This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
(Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Ch. 9 & 10) I. The Context for Kant’s Philosophy (Ethics) A. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) spent his whole life in the university town Königsberg, Germany (after WW II, Königsberg became a part of Russia and is now called Kaliningrad). It has been said that Kant was so regular in his habits that some of citizens of Königsberg set their clocks by his daily afternoon walk. Kant was thoroughly immersed in the academic culture of his home town. He attended the University of Königsberg where he studied the rationalist metaphysics of Leibniz and Wolff, as well as mathematics and physics, especially the work of Newton. He was also deeply interested in the field of natural science and most of his early publications dealt with this subject. Following his university education he served as a family tutor for several years. In 1755, he was awarded what would be the equivalent to a doctoral degree and received permission to become a lecturer at the University. There were many failed attempts to win a professorship and Kant turned down several opportunities to teach in areas outside philosophy. Finally, in 1770, he was appointed professor of logic and metaphysics at Königsberg and for the next ten years published nothing. It was during this hiatus from publishing that Kant worked to formulate what would become his mature philosophy. B. In order for us to gain an appreciation of Kant and his philosophical approach, it is necessary that we understand the philosophical context in Europe at the time. The Renaissance (roughly 14th - 16th century) ushered in a new era of revitalized interest in all things scientific and philosophic; this period spelled the end of strict medieval authoritarianism (e.g. Scholasticism) in all areas of common life, especially the areas of religious practice and academic pursuits. The Modern period of philosophy coincides with the Renaissance and the first major philosopher of the period is Frenchman, René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes is best remembered for his methodical doubting of all his beliefs learned on the basis of received authority or derived from his own sensory experience. He continued this methodological doubt until he arrived at a belief that he found to be indubitable (incorrigible). That one belief that escaped his process of doubt was “I think, therefore I am” (Latin, cogito, ergo sum). With this indubitable foundational belief and his “clear and distinct” criterion of truth, Descartes set about to reconstruct his world of knowledge previously lost as a result of his methodological doubting. Descartes was the first of a series of philosophers collectively referred to as the Rationalists. The Rationalists held human reason in very high regard. They viewed the mind to be the primary source of knowledge and argued that the mind had access to fundamental truths in and of itself, without any dependence on sensory experience. These fundamental a prior truths provided the foundation for all other knowledge and from these all other truths (including truths about the world of experience) could be deduced. Some of
Page 2 of 8 the rationalists espoused the theory of innate ideas, a theory stating that the fundamental truths are not only discoverable by the mind absent sensory experience, but are hardwired in the mind from its origin. Among the other major philosophers associated with rationalism are Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677) and Gottfried Wilhelm, Baron von Leibniz (146-1716) whose philosophy was, as previously noted, an early influence on Kant. Together, these three philosophers are often referred to as the Continental Rationalists since all of them lived on the European continent.
Page 3 of 8 C. A second group of philosophers came along a little later and advanced a view of knowledge counter to that of the rationalist. These philosophers, often called the British Empiricists, rejected the theory of innate ideas, and each argued in their own way that human knowledge is derived only through our sensory interaction with the world. The British Empiricists are, Englishman, John Locke (1632-1704), Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) from Ireland, and Scotsman, David Hume (17111776). According to these Empiricists, the mind has no innate ideas, no building blocks of information out of which the structure of human knowledge may be erected. Locke claimed that the mind was a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) at birth and only acquires the ideas that eventually populate it and account for knowledge as the senses provide input about the world outside the mind. However, a problem was lurking in the midst of this theory of ideas, as Locke’s epistemology is sometimes called. If all that we know is limited to the ideas in our mind that are formed by virtue of sensory experience, then it appears that the mind cannot really know anything about the extramental world (the world independent of the mind). Bishop Berkeley noted this skeptical tendency toward the extra-mental world in Locke’s philosophy and accepted it wholeheartedly. In an effort to safeguard Christian belief against the threat of atheism, he simply denied that physical objects (things in the extra-mental world) exist except as they are being perceived by a mind. His famous dictum is esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived. Berkeley’s immaterialism is an extreme radical form of empiricism that not only denied we could have knowledge of an extra-mental world, but went on to say that the extra-mental world did not even exist independent of a perceiving mind. David Hume likewise accepted the skeptical tendencies in Locke’s brand of empiricism and even acknowledged the increasing skepticism about human knowledge in Berkeley’s view. He then extended that skeptical strategy well beyond the extra-mental world going so far as to deny that we could have knowledge of any thing that did not come to us by means of an impression on our senses or the idea generated by such an impression. This led Hume to claim that we cannot rationally defend our belief in anything that does not come to us through some impression or idea – things such as the self, other minds and God. In addition, Hume argued that we cannot rationally defend our purported knowledge of concepts like that of cause and effect on the basis of this exclusively empiricistic point of view. What we assume to be one event causing another event (i.e. cause and effect) is, Hume claims, merely the constant conjunction regularly observed between two events, one following after the other. Hume’s empiricism seems to lead to an even more radical view than that of Berkeley. For Hume, the mind becomes just a series of disconnected impressions and ideas which have no connection at all with what we all seem to believe is a continuing, conscious Self and a physical world separate and distinct from that self. It is this radical point of view to which Hume’s empiricism ultimately leads that Kant says awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber” and propelled him on his project of trying to find a satisfactory synthesis of the best of rationalism and empiricism. II. Kant’s Synthesis
