Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: TRANSIT FROM THE COMMON POPULAR NOTIONS OF MORALITY TO THE PHILOSOPHICAL. - The Metaphysics of Ethics
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CHAPTER I.: TRANSIT FROM THE COMMON POPULAR NOTIONS OF MORALITY TO THE PHILOSOPHICAL. - Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Ethics 
The Metaphysics of Ethics by Immanuel Kant, trans. J.W. Semple, ed. with Iintroduction by Rev. Henry Calderwood (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1886) (3rd edition).
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TRANSIT FROM THE COMMON POPULAR NOTIONS OF MORALITY TO THE PHILOSOPHICAL.
THERE is nothing in the world which can be termed absolutely and altogether good, a good will alone excepted. Intellectual endowments, wit, and extent of fancy, as also courage, determination, and constancy in adhering to purposes once formed, are undeniably good in many points of view; but they are so far from being absolutely good, that they are qualities capable of being rendered bad and hurtful, when the will, under whose control they stand, is not itself absolutely good. With the bounties of fortune it is no otherwise: power, wealth, honours, even health, and those various elements which go to constitute what is called happiness, are occasionally seen to fill the mind with arrogance, and to beget a lordly and assuming spirit, when there is not a good will to control their influence, and to subordinate them, by stable maxims of conduct, to the final scope and end of reasonable agents. Nay, so paramount is the value of a good will, that it ought not to escape without notice, that an impartial spectator cannot be expected to share any emotion of delight from contemplating the uninterrupted prosperity of a being whom no trait of a good will adorns. And thus it would appear, that reason being judge, a good will constitutes a prior condition, without which no one is deemed worthy to be happy.
There are qualities which greatly aid and strengthen a good will; but they have not any inward worth of their own, and will be found always to presuppose a good will, which limits the praise they deservedly carry, and prevents us from regarding them as absolutely and in every respect good. Temperance, self-command, and calm consideration are not only good for many things, but even seem to compose part of the worth of personal character. There is, however, much awanting to enable us to designate them altogether good, notwithstanding the encomiums passed upon them by the ancients. For, apart from the maxims of a good will, they may be perverted; and a calm, resolute, calculating villain is rendered at once more dangerous and more detestable by possessing such qualities.
1st,A good will is esteemed to be so, not by the effects which it produces, nor by its fitness for accomplishing any given end, but by its mere good volition,i.e.,it is good in itself; and is therefore to be prized incomparably higher for its own sake, than anything whatsoever which can be produced at the call of appetite or inclination. Even if it should happen that, owing to an unhappy conjuncture of events, this good will were deprived of power to execute its benign intent, still this good will (by which is not meant a wish) would, like a diamond, shine in itself, and by virtue of its native lustre. Utility or uselessness could neither enhance nor prejudice this internal splendour: they resemble the setting of a gem, whereby the brilliant is more easily taken in the hand, and offered to the attention of those not otherwise judges, but which would not be required by any skilled lapidary to enable him to form his opinion of its worth.
Still this idea of an absolutely good will, and the statement just advanced of its unconditioned worth, quite irrespective of any considerations of its expediency or conduciveness to use, startles the mind a little, and gives birth to the suspicion that these opinions may be founded only on some fantastic conceit; and that we mistake the end proposed by nature, when we imagine that reason is given to man as the governor of his will,* by its sway to constitute it altogether good.
To make this matter as clear as possible, let it be remembered that it is a fundamental position in all philosophy, that no means are employed except those only most appropriate and conducive to the end and aim proposed. If, then, the final aim of nature in the constitution of man (i.e., a being endowed with intelligence and will) had been merely his general welfare and felicity, then we must hold her to have taken very bad steps indeed in selecting reason for the conduct of his life; for the whole rule and line of action necessary to procure happiness would have been more securely gained by instinct than we observe it to be by reason. And should her favoured creature have received reason over and above, and in superaddition to its instincts, such gift could only have answered the purpose of enabling it to observe, admire, and feel grateful for the fortunate arrangement and disposition of the parts of its system, but never of subjecting the appetitive faculties to the weak and uncertain guidance of the contemplative. In a single word, nature would have taken care to guard against reason’s straying into any practical department, and would have prevented it from daring with its scanty insights, to project any schemes of happiness, and to sketch plans for attaining them. Both end and means behoved, on this supposition, to have been determined exclusively by nature, and to have been intrusted to instinctive impulses implanted by herself.
