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Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2015) 18:595614

DOI 10.1007/s10677-014-9546-4

Can Positive Duties be Derived from Kants


Categorical Imperative?
Michael Yudanin

Accepted: 20 October 2014 / Published online: 28 October 2014


# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Abstract Kants moral philosophy usually considers two types of duties: negative duties that
prohibit certain actions and positive duties commanding action. With that, Kant insists on
deriving all morality from reason alone. Such is the Categorical Imperative that Kant lays at
the basis of ethics. Yet while negative duties can be derived from the Categorical Imperative
and thus from reason, the paper argues that this is not the case with positive duties. After
answering a number of attempts to derive positive duties from the Categorical Imperative,
most notably those of Barbara Herman, it sketches an alternative approach to understanding
the relationship between the universal moral law and specific moral contents.
Keywords Ethics . Kant . Deontology . Categorical imperative . Positive duties . Negative duties
Traditionally, moral philosophy considers two types of duties: duties prohibiting certain actions
and duties commanding certain actions.1 Prohibitive duties alone might be seen as insufficient,
as it is hard to imagine a morality that does not command to help the fellow human in need, for
example, or in general to take action rather than just refraining from certain actions. The first
category, that of negative duties, includes duties of omission, or narrowing duties2duties that
limit the range of actions moral beings are allowed to undertake. Positive duties, or widening
duties of commission, are the duties of though shalt that compel us to do certain things.
Kants moral philosophy includes both types of duties. When laying out the preliminary
concepts of the metaphysics of morals, Kant talks about commission and omission as duties.3
Later, in discussing the duties to oneself, he addresses positive and negative duties as duties of
virtue,4 where positive duties are commanding, and negativeforbidding action. This
1

Such are, for example, religious ethics, e.g., Bibles ten commandments, as well as Qurans behaviorprescribing duties. Kant also belongs to this tradition. Starting with the Groundwork and more so in the Doctrine
of Virtue, he argues for the establishment of positive duties. It should be noted, though, that there is a continuous
discussion regarding the status of positive duties see, for example, Lichtenberg, 2010
The use of the terms narrow and wide in relation to negative and positive duties is consistent with Kants use
in the Groundwork (see, for example, GMS, AA 04:454) and in the Metaphysics of Morals (see, for example,
MS, AA 06:390), even though Kant might see them a more complicated

MS, AA 06:223.04-05. die Begehung oder Unterlassung als Pflicht

3
4

see, for example, MS, AA 06:419

M. Yudanin (*)
University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA
e-mail: yudanin@gmail.com

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M. Yudanin

distinction between different kinds of duties echoes the one introduced in the Groundwork
after discussing the fourth example, that of beneficence, where the narrow duties were opposed
to the wide ones, and related respectively to the maxims that we cannot think without
contradiction and those we cannot will without contradiction.5
It is important to emphasize here that Kantian ethics is based solely on a formal, universal
and a priori source.6 The moral law, according to Kant, must be formal:
all that remains of a law if one separates from it everything material, that is, every object
of the will (as its determining ground), is the mere form of giving universal law.7
As formal, the law is necessarily a priori, as it has to be cleansed from anything material,
i.e., empirical. As formal and a priori, it is universal, or applicable to every possible situation.
Negative duties can be directly derived from formal universal laws given a specific capacity
of moral beings. If the moral law is Kants Categorical Imperative in its first formulation, the
Formula of Universal Law (FUL),
act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that
it become a universal law8
then, given any specific human capability, the moral law can prohibit or permit its use in
guiding behavior through proscribing specific maxims to which it gives rise.
The case of deceitful promise9 can serve as a paradigmatic example of FUL prohibiting
certain maxims. As humans, we are capable of understanding the connection between what
others know and their behavior, at least in simple situations like loaning money. We are also
capable of knowingly passing incorrect information to other human beings. Hence, we are able
to deceive: to deliver wrong information with an expectation to gain from the actions it will
trigger. The maxim behind such behavior would be: I will lie to others when it is to my
advantage; with an expectation, of course, that another will believe me and act on the
information I am passing. If we make this maxim a universal law of nature, as FUL requires,
then we will have a world in which everybody always lies when there is something to gain
from it. However, this is self-contradictory: if everybody always lies when there is a prospect
of personal gain, then the expectation of the recipients of the information is to be lied to, and
hence their actions will not follow the course that is hoped for by the deceiverwhich is the
whole point of deception. If everybody lies, lying loses its meaning.
Can the Categorical Imperative also mandate having certain maxims? Can a law that
certifies maxims brought before its judgment also mandate having specific maxims?10 The
only way to do that, it seems, is to mandate the goal toward which the maxim is formedif the
end is obligatory, then we will have to formulate behavioral principles to achieve this end, i.e.,
maxims that would be mandatory as well; without an intended end there is no free action.11 Yet
5

GMS, AA 04:424
See, for example, KrV A800/B828, AA 03:520; KpV, AA 05:20; GMS, AA 04:408
KpV, AA 05:027.12-14. Nun bleibt von einem Gesetze, wenn man alle Materie, d. i. jeden Gegenstand des
Willens, (als Bestimmungsgrund) davon absondert, nichts brig, als die bloe Form einer allgemeinen
Gesetzgebung.
8
GMS, AA 04:421, 0708. [] handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, da
sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde
9
See GMS, AA 04:422
10
It can be claimed that positive duties can require merely a certain type of action rather than having a specific
maxim. However, the moral worth of any action, as Kant notes in the Groundwork, lies in its maxim (see GMA,
AA 04:399): an action without an underlying maxim cannot be an outcome of conscious reasoning, and hence
cannot be seen as undertaken freely by a moral agent.
11
See MS, AA 06:380 and MS, AA 06:389
6
7

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the obligatory ends will have to be related both to the particular constitution of the moral beings
that ought to have them and to the specifics of their environmentthese two will provide the
material for forming the ends of actions. Hence, it seems that there would be a problem in
deriving ends from FUL, a universal, formal a priori law that comes not from experience but
from reason. Laws of reason apply to any content, and specifically to any maxim, to any end of
action. These laws are formal and hence universal and precisely by virtue of this formality and
universality they cannot single out any particular content or be a source of a particular content.
A rule cannot demand from somebody to demonstrate behavior that is subject to that rule.
Having a law of certifying behavioral maxims by examining whether they can be universalized
cannot mandate having any specific maxims, or, for that matter, having moral maxims at all.
Yet declaring positive duties to be part of his universal ethics through mandating ends is
exactly what Kant does, first in the Groundwork with the fourth example, that of beneficence,12
and then in the Doctrine of Virtue.13 In full accord with the metaphysical foundations of his
system that have been referred to above, Kant connects the ends of actions with the categorical
imperative, and supports it with a short justification that relies on reductio ad absurdum.14
The thesis of this paper is that positive duties cannot be derived from Kants Formula of
Universal Law. In order to examine the validity of this thesis, I will analyze Kants arguments
to determine whether they succeed in deriving positive duties from the first formulation of the
categorical imperative. The focus will be on the case for beneficence spelled out in the
Groundwork, as there the derivation is stated most explicitly, yet I will also address the
possibility for the derivation of the ends of action in the Doctrine of Virtue. If the argument
for the possibility of such derivation is found lacking, I will try to sketch out an alternative
view of the sources of positive duties and their relation to the universal moral law.
However, first it should be established that FUL can be seen as a source of positive duties
within the Kantian framework.

