Moral Obligation – Part 1 – Kant

    1. The problem of scepticism1

The direction of thought following Descartes can be characterised as scepticism or questioning of all previously accepted authorities. It is reason alone that should be the final arbiter of what is right and true. For Descartes this raised the question of certainty in knowledge, thus setting the stage for the central importance of epistemology. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a magisterial work that takes up this question of epistemology by exploring the limits of human reason. Kant’s critique exposed the inconsistencies of any metaphysics that sought to define the nature of being. Reason was not capable of penetrating beyond itself, and his “Copernican revolution” placed human subjectivity centre stage in the exploration of knowledge in place of the objective world “out there”. Kant was fully aware of the dangers of scepticism inherent in Empiricism, that came to full expression in the thought of David Hume, and “awoke him from his dogmatic slumbers”. To avoid the trap of scepticism, Kant drew a distinction between the world of appearances, and the world of things in themselves. Of appearances we could have certain knowledge through the combination of intuition (senses) and understanding (concepts). Of things in themselves we could know nothing and any attempt to bridge this gap would result only in useless metaphysical speculation.

    1. Freedom in a mechanistic world

The starting point for Kant’s ethics is the concept of freedom, but we face immediately a contradiction. The world as we know it through science is characterised by mechanism, nature is deterministic and there seems no place for freedom. Whilst sometimes arguing merely that we must think of ourselves as free, he also saw the need to provide a solution to this antimony. The solution lay in the distinction between the realm of appearances and the transcendental realm. Cause and effect operate in the realm of nature, the realm in which we also are “appearances”. In the transcendental realm in which we exist as a “thing-in-itself” the category of causality does not apply. As an aside, it is also this dualistic distinction that allows Kant to preserve a place for faith. It is also fundamental to his “transcendental unity of apperception” that enables our knowledge of the world. It is essential for Kant’s position to posit the existence of the transcendental “I”, and it can be argued that this is in itself a metaphysical presupposition.

The logic of transcendental freedom means that moral choice cannot be the result of any external source or natural process, including God, emotions, inclinations, desire, self interest, or cultural conventions. What Kant called the autonomy of the will is the ability to be governed by reason alone, and in this lies our freedom. The problem that Kant could never surmount was the inherent contradiction between the freedom of the noumenal self and the empirically determined self of appearances. This, as Kant admitted, is “beyond the power of human reason”.2

Kant finds it necessary to derive a categorical imperative that is immune from any heteronomous cause (in contrast, a hypothetical imperative is one that is conditional on our desires and thus not free). To establish a categorical imperative it is necessary to abstract from the empirical conditions of the moral agent, such as desires, interests, and purposes. This leads us to a point of view outside of our experience and therefore universal and available to any rational agent. There is only one categorical imperative although Kant formulated it in three different ways. The first is to “act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” (GMM3, p. 34, 4:421) This provides a philosophical basis in Kant’s view for the golden rule of doing unto others as we would be done by. The second formulation (the Formula of Humanity) follows from this: “So act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” (GMM p. 41, 4:429) This provides the basis of our understanding of rights. The third formulation translates the imperative into a universal legislation to which rational agents willingly submit: “A rational being must always consider itself as legislating in a kingdom of ends possible through freedom of the will, whether as a member, or its head.” (GMM, p. 46, 4:434)

    1. Constructivism

An uncontentious assessment of Kant’s achievement is that “the conception of morality as autonomy was Kant’s fundamental innovation in moral philosophy”.4 What this autonomy consists of is less clear. The commonest contemporary understanding, following John Rawls, is that Kant’s view leads to an anti-realist constructivism. This interpretation of Kant is that he rejects moral realism in favour of radical autonomy. The basic question is whether things have a value because we value them (antirealism) or whether we value things because they possess a value independently of us.5 Antirealism obviates the need to engage in any ontological assessment of moral choices, which also carries the decisive benefit of avoiding any heteronomy of the external, and this relates quite clearly to Kant’s concern for autonomy. It can be argued that constructivism is more consistent with naturalism, it fits well with motivational internalism, and is a better answer to the sceptical question of why we should act morally.

