizen of the intelligible world, the causality of his or her will is and must be thought of under the idea of freedom, as autonomous. If we belonged only to the intelligible world, all our actions would conform to the law of freedom and would be moral. If we belonged only to the sensible world (as non-rational animals do), all our actions would be effects of natural causation, that is, determined by incentives. Belonging as we do to both worlds, we experience the dictates of practical reason as ought, even in following material incentives we are conscious of what reason requires. We must assume, although we cannot prove, that there is no ultimate contradiction between natural necessity and freedom in human action. And the assumption is justified, for there is no contradiction in a thing-in-itself’s being independent of laws to which the thing-as-appearance must conform. In this way we can ‘comprehend the incomprehensibility’ of the unconditional necessity of the moral imperative.

‘Allegory — possibly on war or evil’, between 1824 and 1828, Francisco de Goya

Julius Ebbinghaus, (1885–1981), in his ‘Interpretation and Misinterpretation of the Categorical Imperative’ of 1954 contends that here is no question about what Kant’s concept of a categorical imperative is, a law unconditionally valid for the will of every rational being, but there is controversy about its contents and the inferences to be drawn from it. The opinion has been heard that Kant’s philosophy is typical of, or even responsible for, the infamous German predilection for obedience to superiors and hence for National Socialism, but the categorical imperative, Ebbinghaus points out, is an expression of the notion of what it is to be under a moral obligation, it does not say what in particular our moral obligations are. If Kant was wrong, the consequence is not that some principles of obligation other than those which Kant acknowledged are the right ones, rather, it is that there is no such thing as being under a moral obligation of any kind.

Every moral philosophy must begin with a characterization of duty, and the first misinterpretation of Kant’s moral philosophy, according to Ebbinghaus, is that it is empty formalism, it does not go beyond this characterization. But the special feature of Kantianism is that it abstracts not only from the matter of duty, but also from the matter of will, from all purposes or ends. In a moral theory based on a necessary end, such as Aristotle’s or John Stuart Mill’s, (1806–1873), duty is whatever promotes the final end. But can other ends conflict with the final end? If they can, there must be a super-final end to resolve the conflict, and the allegedly final end is not final after all. If they cannot, then there is no such thing as duty, the will is necessarily (in fact in all its decisions) subordinated to the highest end. This is why, according to Ebbinghaus, Kant determined the form of ethical obligation not by ends but by fitness to be universal law. This does not mean that obligation has no content, it has precisely this content.

Ebbinghaus reports Mill’s criticism that when Kant attempts to deduce actual duties of morality, he fails to show that there would be any contradiction in the adoption by all rational beings of obviously immoral rules of conduct. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), makes a similar objection. And John Dewey, (1859–1952), also believing that the categorical imperative is empty of content, supposes that it naturally lends itself to being filled up by whatever authority, specifically the national leader, may prescribe, these dictates then become unconditionally binding. This reasoning, however, Ebbinghaus points out, is exactly contrary to Kant, whose doctrine forbids a man to subject his own will to the will of any other person. That would be for the will to will its own annulment, which Kant held to be self-contradictory. The obedience required by the categorical imperative is thus the exact opposite of subjection to arbitrary power.

But, then, must not the autonomous will be able to legislate for itself anything it likes? Mill supposes that it can and that Kant admitted as much in bringing in consideration of the agent’s advantage in his examples. In showing the wrongness of hard-heartedness Kant allegedly appealed to the agent’s self-interest, a piece of ‘commonplace egoism’. Ebbinghaus replies, first, it is at any rate not ‘commonplace egoism’ for there is no contention that the agent wills his own happiness exclusively. Second, but Kant’s argument is that insofar as happiness is an end for the agent, he cannot possibly will to be abandoned in need. Third, what Kant says is that the will to hard-heartedness would be ‘in conflict with itself’. Fourth, the universalized maxim of hardheartedness would be: Everyone who feels himself immune from need may be deaf to the need of others. This cannot be willed, as it would be a will to let oneself be abandoned, in a case that for all one knows might actually arise. One could indeed assent to this formulation: I will never help anyone who is immune from need, but that offers no difficulty to Kant. Ebbinghaus claims that Kant’s critics overlook the word through in the categorical imperative: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. This means that the reason for the possibility of willing the maxim as law must be found in the maxim itself, not in external circumstances of the agent. This condition is not met in hard-heartedness, anyone able to will it must feel himself immune from need, and this is an external circumstance.

