SHADOWS

KANT: THE ETHICAL IMPERATIVE: THE GOOD WILL AND RESPECT FOR OTHERS

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. According to Kant, the only thing which is good without qualification is the good human will. Will, for Kant, means pure practical reason. "Pure" means detached from all ulterior motives and desires. It is "practical" as opposed to "theoretical" reason. For theoretical reason -- reason that unifies the objects of experience -- freedom is only an "idea" or ideal. For practical reason -- reason that considers principles or rules that guide conduct -- freedom is the basis of morality. Belief in freedom makes moral action possible; it is a conviction at the heart of moral striving -- that what ought to be done can be done. For theoretical reason, the statement that the human will is free is purely speculative and cannot be proved or disproved. From the standpoint of the need to act, from the standpoint of practical reason, however, the same statement is like the call of a bugle that awakens the will from sluggish conformity to desires and inclinations and stirs it to rise above conditions and excuses. From the standpoint of a will that wills to do what is right, despite what one feels like doing, there are no excuses; the will is free. Freedom is the vanishing point, the unrealized goal of scientific investigation; but it is the starting point, the foundation of moral action.
Question: Does a person "know" he is free to act morally? Explain.
2. According to Kant, the end or purpose of human life is not happiness, which amounts to the fulfillment of our desires and the satisfaction of our inclinations. The end of human life is to develop humanity within oneself, i.e. to develop a good will. This is done through repeated resistance to inclination and adherence to moral law -- doing our duty. The good will is a will that wills what is right simply because it is right, without thought of "reward or punishment." The good will is autonomous - self-contained and self ruling. It commands and obeys itself; it is not determined by external conditions or authorities or internal inclinations or interests. An autonomous will orders itself in accordance with moral principles it has arrived at by itself, and then it obeys its own orders. An heteronomous will (ruled by what is outside the will -- whether external authority or internal motive or inclination or desire) receives its orders from what is outside the will and follows (rather than takes the lead). The autonomous will does what it does in accordance with universal moral law as legislated by practical reason; it is not ruled by anything outside itself, not even feelings and desires for happiness.
Question: How would Kant view Aristotle's or anyone else's "happiness ethic"?
Question: Kant distinguishes between autonomous will (one that rules itself) and heteronomous will (one that is ruled by something or someone outside of itself). How would Kant view obedience to Church or obedience to God as the reason for acting morally?
3. The moral agent -- the one who does what is right simply because it is right -- is not a detached observer. He does not introspectively look for freedom (a hopeless project). He assumes that he is free and he acts. He believes that he is free. Morality, according to Kant, presupposes what science can neither prove nor disprove, the existence of freedom. According to Kant, moral obligation presupposes freedom to fulfill that obligation. Echoing Descartes, one could say: "I ought, therefore I can." Unlike Hobbes, Kant does not view moral freedom as the absence of external restraint upon doing what one feels like doing or following one's inclinations. Freedom, for Kant, is doing what is right simply because it is right, without being moved by inclinations, desires, motivations, conditions, rewards, punishments, and the like. Freedom, according to Kant, is pure spontaneous willing of the good, detached from all conditions and motives. It is pure duty, apart from and despite natural inclinations.
Question: What ancient philosophy is recalled in this view? Explain.
Question: Contrast Kant's "proof" of freedom with Descartes' proof of the soul as a thinking thing.
4. Thus, the soul or freedom does not appear or show itself to the observing scientific subject, but can be "felt" in the moment of pure willing to do what is right simply because it is right (not because we feel like doing it). Pure devotion to duty is a momentary victory of freedom over determinism. The more a human acts freely, the more he does what he does simply because he ought to, the more he comes to believe that he is free, a free agent, independent of the dependency-chain of external matter in motion. The moral person does not "know" he is free; nor can he prove it. He believes, he assumes, that he is free. And the more he acts morally and does not simply look back at what he has done empirically, the more his conviction is intensified. Knowledge before the fact and knowledge after the fact is not action, but interpretation of action. Interpretation always explains action as the result of certain causes and conditions. Moral action, however, is, at the moment of acting, when one does not self-consciously look backwards or forwards, a timeless moment of freedom, a moment of pure undetermined and spontaneous willing. Thus, a human being can not know himself as he really is, but he can be himself most completely when he acts freely and morally. Freedom cannot be observed, but it can be exercised.
Question: When it comes to the basis of moral action, does the moral agent have his feet planted firmly in mid-air? Discuss.
5. The absolute moral law determined by practical reason is a categorical not a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative is a command that depends on some condition being present; it depends upon certain conditions being met. Some examples of hypothetical imperatives are: "If I want to have friends, I ought to be kind to others." "Since I do not want to be punished, I ought to avoid lying and stealing." "If I want to be happy, I must do what I am supposed to do." "If I want to go to heaven, I must act morally." All of these moral commands are hypothetical or conditional; they depend on some interest apart from the duty to act. Even the ten commandments can be viewed as hypothetical imperatives, insofar as one obeys them not simply because it is right to do so, but because one expects some reward or fears some punishment. The moral worth of any action, according to Kant, depends upon its separation from all ulterior motives or interests. A truly moral imperative is purely categorical. It is a simple command with no ifs, ands, or buts. The good will, the will that is good without qualification, acts in accordance with categorical imperatives, commands that allow no conditions or qualifications. It orders itself thus: "Do not lie!" "Do not steal!" "Love your neighbor!" "Keep your promises!" Not only must the will ignore inclinations and desires, but the will acts morally to the extent that it even goes against inclinations. The greater the inclination to do what is wrong, the greater is the merit in doing what is right despite that inclination. Every moral action is a triumph of free willing over determination by inclinations. The good will is strenghtened and freedom is exercised in the victory of swimming upstream against the current of internal desires and external conditions.
Question: When a child says, "I will clean up my room if you pay me a dollar," is this a hypothetical (conditional) or a categorical (unconditional) principle? If a religious person acts morally so as to gain heaven or avoid hell, is his action truly moral?