1 Why Positive Duties Should be Derivable from the Formula of Universal Law
Kants ethics sees the ground of morality in pure reason. The argument for this starts with the
Doctrine of Method of the first Critique15 and reaches its highest point in the formulation of the
categorical imperative in the Groundwork.
The purpose of the Groundwork, as Kant states in the Introduction, is to establish the
supreme principle of morality.16 This principle, in order to be a supreme universal rule and
command absolutely, must be independent of anything empirical.17 It is important to emphasize here the continuity between Kants metaphysical epistemology of the first Critique and his
moral theory. The first Critique establishes the conception of the a priori as the only true
universality: only something which is prior to experience and has its residence in pure reason
can be truly universal, i.e., apply to anything reason has access to. Proving this point is
explicitly stated as the goal of the first Critique in the Introduction,18 and the rest of the
Critique of Pure Reason can be seen as carrying out the argument for it. Moreover, what is a
priori and hence universal is also necessary: what is prior to experience has to apply to any
12

GMS, AA 04:423
MS, AA 06:386387, 06:419, 06:387388, 06:401402, etc.
14
MS, AA 06:385
15
see, for example, KrV, AA 06:385
16
GMS, AA 04:392.04. obersten Pricips der Moralitt
17
KrV, AA 06:385; GMS, AA 04:407408, and elsewhere
18
KrV, AA 02:027-028
13

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M. Yudanin

possible experience and cannot be connected to any specific experience; i.e., it has to apply
necessarily.19 A priori can also appear under the name formal as in formal principle, where
formal means unrelated to any specific experiential content. Hence, for all our purposes the
universality, necessity, and a priori nature of a certain concept or principle can be referred to as
formality or universality interchangeably.
Applying the considerations of formality to Kants moral philosophy, we would arrive at the
conclusion that to be universal, a moral principle must be a priori. Hence, if a motivation is to be a
truly moral motivation, it has to come from pure reason, the only source of a priori principles
(Baumann, 2001). What kind of moral principle would answer these criteria? A principle that is
universality and hence necessity, or a principle that would be a direct translation of the terms of
formality to the plane of practical reason. Such is Kants Categorical Imperative, and specifically its
first formulation, the Formula of Universal Law, quoted above, that has a double function of being
both the supreme principle of morality and the test20 for behavioral maxims (Illies, 2007). It derives
the specific formulation of the categorical imperative from its universality:
[] when I think of a categorical imperative I know at once what it contains. For, since the
imperative contains, beyond the law, only the necessity that the maxim be in conformity with
this law, while the law contains no condition to which it would be limited, nothing is left with
which the maxim of action is to conform but the universality of a law as such.21
From here, for a behavioral principle behind an action, or a maxim,22 to be compliant with
the moral law, it has to be universalizable, that is, it has to be capable to be thought as a universal
law that binds everybody, everywhere, and at any point in time, without contradiction.
Since this is the supreme principle of morality, all secondary and intermediate moral
principles, laws, duties, and rulesanything that bears upon the determination whether a certain
maxim of action is moralmust be derivable from it. This applies to the other formulations of the
categorical imperative present in the Groundwork: the Formula of Humanity,23 the Formula of
the Kingdom of Ends,24 and the Formula of Autonomy.25 Kant links all these principles to the
19

For a similar discussion and response to some critique of Kants treatment of universality, necessity, and a
priority, see Parkinson, 1960. For a different and much contested view of the relationship between a prioricity,
universality, and necessity see Kripke, 1980
20
Kant explicitly refers to judging maxims by the criterion of universalization as a test (Probe) in the second
Critique: KpV, AA 05:69.01
21
GMS, AA 04:420.26-28, 04:421.01-03. Denke ich mir [] einen kategorischen Imperativ, so wei ich sofort,
was er enthalte. Denn da der Imperativ auer dem Gesetze nur die Nothwendigkeit der Maxime enthlt, diesem
Gesetze gem zu sein, das Gesetz aber keine Bedingung enthlt, auf die es eingeschrnkt war, so bleibt nichts
als die Allgemeinheit eines Gesetzes berhaupt brig, welchem die Maxime der Handlung gem sein soll
22
For a definition of a maxim, see GMS, AA 04:421n. It is also important to emphasize that a maxim is a
principle rather than a specific, single, spatio-temporally localizable mental state of a person (Fricke, 2008,
p215), i.e., a maxim can be implemented in a number of situations. Kantian examples of deception, help, etc. can
serve a demonstration for this. Therefore, the critique that it is always possible to localize any maxim, to
formulate it in a way that it would be specific to unique situational circumstances and this way make it pass the
Formula of Universal Law test, is unfounded.
23
GMS, AA 04:429.10-12. So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any
other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means / Handle so, da du die Menschheit sowohl
in deiner Person, als in der Person eines jeden andern jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals blo als Mittel
brauchst.
24
GMS, AA 04:439.01-03. [] act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a
merely possible kingdom of ends / [] handle nach Maximen eines allgemein gesetzgebenden Gliedes zu
einem blo mglichen Reiche der Zwecke See also GMS, AA 04:438
25
GMS, AA 04:431.16-18. [] the idea of the will of every rational being as a will giving universal law /
[] die Idee des Willens jedes vernnftigen Wesens als eines allgemein gesetzgebenden Willens. See also
GMS, AA 04:432

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Formula of Universal Law and clearly states their equivalence to it.26 To clarify his intentions
further, he states that the three formulas are of one and the same law.27 The difference between
them, according to Kant, is only subjectively practical,28 i.e., is intended only to make the idea
of the law of reason more intuitive and accessible. To remove any doubt as to the primacy of the
Formula of Universal Law, Kant writes:
[] one does better always to proceed in moral appraisal by the strict method and put as
its basis the universal formula of the categorical imperative []29
In other words, whatever maxim we arrive at, with or without help of any other formulations, it is always subject to the form provided by FUL.
Another candidate for the source of moral duties is the Supreme Principle of the Doctrine of
Virtue from the Metaphysics of Morals:
[] act in accordance with a maxim of ends that it can be a universal law for everyone
else to have.30
Yet it seems that the difference between it and the Formula of Universal Law is the one
between a universal principle and its application to a specific group of cases: while FUL talks
about all possible maxims notwithstanding their ends, the Supreme Principle of the Doctrine of
Virtue addresses the maxims of ends, i.e., the end that it is a duty to have; all the rest remains
the same.
It can be argued, and has been argued, that the other formulas of the Categorical Imperative
are essentially different from FUL, notwithstanding Kants claims to the contrary. This might
be so, yet it is clear that Kants intention was to have them as re-formulations of the one and
the same imperative. Hence, if we are to stick to what Kant meant, we should see the Formula
of Universal Law as the primary expression of the morality of pure reason, and our understanding of the other formulations of the categorical imperative should be aligned with it. This
is not to deny, of course, that an ethical system can be built based on one of the other
formulations of the imperative, and not to cast any doubt regarding the possibility of validity
of any such system. However, the project of developing an approach to ethics based on, say,
the Formula of Humanity of the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends, when these are understood
not as re-formulations of the Formula of Universal Law but as independent principles, would
be outside of Kantian ethics and will require a separate justification for these principles as a
source of morality.31

26
See GMS, AA 04:438 for the statement of the equivalence between FUL and the Formula of Humanity; the
derivation of the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends from FUL in GMS, AA 04:438; and for the direct connection
between FUL and the Formula of Autonomy see GMS, AA 04:431
27
GMS, AA 04:436.09. [] nur so viele Formeln eben desselben Gesetzes
28
GMS, AA 04:436.11. subjective [] praktisch
29
GMS, AA 04:436.29-32. Man thut aber besser, wenn man in der sittlichen Beurtheilung immer nach der
strengen Methode verfhrt und die allgemeine Formel des kategorischen Imperativs zum Grunde legt []
30
MS, AA 06:395.15-16. [] handle nach einer Maxime der Zwecke, die zu haben fr jedermann ein
allgemeines Gesetz sein kann.
31
Guyer argues that the other formulations of the CI are not so much substitutes but necessary conditions for the
real possibility of the Categorical Imperative. This is similar to the way the requirement of non-contradiction
satisfies the logical possibility of an object but by no means its real possibility: the latter requires the object to be
conceived in accordance with the categories and intuitions (Guyer, 1995, p361). While at the first glance Guyers
argument undermines the primacy of the first formulation of the CI, I do not think it does. These are the other
formulations that enable FUL to be carried out, yet without FUL they would have no moral import. On the other
hand, FUL could become practical with other enabling factors, should there be any. However, further discussion
on this subject exceeds the scope of this paper.