However, if Kant is taken as a constructivist there are particular difficulties that are referred to as the “Kantian paradox”. First is the difficulty of how moral reasoning gets underway, or bootstraps itself6. Without any prior values or norms there is only an emptiness against which any act of legislation is a spinning in the void. Second is the difficulty of whether self legislated norms can have genuine authority. If we can bind ourselves, we can equally well unbind ourselves leaving it mysterious as to how we could have even been bound in the first place. Pinkard has commented on how this seems to require that we split ourselves in two, with the legislating part taking the authoritative role and the consequent heteronomy over the part of us that is legislated upon. There are ways that constructivists can answer these difficulties, but they all seem to rely on prior assumptions, whether it is to do with some kind of moral content being built into the rational act of self legislation (or that the existence of rational beings has in itself an absolute value), or whether it is a prior hierarchical structure of the self that privileges our rational nature.

    1. Kant’s concern was not to oppose value realism

Not all are convinced by the constructivist account and argue instead that Kant does allow a certain kind of value realism. A straightforward reading of the Formula of Humanity is that Kant is asserting a real value in humanity. This value is located in our status as free and rational agents, and because this value is not constructed, nor is the moral law that is based upon it.

It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will … (GMM 4:393-4)

In the Formula of Humanity Kant also distinguishes between objective and subjective ends for action. Subjective ends have a material principle aiming at the satisfaction of the desires of the agent. Objective ends have a formal principle aiming at ends shared by all rational agents. The objective end needs to be something of absolute worth:

But suppose there were something the existence of which in itself has an absolute worth, something which as an end in itself could be a ground of determinate laws; then in it, and in it alone, would lie the ground of a possible categorical imperative, that is of a practical law.

Now I say that the human being and in general every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used as this or that will at its discretion; instead he must in all his actions, whether directed to himself or also to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end… (GMM 4:428)

The distinction between subjective and objective ends does however entail a problem, and this is how we can explain the value of acting as a moral agent when this sometimes conflicts with the desires and satisfactions that bring value to our lives. Kant’s answer to this is to appeal to the transcendental distinction between ourselves as appearances (where he locates our subjective desires) and our noumenal selves (where he locates our moral nature). Given that there is this distinction, the problem can be reframed as that of the nature of moral obligation and how this relates to the autonomy that is so central for Kant. This is the real problem faced by Kant, rather than any denial of value realism as asserted by the constructivists.

    1. The Problem of Moral Obligation

Morality seems to have an obligatory nature; there are laws and principles that bind us with some legislative force, and it is this force that must either derive from ourselves or from a God-like sovereign.

For medieval Christian thought an issue was whether the obligatory nature of morality depended on the authority of God, and if so, whether God had the power to make an act obligatory merely by commanding it (voluntarism) or whether there was a preceding rightness in what God commanded. The position that saw no need for divine command located moral rightness, and hence obligation, in natural law. The debate can be seen through the lense of five different aspects:

1. Motivation. Natural law is reliant on a sense of the good or of well-being, and perhaps no more than the self interest of the moral agent. Divine command, if seen as reliant on sanctions, can also reduce to expediency.

2. Normativity. There seems to be a strong sense to acts that are morally obligatory. How is this obligatoriness sustained without divine command?

3. Epistemological. Natural law proponents needed to be more optimistic on the power of reason to know what is right. However, even the divine command proponent is dependent on reason to interpret revelation correctly.

4. Phenomenological. Our experience of morality is that there is an element of coercion or of being bound. Divine command easily explains this experience, whilst natural law can only “draw” us to the good.

5. Legislative. All of the positions entailed the idea of law and the removal of an agents freedom to act otherwise, and thus requiring an external will. Either moral obligation is for us to do what we are already inclined to do (and hence there is no binding force) or it is taking away our freedom to act otherwise (which diminishes our autonomy).

This is the context for Kant’s concern to make sense of obligation and the imperative behind morality:

This question does not inquire how the performance of the action that the imperative commands can be thought, but only how the necessitation of the will, which the imperative expresses in the problem, can be thought [or conceived, or made sense of : gedacht] (GMM 4:417)

The divine command theory is one way to account for this necessitation of the will but with the inevitable cost of heteronomy. Kant’s distinction between autonomy and heteronomy hinges on whether it is reason or desire that determines the will, and it is in failing to make this distinction that earlier moral theorists went awry in their search for a supreme principle :

If we look back upon all previous efforts that have ever been made to discover the principle of morality, we need not wonder now why all of them had to fail. It was seen that the human being is bound to laws by his duty, but it never occurred to them that he is subject only to laws given by himself but still universal and that he is bound only to act in conformity with his own will, which, however, in accordance with nature’s end is a will giving universal law. For, if one thought of him only as subject to a law (whatever it may be), this law had to carry with it some interest by way of attraction or constraint, since it did not as a law arise from his will; in order to conform with the law, his will had instead to be constrained by something else to act in a certain way. By this quite necessary consequence, however, all the labor to find a supreme ground of duty was irretrievably lost. For, one never arrived at duty but instead at the necessity of an action from a certain interest. This might be one’s own or another’s interest. But then the imperative had to turn out always conditional and could not be fit for a moral command. I will therefore call this basic principle the principle of the autonomy of the will in contrast with every other, which I accordingly count as heteronomy. (GMM 4:432-3)

By treating the will in heteronomous terms rather than autonomous they derived moral principles that related to the desires or interests of the agent; material rather than formal; hypothetical rather than categorical. Duty can only be derived from the formal or categorical.

