58is why we cannot have knowledge that transcends experience: “Thepossibility of experience is, then, what gives objective reality to all our apriori modes of knowledge” (A 156, B 195). Indeed, it explains Kant’s firstexample of a synthetic a priori principle: “every object stands under thenecessary conditions of synthetic unity of the manifold of intuition in apossible experience” (A 158, B 197).Kant’s distinction between the transcendental and subjective unities hastwo important consequences. First, a rational psychology—a disciplinetaking the ‘I think’ as its sole text (A 343, B 401) and amounting to atheory of the soul—is impossible. One might suppose, given the account ofthe transcendental unity, that the “I,” or, to use Kant’s term, the soul, is asimple, unified substance, and that we can discover this a priori. This,however, is a confusion. One can argue that the representation of the “I”is a representation of a substance, of something simple and unified. But todeduce that the “I” is a substance, simple and unified, is to commit afallacy.10 In fact, it is to invite the skeptic’s objections all over again.Nothing here guarantees the veridicality of our representations. From theperspective of transcendental (rather than rational, that is, rationalist andtranscendent) psychology, the “I” is “completely empty”: “it is a bareconsciousness which accompanies all concepts. Through this I or he or it(the thing) which thinks, nothing further is represented than atranscendental subject of the thoughts=X” (A 346, B 404).As with the self, so with things-in-themselves. The second consequenceof Kant’s distinction is thus that knowledge of things-in-them-selves isimpossible; knowledge is limited to the sphere of experience. The limits ofknowledge become clear in thinking about the role of the categories. Thepure concepts of the understanding are conditions of the possibility ofexperience. They have a priori validity, against the claims of the skeptic,because “all empirical knowledge of objects would necessarily conform tosuch concepts, because only as thus presupposing them is anythingpossible as an object of experience” (A 93, B 126). Objects of experiencemust conform to the categories. Objects beyond the realm of experience,however, face no such constraint. In fact, we have no reason to believethat the categories apply to them at all. The categories conform to objectsof possible experience because we synthesize those objects from the dataof sensibility. What lies beyond sensibility lies beyond the categories, forwe have no reason to believe that it results from such a process ofsynthesis.This means that transcendent metaphysics is impossible. Metaphysicalknowledge, to be interesting, must be knowledge of the world; it cannot bemerely verbal. So, it must consist of synthetic propositions. Moreover, itcannot rely on experience; to be necessary and nonempirical, it must be apriori. Kant, as a rationalist, is committed to the possibility of synthetic a
KANT’S COPERNICAN REVOLUTION59priori knowledge. But such knowledge is possible only transcendentally,that is, through the contemplation of what makes experience possible. Wesecure the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge by arguing for thecategories. They apply, however, only to objects of possible experience.Kant derives rationalism, therefore, only by undercutting transcendence. No other objects, besides those of the senses, can, as a matter of fact,be given to us, and nowhere save in the context of a possibleexperience; and consequently nothing is an object for us, unless itpresupposes the sum of all empirical reality as the condition of itspossibility.(A 582, B 610) We can witness Kant’s application of his principle of immanence in hisrefutation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. Thatargument appears in Aquinas, for example, as follows: In the observable world causes are to be found ordered in series; wenever observe, or even could observe, something causing itself, forthis would mean that it preceded itself, and this is impossible. Such aseries of causes, however, must stop somewhere. For in all series ofcauses, an earlier member causes an intermediate, and theintermediate a last (whether the intermediate be one or many). If youeliminate a cause, you also eliminate its effects. Therefore, there canbe neither a last nor an intermediate cause unless there is a first. Butif the series of causes goes on to infinity, and there is no first cause,there would be neither intermediate causes nor a final effect, which ispatently false. It is therefore necessary to posit a first cause, which allcall “God.”11 Kant’s transcendental critique of this argument alleges “a whole nest ofdialectical assumptions,” of which he points out several: (a) The argumentassumes that each event in the observable world has a cause. Kant agrees;he regards it as a synthetic a priori truth. But, as such, “This principle isapplicable only in the sensible world; outside that world it has no meaningwhatsoever” (A 609, B 637). (b) Why can’t a series of causes go on toinfinity? Kant finds nothing to justify this assumption even in the sensibleworld, © Is it true that, if you eliminate a cause, you eliminate its effects?Even if this holds in experience, we have no justification for extending itbeyond experience, (d) Finally, why should we identify the first cause asGod? Philosophers have understood God as the perfect being, “that, thegreater than which cannot be conceived,” the being more real than anyother, and the necessarily existent being. To conclude that the first cause is