So far is this, however, from what is in fact observed, that the more a man of refined and cultivated mind addicts himself to the enjoyment of life and his own studied gratification, the farther he is observed to depart from true contentment; and this holds true to so great an extent, that some have acknowledged they felt a certain hatred of reason, because they could not conceal from themselves, that upon a deliberate calculation of the advantages arising from the most exquisite luxuries, not of the sensory merely, but likewise of the understanding (for in many cases science is no more than an intellectual luxury), they had rather increased their sources of uneasiness than really made progress in satisfactory enjoyment, and felt inclined rather to envy than think lightly of those inferior conditions of life, where man comes nearer to the tutelage of instinct, and is not much embarrassed by suggestions of reason as to what ought to be pursued or avoided,—a circumstance furnishing us with a key to explain the sentiments of those who state at zero the pretences of reason to afford satisfaction and enjoyment, and enabling us to understand that they do so, not out of spite or ingratitude towards the benign Governor of the world, but that there lies at the bottom of so rigid and severe a reckoning, the idea of a far higher and nobler end aimed at in man’s existence; and that this it is, not happiness, for which reason is bestowed, and in exchange for which all private ends are to be renounced.
For, since Reason is insufficient to guide the Will so as to obtain adequate objects of enjoyment and the satisfaction of all our wants, and innate instinct would have reached this end more effectually, and yet Reason2 is bestowed on man as a practical faculty of action, i.e., such a faculty as influences his will and choice, it remains that the true end for which reason is implanted, is to produce a will good, not as a mean toward some ulterior end, but good in itself.* This will is to be considered, not the only and whole good, but as the highest good, and the condition limiting every other good, even happiness; and in this case it quite coincides with the intentions of nature, that a high cultivation of reason should fail in producing happiness, this last being under the condition, i.e., subordinated to the production, of the first, viz., a good will, which is the absolute and unconditional scope and end of man; and yet, that in so failing, there should be no inconsistency in the general plan of nature, because reason, recognising its destined use to consist in the foundation of a good will, is only susceptible of a peculiar satisfaction, viz., the satisfaction resulting from the attainment of a final end, given alone by reason, and given independently and without respect to the objects proposed by inclination. In order to explain the conception of a good will, so highly to be prized in and for itself (and it is a notion common to the most uncultivated understanding), which it is alone that makes actions of any worth, we shall analyse the notion duty;—a notion comprehending under it that of a good will, considered, however, as affected by certain inward hindrances. But these last, so far from obscuring the radical goodness of the volition, render it more conspicuous by the contrast.
In proceeding to examine the cognate notion Duty, I omit all actions confessedly at variance with it, how expedient soever, and useful, and conducive to this or that end; for, with regard to them, no question can be made, whether they have been performed out of duty, it being already admitted that they collide with it. I also leave out of this investigation actions which are in accordance with duty, but are performed from some by-views or oblique incentives of appetite and inclination: the difference cannot be overlooked when an action is performed upon motives of private interest, and when upon a disinterested principle of duty; but the difference is not so easily detected when an action is in harmony with the requirements of duty, and the agent is likewise at the same time strongly biassed by the constitution of his nature to its performance. Thus it is consonant to duty that a merchant do not overcharge his customers; and wherever trade flourishes, every prudent trader has one fixed price, and a child can buy as cheaply as any other person. In this way the public are honestly dealt by; but that does not entitle us to hold that the trader so acted out of duty, and from maxims of honesty,—his own private advantage called for this line of conduct; and it were too much to suppose that he was so charitable as to deal fairly with all comers out of pure benevolence: in which case his conduct resulted neither from a principle of duty, nor from affection towards his customers, but from self-love and a view to his own advantage.
