Philosophy Essays On Kants Fundamental Principles

One of the more perplexing aspects of Kant’s practical philosophy is the relationship between his earlier works in moral philosophy, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Practical Reason, and The Metaphysics of Morals. Part of the difficulty stems from the different methodological status of the latter work. In the Metaphysics, Kant builds a theory of justice and virtue, whereas in the earlier works he explores the rational basis of morality.

Since the Metaphysics is about principles of action and the earlier works put forward (various versions of) the principle of justification of principles of action (i.e. the categorical imperative), the crucial question for an adequate understanding of Kant’s practical philosophy is about the relationship between the principles of right and virtue and the categorical imperative. First, an interpreter needs to be clear whether the fundamental principles of right and virtue are derived from or justified by the imperative; or whether they are, or can be seen as, relatively independent from it. Secondly, a related question concerns the role of the imperative in Kant’s practical philosophy as a whole. According to the textbook interpretation, Kant believed that the imperative can by itself answer all central questions about morals. The Metaphysics, by contrast, suggests that the imperative is one, although central, among many elements of moral thinking.

It is the relationship between Kant’s earlier works in practical philosophy and the Metaphysics that is the leading theme of Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals: Interpretative Essays edited by Mark Timmons. In this collection of excellent essays, some of which were presented at the 1997 Spindel Conference commemorating the bicentennial of the publication of The Metaphysics of Morals, leading Kant scholars discuss various aspects of this work and Kant’s practical philosophy as a whole.

The seventeen essays collected in the book can be divided into two large groups. Papers of the first group address questions of political and legal order and the place of Kant’s political philosophy in his practical philosophy. The topics of most other essays are related to the fundamental question of practical deliberation and motivation. As mentioned above, all essays explore in their own ways the relationship between Kant’s metaethical and ethical views. In my presentation of the essays, I shall follow this leading theme, diverging from their order in the book, where they are organized according to the sequence of topics in the Metaphysics.

Allen Wood’s opening essay challenges the dominant picture of Kant’s moral philosophy as reducible to the test of the categorical imperative from which all principles of justice and virtue are to be derived. Wood points to those aspects of the Metaphysics of Morals which question the typical rigorist and anti-teleological interpretation of Kant’s practical philosophy, according to which matters of moral value are centered around action in abstraction from emotions, consequences and character. In particular, stressing the analyticity of Kant’s principle of right (from which principles of justice derive), Wood argues for the independence of the principle from the categorical imperative. This claim is the subject matter of the next three essays.

Thomas W. Pogge agrees with Wood and defends Kant’s political philosophy as independent from transcendental idealism and critical practical philosophy, with a view to making Kant’s liberalism acceptable to citizens of modern political societies. Pogge argues that Kant’s argument for political society can be seen as based on an analysis of the idea of a juridical order. This analysis generates rules of interaction of beings each of whom has an interest in the greatest possible freedom. Pogge adds that the independence of the argument for the juridical order from the rest of Kant’s critical philosophy is consistent with Kant’s claim that the principle of right is entailed by his practical philosophy. Kant’s liberalism can be arrived at by an analysis of the idea of juridical order, apart from his critical practical philosophy.

Paul Guyer rejects this interpretation of Kant’s political philosophy. Guyer convincingly argues that the analyticity of a proposition does not imply that it does not need justification or derivation. The logical correctness of an argument does not prove the objective reality of what is proven. Drawing on textual evidence, Guyer says that the principle of right is derived from the concept of freedom (which is accessible to agents in the form of the categorical imperative). Deduction of this principle belongs to Kant’s practical philosophy, which is embedded in his transcendental idealism.

Bernd Ludwig draws a similar conclusion. Using Pogge’s analytic approach, Ludwig explains that Kant’s political theory cannot be separated from transcendental idealism. To see the juridical order as based on an analysis of the concept of such an order, one has to have an understanding of who the “units,” i.e. persons, that participate in that order are. Since Kant thinks of persons as free causes, his understanding of persons must be rooted in transcendental idealism’s idea of causation. A similar dependence, Ludwig says, can be found in Kant’s argument for property rights, which rely on his idea of practical reason.