60God, we must show at least that the first cause is perfect and necessary.Nothing in the proof accomplishes this. Consequently, Kant maintainsthat “the so-called cosmological proof really owes any cogency which itmay have to the ontological proof from mere concepts” (A 607, B 635),for it assumes that perfection, necessity, and being the first cause all holdof the same thing.The ontological proof appears in Anselm in the following form: Certainly, this being exists so truly that one cannot even think that itdoes not exist. For whatever must be thought to exist is greater thanwhatever can be thought not to exist. Hence, if that greatestconceivable being can be thought not to exist, then it is not thegreatest conceivable being, which is absurd. Therefore, something sogreat that a greater cannot be conceived exists so truly that it cannoteven be thought not to exist.12 The argument means to show that perfection entails necessity. That God isperfect Anselm takes as an analytic truth, as following from a definition of‘God.’ He concludes that God exists necessarily.Kant’s assault on this argument is more complicated than his attack onthe cosmological proof, but also more illuminating. This proof is aparadigm example of illusion, the mistaking of the subjective for theobjective. It tries to establish the necessary existence of God from the mereconcept of God. Kant is willing to grant that the argument shows that theconcept of God, so defined, includes the concept of existence. But hedenies that this implies anything at all about the existence of God inreality.The key to Kant’s attack on the ontological argument is hiscontention that ‘being’ is not a real predicate. Kant defines adetermining predicate as “a predicate which is added to the concept ofthe subject and enlarges it” (A 598, B 626). It follows that a judgmentwith a determining predicate must be synthetic, for the predicate mustenlarge the subject; it cannot already be contained in it. “‘Being’,”Kant insists, “is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not aconcept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing”(A 598, B 626). A real predicate is capable of serving as a determiningpredicate. ‘Being,’ evidently, is not.We might be tempted to conclude that existential judgments such as‘God is’ or ‘God exists’ are analytic, for ‘being’ cannot serve as adetermining predicate. But Kant clearly maintains that all existentialjudgments are synthetic. He argues specifically that ‘God exists’ is notanalytic, and concludes, “as every reasonable person must, that allexistential propositions are synthetic” (A 598, B 626). It follows that
KANT’S COPERNICAN REVOLUTION61‘being’ cannot be contained in the concept of a thing. But how canexistential judgments be synthetic if they lack determining predicates?13A synthetic judgment is not merely verbal; its predicate, according toKant, must add something not already included in its subject. ‘Being,’then, must add something to every subject concept. Yet it is notdetermining; it does not add to and enlarge the subject concept. ‘Being’adds something that does not enlarge the concept of the subject.To understand how this is possible, we must return to Kant’s theoryof concepts. Concepts are functions of synthesis that organize andunify the material of sense. They mold the data of sense intoperceptions of objects (A 68, B 93, B 95). Consequently, their contentrelates essentially to the manifold of sense. In language and in thought,we can manipulate items however we like. Only through links tointuition, actual or possible, can we move from thinking to knowledge,activating the transcendental unity and giving our thoughts objectivevalidity. (See A 155, B 194–5, B 146, B 165–6.) In short, concepts havecontent by virtue of the patterns of possible intuitions falling underthem. This entails that ‘being’ is not a real predicate, for it lacks thissort of content. It cannot enlarge a subject concept; any intuitionfalling under the concept of a dollar falls under the concept of anexisting dollar, and vice versa (A 599–600, B 627–8). It follows,moreover, that existential judgments are synthetic, for existence cannotbe part of the content of a subject concept (A 225, B 272).If ‘being’ lacks content definable in terms of the manifold of sense, whatdoes it contribute to a judgment? Existential judgments do not enlarge oralter a rule for the synthesis of the manifold of intuition, but express therelation of the rule to the understanding. For Kant, then, ‘being’ isrelational. The same holds of possibility and necessity, which share thefourth, “Modality” portion of the table of categories.14 Kant maintainsthat the modality of a judgment adds nothing to the judgment’s content.Instead, it determines the judgment’s relation to the understanding: “Theprinciples of modality thus predicate of a concept nothing but the actionof the faculty of knowledge through which it is generated” (A 234, B 286–7). Existence and the other modalities contribute “a relation to myunderstanding” (A 231, B 284), determining “only how the object,together with all its determinations, is related to understanding and itsempirical employment, to empirical judgment, and to reason in itsapplication to experience” (A 219, B 266).Kant compares the ‘being’ at stake in existential judgments to the‘being’ of the copula (A 74, B 100; A 598–9, B 626–7). Both “distinguishthe objective unity of given representations from the subjective” (B 141–2). Only by relating the terms of a judgment to the transcendental unity ofapperception
62does there arise from this relation a judgment, that is, a relationwhich is objectively valid, and so can be adequately distinguishedfrom a relation of the same representations that would have onlysubjective validity—as when they are connected according to thelaws of association.(B 142) ‘Being’ in both roles distinguishes the subjective from the objective.This is why the ontological proof is Kant’s paradigm case of dialecticalillusion. The advocate of the proof mistakes the subjective for theobjective, failing to recognize that God’s existence or necessity cannot beestablished analytically, from the definition of ‘God’ alone. In saying thatsomething exists, we assert a relation to the understanding; we assert thatwe may experience the object, or stand in relation to it by way ofempirical laws (A 219, B 266–7; A. 234 n., B 287 n.; A 616, B 644). Andthis cannot be derived from concepts alone. It follows that nothing existswith analytic or logical necessity: If I take the concept of anything, no matter what, I find the existenceof this thing can never be represented by me as absolutely necessary,and that, whatever it may be that exists, nothing prevents me fromthinking its nonexistence.