“Kantian Moral Law: Abide by the Will”

In Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, the author attempts to define moral law via a connection to respect for the rational, human being.  Although one may think he/she is autonomous in his/her intent (of an act), Kant believes that these motives cannot ever be fully known.  This is because they are things-in-themselves, existing out of time.  One must use reason to describe past notions by “looking back;” however, this does not account for what occurs in the present, for the operations of the ‘will’ can never be seen.  Therefore, one sees the will from Kant’s ‘second standpoint,’ of a descriptive nature, in order to interpret that of the ‘first standpoint,’ being experience (the empirical). In this essay, we will reveal the moral law according to Kant through the examination of duties to ourselves and others, why such obligations must necessarily exist, and how we can’t contour our decision-making because it is subconscious. By “contour,” I mean the active process of improving the ability to reconstruct movements of the will. In this improvement, one is learning how to describe decision-making more accurately, for “we can never, even by the strictest examination, completely plumb the depths of the secret incentives of our actions.”[1]

From the Ancient Greek perspective, there were three sciences:  physics, ethics, and logic.  Before one delves into the inner operation of reason, he/she should have a basic understanding of rational knowledge on a whole.  According to Kant, said knowledge can be divided into two parts, being the material and the formal.  While the former is concerned with some object (empirical), the latter is concerned with the form of understanding (logical).  By examining the material world, it can be seen that there are determinate objects and the laws they bear.  This is because the physical world is subject to certain laws of nature, relative to spatiotemporal realms.  Bringing through Greek thought, one can see how physics is the modern interpretation of the laws of nature, or ‘what happens.’  On the other hand, ethics pertains to the laws of freedom, or ‘what ought to happen.’  As a modern thinker, Kant forges the empirical and the ‘pure’ into a material metaphysics, which is still logical and founded on a priori principles.

By establishing a new framework, Kant presents two modified perspectives:  “physics proper” should be translated to a ‘metaphysics of nature,’ and “ethics” to a ‘metaphysics of morals.’ Although, one must carefully strip all empirical inferences:

“…there is the utmost necessity for working out for once a pure moral philosophy that is wholly cleared of everything which can only be empirical and can only belong to anthropology.”[2]

Furthermore, Kant deems the empirical “highly detrimental to the purity of morals,” which may be due to the subjective interpretations of such. [3] Though the empirical grants one the experience to sharpen his/her judgment, logic gives a priori laws to man as a rational being, thus, an obligation to act with such. In order to see what one’s rational is truly capable of, the metaphysics of morals “must be sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason.”[4]

Speaking of the rational man, it seems as though this is Kant’s main support as to the moral worth of law.  In agreement with his convictions on universality, if all men were to admit that a law is morally valid (in terms of obligation), then it “must carry with it absolute necessity.”[5] On the contrary, these moral motives can be subject to speculation and corruption, which is why a “supreme norm” is necessary to serve as a guide and judge.[6]  Furthermore, a genuine conformity to said law is as necessary as its existence, thus, Kant’s affirmation of the Categorical Imperative (law of universality):

“…supremacy of the law and from the respect owed to the law. Without the latter expectation, these principles condemn man to self-contempt and inward abhorrence.”[7]

After confirming that “moral law in its purity and genuineness […] can be sought nowhere but in a pure philosophy,” purity in reason must precede the metaphysics of morals.[8]

Moving forward, Kant begins to establish why humans in particular deserve respect, leading to how and why moral obligations must necessarily exist.  Namely, he introduces the idea of the ‘will,’ which is intrinsically good:

“A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself.”[9]

To him, this instinct is better than all other moral guidelines.  This is because most faculties of man can be used for either good or bad, and there must be some basis for proper action.  To confirm his point, Kant draws from the “natural constitution of the organized being” as his support.[10]  According to the individual, self-preservation and attainment of happiness are the highest of priorities, and instinct (over reason) is promoted for just these purposes:

“…human reason can, even in the most ordinary mind, be easily brought in moral matters to a high degree of correctness and precision, while on the other hand in its theoretical but pure use it is wholly dialectal.”[11]

The human ability to reason brings out a will that is good in itself, not for a purpose alone, i.e. happiness.

Moreover, as a rational, organized being, there is a general concept of duty that includes a good will, fate, respect, and so on:

“We shall take up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will, though with certain subjective restrictions and hindrances, […] bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth more brightly.”[12]

In having a good, ‘free’ will there comes the responsibility and process of enacting the will’s freedom.  Within Kant’s metaphysics, reason produces maxims, being the descriptions of the space of possible actions (‘wille’). This is a creative fact performed by the will, thus, is independent of time. Through this line of reasoning, one generates a nature law, e.g. whether the world from such a maxim is possible:

“…if duty is a concept which is to have significance and real legislative authority [mandated] for our actions, then such duty can be expressed only in categorical imperatives…”[13]

Afterwards, the option for the maxim after universalizing (‘wilkur’) presents itself. One visualizes the consequences of his actions by applying the act universally, and said maxim either passes or fails; this eventually results in good moral character.  Indeed, “such laws may be better than nothing at all, but they can never give us principles dictated by reason.”[14]  Therefore, Kant indicates three propositions for obligation and necessity:  generally good for sake of duty alone; actions judged by motivation (maxim) not purpose-specific; and should be taken out of reverence for the law.