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It also has been argued that FUL is not the best expression of the core of Kantian ethics, as
it is not self-evident that FUL incorporates the value of mankind.32 Without such value,
arguably, Kantian or any other ethics might make little sense. This might be the reason why
some Kantian scholars gravitate toward other formulations of the Categorical Imperative.33 I
believe, however, that the moral worth of humanity is presupposed by FUL when we conceive
of moral worth not as a set of moral principles inherent in our physiology but as an ability to
generate moral content susceptible to the judgment by universal moral criteria. We have moral
worth not because we have an in-born tendency to help others or are in need of help, but
because we are capable of framing life situations as moral dilemmas and choose how to behave
in light of moral principles. I elaborate on this subject in the last section of this paper.
To summarize, if positive duties are to claim the status of commanding moral principles,
they should be derivable from the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative.34

2 Kants Argument for Positive Duties


Kants main arguments for positive duties are found in two works: the Groundwork and the
Metaphysics of Morals, where the Groundwork attempts to derive the duty of beneficence
directly from the Formula of Universal Law.
2.1 The Argument for the Duty of Beneficence
Beneficence is as an example of a positive duty in section I of the Groundwork,35 36 and is later
discussed in relative length as the fourth example in section II where it concerns the maxim of not
helping. The person in question holds it as a principle of his behavior not to offer help to fellow
humans in need,37 which might even be part of a worldview that prescribes neither offering nor
receiving help. Kant admits that this maxim can be thought without a contradiction: it is possible
that a universal law of nature could very well subsist in accordance with such a maxim.38 Indeed, no
logical contradiction would ensue if the maxim of not providing help to the needy is
considered as a universal law, i.e., if every rational being will always hold it as
principle of acting. The problem Kant sees here is not the problem of thinking, of
considering the maxim, but that of willing it: it is still impossible to will that such a
principle hold everywhere as a law of nature.39 This is so, writes Kant, because
many cases could occur in which one would need the love and sympathy of others
32

I am indebted to the anonymous reviewer #1 for pointing out this issue as relevant to the discussion.
Wood, for example, argues that the different formulas of the Categorical Imperative constitute stages of
progressive development, the FUL being just the first step (Wood, 2008, pp66-84 and elsewhere). Yet this
interpretation, however interesting, does not seem to cohere with either the letter or the spirit of Kants ethics.
34
Similar position can be found at Baumann who sees it as a Content of the Moral Principle / Gehalt des
Moralprinzips: The moral principle can consist only in the Categorical Imperative / Das Moralprinzip kann nu
rim kategorischen Imperativ bestehen. (Baumann, 2001, p3)
35
GMS, AA 04:398
36
On including the duty of beneficence in imperfect duties despite a degree of textual ambiguity see Seymour,
2008
37
When, of course, it does not conform to the agents own inclinations. Yet in this case we cannot talk about
offering help but rather about the benefits to the other that are a by-product of satisfying ones inclinations.
38
GMS, AA 04:423.28-29. []es mglich ist, da nach jener Maxime ein allgemeines Naturgesetz wohl
bestehen knnte
39
GMS, AA 04:423.30-31. []ist es doch unmglich, zu wollen, da ein solches Princip als Naturgesetz
allenthalben gelte; see also Korsgaard, 1996, pp14-16
33

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601

and in which, by such a law of nature arisen from his own will, he would rob himself
of all hope of the assistance he wishes for himself.40
The contradiction that is supposed to trigger the prohibition of the maxim by the Categorical Imperative, insofar as it comes from willing the maxim rather than merely conceiving it,
creates a serious problem for positive duties within the Kantian framework. Based on the
example Kant provides and on the analysis of what would it mean to will something, it can be
concluded that the contradiction in willing is indeed of a logical nature: if I have a specific
maxim as an agent yet at the same time I do not want it to be applied when I am a patient, then
I cannot will it as a universal law. The main question here, though, is why I do not wish it to be
applied to me. If the reason is contingent, the argument falls apart, as in some cases it will
create a contradiction in willing, while in others it would not, and hence beneficence will not
be able to claim the status of duty.
One possible way to answer the question why is raising the consideration of prudence.41
According to this argument, it is essentially far-sightedness on ones side to be beneficent, as
any maxim according to which she behaves, turned into universal law, will apply to herso it
would be merely prudent not to bar yourself from the assistance you might need. While this
argument is based on the textual analysis of Kants fourth example in the Groundwork, it is
problematic for a number of reasons. The most obvious of these reasons is that it calls for a
cost-benefit analysis, which might not be in favor of beneficence. People with high risk
tolerance, personal values focused on the present, and considerable means to enjoy life can
be making a perfectly rational decision when they refuse themselves help in the hour of need
which is yet to come, in favor of enjoying life right now. Moreover, the whole analysis of
prudence seems to turn the moral judgment around ones desires, notes Herman,42 which is
certainly not what Kants moral philosophy would endorse.
To cope with these issues, Herman develops an alternative argument, an argument from the
limitations and true needs of the human nature. Her premise is that moral considerations in
Kantian or any other feasible ethics always have to take human beings with their specific
circumstances into accountthe ethics is, after all, for us as we are, flesh and blood, not for
abstract entities endowed with reason:
For Kant, the embeddedness of the person in the particular is the natural and necessary
starting point of moral judgment [] The Kantian moral agent, if the standard examples
can be taken as a guide, comes to need a procedure for moral judgment when he is
tempted to make an exception for himself from known moral precepts.43
Arguing from this premise, Herman maintains that the contradiction in willing is indeed the
reason for rejecting the general policy of non-beneficence and specific maxims that follow from
it, yet this is not because of prudential considerations. The risks to ones well-being resulting
from the potential lack of help she can hope for as a result of making her maxim of refusing help
a universal law will indeed differ from one person to another, yet the fact that all of us are
potentially dependent on the help from others is inherent in our human nature. The adequacy of
our abilities and resources to our needs is a function of not only, and in many casesnot so much
of our discipline and hard work as it is an outcome of the environment in which we are placed
by the hand of fate. Moreoverthe circumstances might change without any possibility of
GMS, AA 04:423.3235. []manche erugnen knnen, wo er anderer Liebe und Theilnehmung Bedarf, und
wo er durch ein solches aus seinem eigenen Willen entsprungenes Naturgesetz sich selbst alle Hoffnung des
Beistandes, den er sich wnscht, rauben wrde
41
See, for example, Glasgow, 2001 and Herman, 1993
42
Herman, 1993
43
Herman, 1993, 51; see also Schmidt, 2005
40