(A 615, B 643) We can now see how Kant can practice the transcendental method whilerejecting transcendent metaphysics. The latter confuses the subjective andthe objective, failing to recognize that concepts have content only inrelation to experience. The transcendental method, however, focusesdirectly on the relation to the understanding at stake in questions ofmodality. Kant deduces the categories by reflecting on the sort of relationthat must hold if experience of objects is to be possible.HUMANISMKant carefully distinguishes his view from the idealism of Berkeley, whichassails the notion of a reality beyond the realm of ideas. Kant’s solution toPlatonism’s problems relies on distinguishing phenomena from noumena.Kant thus insists on the need to recognize nonmental objects, things-in-themselves, of which our appearances are appearances.Kant nevertheless realizes that his theory is a form of idealism—transcendental idealism, he calls it—for truth, objectivity, and existence,
KANT’S COPERNICAN REVOLUTION63within the theory, become fundamentally epistemic notions. The sameholds of all the modalities—possibility, truth or existence, and necessity —for all have the same function of relating a judgment to the understanding.Metaphysics is inseparable from epistemology; the root notions ofmetaphysics are all, in the end, epistemological notions.Kant’s epistemic conception of modality underlies his identification of apriori and necessary judgments. Saul Kripke has attacked this identification,pointing out that a prioricity is a matter of epistemology—can something beknown independently of experience?—while necessity is a matter ofmetaphysics. Kripke has alleged, against Kant, that there can be contingent apriori and necessary a posteriori truths.15 This seems plausible on themetaphysical view of necessity that Leibniz and Kripke share, namely, thatnecessity is truth in all possible worlds. But Kant rejects that view. Ajudgment is a priori if it can be known independently of all experience; if, thatis, it holds no matter what experience might yield, or, to put it differently, if itholds no matter what the world looks like. A judgment is necessary, on theLeibniz-Kripke view, if it holds no matter what the world is like. Kant doesnot confuse these notions; he rejects the latter precisely because it ismetaphysical in a transcendent sense. The truth of skepticism is that wecannot know what the world is like. The only notion of modality we can useis epistemic, in which we consider possible experiences rather than possibleworlds. On this conception, of course, the a priori and the necessary are notonly equivalent, but obviously so.Moreover, it becomes possible to attain knowledge of necessary truthsabout objects of experience. Reason gets itself into trouble when it tries toleave the realm of possible experience. Kant is able to defend ourknowledge of necessary truths against skeptics such as Hume because, forhim, the a priori and necessary extend to the immanent sphere only, not tothe transcendent. They are limited to the realm of possible experience. If apriori judgments were necessary in a strong metaphysical sense, thenKant’s immanence thesis would be hard to understand.The epistemic character of the basic notions of metaphysics—whenthese notions and, correspondingly, metaphysics are properly construed—is the central consequence of Kant’s Copernican revolution. It wouldbecome fundamental to virtually all nineteenth-century approaches tophilosophy. Skepticism, perhaps the chief philosophical puzzle sinceDescartes, would give way to puzzles arising from Kant’s uniquelyhumanistic idealism. For Kant, as for the ancient Sophist Protagoras, manis the measure of all things. Kant, of course, takes the definite article hereseriously. There is one and only one measure: the categories underlie allpossible experience. Not everyone would agree. The nature and especiallythe uniqueness of the measure would define the chief battleground forphilosophers during the next two centuries.
64NOTES1 R.Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 1979), p. 149; N.Kemp Smith, A Commentary to Kant’s Critique of PureReason (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1962), p. vii.2 This and other citations from the Critique of Pure Reason are from thetranslation of N.Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1929; New York: StMartin’s Press, 1965). Throughout, any emphasis in the quotations is Kant’s;the pagination is that of the original first (A) and second (B) editions.3 H.Vaihinger, Commentar zu Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, Vol. I(Stuttgart: Spemann, 1881), pp. 117–20.4 The analysis is Vaihinger’s. See ibid., p. 50; Kemp Smith, op. cit., pp. 13–14.5 Descartes, Meditations, III.6 Kant often speaks of the content and form of judgments in just this way.Introducing the table of judgments, he writes, “If we abstract from all contentof a judgment, and consider only the mere form of understanding,” we derivethe table (A 70, B 95). At other times, however, he treats the form and contentvery differently. Modality, for example, differs from the other aspects ofjudgment in the table in that “it contributes nothing to the content of ajudgment (for, besides quantity, quality, and relation, there is nothing thatconstitutes the content of a judgment)” (A 74, B 100). These are plainlyinconsistent. In the former passage, Kant speaks of empirical content or, moreprecisely, the content of the impure concepts in a judgment; in the latter, hespeaks of logical content. It is tempting to identify the form of a judgmentwith its logical content, but Kant’s theory of the modalities makes thatimpossible. See my “Kant on Existence and Modality,” Archiv für Geschichteder Philosophie, 64, 3 (1982): 289–300.7 That is, concepts of objects are rules of individuation as well as application.For a sophisticated modern treatment of this distinction, see A.Gupta, TheLogic of Common Nouns (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).8 See H.Vaihinger, “Die transcendentale Deduktion der Kategorien,”Gedenkschrift für Rudolf Haym (1902); Kemp Smith, op. cit., pp. 202ff.9 Kant’s theory of time occupies part of the Transcendental Aesthetic. In brief,time is the form of