The ethics of Immanuel Kant


Morality and Happiness

THE maxim of self love simply advises; the law of morality commands. There is a vast difference between what we are advised and what we are obliged to do. No practical laws can be based on the principle of happiness, even on that of universal happiness, for the knowledge of this happiness rests on merely empirical or experimental data, every man's ideas of it being conditioned only on his individual opinion. Therefore, this principle of happiness cannot prescribe rules for all rational beings.

But the moral law demands prompt obedience from everyone, and thus even the most ordinary intelligence can discern what should be done. Everyone has power to comply with the dictates of morality, but even with regard to any single aim it is not easy to satisfy the vague precept of happiness. Nothing could be more absurd than a command that everyone should make himself happy, for one never commands anyone to do what he inevitably wishes to do. Finally, in the idea of our practical reason, there is something which accompanies the violation of a moral law--namely, its demerit, with the consciousness that punishment is a natural consequence. Therefore, punishment should be connected in the idea of practical reason with crime, by the principles of moral legislation.

Analysis of Principles

THE practical material principles of determination constituting the basis of morality may be thus classified.

1. SUBJECTIVE.--External: Education; the civil constitution. Internal: Physical feeling; moral feeling.

2. OBJECTIVE.--Internal: Perfection. External: Will of God.

The subjective elements are all experimental, or empirical, and cannot supply the universal principle of morality, though they are expounded in that sense by such writers as Montaigne, Mandeville, Epicurus and Hutcheson.

But the objective elements, as enunciated and expounded by Wolf and the Stoics, and by Crusius and other theological moralists, are founded on reason, for absolute perfection as a quality of things (that is, God Himself) can only be thought of by rational concepts.

The concept of perfection in a practical sense is the adequacy of a thing for various ends. As a human quality (and so internal) this is simply talent, and what completes it is skill. But supreme perfection in substance, that is, God Himself, and therefore external (considered practically), is the adequacy of this being for all purposes. All the principles above classified are material, and so can never furnish the supreme moral law. For even the Divine will can supply a motive in the human mind because of the expectation of happiness from it.

Therefore, the formal practical principle of the pure reason insists that the mere form of a universal legislation must constitute the ultimate determining principle of the will. Here is the only possible practical principle which is sufficient to furnish categorical imperatives, that is, practical laws which make action a duty.

It follows from this analytic that pure reason cannot be practical. It can determine the will independently of all merely experimental elements.

There is a remarkable contrast between the working of the pure speculative reason and that of the pure practical reason. In the former--as was shown in the treatise on that subject--a pure, sensible intuition of time and space made knowledge possible, though knowledge only of objects of the senses.

On the contrary, the moral law brings before us a fact absolutely inexplicable from any of the data of the world of sense. And the entire range of our theoretical use of reason indicates a pure world of understanding, which even positively determines it, and enables us to know something of it--namely, a law.

We must observe the distinction between the laws of a system of nature to which the will is subject, and of a system of nature which is subject to the will. In the former, the objects cause the ideas which determine the will; in the latter, the objects are caused by the will. Hence, causality of the will has its determining principle exclusively in the faculty of pure reason, which may, therefore, also be called a pure practical reason.

The moral law is a law of the causality through freedom, and therefore of the possibility of a super-sensible system of nature. It determines the will by imposing on its maxim the condition of a universal legislative form, and thus it is able for the first time to impart practical reality to reason, which otherwise would continue to be transcendent when seeking to proceed speculatively with its ideas.

Thus the moral law induces a stupendous change. It changes the transcendent use of reason into the immanent use. And in result reason itself becomes, by its ideas, an efficient cause in the field of experience.

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