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M. Yudanin

control from our side. Hence, argues Herman, given this peculiarity of human nature that
characterizes all of us, it is irrational to rob ourselves from the help of others, no matter how we
evaluate the bets. Differently from the prudential model where the analysis was essentially
continuous, with a possibility of more or less risk related to barring possible help in the future,
Herman proposes and successfully defends a binary model: what matters is the fact that we
might need help, rather than its quantity or the associated degree of risk.
Yet what about a person who is not committed to any particular end to the degree that will
make its abandonment undesirablethe wanton?44 Facing an option to adopt an end that, if its
maxim is universalized, will require help from others, the wanton would rather relinquish the
end. To cope with this situation, Herman calls forth the ends that cannot be given up, the true
needs that are inseparable from our humanity. Insofar as one has ends at all, one has already
willed the continuous existence of ones agency as a rational being,45 writes Herman. Hence,
according to Herman, there are ends that it is irrational to forego, and, since our capacities are
limited by our human nature, the maxim of non-beneficence is irrational, as willing a world
where this maxim is a universal law would go contrary to such ends.46
Hermans argument is certainly stronger than the prudential argument, and it seems much
closer to the spirit of Kants ethics. Yet it shares with the prudential argument one feature that
renders its support for the duty of beneficence highly problematic if we are to consider the
derivability of the latter from Formula of Universal Law. The prudential argument pre-supposes
a cost-benefit analysis of risks and rewards, while Herman bases her case on the limited nature
and true needs of human beings. However, both rely on assertions about human nature as it
happens to be. Without seeing human beings as (a) prone to suffering and (b) considering it a
matter that can be rectified by the help of others, neither the prudential argument nor Hermans
one stand. Without (a) and (b), the duty of beneficence, of helping others in need, cannot be
justified by contradiction in willing: one can universalize the maxim of non-beneficence with
no contradiction whatsoever if (a) and (b) are not assumed. Yet a principle with an empirical
antecedent would not have a universal import; that includes maxims, principles of volition.47
Kant follows through on this when he re-affirms, in the Critique of Practical Reason, that a
practical principle that includes an empirical condition cannot be a law determining behavior.48
This argument sounds purely theoretical, and it can be claimed that a moral theory limited to
human beings as we know them is good enough; other kinds of rational agents might well have
different duties. It can be further argued that we do not have to derive particular duties from the
Formula of Universal Law alone: FUL and the human nature it works upon would do. Yet this FUL
+ x argument has a crucial problem. The power of Kantian morality is in its universality. By adding
an empirical component, be it as general as something applicable to all human beings, yet still not
universal, i.e., not applicable to human beings by virtue of us being rational, we are relinquishing
such universalityand thus opening Kants ethical theory to assaults it will not be able to withstand.
Kant notes in the second Critique that conditional, non-universal ethics would fail to establish moral
obligation49: it would no more be a law that applies to rational beings qua rational beings; rather,
44

Herman, 1993, 54
Ibid., 55
46
Another alternative to the prudential argument is what can be called the argument from happiness (see, for
example, Glasgow, 2001). The argument relies on Kants remark to Theorem IV in the second Critique, where he
derives the duty to promote the happiness of others through the universalization of ones desire to promote her
own happiness a desire that, per Kant, can be attributed to us as finite beings. While this approach differs from
Hermans in terms of its specific focus happiness instead of the limitations of human nature it seems to give
rise to similar problems, and the argument against it can be the same as the argument against Herman.
47
GMS, AA 04:400, 02. []Princip des Wollens
48
KpV, AA 05:34
49
KpV, AA 05:33-34
45

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specific circumstances would be determining how moral agents should act, thus giving different and
possibly opposing guidance to different individuals. Kant is mostly concerned here with desires and
inclinations replacing the moral law in its true, universal form. One could argue that Herman
addresses this concern by invoking aspects that apply to all humans as we know them. However,
despite the general nature of Hermans human needs, the problem still persists: they appeal to
empirics rather than to reason, and thus can be interpreted with equal coherency in ways that lead to
different behaviors, failing to establish moral obligation.
Both of the pillars of Hermans argument, the necessity of the help of others and the existence of
true needs, can be contested quite effectively. To do so, it is enough to change the hierarchy of values
and to assign priority to the ends other than those that Herman, together with Kant, deems true
needs. The willing of ones survival is included in willing an end only if one sees oneself as an
individual setting goals, rather than the goal being primary to and higher than oneself. apeks
salamanders have no I but only we,50 even though each salamander is an individualand, being
completely rational, they would generate positive duties completely different from what Kant has
described in the Groundwork and the Metaphysics of Morals. Yet there is no need to rely on the
imaginary properties of creatures of literary fancy, as striking and instructive as they may be: valuing
certain goals higher than the life of the individual is very common in human history, ancient as recent.
There is no contradiction in willing something and seeing it as higher than ones own life: a firefighter
or a soldier sacrificing life for specific others or for abstract goals, or a scientist who endangers herself
while researching a cure for a dangerous disease can be seen as common examples. Western
philosophy has started with yet another example of valuing principles higher than ones lifeSocrates.
The same applies to the necessity of others help. Self-reliance can be seen as a goal so noble that any
help given by another human being on the ground of beneficence can be perceived as defiling it and
hence as something that ought to be rejected. Nietzsche (Nietzsche, 1917) and Ayn Rand (Rand,
1992) can be brought up as examples of arguing for this sort of attitude. Herman addresses a similar
critique by claiming that the stoic, whose aim is to be independent, should see nothing irrational in
allowing help as a possibility,51 e.g., in the case of failure. But it seems that she is missing the point.
Not only the individual, her aims, and the social support network are at play herethe worldview of
the individual, her interpretation of the situation as a natural order that has certain value structure,
matters much more. Just as Herman sees the survival of the agent as included in the pursuit of his aim,
one can see the value of the agent as a function of his compliance with the natural orderan order that
places success, in struggling with gods or in building railroads; or loyalty, to principles or to the
emperorhigher than survival. As we will see, similar considerations apply to the maxim on nonbeneficence: under certain belief configurations, the maxim of non-beneficence becomes perfectly
universalizable. Since we are talking about contingent matters, both views are legitimate.
There is another issue with the duty of beneficence as Kant derives it and Herman
interprets. It seems that the dichotomy between giving help and not giving help is artificial,
and there is a third option: not construing the situation as having a potential for beneficence,
i.e., not seeing beneficence as a valid option. By resigning to a deterministic view of the world,
for example, a completely rational human being can avoid getting into the dilemma of giving
vs. not giving help: if everything is determined by, say, Moirae, or genetic makeup, or God,
then giving help is futile. If the survival of the fittest is seen by a free rational being as
necessitated by the natural order of things, then it is completely irrational for him to will the
maxim of beneficence, or to make helping others in need the principle of his action. The
components of reasoning would then be:

50
51

*Capek, 1985
Herman, 1993, 54, note 13

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M. Yudanin

(1) The survival of the fittest is the law of nature


(2) I recognize a genuine need for help due to a deficiency in a fellow human being, and I
can offer such help without considerable costs to myself
(3) I realize that I, as any other human being, might be in a similar situation sooner or later,
i.e., in need for the love and sympathy of others.52
If we only had (2) and (3), as Kant has in his explanation of the example of beneficence, not
giving help would be irrational given our limited nature and true needs. Yet with (1), giving help
is contradictory within the particular worldview. (1) can be also be replaced by other overarching
principles, for example, maximizing the overall happiness, as in Mills classical Utilitarianism53:
(1) I hold maximizing overall happiness, i.e., the increase of the total pleasure and the
decrease of the total pain, to be the supreme principle of morality
(2) I recognize a genuine need for help due to a deficiency in a fellow human being
(3) I realize that I might be in a similar situation sooner or later and also
(4) I know that the resources that will be devoted for helping this particular human might
bring a much higher reduction of pain if used for another purpose, e.g., providing
vaccines for children in developing countries
In this case as well, it would not be rational to offer help. The duty of beneficence here
becomes irrational, and its place is taken by the utility calculator.
The examples above challenge Hermans argument.54 In both of them, the agent is
completely rational, and might even hold Hermans view that there are genuine needs that
each humans being has, e.g., a need for help. Yet having a specific worldview leads agents
rationality to arrive at a maxim of non-beneficence.
The examples also demonstrate why the FUL + x configuration is problematic
especially for positive duties. With prohibitive, negative duties, any application of a
specific human capacity, e.g., the capacity to deceive, can be examined and either
allowed or prohibited. No worldview can intervene, as we are talking here about
scrutinizing abilities that include all possible instances of their application. For the
ability to deceive to pass the test of the Formula of Universal Law, it must be
presented as non-deceptionwhich is self-contradictory. Same applies to other negative
duties. For example, knowingly bringing oneself under such an influence of intoxicants that it takes away reasons ability to guide human behavior 55 is selfcontradictory no less than lying: here reason is used to undermine itself, which is
irrational. Any other behavioral principle that would degrade the rational nature of
humanity, undermine its exalted role, would fall under the same category: servility is
one of those cases mentioned by Kant.56 The ultimate example, though, would be
murdering oneself or another being endowed with reason57: murder amounts to
permanently taking away the ability to reason, so here reason undermines itself, either
in the same person or in another, irreversibly.58
GMS, AA 04:423, 33. []anderer Liebe und Theilnehmung
Mill, 1891
54
Herman, 1993; Glasgow, 2001; to an extent - Illies, 2007
55
MS, AA 06:427
56
MS, AA 06:434436
57
MS, AA 06:422423
58
The discussion on cases of killing other than murder and possible differences between Kants texts and the
principles of Kantian ethics goes beyond the scope of this paper.
52
53

Can Positive Duties be Derived from Kants Categorical Imperative?

605

Yet with positive duties, duties that command actions, the worldview plays a crucial role, as
it was shown above.59
The reason for the failure of the attempt to establish an argument for beneficence as a duty
is its reliance on particular interpretation of contingent facts about human nature. While a
person might will his own happiness or maintain the freedom of choice as a necessary
component of reason, the content of his understanding of happiness or his view of the
realization of freedoms might go contrary to beneficence and yet be perfectly rational and
hence universalizable. Human limitations, needs, and goals are contingent. Both Kantian
moralists and social Darwinists can see these as shaping morality, yet the conclusions in these
two cases will be diametrically opposed to each other. The value of ethics that has universal
source is precisely in avoiding this situation.
To summarize the analysis above, the duty of beneficence cannot be derived from the
Formula of Universal Law: given certain worldviews, the maxim of non-beneficence can be
universalized without contradiction, and the maxim of beneficence will be irrational.
2.2 The Arguments for Positive Duties in the Metaphysics of Morals
In the Metaphysics of Morals duty (Pflicht) makes its entrance in section IVof the Introduction
as actions that are, [b]y categorical imperatives [] morally necessary, that is, obligatory.60
As with negative duty, positive duty has to command categorically, absolutely, to be an
unconditional ought61in full accord with the requirements presented by Kant for an ethical
system throughout his writings.
Yet how can positive duty become necessary? Through its objectively necessary end, an
end that, as far as human beings are concerned, it is a duty to have62where the necessity is
that of reason, not of circumstance, and thus carries with it the same categorical character as the
formal command of the Formula of Universal Law. To achieve that, the concept of duty will
lead to ends.63 This would be akin to deriving duties from FUL: it is, as was noted above, the
basis for Kants moral theory, reasons foundation for any moral necessity; the duty must be
categorically necessary, and hence deriving ends from the concept of necessity is identical in
its meaning to deriving them from FUL.
Indeed, in section III of the Introduction to the doctrine of virtue (MS, AA 06:385) Kant
establishes pure practical reason as a context for setting ends. Every action of a conscious and
aware rational being has an end. This end can be set only internally, and setting such an end is
an act of freedom.64 As an act of freedom, it is subject to pure practical reason and not an
outcome determined by natural constraints. Hence, it is a categorical imperative of pure
practical reason, and therefore an imperative which connects a concept of duty with that of an
end in general.65 However, this only subjects the process of our end-setting to the scrutiny of
59
It can be argued that not only the worldview but also other factors, e.g., agents estimations of how other
individuals are likely to act, play a crucial role in the case of positive duties. This discussion, however, exceeds
the scope of the current paper.
60
MS, AA 06:221, 2328. kategorische (unbedingte) Imperativen [] nach denen gewisse Handlungen []
moralisch nothwendig, d. i. verbindlich, sind, woraus dann fr jene der Begriff einer Pflicht entspringt See also
06:222 and 223
61
MS, AA 06:380, 18. unbedingte Sollen
62
MS, AA 06:380, 2325. einen Zweck [] fr den Menschen als Pflicht, vorgestellt wird. See also MS, AA
06:239
63
MS, AA 06:382, 2425. wird [] der Pflichtbegriff auf Zwecke leiten
64
See argument in MS, AA 06:381
65
MS, AA 06:385, 0709. ist es ein kategorischer Imperativ der reinen praktischen Vernunft, mithin ein solcher,
der einen Pflichtbegriff mit dem eines Zwecks berhaupt verbindet.

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M. Yudanin

the Formula of Universal Law rather than necessitating certain specific ends; in other words,
there is no necessity for the ends themselves to be determined by practical reason, and
specifically to be derived from FUL.
Kant is aware of this problem, and he immediately proceeds to argue for the existence of
necessary ends. His proof is one of reductio.66 Since there are free actions, there must be ends
at which such actions are directed. If there are no necessary ends, ends that are also duties, then
all ends are means to other ends. This, Kant concludes, will make categorical imperative
impossible:
For were there no such ends, then all ends would hold for practical reason only as means
to other ends; and since there can be no action without an end, a categorical imperative
would be impossible.67
Yet the conclusion does not follow. For the Categorical Imperative in its original form, as
Formula of Universal Law, all ends can be means to other ends without any contradiction
whatsoevertheir maxims will be still very much testable. Maxims are tested by FUL with no
regard to the nature of their endsall what is scrutinized is whether the principle behind a
maxim can be turned into a universal law. All Kants examples in the Groundwork, as well as
countless other cases, can be brought up to demonstrate this point. What will be impossible in
this case are ends that are also dutieshowever, since the existence of such ends is precisely
what we are trying to prove, this result is acceptable.68
It is surprising that Kant is satisfied with a very brief treatment of this important issue. And
yet after devoting less than a page to it he immediately proceeds to the specific ends that are
also duties: ones own perfection and the happiness of others.69
Can the duties of ones own perfection and the happiness of others be derived from the
Formula of Universal Law? It seems that they cannot, for the same reason the duty of
beneficence cannot be derived from it, namely because of the mediating role of agents
worldview.
The necessity to cultivate ones own perfection, formulated as
Cultivate your powers of mind and body so that they are fit to realize any ends you
might encounter70
Comes to make sure that we can follow on our moral determinations, i.e., are capable to do
the right thing given strong temptations to the contrary. This way, the command is essentially
to develop moral fortitude.71
Yet the problem here is exactly the same we had with the duty of beneficence. Ones view of
ones own moral status and of the ways to improve it, if the improvement is at all perceived as
needed, will have a decisive effect here and lead to radically different conclusions. Examples
similar to the ones brought up in the discussion of the duty of beneficence can be applied here
as well. If one is convinced that everything is determined by genetic makeup, or that the
66