inner sense, the progression of sensations, thoughts, and, ingeneral, representations that constitutes empirical consciousness. Space andtime, Kant argues, are a priori forms of intuition, for they are necessaryconditions of sensation. We cannot sense anything without sensing it in spaceand time, that is, as spatially and temporally located. Time is moreover theform of inner sense because we cannot think anything without thinking it intime, that is, without our thought being part of a temporal sequence.10 See W.Sellars, “Some Remarks on Kant’s Theory of Experience” and “…this Ior he or it (the thing) which thinks…,” in his Essays on Philosophy and itsHistory (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1974), pp. 44–61, 62–92.11 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, la. 2; my translation.12 St Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, III; my translation.13 For more on this apparent contradiction, see J.Shaffer, “Existence,Predication, and the Ontological Argument,” Mind, 71 (1962): 307–25;W.H.Walsh, Kant’s Criticism of Metaphysics (Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press, 1975), p. 7; G.Vick, “Existence was a Predicate for Kant,”Kant-Studien, 61 (1970): 357–71, esp. 363–4; R.Coburn, “Animadversions
KANT’S COPERNICAN REVOLUTION65on Plantinga’s Kant,” Ratio, 13 (1971): 19–29, esp. 21–2; R.Campbell, “RealPredicates and ‘Exists’,” Mind, 83 (1974): 96ff.; and my “Kant on Existenceand Modality,” op. cit., pp. 291–5.14 One of the few commentators to observe this is H.Heimsoeth, TranszendentaleDialektik (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969), Vol. III, p. 480.15 See S.Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UniversityPress, 1972, 1980), pp. 34–9.SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHYOriginal language editions2.1 Kant, I. Critik der reinen Vernunft, Riga: J.F.Hartknoch, 1781.2.2 Kants gesammelte Schriften, 29 vols, ed. Deutschen (formerly KöniglichPreussische) Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin: de Gruyter (andpredecessors), 1902–.2.3 Kant, I. Werke, Academie Textausgahe: Anmerkungen der Bande I-IX,Berlin: de Gruyter, 1977.English translations2.4 Kant, I. Critik of Pure Reason, trans. F.Haywood, London: W.Pickering, 1838.2.5 Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason, trans. J.M.D.Meiklejohn, New York:Colonial Press, 1899; London: J.M.Dent, 1934, 1940.2.6 Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason, trans. N.Kemp Smith, London: Macmillan,1929; New York: St Martin’s Press, 1965.2.7 Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason, trans. W.Schwarz, Aalen: Scientia, 1982.Books on Kant (in English)2.8 Beck, L.W. Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors,Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969.2.9 Beck, L.W. Essays on Kant and Hume, New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, 1978.2.10 Beck, L.W. (ed.) Kant Studies Today, La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1969.2.11 Beck, L.W. (ed.) Kant’s Theory of Knowledge, Dordrecht: Reidel, 1974.2.12 Broad, C.D. Kant: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1978.2.13 Cassirer, E. Kant’s Life and Thought, trans. J.Haden, New Haven andLondon: Yale University Press, 1981.2.14 den Ouden B.D., and Moen, M. (eds) New Essays on Kant, New York: PeterLang, 1987.
662.15 Guyer, P. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Kant, Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1992.2.16 Korner, S. Kant, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955.2.17 Scruton, R. Kant, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.2.18 Walker, R.C.S. Kant, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.2.19 Werkmeister, W.H. Kant, the Archetectonic and Development of hisPhilosophy, La Salle, 111.: Open Court, 1980.2.20 Wolff, R.P. (ed.) Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays, Notre Dame:University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.2.21 Wood, A.W. (ed.) Self and Nature in Kant’s Philosophy, Ithaca: CornellUniversity Press, 1984.Books on the Critique of Pare Reason (in English)2.22 Allison, H.E. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation andDefense, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.2.23 Ameriks, K. Kant’s Theory of Mind, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.2.24 Aquila, R.E. Representational Mind: A Study of Kant’s Theory ofKnowledge, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.2.25 Bennett, J. Kant’s Analytic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.2.26 Bennett, J. Kant’s Dialectic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1974.2.27 Brittan, G.G. Kant’s Theory of Science, Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 1978.2.28 Ewing, A.C. A Short Commentary to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.2.29 Forster, E. (ed.) Kant’s Transcendental Deductions: The Three Critiques andthe Opus Postumum, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.2.30 Kemp Smith, N. A Commentary to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, AtlanticHighlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1962.2.31 Paton, W.E. Kant’s Metaphysic of Experience, London: Allen & Unwin,1970.2.32 Prichard, H.A. Kant’s Theory of Knowledge, Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 1909.2.33 Rescher, N. Kant’s Theory of Knowledge and Reality: A Group of Essays,Washington: University Press of America, 1983.2.34 Schaper, E., and Vossenkuhl, W. (eds) Reading Kant: New Perspectives onTranscendental Arguments and Critical Philosophy, Oxford:Blackwell, 1989.2.35 Sellars, W. Science and Metaphysics: Variations on Kantian Themes, London:Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.2.36 Seung, T.K. Kant’s Transcendental Logic, New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, 1969.2.37 Strawson, P.F. The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s Critique of PureReason, London: Methuen, 1966.2.38 Walsh, W.H. Kant’s Criticism of Metaphysics, Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press, 1975.2.39 Wilkerson, T.E. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 1976.