Page 4 of 8 A. Kant’s aim was to develop a system of philosophy that captured the commonsensical aspects of empiricism that account for human knowledge based at least partly on the data from human sensory experience. On the other hand, Kant wanted to avoid the extreme and non-commonsensical skepticism that seems inherent in the (radical) empiricism of his day. His early rationalist tendencies were not easily set aside; he sought for a theory that would, at the same time, rescue the mind from the annihilation wrought by Hume’s philosophy and better explain the mind’s role in ordering our sensory perceptions of the world beyond the mind. Kant saw the power of Hume’s reasoning and could not deny out of hand his illuminating analysis of the concept of causation. While Kant agreed that we cannot derive concepts like cause and effect from experience, he countered that this claim does not mean that such concepts are merely irrational (nonrational?) inventions of custom as Hume concluded. Kant asserts that concepts like this are hardwired in our mind and we cannot help but employ them. In fact, were it not for the disposition of the mind to order sensory experience by means of these original and natural concepts (like that of cause and effect) there would be no such thing as experience, all we would have would be a jumble of sensory induced impressions without any meaning or context (the Hume alternative). B. According to Kant, our view of the world is structured by these a priori (i.e. prior to sensory experience) concepts in the mind. Kant’s philosophy is often referred to as Transcendental Idealism because he espoused that these transcendent mental concepts “create” our world by ordering the raw data of sensory experience. That is, Kant argued from the existence of knowledge as a fact of human experience to the (necessary) conditions that make such knowledge possible. However, like his empiricist counterparts, Kant is stuck with a position that seems ultimately to deny the possibility of knowing the world in any meaningful way independent of the mind’s creative/interpretive activity. All we know, Kant says, is the world as-itappears, or the phenomenal world, and those appearances are always shaped by the concepts in the mind. We can never know, he continues, the objects of the world (what he calls the “things-in-themselves”) from which the sensory data emanates because we cannot get outside of our reliance on the mind’s concepts to order and organize that sensory data which eventuates in human sensory experience. We may have clues or hints about the world of “things-in-themselves” (the noumenal world, in Kant’s terminology) but we can never know that world. Kant’s attempted synthesis of rationalism and empiricism which claims that human knowledge has as much to do with the mind’s organizational activity as it does the inputs received through sensory experience is often called the “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy. [We will see how this shift plays out when we consider Kant’s solution to the age-old problem of freedom of the will and determinism in Chapter 3 of the Grounding.]
Page 5 of 8 III. Kant’s Moral Project A. If all humans depended upon the same a priori categories to order and compose what we call human knowledge, then it seemed to Kant that there must be some common foundation for moral knowledge discoverable by human reason. In his first major ethical work Kant explains his ultimate goal for his moral theory: “the seeking out and establishing [of] the supreme principle of morality.” B. Such a supreme moral principle cannot be found by studying human nature or human activity (as, for example, the Subjectivists or Ethical Egoists might argue) as these are all constrained by the contingent, hypothetical situations in which they arise. What is needed, Kant claims, is an a priori investigation (a transcendental inquiry) into the concepts of pure reason. Such an investigation will not only benefit the speculative interests of philosophy, but will help to establish a “guide and supreme norm” to aide in correcting practical moral judgments and actions. This guide and supreme norm would be universally applicable to all rational beings, providing an absolute foundation for moral judgments. Kant called this supreme norm the “Categorical Imperative.” C. “Everything in nature,” Kant asserts, “works according to laws.” For most of nature this means merely the mindless imposition of such laws as a determination for some movement (e.g. an apple falls from a tree in virtue of the imposition of the law of gravity on that apple). But rational beings are unique, according to Kant, since they alone have “the power to act according to [their] conception of laws.” Kant often uses the word “principle” for that law on which a rational being chooses to will a particular action. He describes the will as “a faculty of choosing only that which reason, independently of inclination, recognizes as being practically necessary, i.e., as good.” Kant calls an objective principle (of practical reason) that necessitates the will a command, and the formula (practical statement) of the command, he calls an imperative. Imperatives are always expressed by an ought statement; this, Kant says, is indicative of the “objective law of reason to a will that is not necessarily determined by this law because of its subjective constitution,” in other words, our wills are not perfect in following the dictates of practical reason; we are infected with weakness of will D. Kant goes on to distinguish between what he calls hypothetical and categorical imperatives. An imperative is categorical in that it applies to all rational beings universally and unconditionally because it points toward an action that is “objectively necessary in itself, without reference to another end,” that is, it represents that which is good in and of itself (intrinsic good) and not merely as some means to a particular end. A hypothetical imperative, on the other hand, points toward some action that is good for the purpose of securing some other end (i.e. something I do in an effort to gain something else). Because the list of possible ends is infinite there are an infinite possible number of hypothetical imperatives that might serve as principles of action.