as provided in MS, AA 06:385


MS, AA 06:385, 1417. Denn gbe es keine [gleichen Zwecken], so wrden, weil doch keine Handlung
zwecklos sein kann, alle Zwecke fr die praktische Vernunft immer nur als Mittel zu andern Zwecken gelten, und
ein kategorischer Imperativ wre unmglich
68
It can be argued that this consideration casts doubt on the whole of practical reason. However, discussing such
argument is out of the scope of this paper.
69
MS, AA 06:385, 32. Eigene Vollkommenheit - fremde Glckseligkeit
70
MS, AA 06:392, 1619. Gesetz []fr die Maxime der Handlungen [] Baue deine Gemths und
Leibeskrfte zur Tauglichkeit fr alle Zwecke an, die dir aufstoen knnen
71
aka virtue see MS, AA 06:380 and also MS, AA 06:394
67

Can Positive Duties be Derived from Kants Categorical Imperative?

607

inclinations we are endowed with by nature are part of the natural order of things, the maxim
of not intervening with what we have in terms of mind and body can be perfectly
universalizable, while the duty of self-perfectionirrational.
In the section of the Metaphysics of Morals that addresses the duty to promote the
happiness of others72 there is little discussion about the happiness of others yet a strong
argument, anthropological in nature, is made for not taking it as a duty to promote ones own
happiness. The argument that can be discerned mostly from the last few sentences of section
V.B of the Introduction to the doctrine of virtue states that by warding off poverty insofar as
this is a great temptation to vice we can help others to focus on self-perfection. As such, it is
susceptible to the critique brought up in the last paragraph against the argument for seeing
ones own perfection as a duty. Later (MS, AA 06:393) Kant returns to this subject and
provides a different argument that is close to the one given in the fourth example in the
Groundwork. Here Kant discusses us making ourselves, through self-love, which is essentially
the need to be helped when necessary by others, an end to others: when universalized, this
need applies to all other human beings as well (Ibid.). However, despite the differences in
formulation, the essence of the argument is the same as in the Groundwork: an argument from
the need to be helped, or self-love that is inseparable from the need to be loved, and its
universalization. Hence, all what has been said regarding the fourth example, namely the
insurmountable problem introduced by agents worldview, applies here as well.
Thus, Kants arguments for necessary ends in the Metaphysics of Morals fail to establish
their derivability from the Formula of Universal Law, for the reasons similar to those discussed
in the context of the duty of beneficence in the Groundwork.

3 The problem with Kants Argument: Why Negative Duties can be Derived
from the Formula of Universal Law Yet Positive Duties Cannot
It seems that the issue with deriving positive duties from the Formula of Universal Law is not
specific to this particular formulation of the Categorical Imperativeon the contrary, it is a
principal issue that touches the core of Kants moral theory.
The foundation of Kantian ethics is pure reason rather than anthropology. The Categorical
Imperative is pure reason formulated in a way that is comprehensible to the acting agents
endowed with it. It is the very expression of the two main, defining features of pure reason
universality and formality. Requiring every maxim of behavior to be capable of becoming a
universal law, a law applying not only to the particular situation with its specific players for
which it was formulated but to any possible situation that involves a thinking self and offers
similar behavioral options, is testing its compatibility with reasonthe universal framework of
our existence, the outer reach of our capacities. As such, reason must be formal, as it should
encompass any possible accidental.73
In a sense, we can, if not must, conceptualize Kantian ethics as an ethics of rules. All
possible rules have to agree with reason. If they do not, we will not be able to follow them. In
addition, to be morally valid, rulesconsidered as maximshave to pass the test of the
Categorical Imperative. This pertains to the rules of any game we play, chess as interpersonal
behavior. And indeed, most rules we know and hold valid would pass such a test: they are
universal and treat all players/participants equally. For example, state laws that are widely
considered valid do not discriminate between individuals based on aspects irrelevant to the
72
73

MS, AA 06:387388
Using Wittgensteins term; see Tractatus (Wittgenstein, 1922/2003), 2.012

608

M. Yudanin

subject matter; neither do rules of hockey. Discriminative laws are usually considered invalid
on the grounds of universalityas being contrary to reason, in our terms. This way, reason puts
constraints on rules, and rules put constraints on specific interactions; these interactions are
defined by their rules and in turn define the rules by being conducted according to them: rules
and interactions are bound to each other this way.74 As a specific instance of this general claim,
behavior defines its maxims, and maxims are the principles of behavior: it does not matter
whether the maxim of behavior was formulated prior to acting or was not formulated at all, it
can always be discerned.75 Yet all maxims, as rules, have to agree with reason. For maxims of
behavior, the test for such agreement is the Formula of Universal Law.
As noted above, negative duties arise when our capabilities are subjected to the
scrutiny of reason. First and foremost, we are capable of breaking the rules of the
games we are engaged inand since any interaction is defined by its rules, this breaks
the meaning of the interaction. For any kind of deception, for example, rules are
essential: if forgery is to succeed, it is necessary that the rule is to pay with genuine
coin. The same applies to cheating in a game: if there are no rules that are expected
to be followed and are generally followed, cheating would never work. Moreoverthe
pretense of following the rule is crucial, as otherwise the cheated party will not be
deceived and will not act as the cheater expects. This way, deception essentially
means playing by the rules while breaking themwhich is a contradiction, and hence
cannot be certified by reason. In terms of the Formula of Universal Law, it is not
universalizable: if breaking the rules of the game while playing it is permitted, there
would be no game. Hence the negative duty, a duty that makes sense only for
creatures capable of deception: not to deceive. All other discernible negative duties
are variations of the same theme: breaking the rules while playing by them. Lets take
theft as an example. Classical Kantian analysis in the case of theft would go as
follows: if theft becomes universal law, it loses its meaning, as everything always will
be up for grabsand hence the term theft, which refers to taking the property of
another without permission while the general rule and the expectation is that property
rights are upheld, would be meaningless. In our terms, we can say that theft is
breaking the rules of the property gameand since the rules are bound with this
game, then the game will lose its meaning in the case of theft. Of course,
relinquishing reason, as it happens with intoxication or murder, would be the ultimate
violation of the rules of the game of rationality, throwing away the chessboard upon
which the game of life is being played.
Yet no maxims, not to mention duties, can appear ex nihilo from the formal-logical
principle of non-contradiction.76 Reason is formal and cannot beget content; content is
specific by definition, but formal rules are universal. The fact that we can formulate
certain rule in agreement with reason does not mean that we will, since being able to do
something does not mean that we will do it. There are possible games the rules of which
will never be formulated, as well as games the rules of which will be formulated yet that
will never be played. There are maxims that we can formulate yet never will, and
behaviors we can engage in but will never pursue. The fact that we can formulate certain
maximmeaning, that our reason allows thatcannot lead to us actually formulating it.
74

See Wittgensteins language gamesPhilosophical Investigations (Wittgenstein, 2009), 7ff


It can be claimed that multiple maxims can be ascribed to the same action. Yet this would not preclude the
application of the Categorical Imperative to each of them, neither will it diminish its force. This discussion,
however, exceeds the current scope.
76
Geiger, 2008, 138
75

Can Positive Duties be Derived from Kants Categorical Imperative?