KANT’S COPERNICAN REVOLUTION672.40 Winterbourne, A. The Ideal and the Real: An Outline of Kant’s Theoryof Space, Time, and Mathematical Construction, Dordrecht:Kluwer, 1988.2.41 Wolff, R.P. Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, Cambridge, Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press, 1963.
68CHAPTER 3Kant’s moral and politicalphilosophyDon BeckerPractical philosophy, for Kant, is concerned with how one ought to act.His first important work in practical philosophy, Foundations of theMetaphysics of Morals, provides Kant’s argument for the fundamentalprinciple of how one ought to act, called the “categorical imperative,”which basically requires one to act only according to principles that arethemselves fit to be universal law. In Part I of this chapter we will focus onKant’s argument for the categorical imperative, and see how it functions asthe fundamental principle of his moral philosophy. In Part II we will lookat Kant’s political philosophy, seeing both that it is grounded in thisfundamental principle of how one ought to act, and that it gains supportfrom other aspects of Kant’s philosophical thinking.PART I: KANT’S MORAL PHILOSOPHYInasmuch as Kant thinks that the fundamental principle of how one ought toact must be capable of grounding a definitive answer in all circumstances, herecognizes that no empirical study, which is dependent on the contingentnature of the world as we experience it, can provide the sort of principle thathe seeks. Instead, Kant will proceed with an a priori study of how one oughtto act, which, insofar as it is independent of the contingent nature of theworld as we experience it, can provide a definitive principle. Two forms of apriori study that Kant employs are the analysis of concepts and
KANT’S MORAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY69transcendental arguments. According to the former, insofar as some conceptapplies, whatever is entailed in that concept is true. According to the latter,insofar as some concept applies, whatever is a necessary condition of itsapplication is true. Thus, Kant begins with the two concepts that arefundamental to his intended study, “morality” and “rational being,” anddetermines that they reveal the truth of the categorical imperative.(Although the concept “rational being” is really the fundamental conceptemployed by Kant, the concept “morality,” which he could have derivedfrom the concept “rational being,” plays a central role in his presentation.)Kant’s presentation includes two basic steps. First, he asks what is meant bythe concept “morality,” and argues that it entails rational beings acting inaccord with the categorical imperative. This, however, only answers thequestion of what morality is on the assumption that morality exists. Kantthen considers the concept “rational being,” and argues that a necessarycondition of a being thinking that this concept applies to itself is that it thinkof itself as free. Furthermore, since Kant equates freedom in this sense (i.e.“positive freedom”) with what he calls autonomy, and autonomy withsubjection to the categorical imperative, it follows that beings who think ofthemselves as rational must consider themselves to be subject to thecategorical imperative that he has described.1“Morality” and “rational beings”Kant engages in the a priori study of ethics, or metaphysics of morals,because this is the only way to gain definitive knowledge of how oneought to act. He proceeds by first considering what is meant by“morality,” and determining that it means neither more nor less thanacting according to the categorical imperative (FMM, 58).2 Although moremust be said before it is possible to explain the categorical imperativefully, and the exact nature of the moral principle that it designates,nevertheless, if one merely considers the two words that make up the term,an important aspect of its nature is revealed. “Categorical” meansabsolute, without qualification or exception, and “imperative” refers to atype of command. Thus, a categorical imperative is an absolute command.According to Kant, “Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to hold morally(i.e. as a ground of obligation), must imply absolute necessity” (FMM, 5).Thus, Kant treats it as obvious to everyone that morality ultimately entails anabsolute command or categorical imperative. Furthermore, since nothingabsolute can be derived from something contingent, he argues that the onlyway to determine the exact nature of this absolute command is to engage in thea priori study of practical reason (i.e. reason related to acting):
70unless we wish to deny all truth to the concept of morality andrenounce its application to any possible object, we cannot refuse toadmit that the law is of such broad significance that it holds notmerely for men but for all rational beings as such; we must grantthat it must be valid with absolute necessity and not merely undercontingent conditions and with exceptions. For with what rightcould we bring into unlimited respect something that might be validonly under contingent human conditions? And how could laws of thedetermination of our will be held to be laws of the determination ofthe will of any rational being whatever and of ourselves in so far aswe are rational beings, if they were merely empirical and did nothave their origin completely a priori in pure, but practical reason?(FMM, 24) Kant holds that morality entails absolute laws; that, insofar as they areabsolute, these laws must hold not only for human beings but for allsimilar, i.e. rational, beings; and that to have such general applicabilitythese laws cannot be learned through experience or any empirical study,but must be derived through a purely a priori study.Kant thinks that people, insofar as they are rational, are subject to anabsolute moral law. Kant thinks that the fact that rational beings aresubject to an absolute moral law is what fundamentally distinguishes themfrom all of the other material things in the world, which he recognizes tobe subject to the laws of nature. Thus, Kant distinguishes physics, which isconcerned with those objects that are subject to the “laws of nature,”from ethics, which is concerned with those objects that are subject to the“laws of freedom” (FMM, 3). As will become clear, these laws of freedomconstitute the absolute moral law.This distinction between physics and ethics can be somewhat confusing;after all, isn’t everything subject to the laws of nature? Maybe not. Thinkfor a moment of a world in which everything were subject to the laws ofnature. This would be a world of strict causal determinism; everythingthat happened would have followed inexorably from what preceded it.Among other things, all human behavior would be completely determinedby these laws. But if all human behavior is causally determined accordingto laws of nature, then in what sense could people be considered morallyresponsible for their acts? Thus, if the concept “morality” is to makesense, then it must be possible to think of people not only as commonphysical entities subject to the laws of nature, but also, in another sense, asrational beings, subject to the laws of freedom (see FMM, 68–73).Kant thinks of people in just this dual way, as sensible or physical beings,causally determined according to the laws of nature, and as intelligible orpurely rational beings, independent of causal determinism and capable of