All, then, that is left of the egoism charge is that Kant holds that a man cannot will to be abandoned. And Kant does indeed insist that we be prepared to sacrifice our happiness, but never as a possible end altogether. And that would be required were hard-heartedness universalizable. The categorical imperative certainly abstracts from all ends, Ebbinghaus insists, but this is not to be confused with saying that the categorical imperative demands that my will have no ends at all, which would be not to be a will at all. Utilitarians say, in effect, according to Ebbinghaus, ‘You must help others because it will promote your own happiness’. Kant says, in effect, ‘You must help others whether it promotes your own happiness or not, because to will the maxim of hard-heartedness as a universal law contradicts your inevitable (and permissible) end’.

The difference is this: while for Kant there can be no taking into account the consequences for my happiness of willing the maxim as a law, nevertheless I must consider whether the maxim as law would make it impossible to take my own happiness as an end. Ebbinghaus argues as follows: I will my own happiness. I can will the happiness of others. But in willing my own happiness I will on the principle that others should also will my happiness. Suppose now I do not will the happiness of others, I cannot then will that others should act on my maxim, for then they would not will my happiness. Thus to will my happiness and not will the happiness of others is (if the categorical imperative is valid) a contradiction. Therefore it is a definite command of duty that I must include the happiness of others in my own end of personal happiness. This shows how it is, after all, possible to deduce particular precepts from the categorical imperative.

‘Narrow road of virtue and wide road of sin’, Jan Christiaensz Micker, (1598–1664). ‘Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it’. — ‘Matthew’, 7–13–14.

Jonathan Harrison, (1924–2014), in ‘Kant’s Examples of the First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative’ of 1957, reminds us that according to Kant there are duties to oneself and to others, and perfect and imperfect duties. There are therefore four kinds of duty, perfect duty to oneself, perfect to others, imperfect duty to oneself, imperfect to others, and Kant gives one example of each. Kant holds it to be impossible that everybody adopt the maxim of an act that infringes upon a perfect duty, but although it is possible for everybody to adopt the maxim of an act that infringes on an imperfect duty, it is not possible to will that everybody should adopt such a maxim.

The first form of the categorical imperative is supposed to be the supreme principle of morality, it is not just the demand that moral principles be general, which Kant takes for granted. Furthermore, this formula is used by Kant not to test alleged moral principles but to test maxims and he takes for granted that moral principles must be universal, and endeavours only to show what maxims are universalizable. Maxims are rules that I make for myself, they are not true or false, they are not moral principles, maxims can be made, but moral principles cannot. Maxims, however, can conform to moral principles, maxims apply only to the person making them.

According to Harrison, Kant held that a maxim is morally unacceptable if it cannot be universalized and that it is acceptable (that is, may-not must or ought to be-adopted) if it can be universalized. He may also have thought that it must be adopted if is ‘contradictory’ is not universalizable. Presumably Kant meant this by ‘impossible to will’. Were I able to bring about a certain state of affairs, I could not bring myself to do so. There are maxims that it is logically impossible for everyone to act on. For instance, be first through every door. There are others which I would be unlikely to act upon if as a result everybody else did. For instance, consume without producing.

In Kant’s example of suicide, Harrison writes, we must expunge,the words ‘From self-love I make it my principle’, as this phrase has nothing to do with the maxim but only with motives for adopting it. The maxim is: ‘To shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure’. What contradiction would result from universal adoption of this rule? None at all, Harrison claims, nor does Kant attempt to demonstrate it. All he does try to show is that it contradicts the statement that the purpose of self-love is to stimulate the furtherance of life, which amounts to saying that the purpose of self-love is to prevent people from committing suicide. But even here there is no contradiction. Things can have purposes that they do not, or do not always, fulfill and besides the maxim is not simply to commit suicide but to do so if I would be happier dead and people in this situation are presumably a minority. Hence the universal adoption of the maxim would not lead to universal suicide, or even have the consequence that self-love usually or frequently caused people to commit suicide.

Harrison comments on Kant’s other examples follow. On false promises, contradiction arises only if certain contingent statements are true, for instance, people frequently find themselves in circumstances where they can obtain services in no other way than by making false promises Furthermore, people are egotistical; they remember what promises have been made. These contingent statements are no doubt true. But that aside, there is still problems for Kant, since the rule as he put it was ‘when you find yourself in certain circumstances…’ which is an antecedent that could be vacuously satisfied even if nobody believed promises.

Never to help others in distress. Kant is not here appealing to self-interest, he says rather that the will would be at variance with itself, for it would also necessarily will to receive aid in distress. However, one often does things in spite of motives not to do them. All ‘variance with itself’ means is that one could not will this maxim wholeheartedly, not that one could not will it.

Neglecting to develop my natural gifts. Kant says one cannot will the universal neglect of talents, because talents are useful. This is odd, the usefulness of talents to oneself is a better reason for not neglecting one’s own than for not willing that others should neglect theirs. Further, Kant says that ‘as a rational being’ one cannot will to neglect one’s talent, evidently because it is obvious that as a partially non-rational being one can. But the ‘as a rational being’ qualification begs the question.