Page 6 of 8 E. Leaving aside the hypothetical imperatives, Kant turns his attention to the possibility of finding a categorical imperative. Since experience presents to us only the conditional and contingent, this imperative can only be ascertained via an a priori investigation. “The categorical imperative,” Kant says, “alone purports to be a practical law” in the sense that it alone is “an unconditioned command” and “only such a command carries with it that necessity which demanded from a law.” It is the characteristics of universality and necessity that distinguish the categorical imperative; hence, Kant says, “there is only one categorical imperative and it is this: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Kant offers several examples how one might appropriately apply the categorical imperative, for example, a man in despair, acting out of self-love, asks whether it is morally good for him to commit suicide and shorten his time of despair. According to the categorical imperative this is a morally bad action because if the maxim “when in despair, then commit suicide” were to become universal law it would lead to a contradiction in that the principle of self-love in this one case supports the destruction of life, while in (most) other cases it supports the preservation of life. D. While there may be only one categorical imperative, Kant offers at least five variant formulations of that categorical imperative. [Rachels focuses his discussion on only the second (Ch. 9) and third (Ch. 10) formulations of the Categorical Imperative.] They are as follows: 1. The Formula of Universal Law “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” 2. The Formula of the Law of Nature “Act as if the maxim of our action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” 3. The Formula of the End in Itself “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as means.” 4. The Formula of Autonomy “From this there now follows the third practical principles of the will as the supreme condition of the will’s conformity with universal practical reason, viz., the idea of the will of every rational being as a will that legislates universal law.” 5. The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends
Page 7 of 8 “For all rational beings stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as an end in himself. Hereby arises a systematic union of rational being through common objective laws, i.e., a kingdom that may be called a kingdom of ends (certainly only an ideal), inasmuch as these laws have in view the very relation of such being to one another as ends to means.” IV. Rachels’ Response to Kant A. Rachels’ first critique of Kant’s moral view has to do with the absolute nature of the moral rules derived from the Categorical Imperative, for example, the rule that one ought never to lie. Problem cases like that of the “Case of the Inquiring Murder”, mentioned by Rachels, seem to show quite clearly that no rule can be applied absolutely, without any exception. 1. Kant responded to this criticism by arguing that we never have enough knowledge about the consequences of our actions to determine when a particular violation of a universal rule would be warranted. Therefore, we must continue to govern our action by the rule derived from the Categorical Imperative. Rachels responds that Kant has made a mistake in this defense of his view. By claiming that we do not have sufficient knowledge of the consequences of an exception to the universal rule, Kant seems to suggest that we would morally responsible for any bad consequences that follow from breaking a rule. But, Rachels responds, it seems that Kant is not willing to entertain the possibility that we might also be morally liable for any bad consequences that follow from our unwavering adherence to a universal rule. This inconsistency regarding moral responsibility is, in Rachels’ opinion, very detrimental to Kant’s view.
B. Another criticism offered by Rachels is that Kant’s moral view does not offer a way to settle the question when moral rules conflict. The Case of the Inquiring Murder seems to present the situation where the rules “Always tell the truth” and “Always protect innocent human life” (both of which Kant takes to be moral rules derived from the Categorical Imperative) are in conflict. Why prefer the rule for truth telling over that of the protection of innocent human life, as Kant suggests? Rachels, and many other critics of Kant, claim that there is no good rationale for settling this kind of conflict between universal rules.
Page 8 of 8 C. While Rachels offers some specific criticisms of Kant’s moral view, he does, in the end, applaud Kant’s focus on the power and place of moral reasons in the formulation and evaluation of moral judgments. With regard to moral reasons, consistency demands that if they apply in one case, they must also apply in all other similar cases. This suggests that Rachels is at least open to some form of universalism (perhaps even absolutism) when it comes to moral theory. “Moral reasons, if they are valid at all, are binding on all people at all times. This is a requirement of consistency; and Kant was right to think that no rational person may deny it.” (p. 134) http://www.csus.edu/indiv/g/gaskilld/ethics/Kantian%20Ethics.htm
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.