Again, to preserve one’s life is a duty; and independently of this, every man is, by the constitution of his system, strongly inclined to do so; and upon this very account, that anxious care shown by most men for their own safety is void of any internal worth; and the maxim from which such care arises is destitute of any moral import (i.e., has no ethic content). Men in so far preserve their lives conformably to what is duty, but they do it not because it is so; whereas, when distress and secret sorrow deprive a man of all relish for life, and the sufferer, strong in soul, and rather indignant at his destiny than dejected or timorous, would fain seek death, and yet eschews it, neither biassed by inclination nor by fear, but swayed by duty only, then his maxim of conduct possesses genuine ethic content. To be beneficent when in one’s power is a duty; and besides this, some few are so sympathetically constituted, that they, apart from any motives of vanity or self-interest, take a serene pleasure in spreading joy around them, and find a reflex delight in that satisfaction which they observe to spring from their kindness. I maintain, however, that in such a case the action, how lovely soever, and outwardly coincident with the call of duty, is entirely devoid of true moral worth, and rises no higher than actions founded on other affections, e.g., a thirst for glory, which, happening to concur with public advantage and a man’s own duty, entitles certainly to praise and high encouragement, but not to ethic admiration. For the inward maxims of the man are void of ethical content, viz., the inward cast and bent of the volition to act and to perform these, not from inclination, but from duty only. Again, to take a further case, let us suppose the mind of some one clouded by sorrow, so as to extinguish sympathy,—and that though it still remained in his power to assist others, yet that he were not moved by the consideration of foreign distress, his mind being wholly occupied by his own,—and that in this condition he, with no appetite as an incentive, should rouse himself from this insensibility, and act beneficently purely out of duty,—then would such action have real moral worth; and yet, further, had nature given this or that man little of sympathy in his temperament, leaving him callous to the miseries of others, but instead endowed him with force of mind to support his own sorrows, and so induced him to consider himself entitled to presuppose the same qualities in others, would it not be possible for such a man to give himself a far higher worth than that of mere good nature? Certainly it would; for just at this point all worth of character begins which is moral and the highest, viz., to act beneficently, irrespective of inclination, because it is a duty.
To secure one’s own happiness is indirectly a duty; for dissatisfaction with one’s lot, and exposure to want and penury, might easily become occasions of temptation to overstep the limits prescribed by duty; but, prior to and apart from all considerations of duty, mankind have a strong and powerful appetency to their own happiness (happiness being in fact the gratification of all the appetites whatsoever), only the access to this happiness is so rugged and toilsome, that in passing along it, many appetites, with their gratifications, have to be surrendered; and the sum total of the gratification of all the appetites called happiness is a notion so vague and indeterminate, that we cannot wonder how one definite and given appetite should, at such time as its inebriate gratification is possible, entirely outweigh a faint conception (of happiness) only obscurely depicted in the mind. Hence we understand why a patient with gout chooses to satiate his appetite, and then to suffer as he best can; for in his general estimate the present enjoyment appears equal to his expectation (perhaps groundless) of some general happiness called health. But even in such a case as this, where the bent of inclination does not excite to secure happiness as consisting mainly in health, still the command of reason remains to promote one’s own health, not because man likes it, but because it is his duty; in which last case alone his actions have any moral worth.
It is thus, without all question, that we are to understand those passages of Scripture where it is ordained that we love our neighbour, even our enemy; for, as an affection, love cannot be commanded or enforced, but to act kindly from a principle of duty can, not only where there is no natural desire, but also where aversion irresistibly thrusts itself upon the mind; and this would be a practical love, not a pathological liking,* and would consist in the original volition, and not in any sensation or emotion of the sensory;—a practical love, resulting from maxims of practical conduct, and not from ebullitions and overflowings of the heart.
2nd, The second position is, that an action done out of duty has its moral worth, not from any purpose it may subserve, but from the maxim according to which it is determined on; it depends not on the effecting any given end, but on the principle of volition singly. That the end aimed at in a given action cannot impart to it absolute moral worth, is, from the foregoing, plain. Wherein, then, consists this value, if it is not to be placed in the relation of the will to its effected action? It can consist only in the relation betwixt the will and the principle or maxim according to which the volition was constructed, and this apart from all regard had to any ends attainable by the action, for the will lies in the midst betwixt its formal principle à priori, and the material appetites à posteriori;* and since the choice must be determined by something, the principle à priori alone remains, all à posteriori considerations being taken away when actions are to be performed from duty only.
3rd, The third position results from the two preceding. Duty is the necessity of an act, out of reverence felt for law. Towards an object, as effect of my own will, I may have inclination, but never reverence; for it is an effect, not an activity of will. Nay, I cannot venerate any inclination, whether my own or another’s. At the utmost, I can approve or like. That alone which is the basis and not the effect of my will can I revere; and what subserves not my inclinations, but altogether outweighs them, i.e., the law alone, is an object of reverence, and so fitted to be a commandment. Now, an action performed out of (propter) duty has to be done irrespective of all appetite whatsoever; and hence there remains nothing present to the will, except objectively law, and subjectively pure reverence* for it, inducing man to adopt this unchanging maxim to yield obedience to the law, renouncing all excitements and emotions to the contrary.