The subject of property rights is addressed to a greater extent by Kenneth R. Westphal who focuses on the contradiction in the conception test of the categorical imperative (in its version as the Universal Law of Right). Westphal argues that property rights are necessary for finite beings who live under the conditions of scarcity of space and resources and who attempt to achieve rationally their ends. Property rights are means of protecting human beings’ pursuit of their ends.

The exchange of arguments among Woods, Pogge, Guyer, and Ludwig is fascinating. It shows how the ideas of an influential philosopher of the past can provoke a genuine debate that is relevant to citizens of contemporary societies. In this respect, Thomas W. Pogge’s proposal seems particularly interesting since – despite the difficulties posed by the conceptual, if not argumentative, dependence of Kant’s theory of justice on his critical philosophy – it is an effort to include Kant’s philosophy in what Rawls called overlapping consensus.

The chapters discussed above address the most fundamental questions of justification of the principles of justice. Sarah Williams Holtman and Sharon Byrd discuss particular theses of Kant’s political philosophy. Holtman argues against Kant’s often-criticized claim that revolution is never permissible. She explains perceptively that Kant’s own thesis that the point of the state is to secure the carrying out of justice by providing an impartial interpretation of principles of justice requires that revolution be justifiable when state institutions and laws are obviously unjust, i.e. when the state does not perform its proper function. Holtman’s argument is especially important because of its “global” character. She takes into account not only Kant’s particular theses but also the spirit of his philosophy of right.

Sharon Byrd in turn discusses Kant’s theory of contracts but her approach differs from that of Holtman’s. She provides a detailed analysis of some key concepts of Kant’s theory of contracts to clarify his division of rights transferable through contracts as based on his general theory of contracts. For Kant a contract consists of two “sub-contracts”: the obligation-generating agreement to transfer something in a specified way from one party of the contract to the other, and the agreement to transfer rights to the thing contracted from one party to the other. Byrd also draws analogies between the division of rights transferable through contracts and the table of categories from Kant’s first Critique.

Papers by Marcus Willaschek and Katrin Flickschuh concentrate on the question of motivation and performance of duties of justice. In his insightful paper, Willaschek notes that according to Kant juridical laws require compliance irrespectively of the agent’s motives. This, however, generates a paradox: if obedience to an unconditional law presupposes no other motives than willingness to do what the law requires, then juridical laws cannot be unconditional or, if they are, they cannot prescribe actions. Willaschek proposes to solve the paradox in a very ingenious way. He considers Kant’s thesis that juridical laws represent the rightful condition of society and concludes that they contain only an authorization of agents to use coercion against those who upset this rightful social condition.

Katrin Flickschuh contrasts Kant’s account of desires with their modern understanding as subjective and unreasoned units in practical deliberation and links it to the ancients’ view of the matter. She suggests that, according to Kant, desire formation in political and economic contexts is constrained by the requirements of practical rationality, so that it is neither unreflective and beyond agents’ control, nor morally neutral. This conception of desires is closer to its ancient forerunners and provides an alternative to the modern view known from the economic and political literature.

The remaining essays of the book discuss Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue but they are significant for the interpretation of Kant’s entire practical philosophy. Onora O’Neill’s thoughtful paper addresses the central topic of Kant’s view of practical deliberation and the role of judgment in it. Commenting on Kant’s treatment of moral conflict, O’Neill argues that practical deliberation does not involve only mere application of principles but also designing appropriate responses to particular situations. This is due to the fact that the constraints of principles of action require satisfaction in all situations, even though it may sometimes be impossible to satisfy them all. Since the appropriate moral response to a situation should satisfy the constraints of all principles, or of as many of them as possible, practical judgment should be seen as inseparable from deliberation. O’Neill’s paper is especially valuable since it locates Kant’s moral philosophy in recent debates concerning the role of judgment in moral life. O’Neill provides both arguments and textual evidence that support the thesis that a Kantian view of practical deliberation is much more nuanced and in agreement with moral experience than it is usually supposed.

Robert N. Johnson discusses a comparably fundamental question of the relationship between some of Kant’s claims about human nature and his view of practical rationality. Having considered a number of interpretations, Johnson says that it is impossible to reconcile Kant’s thesis that happiness is a natural or pre-reflective end of human beings with his thesis that rational beings always choose the ends of their actions.

