Kant Answers: Commentary

This page provides a commentary to the excerpt from Kant’s ‘Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals’


In this text, Immanuel Kant considers one of the fundamental questions of philosophy: what is it to be morally good? Like Aristotle, Kant will hold that moral worth does not belong to actions but is a quality of the individual. However, Kant’s approach is both more pragmatic than Aristotle’s and more restricted. It is more pragmatic because it offers us a test or procedure that we can employ to determine whether any particular decision of the will has moral worth. It is more restricted because what is morally good turns out to be only that which is rationally coherent. Certainly, the feelings of the agent, of those affected and of society in general will count for nothing in Kant’s system.

Kant begins his inquiry by asking after the function of reason. Why, in short, are human beings equipped with the faculty of reason? One might suppose that it is reason that helps guide our actions towards fulfilling our desires and making us happy, but Kant thinks this notion can be easily dismissed since instinct is a much surer guide to producing results that are self-serving than reason. The thought here might be something along the lines that it is our senses that are more finely tuned to satisfying our wants than our intellect. Moreover, Kant notes that it is often the very use of our reason that leads to unhappiness and further misery. The more we know and think, the more, it seems, we have to worry about. Therefore, Kant concludes, nature must have provided us with reason for some other purpose than to attain happiness.

This purpose, Kant suggests, is to guide the will towards goodness. Since reason can influence the will, we know that reason must have evolved for some practical benefit. Since it is not fit for producing good results, Kant concludes that the only other possible function of reason must be to produce a good will, where that is understood as a will that is good in-itself, and not for anything that it produces.

Having established that the purpose of reason is to produce a will that is good, Kant states that what is further needed is an elucidation of the notion of a good will through an explication of the concept of duty. Duty includes the notion of a good will with certain subjective caveats. It is distinct from both acting in accordance with what is right and from what is in our best interests. Indeed, we can more clearly get a grip on the notion of duty by recognising that duty often conflicts with our own interests and desires, and it is in just these cases that we recognise ‘duty’ as the operating principle. When the motive for action is duty, Kant claims, without regard to ends or purposes, but only with regard to doing our duty for duty’s sake, then we can properly say the action has moral worth.

Three principles emerge:
i. Someone’s action is morally praiseworthy when they act against their inclinations because duty requires it of them.
ii. An action done from duty derives its moral worth not from its results or its purpose but from the principle the agent followed in doing it; and
iii. Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the principle.

The final question that Kant needs to address is what kind of principle could command such respect? Certainly, he does not mean to imply any principle or rule in particular. It is not breaking one’s promises or never lying that commands respect; rather, it is the notion that the action is determined by a rule that is universally applicable without pain of contradiction. Thus, it turns out, breaking one’s promise is not something everyone could do, for it would undermine the practice of promise-keeping. This would no doubt be undesirable in any society, but that undesirability is not Kant’s point. If it were, it would collapse his argument into being about means and ends and not duties, after all. Kant’s point is rather that ‘For with such a law there would be no promises at all…my maxim, as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself.’ If I will that everyone breaks their promises, the concept of promising itself becomes incoherent, since the meaning of the notion depends on the idea that one will do as one says. To take a different example from Kant’s, one equally cannot make it a universal maxim that everyone in society should break the law, for where no laws are obeyed there is no society – the meaning of ‘society’ necessarily includes, one might argue, the idea that a collection of individuals agree to be bound by common rules.

In conclusion, then, Kant’s claim is that respect for rational coherence is what commands the respect of the will. This is precisely why the faculty of reason is perfectly adapted to producing a good will and not good results. The faculty of reason has only ‘weak insight’ about what is good for the individual, but it can judge whether something is rationally coherent or not, and is thus fit to make prescriptions to the will about what is good, a notion Kant is careful to distinguish from what is good for the will. Whether the will of the individual respects and follows that prescription or not must depend on other characteristics of the individual’s personality. Regardless of how that turns out, Kant will claim that reason has done the job nature provided it for.

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    • Johnb286
    • August 17th, 2014

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