In order to make sense of a will one does not experience directly through the course of his/her life, he/she must then learn by ‘looking-back.’ The describing of the action, being its apparently true intention, can only be accomplished through examining the past:     “…we actually do not will that our maxim should become a universal law – because this is impossible for us.”[15] Therefore, this is done in a descriptive fashion, which requires accurate reasoning of one’s experiences; pragmatically, the accuracy in one’s judgments is improved over time.  Nevertheless, despite the importance of inclination, the necessity of the maxim’s universality must allow for exceptions in order for it to feel genuine:

“…a contradiction in our own will, viz., that  certain principle be objectively necessary as a universal law and yet subjectively not hold universally but should admit of exceptions.”[16]

Specifically, Kant reasons that one must first recognize the temporal difference between the two standpoints, as applied to physical and mental realities, in order to begin the process of progressing in moral character.

By redefining the term “perfect” to mean “rational,” Kant segregates acts into four categories: (1) perfect duties to oneself; (2) perfect duties to others; (3) imperfect duties to oneself; (4) imperfect duties to others.  Following with the basis for his inclinations, Kant illustrates the importance of intention:

“For duty has to be a practical, unconditioned necessity of action; hence it must hold for all rational beings (to whom alone an imperative is at all applicable) and for this reason only can it also be a law for all human wills.”[17]

Because the process seems to be so closely associated with learning from one’s past, Kant showcases his reasoning for examples of the four types of duties, supporting his theory of universality.

By employing the Categorical Imperative, the subject questions his own reasoning capabilities, without taking any “imperfect” bias into account.  To showcase this reasoning, Kant presents four situations in example form. The first example, having to do with not committing suicide, is an example of a (1) perfect duty to oneself; although this does appear paradoxical for it can promote one to destroy and further life simultaneously, the principle of self-love cannot be considered universal. Moving forward, the second example (having to do with keeping promises) portrays a (2) perfect duty to others; the principle of personal advantage cannot be considered universal.  This proves to be self-contradictory for the notion of promises would not exist in a reality with such a universal.  Of the examples shown, the latter two demonstrate imperfect duties, in which the maxim is not rationally supported.  For the third example, cultivating one’s talents is (3) imperfect to oneself, due to the prosperity in indulgence, and the last example involving benefiting others is (4) imperfect to others for “a will resolved in this way would contradict itself.”[18]

            As stated earlier, Kant believes the human being should be respected for its ability to reason rationally, and that this trait is inherently in man, in the sense that one is granted relative autonomy and so on.  Therefore, the implementation of the Categorical Imperative proves to show a law – based on accordance with potential universality – would be objective (if not the closest to so).  However, one does not have the luxury of knowing his/her true motivations at the time of an action; despite all effort, the ‘will’ can only be described and seen in the past, as an attempt to make sense of an experience.  Nevertheless, the categorical imperative seems to replicate natural, moral law and its tribulations:

“We must be able to will that a maxim of our action become a universal law; this is the canon for morally estimating any of our actions.”[19]

In totality, it seems as though Kant is truly admitting humans are not nearly as free as we think we are. Although one is able to make choices, one is not knowledgeable of his/her true intent, and in that, one remains ignorant unless careful attention is paid to the past, in an effort to learn from it.  Nevertheless, this appears to be a way of actively manipulating one’s character, paying no mind to that which one cannot help – for one will never know. Of what one does know, one has the power to prove – theoretically – through further actions.


[1] Kant, Immanuel, James W. Ellington, and Immanuel Kant, “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns” (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1993) 19.417-8.

[2] Ibid., 2.396-8.

[3] Ibid., 34.433-4.

[4] Ibid., 2.405.

[5] Ibid., 2.399.

[6] Ibid., 3.393.

[7] Ibid., 34.429-431.

[8] Ibid., 3.399-400.

[9] Ibid., 7.405-8.

[10] Ibid., 8.396,

[11] Ibid., 4.413-15.

[12] Ibid., 9.402-5.

[13] Ibid., 33.425-7.

[14] Ibid., 34.425-6.

[15] Ibid., 32.439.

[16] Ibid., 33.444-6.

[17] Ibid., 33.438-441.

[18] Ibid., 32.418-9.

[19] Ibid., 32.425-6

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