Papers by Thomas Hill, Jr., Mark Timmons, and Stephen Engstrom discuss more specific questions of moral motivation. Hill examines Kant’s claim that motivations for obedience to the law do not affect the moral worthiness of action. Hill brilliantly argues that in Kant’s philosophy conscience should be seen as a way in which agents become aware of moral requirements. By drawing parallels between Kant’s conception of conscience as an internal moral “tribunal” and Kant’s view of punishment, Hill proposes to understand the threat of punishment for unlawful behavior not as a motive for compliance but as a way of reminding citizens of their duty to abide by the law.

Mark Timmons argues that in order to preserve a central Kantian distinction between morality (moral worthiness) and legality (rightness) of actions, the motive of duty should not be seen as a condition of rightness of actions. Timmons also argues that Kant rejects the thesis that rightness of actions is independent of agent’s motives because motives are elements of act descriptions, which are taken into account in moral assessment of actions.

Engstrom convincingly shows a way to reconcile Kant’s understanding of virtue with the traditional view of it as a habit. By focusing on Kant’s thesis that agents’ practical freedom is proportionate to their virtue, Engstrom links Kant’s idea of virtue as moral strength in opposing passions to his notion of freedom and self-governance. On this account virtue involves a harmony of motives, which makes the agent resistant to determination by affects and passions. The advantage of Engstrom’s line of argument is that it has strong textual support, makes Kant’s conception of virtue close to the common understanding, and at the same time shows the historical links of this conception to the views of the ancients and Kant’s contemporaries.

Essays by Andrews Reath and Nelson Potter present two different interpretations of Kant’s conception of duties to oneself. Reath holds that Kant’s notion of duties to oneself should be seen from the perspective of the idea of self-legislation by agents who recognize that the principles they propose must satisfy certain deliberative requirements (universalizability). Reath interprets universalizability in an unorthodox way as a requirement that has to be satisfied by actual members of societies, which presupposes a conception of morality as a common enterprise of a plurality of agents in which duties to oneself are requirements of membership in society. In opposition to Reath and closer to the textual evidence, Potter argues that for Kant ethical as opposed to legal duties are relatively loosely linked to the social character of human action. Potter emphasizes Kant’s thesis that duties to oneself are the foundation of morality because they express and preserve the moral capacities of human beings. This centrality of duties to oneself can be appreciated by noting the moral-educational aspect of some violations of duties to oneself, as can be seen in the corrupting effect of self-deception on the agent’s moral personality.

In the final chapter, Marcia Baron discusses Kant’s account of love and respect as opposed to each other and compares it to the modern-day understanding of the two. Baron suggests that the large discrepancies between Kant’s and contemporary understandings of love and respect for others are due to the importance he attached to agents’ freedom and self-direction.

Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals is an extremely valuable book. First, it is devoted to one of the most neglected of Kant’s works. It examines various aspects of his practical philosophy and often shows it in a new light. Despite the variety of topics and approaches, the book’s chapters are surprisingly complementary, giving the reader a fairly comprehensive view of Kant’s theory of morals. Although the book is often very demanding, anyone interested in Kant’s practical philosophy will certainly want to learn from it. Secondly, the book’s value is not only exegetical. All the authors treat Kant’s practical philosophy as more than a bit of history. They devote a lot of effort to arriving at an adequate understanding of Kant’s ideas, but at the same time they test the relevance of his theory to the realities of contemporary societies. For this reason, the book is not only an invaluable contribution to Kant scholarship. It is also important reading for all those who are looking for philosophical resources to address moral problems of today.

This book brings together ten essays by Mark Timmons (three of them co-authored with Houston Smit). The book has three parts: (1) 'Interpreting the Categorical Imperative' contains four essays that focus on the role of the categorical imperative. (2) 'Motive, Rightness, and Virtue' consists of four essays (two co-authored) which focus on the Doctrine of Virtue, explicating the way in which various specific duties are grounded in the categorical imperative, in particular in the humanity formula, as well as providing detailed discussions of particular duties, most notably the duty of gratitude. (3) 'The Psychology of Moral Evil' contains two essays (one co-authored and another previously unpublished) that are concerned with Kant's account of evil in the Religion and that attempt to explicate the variety and breadth of different types of evil, as well as to reconcile different degrees of evil at the empirical level with a commitment to rigorism at the transcendental level. The essays combine careful scholarship with insightful philosophical analysis. Due to considerations of space, this review will focus on the main line of argumentation that runs through parts 1 and 2.