The moral worth of an action consists, therefore, not in the effect resulting from it, and consequently in no principle of acting taken from such effect; for since all these effects (e.g., amenity of life, and advancing the welfare of our fellow-men) might have been produced by other causes, there were no sufficient reason calling for the intervention of the will of a reasonable agent, wherein, however, alone is to be found the chief and unconditional good. It is therefore nothing else than the representation of the law itself— a thing possible singly by Intelligents—which, and not the expected effect, determining the will, constitutes that especial good, we call moral, which resides in the person, and is not waited for until the action follow.
But the question now presents itself, What kind of law is that, the representation of which must alone determine the will, if this last is to be denominated absolutely and altogether good? Since I have deprived the will of every spring resulting from obedience to any one given particular law, there remains nothing except the form of law in general which can serve as the mobile of the will; which ideal legality reduced to words, is couched in the following formula:—“Act from a maxim at all times fit for law universal.” Here nothing is expressed except general legality (dispensing with any particular law pointing to any given act), which serves the will for its determining principle, and which must in truth do so, unless the whole notion of duty is to be abandoned as chimerical and absurd. The above position is in entire unison with the notices of the most untutored reason; and the principle of universal fitness is, however darkly, ever present to the mind. A few examples will set this beyond doubt.
Let the question be put, if, when in difficulty, I may not promise, although determined to act otherwise than I say,—and every one will at once see the vast distinction betwixt an inquiry, whether or no it be prudent, and whether it be right (i.e., conformable to laws of duty), to promise deceitfully. That it were cleverly done is quite conceivable; nay, it would require much adroitness, since it were not enough by this evasion to secure for once my by-ends and interests, but it would be requisite to ponder the posterior disadvantages, and to study whether the consequences of this deceit might not issue in depriving mankind of all confidence in me,—an evil perhaps greater than that from which I proposed rescuing myself. So that it might be needful to consider if it were not, even in point of prudence, better to act from a maxim possessed of universal fitness, which could serve me for ever, and to adopt the principle never to promise apart from the intention to perform. But still, in this latter event, it is obvious that the maxim were based on an apprehension of the troublesome consequences attendant on deception; and it is quite different to adhere to truth out of a principle of duty, and to adhere to it from an apprehension of unpleasant sequents. In the former case, the very notion of speaking truth involves in it its own law, commanding how to act; the second compels me to look beyond the action, to ascertain how I may be affected by it. For when I swerve from the principle of duty, I know for certain my action to be evil; but if a maxim of prudence (expediency) only be departed from, I cannot tell whether the result may not fall out highly conducive to my advantage, although the safer plan were to abide by it. Now, in order to know whether a deceitful promise consists with duty, I put the question, Can I will my maxim (to free myself from embarrassment by a false promise) law, in a code or system of universal moral legislation? and the answer is, that the thing is impossible; for it were then vain for any one to say what he would do, others not believing the declaration, and repaying one another after the same fashion; consequently my maxim, if elevated to the rank of law, would become self-destructive and inconsistent, i.e., unfit for law universal.
What, therefore, I have to do in order that my volition be morally good, requires no great acuteness. How inexperienced soever in the course of external nature, I only ask, Canst thou will thy maxim to become law universal? If not, it is to be rejected, and that not on account of any disadvantages emerging to thyself and others, but because it is unfit for law in a system of universal moral legislation. For this potential legislation, reason forces me to entertain immediate disinterested reverence. And though we do not yet descry on what this emotion is founded, still we understand thus much of it, that it is the representing a worth far transcending the value of whatever is addressed to appetite and inclination; and that the necessity of an act out of pure reverence for the law is that which constitutes duty, before the representation of which law every other mobile recedes,—that being the condition of a will good in itself, the worth of which is above all.
And now we have evolved the principle whereon depend the common ethic notices we find mankind generally possessed of; a principle not of course cogitated in this abstract form, but which is notwithstanding, how darkly soever, always at hand, and made use of daily by all mankind in their common practical opinions and judgments. The task were easy to show how, with the aid of this principle for a compass, reason can in every instance steer for good and evil, and all this without teaching mankind anything new or unknown, provided only, as Socrates did, we made reason attentive to her own latent operations; and consequently, how we stand in no need of science or philosophy to know what it behoves us to do that we may become honest and good, nay, even wise and virtuous. This might have been surmised from the nature of the case, that an acquaintance with what was to be done, which for that reason it concerned every man to know, would have lain at the door of the most common person. Nor can we sufficiently admire how the practical and active powers of man are so much more easily exercised than we find the same powers to be in their theoretic and speculative use; for whenever untutored reason ventures upon this last, and quits the field of experience and observation, she gets involved on the instant in the incomprehensible, and becomes entangled in her own operations, or, however, errs through a labyrinth of inextricable doubt and uncertainty. But as soon as man has, for a practical end, excluded all à posteriori motives (every mobile taken from experience and observation) from the action of the moral law, then it is that his reason, all untutored as it may be, shows itself in the greatest vigour; it becomes even subtle, and chicanes with its own conscience as to the demands of duty, or sometimes may seek for its own instruction to determine accurately the worth of actions, and, what is the point to be observed, may expect to do so as successfully as any sage,—nay, may solve such practical questions better; for the philosopher can, after all, have no other principles to proceed on than what the unlettered and vulgar have; and his decision stands in hazard of being biassed by a multitude of foreign considerations, and so of deflecting from the right road to truth. And this leads us again to the further question, if, since all this is so, it were not better to leave these ethic notions unphilosophized upon,—at least to bring in the aid of science only to make the system more complete, or to assign rules for the purpose of polemical debate, but not to employ it for any practical behoof, and so distort the common sense of mankind from its native innocence and simplicity.