Kant is opposed to a divine command theory on the grounds that it is both heteronomous and it results in some sort of anti-morality. There is a place for God in Kant’s thinking, but not as the ground of morality. Instead, it is religion that completes morality and furthermore provides the means to sustain and make sense of morality. Within this God can be seen as some sort of divine commander but with the proviso that it is not God that gives validity and obligatory force to the moral law which would reverse the priority between morality and religion.

    1. Kant’s alternative to the divine command theory

Prior to Kant the main alternative to divine command was natural law theory in which obligatoriness is inherent to certain actions or states of affairs. Kant saw problems in both accounts. Whilst rejecting divine command it is still necessary to establish some sense of transcendence, a sense of something greater than ourselves, in order to establish obligation. Natural law maintains the independence of moral law from a lawgiver but fails to provide a basis for obligation.

Kant makes a distinction between holy will and ordinary human will that echoes the theological concept of fallenness. The holy will acts only according to the good and lacks any motivation to do otherwise. Human will is imperfect and has motivations that may be immoral.

A perfectly good will would, therefore, equally stand under objective laws (of the good), but it could not on this account be represented as necessitated to actions in conformity with law since of itself, by its subjective constitution, it can be determined only through the representation of the good. Hence no imperatives hold for the divine will and in general for a holy will: the “ought” is out of place here, because volition is of itself necessarily in accord with the law. Therefore imperatives are only formulae expressing the relation of objective laws of volition in general to the subjective imperfection of the will of this or that rational being, for example, of the human will. (GMM 4:414)

Kant has previously maintained that moral laws hold necessarily for all rational beings (GMM 4:412), but the difference comes down to the imperative force on a will that lacks moral perfection. To explain how this is possible without undermining our autonomy, Kant maps the distinction onto the transcendental distinction between noumena and phenomena.

And so categorical imperatives are possible by this: that the idea of freedom makes me a member of an intelligible world and consequently, if I were only this, all my actions would always be in conformity with the autonomy of the will; but since at the same time I intuit myself as a member of the world of sense, they ought to be in conformity with it; and this categorical ought represents a synthetic proposition a priori, since to my will affected by sensible desires there is added the idea of the same will but belonging to the world of the understanding – a will pure and practical of itself, which contains the supreme condition, in accordance with reason, of the former will;…

The moral “ought” is then his own necessary “will” as a member of an intelligible world, and is thought by him as “ought” only insofar as he regards himself at the same time as a member of the world of sense. (GMM 4:454-5)

Kant is thus able to avoid the anti-realist constructivist problem of a morality that is arbitrary and relative, and avoid the realist problem of independent moral facts being mysterious and also a threat to our autonomy. At the level of what is right and in terms of the value of the rational agent there is a place for realism. At the level of obligation however there is an anti-realism in that obligation is not independent but is simply the way right and wrong presents itself to us. This also enables him to retain the merits of both natural law and divine command theories. With natural law, he can assert that what is right is independent of the will, and at the same time account for how moral law can constrain us.

1My primary source for this paper was: Robert Stern, Understanding Moral Obligation: Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).

2“Thus the question: how a categorical imperative is possible, can indeed be answered to the extent that one can state the one presupposition on which alone it is possible, namely the idea of freedom, and likewise that one can also see the necessity of this presupposition, which is sufficient for the practical use of reason, i.e. for the conviction of the validity of this imperative, and hence for the moral law as well; but how this presupposition itself is possible can never be understood by any human reason.” Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), p. 69, 4:461.

3Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, transl. Mary Gregor & Jens Timmermann, (Cambridge: CUP, 2019).

4J.B. Schneewind, cited by Robert Stern, Understanding Moral Obligation: Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), p. 7.

5The central question of Plato’s Euthyphro, cited in Stern (2012), p. 8.

6A metaphor used to describe the way that computer systems start up prior to the operating system.


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