After having identified the categorical imperative as the supreme principle of morality, Kant puts forward a number of variant formulations (the formula of the law of nature, the formula of humanity, and the formula of the kingdom of ends). One of the central problems for Kant interpreters is to explain how these formulations relate to each other and what role they are meant to play. In chapter 2, Timmons argues that the formulas are meant to fulfil different roles. In particular, the law of nature formula is downgraded to a mere decision procedure. It is taken to constitute a test that we can employ in deliberation and evaluation. Although it is (generally) a reliable guide, it does not identify the features in virtue of which actions are right or wrong, but is only correlated with these features. The criterion of right, instead, is provided by the humanity formula. It identifies the right- and wrong-making features and thereby explains what makes it the case that actions have their respective deontic statuses.

Timmons not only downgrades universalisability to a mere decision procedure, but also argues that it is not sufficient by itself, but dependent on the formula of humanity. His argument begins with the claim that universalisation approaches have to address the problem of moral relevance. Since actions can be described in various ways, one needs to provide an account as to how actions are to be described. In particular, one needs to explain which aspects of actions are relevant and form part of the content of the maxim that is to be universalised and which aspects are to be left out and are properly ignored. If the description is either too abstract or too specific, then the maxim will be universalisable for the wrong reason. Timmons accepts that if one is concerned with subjective rightness, then one can follow O'Neill's proposal and consider all those features that are part of the agent's subjective principle of action to be relevant. However, if one also wants to have an account of objective rightness, then it would seem that one requires an external criterion of relevance. Timmons argues that the problem of moral relevance can be solved by means of the notion of humanity. Since humanity is the criterion of right, it determines which features make an action right or wrong. It is these right- and wrong-making features that also determine what is relevant and needs to be included in the description of an action. The proposal is thus to understand objective rightness by means of the universalisability of a maxim described in terms of the objective right- and wrong-making features that are picked out by the criterion of right, namely the formula of humanity.

Timmons, however, goes on to argue in chapter 3 that, even when supplemented by a theory of moral relevance, the universal law formula is nevertheless inadequate. The problem, in particular, is that it does not enable us to end up with verdicts that have sufficient determinacy. The formula of universal law, accordingly, is not a perfectly reliable guide and is not capable of always reaching the correct verdict. This means that the co-extensiveness of the different formulas is to be rejected. Whilst arguing that it is not a perfect guide, Timmons suggests in chapter 4 that the universal law formula is nevertheless useful. On the one hand, it is useful in practice insofar as it highlights the duplicity in agents who make exceptions for themselves. On the other, it is philosophically significant since it identifies various formal constraints, which Timmons labels 'law-likeness', 'supremacy' and 'respect', that fundamental right-making features must have and that lead us to the humanity formulation, which Timmons takes to be the fundamental substantive principle that constitutes the core of Kant's ethics.

The main upshot of part 1 is thus meant to be that universalisability is not capable of playing a foundational role but needs to be supplemented. One cannot get substantive moral conclusions out of a formal universalisability principle. In order to generate substantive conclusions, content needs to be provided that adds constraints that go beyond the merely formal requirement not to make exceptions for oneself. Timmons argues that this additional content is provided by the notion of humanity. Instead of the universal law formula, it is the humanity formula that does all the foundational work. The primary goal of part 2 is to spell out how one can derive the various duties of virtue from the humanity formula.

Chapter 6 (co-authored with Smit) is concerned with the derivation of duties of virtue from this formula, both duties to oneself (qua animal being as well as qua rational being) and duties to others (duties of love as well as duties of respect). This derivation project is not merely understood in terms of classifying various actions as right or wrong but in terms of explaining what makes these actions right or wrong. The project of deriving specific duties from the formula of humanity is rendered difficult by the fact that the idea of treating humanity as an end in itself rather than merely as a means would appear to be too abstract, indeterminate and vague. Timmons and Smit try to address this worry by identifying various 'specification principles' that specify the abstract principle that we have to respect humanity. These specification principles provide determinate content to the requirement of respecting humanity and thereby make possible the derivation of specific duties. Whilst Timmons and Smit make important progress in illuminating and explaining the various duties that Kant discusses in the Doctrine of Virtue and go into much more detail than commentators usually do,[1] the specification principles, which play a crucial role in the derivations, do not stand up to scrutiny.