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4 Moral Form and Moral Content: Possible Source of Positive Duties


While the purpose of this paper is to examine the derivability of positive duties from the first
formulation of Kants categorical imperative, I find it beneficial to sketch a rough outline of the
alternative to Kants approach to positive duties, an approach that will accord with the Kantian
ethics of pure reason.
It seems that to have a moral system comprised of both positive and negative
duties we need two components. The first would be behavioral principles that will be
reliably generated by the neurophysiology of human species, i.e., will come to mind
for all mentally capable humansspecific maxims that will be similar enough across
individuals. The second will be a universal principle that will determine whether
particular maxims, both common to all people and specific to this or that person,
are permissible. The role of the latter can be played by the Categorical Imperative,
and specifically its first formulation, thanks to its formality. The former, as it has been
shown, cannot be derived from it. Hence, we will need to look for another source of
positive moral content that suggests specific behavioral options.
In order to talk about positive moral content, we should consider attributes
common to the whole of the human racecertain features that will make us think
about specific behaviors, conceptualize situations in a certain way. There should be
something in us that will make us focus on the particular aspects of interaction with
our environment, single out certain elements of this interaction, consider particular
ends, and finally generate defined maxims. This something might well be rooted in
our physiology.
As an example lets consider beneficence. To think about beneficence, it is not
enough for us to feel a need for help, to see ourselves as limited and potentially
needy. Its first pre-requisite is viewing each and every human being as an individual
with a clear boundary and her own mind, feelings, etc. While this seems the most
natural thing to do, such a view uniquely characterizes the human speciesa view, I
must say, that has been contested in the twentieth century by a number of totalitarian
ideologies that saw humans as expendable elements of a larger structure that has its
own reality, e.g., a nation or a social class. In addition to that, we should be able to
connect in some way to another persons pain, to feel it. This ability seems to have a
clear neurophysiological basis in the form of empathy rooted in mirror neurons that
will fire when we see another creature in pain (Iacoboni, 2005; Schulte-Rther,
Markowitsch, Fink, & Piefke, 2007). However, these two components are not sufficient to beget maxims that will submit to the judgment of the Categorical Imperative:
we need to allow them to become the basis of action. One can feel the pain of
another yet convince oneself that this is an animism that should be suppressed for the
greater good which requires anothers suffering. Only when we conceptualize a natural
interest as worthy of pursuing can we talk about formulating proper maximsnot
because they are somehow derived from the Formula of Universal Law but because
they are part of our nature.
Admittedly, the term duty here might be too strong, as no rationally determinable
necessity is involved, merely natural impulse processed by cognition. Instead of an absolute
imperative that commands categorically, we have here moral contents that are subject to the
judgment of the universal principles, maxims that are to be either permitted or rejected. We
share their source, the neurophysiology common to all homines sapientes, yet this alone cannot
accord them the status of moral duty. No derivation of positive duties from these contents
alone is possible.

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M. Yudanin

It can be argued that Kants mentioning of the aesthetic preconditions of the minds
receptivity to concepts of duty as such77 constitutes an acknowledgement that positive duties
have psychological origins and makes his view close to what I am suggesting as an alternative
model for positive moral content. Guyer (Guyer, 2010) argues that in the Metaphysics of
Morals Kant presents a model where feelings, empirically discernible tendencies that characterize us as embodied beings, play a causal role in moral action. However, there is a crucial
difference. Kants moral feeling, conscience, and respect78 do not generate maxims but
rather make humans susceptible to the call of duty.79 Love for fellow human beings,80 on the
other hand, should not be mixed with the duty of beneficence.81 In the framework I am
proposing, the natural feelings, rather than merely making us receptive to duty, i.e., to the
considerations of pure reason, consistently focus us on certain aspects of human relations and
generate maxims of beneficence.
Based on this analysis, the proposed structure of morality will consist of two radically
different elements. The first is the universal component of moral form, a component so
brilliantly established by Kantthe component of pure reason. It serves as a boundary for
any possible morality, just as reason serves as a form for all we can meaningfully think, say, or
do. Specifically, this would be the Categorical Imperative in its first formulation that will stand
guard against moral transgression that is contrary to reason. Yet this component alone is not
sufficient to bring about a viable ethics: the whole of morality, as Haddock notes, cannot reside
in the coerciveness of logical consistency,82 it must provide some moral content as well, as it
has been expounded earlier. Hence, the second component will be the physiologically enabled
component of moral content: persistent focus on some particular aspects of human interaction,
stable interests that will make us generate specific maxims, e.g., those of helping others in
need. Due to the constitution of our life form, then, these interests are permanent and essential
to being a moral agent83human moral agent, that is. It has to be noted that the particular life
form we possess also makes us generate other maxims, e.g., those of deception and theft. It is
the application of the moral form, or employing the test of the Formula of Universal Law, that
will permit certain maxims and prohibit othersa sort of physiology checked by reason.84
Instead of reason-necessitated positive duties, then, we will have natural tendencies that are
common to all members of our life form and permitted by the Categorical Imperative. This
paradigm preserves the privileged position of the Categorical Imperative and indeed the
structure of Kantian ethics yet acknowledges that the content cannot be generated by the
form.85
The approach outlined above can be also seen as an alternative to the view that pure reason
cannot play any substantial part in defining morality, and moral laws have to come from other
sources (see, for example, Foot, 1992 or Geiger, 2008). As I attempted to establish, while the
anthropological component of persistent natural tendencies is necessary for formulating
maxims, whenever the form of law can be given to it, it is done by pure reason.

Guyers translation for MS, AA 06:399.0203. sthetische Vorbegriffe der Empfnglichkeit des Gemths fr
Pflichtbegriffe berhaupt in Guyer, 2010
78
MS, AA 06:399.18. Das moralische Gefhl; Ibid., 400.22. Gewissen; Ibid., 402.28. Achtung
79
See MS, AA 06:399403
80
MS, AA 06:402.23. Menschenliebe
81
Ibid., 401402
82
Haddock Seigfried, 2001, p98
83
Hill, 2010, p245
84
The cultural factors will, of course, play here an important role as well, by giving the basic neurophysiological
tendencies certain form, or way of expression.
85
See similar thoughts in Hill, 2010
77

Can Positive Duties be Derived from Kants Categorical Imperative?