KANT’S MORAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY71acting in accord with the laws of freedom. Accordingly, Kant suggests that thehuman will is subjected to two influences (see e.g. FMM, 16, 42). As sensibleor physical beings, human beings have desires that arise from their physicalnature and corresponding physical needs, which Kant broadly characterizesas the desire to be happy. This universal desire, as well as otherindiosyncratic particular desires, is the source of inclinations, which exert apotentially controlling influence on the will. However, insofar as humanbeings are intelligible or purely rational beings, they recognize the laws offreedom, resist the force of inclination, and determine their will forthemselves, independently of external influences and inclinations.Furthermore, and recognition of this is crucial for a correct understanding ofKant’s moral philosophy, Kant thinks that all rational beings, insofar as theydetermine their will for themselves independently of their inclinations, willrecognize the very same principle, the categorical imperative, as expressingthe law of freedom in accord with which they ought to act (FMM, 71).Thus far we have seen that the concept of “morality” entails the notionof an absolute law or “categorical imperative,” and that it can only applyto (rational) beings who can resist their inclinations and choose to followsuch a law of freedom. Let us now look more closely at exactly what Kantmeans by a “categorical imperative.”Kant’s concept of a categorical imperativeImagine that the human will were influenced only by pure reason.Whatever pure reason recognized as right would necessarily be willed, andwhoever was possessed of pure reason would never do wrong. But Kanthas said that the human will is influenced by both reason and inclination.Therefore, human beings don’t necessarily will (and consequently act) aspure reason reveals is right, because they can be led astray by theirinclinations. Thus, if a human will is to be determined in accordance withthe objective moral law, it must be constrained. Kant calls the formulathat expresses the command that constrains this will an imperative. Kantholds that there are two types of imperatives: All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. Theformer present the practical necessity of a possible action as a meansto achieving something else which one desires (or which one maypossibly desire). The categorical imperative would be one whichpresented an action as of itself objectively necessarily, without regardto any other end.(FMM, 30)
72Two points that are rather important to Kant are expressed in thispassage.First, Kant reveals the basic difference between hypothetical andcategorical imperatives. All imperatives determine the will to some good,but hypothetical imperatives say only that some action is good given thatone has a particular purpose. Hypothetical imperatives reveal the meansto given ends. Since these ends are contingent, however, as are all theends that one commonly imagines (including the desire for happiness)inasmuch as there is no necessity for human beings to be so constitutedthat they have any of the particular desires that they experience, theseends cannot give rise to a categorical imperative. A categoricalimperative, as Kant says, cannot depend on any contingent end, but“would be one which presented an action as of itself objectivelynecessary.”Second, by saying of a categorical imperative that it “would be one…,’Kant is making it clear that there may be no categorical imperative. Kantis only talking about what a categorical imperative would be like if oneexisted. This is very important, and is consistent with a point made earlier.Human beings can only be subject to a moral law if they are capable ofresisting the influences of their inclinations, and determining their willsthrough reason in accord with a principle or law that is known a priori.There can be no moral responsibility for beings whose actions are allcausally determined. Thus, before Kant can actually assert that there is acategorical imperative, he must first show that human beings have reasonto believe themselves capable of determining their wills through reason.Nevertheless, Kant’s argumentative strategy is to hold off on the questionof whether human beings are actually subject to the categoricalimperative, and to first pursue the question of what a categoricalimperative would be, assuming that one exists.The first formulation of the categorical imperativeKant argues that there can be only one categorical imperative, and that,from the very idea of a categorical imperative, one can deduce a formulaof the categorical imperative. Kant’s argument can be expressed as follows(see FMM, 37–8). A categorical imperative is an absolute law. Although itis obvious that a categorical imperative entails an absolute law, it is not atall clear what this law will command. Imagine any possible content of thislaw, say, to maximize human happiness. Insofar as what constituteshuman happiness is contingent (human beings could be constituteddifferently), all that one can construct is a hypothetical imperative directed