6. According to Kant, all categorical imperatives or moral principles are based on a single basic categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." In other words, in order to determine whether any principle is moral, ask yourself whether the principle by which you are about to act could or should be made binding for all human beings everywhere. Kant relates a number of examples to clarify this point (see text). We could add our own examples to this list. The point is this: Before you act, if you are uncertain about the morality of your action, ask yourself whether the principle by which you are acting should become a universal law of nature. In other words, if you intend to lie because it is convenient, ask yourself whether you would will that lying whenever it is convenient should be made a universal law of nature, that human beings would be forced to follow as surely as falling rocks follow the law of gravitation.
Question: Think of some morally problematic situations and how this guideline would help or fail to help in each one.
7. We should keep in mind that there are no exceptions, when it comes to the categorical imperative. A universal moral law is right for everyone. Otherwise it is not a universal moral law. If we make ourselves an exception, it means we are following an inclination or desire and are not obeying reason. Only actions in accord with categorical imperatives are moral (we are not talking about morally indifferent actions, such as when we eat breakfast, etc.). It is up to each person to use his reason to determine whether the principle by which he is about to act can be universalized, could be made binding for all. The categorical imperative is similar to the "golden rule." This requires a degree of honesty with oneself that in a sense presupposes the presence of a will already good. Kant wrote: "The good man in his heart knows what is right."
Question: How would Kant criticize purely "subjective morality," whereby each individual determines what is best for himself, without asking himself whether his principle could become a universal law?
Question: Discuss how Kant's ethics, like his science, is subjective and objective at the same time.
8. The basis of the absolute moral law is the absolute worth of each individual person (moral agent). Each human being is an end in himself. Everything else, including amimals, is but a means.
Question: How does this recall the medieval view of the elevated status of the human being by virtue of his immortal soul?
Question: What happens to non-human nature (everything else but human nature) from this point of view? How does this recall the medieval view that non-human nature does not have purposes of its own, but exists simply for human use? What happens to non-human nature in this case? What are the consequences of human beings viewing themselves as "users"?
9. The practical imperative that arises from this view is that one should act in such a way as to regard humanity in oneself and in others as an end in itself and never simply as a means. Kant uses his previous examples to show how failure to follow the moral law amounts to failure to respect humanity as an end in oneself and in others. Suicide, for example, is a kind of self-exploitation, or treating oneself as a mere means or mere thing. One destroys oneself to avoid suffering. This amounts to putting a conditional or relative good, avoiding suffering, ahead of an absolute good, one's own humanity or moral life. One who chooses suicide lacks respect for humanity in himself. His humanity is his ability to act morally, to do his duty. This moral integrity or humanity is an end in itself. If one commits suicide one is failing to do his duty, even if that duty is to suffer courageously. Similarly, one who intends to deceive another in making a promise is exploiting that other, using him as a means solely. Kant is not saying that it is wrong to enlist the help of others, to use them as "means," when their help is needed. But one must never treat another as a means only, as a thing or mere "object." At the same time as one gets the help of others, one must treat them and respect them as ends in themselves. One must regard them as possessing humanity equal to one's own and possessing the same absolute worth. Thus, Kant's practical rule of "respect for humanity" in others as well as in oneself makes Kant's ethics both self-centered and other-centered.
Question: In what sense does respect for others as ends in themselves open the door to the possibility of a truly "altruistic" or "other-centered" ethics? What do you think?
Question: Is Kant's view really any different from Aristotle's view of true friendship -- loving the good in the other?
10. Exploitation means treating others as means rather than as ends, as things rather than as persons. Exploitation even violates one's own humanity, for treating others as means or things goes against the moral law. One who exploits seeks his own "happiness" or the satisfaction of his own inclinations rather than to do his duty, to follow the moral law, to become good. For Kant, being good is absolute; being happy is secondary, although trying to make others happy is a fundamental duty. We are obligated to make others happy; we are obligated to make ourselves good. The exploiter does not make "having a good will" his end; his end is happiness; and he uses others as a means to this end. In a sense he is exploiting even himself; for he is subordinating his own moral potential to his happiness. Not only does the exploiter fail to do his duty to others; but he also fails to do his duty to himself; he makes himself into an "object."
Question: How does this view compare to that of Hobbes?
11. Ethics means humanism -- absolutizing humanity wherever it is found. It respects in all humans their moral capability, their potential freedom, their capacity of ruling themselves in accordance with moral law. Respect for humanity in oneself and in others is the basis of morality. If God exists, he too belongs to the realm of free beings, the kingdom of ends in themselves. But it is a kingdom in which each citizen is king and makes his own laws (in accordance with reason and the categorical imperative) and abides by these laws. This does not mean, therefore, that each person does as he pleases, but that each person must by means of his own practical reason determine the universal law that applies to each and every person. Thus, moral obligation reveals that beyond and behind appearances human beings are not simply bodies in motion, subject to external forces. They are free beings capable of determining or moving themselves to do what is right despite conditions and feelings. The dignity of human beings is their potential for actual humanity, their ability to become good persons. All else in the universe pales by comparison to moral goodness.
Question: What happens to religion and "following the will of God" as a result of this view?
12. Thus, human beings can think of themselves in two ways. They can think of themselves as free beings belonging to a realm of persons or ends-in-themselves that transcends the push-pull chain-reactions of physical nature. Or they can think of themselves as conditioned, as another link in an endless chain of causes and effects, as another "object" in nature. Depending on how one views himself, whether one believes himself free to do what is right or believes he can't help what he does, one can develop or fail to develop his own humanity. Man's belief in freedom or belief in determinism determines his moral capacity. Duty presupposes freedom.
Question: How does moral faith in freedom determine action?