Innocence is indeed invaluable, but then it does not know how to defend itself, and is easily seduced. Hence it comes that even wisdom (which consists not in knowledge, so much as in what man practically pursues and avoids) stands in need of aid from science, not to learn anything, but to procure an inlet and stable foundation for her decrees. Man feels within him a mighty counterpoise against those edicts of duty which reason represents to be so highly august and venerable;—a counterpoise arising from his physical wants and instincts, the aggregate gratification of all which he calls happiness. Reason, however, unremittingly issues her inexorable command, and holds out to the appetencies no prospect or promise of any sort; and so seems to disregard and hold for nought their tumultuous and yet plausible claims, although these are not put to silence by the law. From this there results a dialectic within a man’s own self, i.e., a propensity or proneness to quibble away these rigid laws of duty,—at least to raise doubts as to their extent and severity, and to shape them, if possible, into a form coinciding with man’s appetites and wants; that is, in other words, to corrupt at the source the fountain of duty, and to tarnish and cloud all its dignity, which, however, again reason comes to revolt at, and disapproves.
We see, then, how it happens that even unlettered and vulgar reason is forced to step from home, and enter the fields of practical philosophy; not certainly to satisfy a speculation (by no fit of which the reason of the vulgar, so long as he is sane, is at any time invaded), but in order to be resolved as to her practical doubts, and to gain information there as to the origin and foundation of our own principles, and to be enabled to fix their weight and importance, when contrasted with those other maxims which rest singly on appetite and want, and so to be extricated from the double embarrass caused by these twofold claims, and shun the hazard of making peril of genuine ethic principles. And as reason, in its speculative use, fell into a dialectic with itself, in the same way we find that the practical reason, even of the unlettered, arrives unawares at the same antagonism with itself. Nor can either the one or other hope to attain security and repose, except by instituting an accurate inquiry into the reach and extent of their own à priori functions and operations.
[* ]Ref. 4, from p. 40.—C.
[2 ]For Kant’s distinction between Reason, and other faculties of mind, v. p. 64.—C.
[* ]Ref. 4, from page 40.—C.
[* ]See pp. 26 (note), 99, and 113.—C.
[* ]Ref. 4, from p. 40.—C.
[* ]Perhaps some may think that I take refuge behind an obscure feeling, under the name of Reverence, instead of throwing light upon the subject by an idea of reason. But although reverence is a feeling, it is no passive feeling received from without, but an active emotion generated in the mind by an idea of reason, and so specifically distinct from all feelings of the former sort, which are reducible to either love or fear. What I immediately apprehend to be my law, I recognise to be so with reverence; which word denotes merely the consciousness of the immediate, unconditional, and unreserved subordination of my will to the law. The immediate determination of the will by the law, and the consciousness of it, is called reverence, and is regarded, not as the cause, but as the effect, of the law upon the person. Strictly speaking, reverence is the representation of a worth before which self-love falls; it cannot, therefore, be regarded as the object of either love or fear, although it bears analogy to both. The object of reverence is therefore alone the law, and in particular that law which, though put by man upon himself, is yet, notwithstanding, in itself necessary. As law, we find ourselves subjected to it without interrogating self-love; yet as imposed upon us by ourselves, it springs from our own will; and in the former way resembles fear, in the latter love. Reverence, even when felt for a person, results from the law whereof that person gives us the example (Cato, of integrity). If to cultivate talents be a duty, then we figure to ourselves a learned man, as if he presented to our view the image of law, enjoining us to be conformed to his example; and thus our reverence for him arises. What is called a moral interest, is based solely on this emotion.