According to Harrison Kant does not appeal to consequences. Although in the third example Kant points out that failure to develop one’s talents would have harmful consequences for the agent, this is not a utilitarian argument, it does not say anything about harmful consequences for society. Furthermore, the harmful consequences do not provide the reason why the maxim is wrong, they show why one cannot will it. Nor does Kant appeal to the bad consequences of everybody’s adopting a maxim, according to Harrison. Moreover, although Kant mentions purposes he never argues that something is wrong because it is contrary to what something was intended for. Kant seems to think that if maxims are wrong, then the question of the morality of actions falling under them is settled. But it cannot be, Harrison contends. One can do the right thing for the wrong reason, and furthermore, for every wrong action a universalizable maxim enjoining it can be found.

‘Triumph of the Virtues over the Vices’, c.1592, Pauwels Franck, aka Paolo Fiammingo

Ethics is indeed no easy ride. There is hardly anything that I have just rushed through there that I would agree with, but I will finish for now with a very important point concerning moral philosophy that you can chew over. In Philosophy 101 courses you will become acquainted with logical fallacies, formal or informal, that philosophers love to charge other philosophers with having made, philosophers who conduct their philosophical debate at a low level that is. Appeal to authority fallacy. False dilemma fallacy. Genetic fallacy. Moralistic fallacy, (inferring an ought from an is, or deriving a factual conclusion from an evaluative premise. Hegel had something very interesting to say about that, I must devote an article to it). Ad hominem fallacy. There is even a fallacy fallacy, the assumption that, if a particular argument for a conclusion is fallacious, then the conclusion by itself is false. I don’t usually go in for all that myself, the issues are often more complex and anyway these fallacies are frequently trotted out where it is not so obvious that there is a fallacy. Take the ad hominem fallacy for instance, attacking the arguer instead of the argument. Well, if you are adopting an eristic strategy of arguing upon the basis of your opponent’s own commitments, that is ad hominem and no fallacy, but even if you are directing your refutations towards your opponent’s character or personality is that always a fallacy? Especially in the context of moral philosophy. From whence does morality originate? A common response is from empathy, that ability we have (in varying degrees) to understand and share the feelings of others. And yet Kant, that great moral theorist, comes across as deficient in that particular ability to quite a chilling degree.

I cite as evidence two examples from his ‘The Metaphysics of Morals’, not to be confused with the ‘Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals’:

On masturbation, in some ways a worse vice than the abhorrence of self-slaughter for it debases the masturbator below the beasts, as Kant explains:

‘But it is not so easy to produce a rational proof that unnatural, and even merely unpurposive, use of one’s sexual attribute is inadmissible as being a violation of duty to oneself (and indeed, as far as its unnatural use is concerned, a violation in the highest degree). The ground of proof is, indeed, that by it a man surrenders his personality (throwing it away), since he uses himself as a means to satisfy an animal impulse. But this does not explain the high degree of violation of the humanity in one’s own person by such a vice in its unnaturalness, which seems in terms of its form (the disposition it involves) to exceed even murdering oneself. It consists, then, in this: That a man who defiantly casts off life as a burden is at least not making a feeble surrender to animal impulse in throwing himself away’.

And on the subject of those born on the wrong side of the blanket, as it was sometimes put, the illegitimate:

‘A child that comes into the world apart from marriage is born outside the law (for the law is marriage) and therefore outside the protection of the law. It has, as it were, stolen into the commonwealth (like contraband merchandise), so that the commonwealth can ignore its existence (since it rightly should not have come to exist in this way), and can therefore also ignore its annihilation’.

You see what I mean about ‘rationality dictates … ‘? Rationality dictates … that the killing of illegitimate children shouldn’t be thought of as murder.

Well, I have the perfect response to those two claims, both taken from literature. Leopold Bloom, in James Joyce’s, (1882–1941), ‘Ulysses’, masturbating on Sandymount Strand to the sight of Gerty MacDowell revealing the secrets of her skirts to the sound of fireworks:

‘She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow, the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft! ….

…. For this relief much thanks’.

(Note: ‘For this relief much thanks’ — Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’, Act 1, Sc. 1).

And staying with Shakespeare:


Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law

My services are bound. Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true,

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,

Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:

Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund

As to the legitimate: fine word, — legitimate!

Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,

And my invention thrive, Edmund the base

Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:

Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

- ‘King Lear’, Act 1, Sc. 2.

To be continued … (when I will be more philosophical in refuting Kant) …

‘Selbstverliebt’, Félicien Rops, (1833–1898)



David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.