I’m no Kantian expert. If you want to read a scholarly expert on Kant, refer to someone else. I am merely going to share some thoughts on Kant – The Great Philosophers by Ralph Walker (1998).
My Conclusions First.
The recurring thought I get from reading Kant’s moral ideas is that he has described a mathematical system, but no argument for practising maths. His categorical imperative begs the meta-ethical question: “why ought I engage in practical reason?” His entire system relies upon Reason’s successful exaltation, otherwise we can ask: “Why ought I always act rationally? Who made Reason God? What force compels us to obey Reason?”
Furthermore, even if Reason is akin to God, it does not follow that we are motivated to be moral. One must choose his obligations. One must freely choose the premises from which conclusions follow, whether from God or from man. Even if God is real and His moral law is real, we must freely choose it, thus attaining the motivation to be under its spell.
I also take issue with the assumption that moral law is necessarily rational. If moral law are commands from personhood (and not disembodied Reason) it need not be mathematically universalisable nor coherent–it need only be the will of said agent (of God). It may well be that moral law is rational, but it need not be fundamentally characterised so. If morality is fundamentally characterised as imperatives, it is as rational or irrational as its commander.
For Kant, morality is real and absolute–not relative or changing. Walker calls it “objective,” meaning not-subjective and therefore mind-independent. So, regardless of what anyone’s opinion, feeling, or belief is, morality is unflinching. This doesn’t mean that the moral act is always the same in every situation.
Kant talks about the ‘moral law’ to stress the imperative character of morality; he does not mean it can be neatly codified.Walker, 1998, page 8
Kant makes the distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives being obligations that follow from certain premises or conditions. A condition, or if-clause, becomes the end to which the action is pointed.
If the action [commanded] would be good simply as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical…Kant (G 414)
For example, consider the being inside a burning house. We can provide a hypothetical imperative: “If you want to live, exit the burning house.” The if-clause provides the conditional premise, and the conclusion is to exit the burning house. As a syllogism:
- Premise: You are in a burning house
- Premise: If you do not exist the house you will die
- Premise: You do not want to die
- Conclusion: You should exit the house
The conclusions of hypothetical imperatives are means to the ends defined in their premises.
In contrast to the hypothetical imperative, Kant defines the categorical imperative, an imperative which follows without any conditional premises. That is, the reason to obey a categorical imperative follows from the imperative itself–not from any conditional premises. As a syllogism, a categorical imperative is just the conclusion. Hence, the categorical imperative is at once its own end.
…but if the action is represented as good in itself and thus as a necessary principle for a will which is in itself in accordance with reason, then the imperative is categorical.Kant (G 414) (bold added)
Note the bolded conditional premise hidden in the above quote. The implied conditional statement is, “[if you are/possess a will] in accordance with reason, then…” Kant’s categorical imperative therefore breaks down into a hypothetical imperative, where the conditions are its end (i.e. rationality is Kant’s goal.)
But the only way in which Kant can sidestep this implicit conditional premises is to make an additional claim that we rational-capable animals should always be and act rationally.
Walker would disagree:
For Kant the moral value of an act depends on the moral law, not on any consequences. The difference is subtle but important. For the utilitarian …morality is concerned with how to get [happiness]. Kant would say that the utilitarian’s imperatives were only hypothetical, telling us how to achieve an assumed goal. On his view, it is the moral law itself that requires us to pursue those ends … and their value is derived entirely from the law, which lays them down as obligatory.Walker, 1998, page 12
But how does moral law “lay [its duties] down as obligatory”?
Imperatives, Obligations, and Commands.
Morals can be formulated as commands (i.e. imperatives or obligations), for example, “Do not kill innocent people.”
For hypotheticals, commands (e.g. above, “You should exit the house”) naturally emanates from within the context of conditional premises (the subject/agent’s desire to live). Since categorical imperatives do not rely upon conditional premises, they take the form of contextless commands.
Walker clarifies by saying,
By ‘imperatives’ Kant does not just mean ‘commands’: he means ‘commands of reason’. (Kant, P 20)Walker, 1998 page 7
But Reason does not command so we are not yet closer to knowing how categorical imperatives are not to be distilled into hypothetical imperatives.
Commands without a Commander.
Unlike the hypothetical imperative, there is (supposedly) no agent or personhood commanding the commandment. Kant thus defines a morally motivating set of commands without a commander. (Although his implicit commander is Reason itself–a point I will detail shortly).
However, commands require a commander. Commands only make sense when coming from an agent. It is incoherent to suggest otherwise. Self-defined, mind-isolated, intrinsically motivating moral facts are impossible. This can be demonstrated by the following:
“Because it is a command.”
“From no one.”