611

How does this approach that mentions interests essential to human agents differ from
Hermans that centers around a similarly sounding notion? To answer this question, we need to
start with looking at Kantian ethics in terms of moral form and moral content. In light of the
preceding discussion, the former would be the universality of the moral law, and the latterthe
maxims of behavior over which the moral law ranges. Yet how are these two connected?
Providing a specification of their necessary relation is crucial for any approach to Kantian
ethics, as without it morality will be accidental. Moreover, such connection, if it is to align with
the core of Kants ethics, cannot depend upon anything contingent, e.g., any sort of natural
needs of human beings as we happen to be.
Arguably, morality is about the behavior of agents who are capable of choosing between
alternative courses of action: we cannot attribute any morality to creatures not endowed with
free choice, e.g., lower animals whose behavior is determined by instincts alone, or entities the
functioning of which is determined solely by their physical environment or externally produced set of instructions.86 Unfree entities would not bear any responsibility for their actions
by virtue of being externally determined: in a sense, unfree action is merely a function, like that
of a piece of colored surface reflecting a certain wavelength of light by virtue of its physical
structure. It is this freedom of choice, Kants Freiheit der Willkr, which connects moral form
and content. Behavioral maxims and rationalitys universal law are connected under the order
of free choice, where this order is necessary to make sense of the notion of moral agency as
opposed to determinacy of response. This order of freedom also helps to understand Kants
notion of good will in the first section of the Groundwork87: in light of this interpretation, the
good will (guter Wille) would amount to using the capacity for free choice (Willkr) to opt for
acting in accordance with the law of reason.88
It is this ability to connect the universal law with particular moral content under the order of
free choice, to harness freedom to serve reason, to have Willkr opting for guter Wille, that will
give moral worth to creatures endowed with reason, ability to generate behavioral maxims, and
free choice. The value of humankind thus is present implicitly in FUL: as an expression of
reason, it is a necessary part of the triad. It is also present in our ability to generate maxims of
behavior, either explicit and understood as moral dilemmas, or implicit in our behavioral
choices. This value comes to light in our free choice that can opt for the moral good.
Given this sort of connection between moral form and moral content, the approach I am
suggesting here is radically different from Hermans proposal that has been discussed previously. No contingent human needs, be they as inherent in our nature as they may, play any role
in the analysis of universalization but as materials to be presented for the examination of the
Categorical Imperative. Our physiology, together with our physical, cultural, social, and other
environments, provide the building blocks for maxims, blocks that are by no means universal.
The maxims constitute moral content over which the verdicts of the CI would rule. However,
no specific content of a maxim plays any role in connecting moral form and moral content, and
thus in determining agents moral worth. Any agent capable of choosing according to the
universal moral law has moral worth, no matter what are the specific maxims it generates.
This approach might also suggest a possible solution to the problem of understanding the
connection between the first and the second formulations of the Categorical Imperative. The
Formula of Universal Law comes directly from the notion of the universality of reason, or, to
86
see Kant on freedom in KrV, AA 362363 (A531-534/B559-562); GMS, AA 04:458; MS, AA 06:226 and
specifically the discussion on the freedom of the will (Die Freiheit der Willkr). For the review of the
development of the concept of freedom as choice see Woody, 1998
87
GMS, AA 04:493.0607
88
see discussion in MS, AA 06:226 for textual support

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be more precise, re-states it in terms of moral imperative. The Formula of Humanity focuses on
the moral worth of agents which consists, as I have argued, in humans ability to choose freely
between moral contents generated by them in light of the universal law. As such, humanity
cannot be used merely as a means to an endthis would always be a contradiction according to
FUL, since this way reason will undermine its own supreme authority. Further discussion on
this subject, however, goes beyond the scope of this paper.
In addition, the interpretation proposed here can contribute to reconciling the universality of
ethics with the problem of the socio-historical context. One might claim that what would have
counted ethical few hundred years ago may not be moral today, and vice versa. This seemingly
contradicts the universal pretense of Kantian ethics. However, if we take into consideration the
contingency of moral contents, we can see how this puzzle can be solved. The context that
provided the food for ethical thought in a different historical period certainly led moral agents
to generate maxims different from the ones we would come up with today. Applying the
Categorical Imperative to those options naturally led to different resultsnot because the
universal law differed somehow, but simply because the materials with which it had to work
suggested for its consideration options that differed from the ones we would think of today.
Having Siddhartha contributing his fortune for financing free psychiatric treatment was not an
option, as the same behavioral phenomena that are seen today as disease were not conceived of
as such in his time. Thus, Siddhartha chose not to do it not because he was less moral but
simply because this option would have never occurred to him as a possible course of action.
Is the approach I am suggesting consistent with Kants ethics? Probably not in letter,
especially if we consider his Metaphysics of Morals with its discussion of specific positive
duties. However, I believe that it is most consistent with Kantian morality in spirit. The
suggested approach allows to conceive of the Categorical Imperative as truly universal by
divorcing it from any specific content and thus making applicable to any maxim that has a
potential to guide human behavior, and at the same time relate it structurally to any possible
moral content.

5 Conclusion: Ethics of Justice and Mercy


As I have tried to demonstrate, we cannot discern any possible metaphysical sources for
positive duties, or the doctrine of virtuedifferently from the negative duties that can be traced
back to a formal origin. The most likely source of what is usually addressed as the realm of
positive duties is nature, more specificallyour physiology. The moral feeling that Kant
deemed so useful for the teaching of virtue yet incapable to establish it89 seems to be a
shortcut for this natural source of our feelings of kindness, mercy, and sympathy. Bounded and
formed by the formal and universal moral law, the moral feeling directs our ethical gaze and
fills the form of moral law with content.
Kants ethics of the Categorical Imperative is founded on the basis of reasona basis
literally as solid as we can think. It constitutes the morality of rules that are universal and
formal, which can be provisionally labeled, without committing to all the nuances of the terms
used, the ethics of justice. Yet as such it is also empty of content, specific and particular
content. No viable ethical theory can survive if it has only formal rules in its store: mercy,
kindness, beneficence have always been necessary components of human morality. It seems
that Kant felt the need to bring these considerations into his ethical theory and thus wrote the

89

See, for example, MS, AA 06:376

Can Positive Duties be Derived from Kants Categorical Imperative?

613

Doctrine of Virtue many years after discovering the Categorical Imperative. Yet he attempted
the impossible: necessitating the specific by the universal, content by form. It seems that a
more reliable picture would be the one of unshakeable boundaries set by the formal rules of
reason, while the contents within these boundaries come from psychophysiological sources.
The particular maxims that are formulated as a result are mediated by worldviews and hence
are specific to the groups of people in question, to their historical surrounding, etc.ever
shifting and developing. These maxims, as characteristic as they may be of the humankind at
this or that stage of its development, are by no means universal duties; they can be more
accurately described as ethical moves that have some positive, action-guiding content. Without
the boundaries, our specific positive ethical moves would be unmanageable and impossible to
implement coherently, similarly to games without rules. Yet without content the rules of reason
would be meaningless. Just like it is the case with thoughts and intuitions,90 justice without
mercy is empty, yet mercy without justice is blind.
One might think that this is a shaky basis for establishing sound morality: after all, it could
have been quite different in its positive aspect if our life form were not as it is; it also might
and willchange as our species develops. Indeed, the type of content of our morality seems to
be unique to humans. It has also been changing throughout history. While certain limits
remaindeception, for example, has never been considered praiseworthy or even morallyneutral, the contents have been changing: including animals in the sphere of morality can
serve as an example. Yet the universal moral boundaries, together with our common constitution, should be a solid enough barrier against moral relativism, as solid as the developing
nature of human beings can erect:
This conclusion may [] appear dangerous and subversive of morality. We are apt to panic at
the thought that we ourselves, or other people, might stop caring about the things we do care
about [] But it is interesting that the people of Leningrad were not similarly struck by the
thought that only the contingent fact that other citizens shared their loyalty and devotion to the
city stood between them and the Germans during the terrible years of the siege. Perhaps we
should be less troubled than we are by fear of defection from the moral cause; perhaps we
should even have less reason to fear it if people thought of themselves as volunteers banded
together to fight for liberty and justice and against inhumanity and oppression.91

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90
91

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