One concern about the specification principles is that too much is built into them, so that instead of deriving duties from an abstract principle, one simply builds in the results that one wants to end up with.[2] Whilst Timmons and Smit are aware of this issue (cf. the 'criterion of independence', p. 179), it is not clear that they suitably deal with it. This is especially worrisome when it comes to a principle they call 'impartiality'. From the idea of moral equality, which amounts to the claim that all rational agents have equal moral status, one is meant to arrive at (both a positive and a negative) principle of impartiality:

facts about my humanity provide not only me with normative reason to adopt general ends and more specific maxims of action, but those same facts about my humanity provide anyone who is relevantly situated with such reasons to adopt ends and more specific maxims, and vice versa. That is, such considerations provide reasons to acknowledge in maxims and action the claims that the morally legitimate ends of others (particularly their needs) have on us. (p. 187)

This rather substantive impartiality principle, however, does not follow from the commitment to the abstract and formal idea of moral equality. Having equal moral status does not imply that everyone who is similarly situated has reasons to adopt and pursue general ends. More importantly, this, in turn, does not imply that anyone has reasons to pursue the legitimate ends of others and that one agent's ends can give rise to claims on other agents. A situation in which everyone only has reasons to pursue their own ends is perfectly compatible with a commitment to moral equality. Rather than being derived from the idea of moral equality, this impartiality principle, which effectively builds in something that is very close to the duty of beneficence, appears to be simply stipulated.

Relatedly, two problems arise when it comes to the supposed derivation of the duty of beneficence from the principle of impartiality. First, as they note, "this principle presupposes that there are humanity-based reasons for individuals to set and strive to achieve ends" (p. 207). This, however, is problematic. The ends that are to be promoted through beneficence are meant to be discretionary ends. They are desire-based, not humanity-based. This brings out that the impartiality principle put forward by Timmons and Smit (let alone the idea of moral equality) is not a suitable principle for deriving beneficence. Far from it being the case that the reasons are shared by everyone who is relevantly situated, there is a crucial difference between the reasons that an agent has to pursue his or her own ends and the reasons that people have to be beneficent. The reasons that I have to pursue my ends are desire-based, yet the reasons that others have to help me in the pursuit of my ends are humanity-based.

Second, humanity-based reasons, which derive from non-discretionary ends, are meant to be superior to desire-based reasons, which derive from discretionary ends. Yet, it is not clear how this is meant to apply to an imperfect duty, such as the duty of beneficence, without giving rise to an unduly demanding duty that requires one to always give priority to the happiness of others over one's own merely prudential ends. (The principle of impartiality contains the parenthetical remark '(especially the needs)', which might be taken to partially mitigate concerns of demandingness, however it is far from clear how a restriction to, or special concern with, needs would follow from the principle of moral equality.) Timmons and Smit indicate that they consider reasons that relate to imperfect duties to be favouring rather than requiring reasons (cf. footnote 36, also cf. footnote 20). This, however, is not satisfactory. On the one hand, the notion of superiority has no clear interpretation in the case of favouring reasons (at any rate none that would not have radically demanding implications). On the other, it is not clear how the bifurcation into favouring and requiring reasons is to be derived from the single requirement to treat humanity as an end-in-itself rather than merely as a means, especially given that humanity is to be understood as a "limiting condition" and is to be construed merely "negatively" as something against which one is not to contravene (Groundwork, 4:437, 4:436).


Thanks to Mark Timmons and Houston Smit for helpful comments.

[1] Chapters 7 ‘Perfect duties to oneself as an animal being’ and 8 ‘The moral significance of gratitude in Kant’s ethics’ (co-authored with Houston Smit) go into even more detail.

[2] A further worry is that building in too much content makes it rather difficult to explain how one can arrive at the humanity formulation on the basis of the arguments that Kant gives in Groundwork I and II, which focus on issues of universalisability and the form of maxims. (Identifying the categorical imperative in the form of the formula of humanity is distinct from establishing this imperative, which happens in Groundwork III and is set aside by Timmons and Smit since their project is internal rather than external, cf. p. 177.)


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