“Then what compels me to do X?”
“You are already motivated to obey it because you are aware of it.”
“Then why command it?”
“Because you are obliged to do X.”
“What happens if I don’t do X?”
“Nothing. You are defined as immoral.”
The above shows how impotent commanderless imperatives are.
The question of moral commands then is ultimately one about who is sovereign. This is a topic for another post. Suffice to say that, for Kant, Reason is sovereign.
The device that Kant uses to achieve commands without a commander is anthropomorphisation. Kant grants Reason itself personhood. He gives it intentionality. Reason is no longer the tool by which logic is practised, it is a red-blooded real boy. It intends, wants, commands, and compels by implied normative threat of force.
Kant grants Reason itself sovereignty within his moral framework. Whether he believed in God or not, it is evident that his deontological moral system exalts Reason to a high throne. This is evident when we see the word be used as if it were a proper noun.
For example, Kant says, “In order to will that which reason alone prescribes to a ration being affected by the senses in the form of an ‘ought’, it is certainly required that…” The word bolded by me here could be replaced with a name, Jimmy, perhaps. It would then read a lot easier–and of course lose Kant’s intended meaning (recall that Kant doesn’t mean for imperatives to be commands from an agent, but from reason itself sans personhood).
Kant makes the point that reason is required to derive necessary actions:
Only a rational being has the capacity to act in accordance with its idea of laws, that is, in accordance with principles: in other words, it has a will. Since for the derivation of actions from laws reason is required, the will is nothing other than practical reason.Kant (G 412)
But to derive actions is not the same as deriving motivation to act on said actions.
If Reason is not an agent for Kant, but a coherent system of disembodied laws, bereft of personhood, Kant must account for why its imperatives are forceful. He attempts this:
In order to will that which reason alone prescribes to a rational being affected by the senses …, it is certainly required that reason have the power to infuse a feeling of pleasure or of well-being at the fulfilment of a duty, and so there is required a causality of reason, by which it can determine the sensibility in accordance with its principles. Kant (G 460)
So, reason requires correspondence with a positive qualitative experience otherwise we will not be motivated to be moral.
But it is wholly impossible to understand … how a mere thought, which contains nothing that has to do with [qualitative experience], can produce a feeling of please or displeasure … Thus it is entirely impossible to explain how and why … [morality] should interest us. Kant (G 460)
Two questions are raised here, namely by the words, “how” and “why.”
First, why morality should interests us (if it does not already)? If our feelings do not correspond with moral law, and hence we are motivated toward immoral (or at best permissible) behaviour, Kant is unable to argue forcefully for our realignment toward moral law. Kant has to contend with the lack of moral behaviour and the rampant relativism of modern life amongst rational agents.
Secondly, how does pure thought impel the senses?
In modern moral error theory, this refers to the queerness of morality: how does reason cross the boundary of the intellect into the heart and motivate us to act? That is, if categorical imperatives do indeed motivate us to act obligingly, then the relationship between such rational laws are fundamentally different to all other known relations in the universe.
Facts, or true statements, don’t inherently inspire action, they require subjective desire for that. Recall:
- Premise: You are in a burning house (fact)
- Premise: If you do not exist the house you will die (fact)
- Premise: You do not want to die (subjective desire)
- Conclusion: You should exit the house (obligation/imperative/command)
Premise three completely relies on the psychological state of the subject of the argument. Without it, the argument is not sound. Hence when Kant elucidates a categorical morality, which introduces no subjective premises, he fails to argue convincingly for moral action.
In other words, if rational concepts are moral facts–and even if God proclaimed such moral laws, they would remain a fact–true statements, but the motivation to obey them would not inherent in them. That must be provided by an additional (subjective) element: the desire to be moral.
Rational does not imply normative.
…I believe it is best if one first proceeds analytically from ordinary knowledge to the determination of its supreme principle…Kant (G 392)
Hence, speaking as a German of his time (lifetime: 1724-1804), Kant begins his analysis of morality’s essence within the context of a Liberal culture. There is no reason to assume that what he takes as “ordinary” knowledge, corresponds to morality’s essence.
This unjustified assumption therefore influenced the character of the morality he ultimately distilled. The principles he derived are Liberal–for example, the primacy of reason and requirement for independence/freedom of the will.
By developing the concept of morality that is universally current [common/ordinary/popular], we have shown that … autonomy of the will is unavoidably connected with it…Kant (G 445)
No doubt, had Kant been living in a different culture, his morality formulations would assume a very different flavour. Perhaps instead of propping up Enlightenment anthropology (the natural free state of man) and its exaltation of reason and sense experience, Kant might formulate a moral system which is no less absolute but entirely aimed towards different goals. His commander may not have been Reason, but another God.