13. Thus, ethics requires detachment from all inclination or interest. One's sole attachment is to moral perfection. But duty ignores feeling attachment to other persons. Kant is a Stoic; and Stoicism seeks detachment from feeling. Morality has nothing to do with feeling. One does not help others because one "loves" them or is concerned about them; one helps others simply because it is right. We have in Kant the cool, detached humanitarianism of the Stoic. But when compared with modern preoccupations with the intellectual and the technological, even Kant's "disinterested" ethics harkens back to more ancient concerns. And his rather remarkable law of treating others as ends rather than means opens the way to an authentically un-self-centered ethic. Still, Kant's ethics bears the stamp of many modern presuppositions. For instance, morality is internal, inward, individual, detached from "outwardness." One cannot see one's own soul or the soul of another. One simply believes and acts as if he were free. Kant's ethics, like the Stoic view, is more concerned with attitude than with outcomes. It is more concerned with being good than doing good or improving others. Except for respecting others as ends, it gives little attention to the interhuman foundation of ethics. Nevertheless, Kant's ethical insights led the way to Martin Buber's I and Thou, and American Pragmatism owes a great deal to Kant's emphasis on "practical reason." Hegel, as a number of other successors to Kant, misunderstood Kant's priorities; these thinkers took Kant's examination of "pure theoretical reason" and made it into new epistemologies and new metaphysics, thus burying the jewel of Kantian thought -- the primacy of simple humanity (the heart) over complex erudition (the head).

Questions for Discussion:

1. Explain how freedom is "viewed" from the standpoint of theoretical reason and from the standpoint of practical reason.

2. Explain the difference between autonomy and heteronomy. What is the absolute authority governing the good will, according to Kant?

3. Explain how freedom is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

4. How does Kant understand the relation between duty and happiness? How does this oppose Aristotle's view? How does it oppose the medieval view?

5. How does exploitation in general oppose the categorical imperative?

6. Is Kant's ethics self-centered or other-centered? Explain.

7. To what extext is personality so private and hidden for Kant that it becomes hard to defend?

8. Explain the difference between categorical and hypothetical imperatives.

9. What is the categorical imperative and how does it apply to particular cases? Give some examples of moral problems and how the categorical imperative might resolve them.

10. Explain "respect for humanity" as the cornerstone of Kant's ethics.

11. What happens to man as perceiver and man as knower, in the light of Kant's ethics? In other words, what are the consequences of viewing man -- as he really is in himself -- as a doer or "willer" as opposed to his more "superficial" appearance as a knower and perceiver?

12. Explain how human beings can think of themselves as belonging to two realms and how their choice of "realms" affects the direction of their lives.

13. Discuss individualism, independence, and self-sufficiency in Kant's ethics. Does Kant give too much to the individual, morally speaking? Why or why not? Has Kant done to ethics what Aristotle did to scientific contemplation, i.e. made it inward or private? Discuss.

14. Compare Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Descartes, and Hobbes with regard to social interaction.

15. In what sense does Kant's distinction between persons and mere things leave open the possibility of curbing exploitation of other people while approving exploitation of non-human nature? Discuss.


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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.