KANT’S MORAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY73to a particular contingent end. Thus, a categorical imperative cannot bedirected to any particular contingent end.But if the imperative cannot be directed toward any particularcontingent ends, then what is left? Although later a formulation of thecategorical imperative that is based on an end that is not contingent willbe considered, for now it seems that the imperative can require nothingmore than conformity to absolute law. But since there is nothing inparticular to which this absolute law can be directed, it can command onlythat one act in a way that is at least consistent with the possibility ofabsolute law. Kant expresses this categorical imperative as follows: “Actonly according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will thatit should become a universal law” (FMM, 38). This imperative does notrely on any specific content, but states the formal requirement that onealways act in a way that one could will to be required to act by anabsolute law.The application of the categorical imperative and the distinctionbetween perfect and imperfect dutiesWhat does it mean to act only according to that maxim by which youcan at the same time will that it should become a universal law? First,what is a maxim? A maxim is a general principle according to which anindividual acts. Thus, one might hold the maxim “I will watch televisionwhen bored,” or “I will steal things when I desire more goods.” Kantis saying that it is morally permissible to act according to one’s maximonly if it is possible at the same time to will that it should become auniversal law.One of the most famous examples that Kant uses to help make his pointclear is that of the maxim to make a false promise to honor one’s debtwhen seeking a loan that one does not intend to pay back (see e.g. FMM,18–19, 39). Can one hold this maxim and, at the same time, will that itshould be a universal law? Well, imagine that there were a universal law tomake false promises. In such circumstances, inasmuch as no one could betrusted, the institution of promising itself could not exist. Now, since it islogically impossible for one at the same time to will both to make a falsepromise and that the institution of promising not exist, it is immoral to acton the maxim to make a false promise when desirous of another’s money.Thus, the categorical imperative, as well as stating a restriction onpermissible behavior, also provides a test of whether the restrictionapplies. If one cannot conceive of acting on the maxim while, at the sametime, the maxim holds as a universal law, as is the case in the example
74of the false promise, then the maxim fails the test and may not beacted upon.Immediately after introducing the categorical imperative, Kant providesfour examples of its application, which are designed to represent acommon division of duties into four basic categories. Kant providesexamples of perfect duties and imperfect duties both to oneself and toothers, which can be classified as shown below.Duty to oneself Duty to othersPerfect duty Do not commit suicide Do not falsely promiseImperfect duty Develop talents Be beneficentWhile the distinction between duties to oneself and duties to othersrequires no explanation, this is not the case with the distinction betweenperfect and imperfect duties. Kant was not the first to distinguish betweenperfect and imperfect duties, but his distinction does not correspondexactly with that of his predecessors (FMM, 38 n.). As Kant employs theconcepts, perfect duties are those with which one’s every action mustconform. Thus, in all but one special case (i.e. the duty to join the state),perfect duties actually entail prohibitions against actions that should neverbe performed under any circumstances, e.g. stealing and murder. Imperfectduties, for Kant, entail principles that one must adopt, but that one neednot (and, in fact, cannot) act upon in every instance. One would not thinkof another as moral who did not hold, and in some appropriatecircumstances act upon, the principle “Be beneficent.” However, it is alsoclear that it is not possible for one’s every act to be the fulfillment of animperfect duty. For one thing, one’s every act cannot be, say, beneficent,since one also must tend to one’s own physical needs. Even moreobviously, one’s every act cannot be one of beneficence, and also one ofdeveloping talents, and also one that furthers every other imperfect duty.Thus, Kant distinguishes between those duties with which one’s every actmust accord, and those duties that require one to adopt a principle, butleave one leeway in deciding when to act upon it.With this distinction between perfect and imperfect duties in mind, it isimportant to look back to the categorical imperative, and to the test of thepermissibility of actions. There are two ways that a maxim can fail the testof the categorical imperative. There are maxims for which it is logicallyimpossible, and thus inconceivable, for one to will the maxim and itsuniversalization at the same time, as in the false promise examplediscussed above, and there are maxims for which there is merely acontradiction in the will of an individual who wills both the maxim and itsuniversalization at the same time, as in the example discussed below. Kant
KANT’S MORAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY75recognizes that there is an exact correspondence both between the dutiesgenerated by maxims failing the test of the categorical imperative in theformer manner and perfect duties, and between the duties generated bymaxims failing the test of the categorical imperative in the latter mannerand imperfect duties (FMM, 40–1).3 Both Kant’s test of duties entailed inthe categorical imperative and his reformulation of the distinction betweenperfect and imperfect duties gain support from this correspondence.Having already seen in the example of a false promise how perfect dutiesare related to maxims for which it is inconceivable to will both the maximand its universalization at the same time, let us turn to an example of animperfect duty. Consider the maxim “I will not develop my talents when Iseem to be doing fine without bothering.” There is no logical contradictionthat results from holding this maxim and, at the same time, willing that itshould become a universal law. After all, one can very well imagine a rathereasy life on a tropical island where one need do nothing more than pick fruitwhen hungry. Thus, adopting this maxim does not violate a perfect duty.Remember, however, that the categorical imperative says to “act onlyaccording to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that itshould become a universal law.” While the test of perfect duties focuses onwhether one can will that the maxim should become a universal law,thereby focusing on the logical possibility of holding the maxim and itsuniversalization at the same time, the test of imperfect duties focuses on thequestion of whether one can will that the maxim should become a universallaw. It may be logically possible to live a human life without developingone’s talents, and yet it may be impossible, without contradiction, to will tolive such a life. Although Kant’s treatment of the examples of imperfectduties is very unclear, I think that one can make the best sense of hisdiscussion if one reads him as saying that the human will is essentiallyunlimited in that it can hold anything imaginable as its object, and that acontradiction therefore results if one wills to place a limitation on one’s ownwill. Thus, it is not logically impossible for people to will not to developtheir talents (it doesn’t violate a perfect duty) but it entails a contradiction intheir will, since, on the one hand, their wills are essentially unlimited, but,on the other hand, willing the nondevelopment of one’s talents yields alimitation on what one can effectively will. According to this analysis, itfollows that there is an imperfect duty to develop one’s talents.The second formulation of the categorical imperativeAlthough Kant thinks that there is only one categorical imperative, hethinks that it can be formulated in more than one way. Of course, any
76other formulation of the categorical imperative, if it is to be a formulationof the same imperative, must require and prohibit exactly the same actionsas the first formulation. Although Kant maintains that the firstformulation discussed above is the most fundamental and precise, hedevelops alternative formulations of the categorical imperative becausethey make the demands of morality more intuitively plausible (FMM, 53).The derivation of the first formulation of the categorical imperative canbe thought of as based on a consideration of the necessary form of acategorical imperative. The idea is that the imperative must express anabsolute law, but, since the law cannot command any contingent particularand still be absolute, all that can be commanded is that any particularmaxim to be acted upon must be of such a form that it could be universallaw. The second formulation of the categorical imperative, in contrast,focuses on the proper content of one’s maxims (FMM, 48, 53). Kant basesthe second formulation of the categorical imperative on his view thatrational beings have absolute value as ends in themselves (FMM, 45–6).Although Kant’s argument in support of this view of rational beings isnot very clear, it appears to rely on two fundamental claims. Kant haselsewhere said that the only thing that is good without qualification is agood will (since anything else can be put to a bad end, but not goodwilling itself) (FMM, 9–10), and seems to allude to this position during theargument. He also begins the discussion of which this argument is a partby reminding his readers that only rational beings have a will (FMM, 44).From these two claims it is reasonable to conclude that rational beings areof absolute value because they are the only possible source of that which isgood without qualification. An imperative with content can therefore be acategorical imperative, provided that the end of that imperative is forrational beings to be treated as ends. Thus, the second formulation of thecategorical imperative is: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in yourown person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a meansonly”4 (FMM, 46). This imperative includes an absolute prohibitionagainst treating others as means only, and to do so would violate a perfectduty. It also requires one actively to treat others as ends, and thisrequirement is an imperfect duty. A reconsideration of the examplesintroduced earlier will help make this clear.Consider what happens when Mary makes a false promise to John, sayto pay back a loan when, in fact, she intends to flee to Brazil. Mary hasused John as a means for gaining the money she needs to go to Brazil. It istrue that virtually any time two people make an agreement they aretreating one another as means, but the important thing is that when theagreement is honest they are not treating one another as a means only.When making an honest agreement, people know more or less how theyare furthering the interests of another, and this furthering of the other’s
KANT’S MORAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY77interests is an explicit part of their own act. Thus, in honest agreementspeople treat one another as means, but they also respect one another asends, insofar as the other has been able to make a free and informeddecision as to whether to participate in the agreement. However, whenMary exploited John’s trust by making a false promise, she treated him asa means only, in that he was not given the relevant information withwhich to decide whether he wanted to provide the benefit to Mary thatshe actually received. He was not treated as an end at all, in that he wasnot provided the opportunity to embrace the results of their interaction asan end of his own. Thus, Mary violated a perfect duty by treating anotherrational being, not as an end, but as a means only.Now imagine that Mary is a botanist fascinated by, and extremelytalented at, studying tropical deforestation, and she asks John, who won$50 million in the lottery, to help fund a research trip to Brazil. Here thereis no question of perfect duties. Neither Mary’s request for support, norJohn’s either providing it or refusing to do so, entails treating a rationalbeing as a means only. But should John provide the support? Were John toprovide the funding, he would be treating Mary as an end, insofar as hewould be acting to facilitate her realization of her own ends. Of course, aswas pointed out in the previous discussion of imperfect duties, it is nothumanly possible for one’s every action to be one of actively treating (inthe sense of furthering) others as ends. Nevertheless, there is an imperfectduty to hold the principle of actively treating or furthering others as ends,and to act on this principle in appropriate circumstances. John may not bespecifically required to provide funding for Mary, but he does have animperfect duty, in a range of circumstances that seem appropriate to him,to use his personal resources to actively treat or further other rationalbeings as ends. Thus, it is a perfect duty never to treat oneself or anotherrational being as a means only, and an imperfect duty to actively treat orfurther all rational beings as ends in themselves.The third formulation of the categorical imperative, theprinciple of autonomy, and dutyAlthough Kant expresses his third formulation of the categoricalimperative in a number of ways, its clearest statement may be in the“principle of autonomy.” According to this principle one is only subject tothe moral law that one has legislated for oneself: “Never choose except insuch a way that the maxims of the choice are comprehended as universallaw in the same volition” (FMM, 57). Although this principle seems quitesimilar to the first formulation of the categorical imperative, the important