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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Immanuel Kant s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals ranks alongside Plato s Republic and Aristotle s Nicomachean Ethics as one of an influential work in moral philosophy Its aim is to search for and establish the supreme principle of morality, the categorical imperative He argues that every human being is an end in himself or herself, never to be used as a means by others, and that moral obligation is an expression of the human capacity for autonomy or self government The introduction examines and explains Kant s argument i read the groundwork finally finally cover to cover in an airport in washington dc, where i spent a fourteen hour day watching one flight after another cancelled cancelled cancelled, and i have to tell you that people are near to their worst that average daily sort of worst in airports as their flights are cancelled everyone was fighting for seats on future flights which would also be cancelled everyone was arguing their cases to helpless airport staff, and the staff, in turn, treated us i read the groundwork finally finally cover to cover in an airport in washington dc, where i spent a fourteen hour day watching one flight after another cancelled cancelled cancelled, and i have to tell you that people are near to their worst that average daily sort of worst in airports as their flights are cancelled everyone was fighting for seats on future flights which would also be cancelled everyone was arguing their cases to helpless airport staff, and the staff, in turn, treated us like defensive children to be managed, and then as volatile cargo to be shipped and my toothpaste had been confiscated.in the middle of this i sat and read about the kingdom of ends, where all people are treated as ends in themselves, never mere means, and about evil as a kind of enslavement, and good as a kind of freedom freedom from our own programatic worst natures and i have to say that there couldn t have been a moment where i wasreceptive to this kantian line that i ve been skeptically eyeing for all these years not that i buy it or fully grasp it, i m sure but i m going to keep at it.i m giving it four star with this caveat they re four stars of admiration, not of enjoyment, exactly, and certainly not of agreement i read with my eyes squinted and my mouth set but i did occasionally nod of course i also occasionally nodded off Confession of Stupidity Lately, I ve been had long and agonizing conversation with my friend about the categorical imperative I was insisting that it didn t make sense my friend insisted that it did, and that I merely misunderstood it After much deliberation, I found to my embarrassment that he was right I had misunderstood it I had misunderstood it badly Now, fortunately, I think I ve got a hold on the concept, which indeed is not terribly complex though, for my brain at least, a bit Confession of Stupidity Lately, I ve been had long and agonizing conversation with my friend about the categorical imperative I was insisting that it didn t make sense my friend insisted that it did, and that I merely misunderstood it After much deliberation, I found to my embarrassment that he was right I had misunderstood it I had misunderstood it badly Now, fortunately, I think I ve got a hold on the concept, which indeed is not terribly complex though, for my brain at least, a bit too much Having thought a lot about it, I wish to give a fairly pedantic examination of the theory forgive me But first, I d like to explain what it is not, and the various ways that I managed to misapprehend it My Mistakes I was under the impression that the categorical imperative was this Before you do an action, consider whether it would work as a universal law if it would, it s okay if it wouldn t, then it s forbidden But I thought to myself I could will almost literally anything as a universal law I could will universal suicide or a universal fight to the death, just so long as I was willing to commit suicide or fight to the death myself The thought experiment Kant instructed us to perform seemed completely arbitrary he might as well say before you do an action, imagine if it could be performed on a spaceship Also, I thought if I give enough qualifications, almost anything could work as a universal without anything catastrophic happening For example, I could say if you are tired, going to work on a Tuesday morning, hate your job, are six foot three inches tall, and need to urinate, it s okay to be push people on the street The conditions given for this action are so specific that nothing would really change Similarly, I could say if you re really really desperate, it s okay to steal, and it could work In fact, I bet that s already the case The second formulation also confused me treat people as ends, not means For one, I couldn t see any connection between this formulation and the previous one what does treating people with respect have to do with willing universal laws What s , the command seemed preposterous I thought, but I treat people as means all the time When I order coffee I don t do it for the sake of the person selling the coffee I also thought that there was a contradiction between doing an action for the sake of duty and doing it for the sake of another person what s the real end , the person or the duty All of my objections managed to completely and totally miss the point My friend got frustrated because I was bringing up all these irrelevant objections, and I felt very confused Hope came when I took a long walk, and decided that I would attempt to start from Kant s assumptions which I knew roughly from his Critiques and see if I could get to something that resembled the categorical imperative Here is what I found My Attempt to Derive the Categorical Imperative When we look at nature, we often find determinism Equations determine the movement of particles and the temperatures of stars chemical structures determine the qualities of materials instincts honed by natural selection determine animal behavior Sometimes, we also see random chance We run into an old friend in a distant country, or we accidentally drop our mug of beer But freedom is incompatible with either determinism and chance to be free, we cannot be said to be determined by anything else, nor can we attribute our actions to some random process Nonetheless, we cannot help but suppose ourselves free otherwise, we can never decide what to do since all decision making presupposes freedom.We can relieve this tension in one of two ways One way would be to declare freedom illusory We presuppose freedom when we decide, but this is just a feeling of freedom we are just as determined by natural laws as anything else in nature, and just as subject to random processes And here we might ask ourselves, what is freedom, anyway Well, maybe it s easier to answer when are we not free When we are compelled to follow a law or directive foisted on us by somebody in power, we aren t free because we aren t determining our own actions But, when a drug addict sells their property to get a fix, we also say they aren t free, even though they aren t following some external directive, because their desires are determining their actions Last, we don t hold accountable a person whose house was destroyed by a hurricane, and is reduced to penury, because the hurricane might be said to have struck by chance.So we say a person is free when they make coolly rational decisions, not forced by some outside party, not overwhelmed by some strong desire, and not affected by some random process But is this justifiable Is this really freedom And do we have it It seems that, even when we re making coolly rational decisions, we re still subject to the laws of nature, to random events, and are still guided by our wants and needs So is freedom at least in the fundamental sense of an action being undetermined by all previous events, nor at all random is this freedom possible Kant thinks it is but he has a job to do in proving that it is possible We can attempt to resolve these conflicts by hypothesizing that there is a part of us that is neither determined nor subject to chance.But what would this part of us be I can find two possibilities, not mutually exclusive consciousness and rationality Humans are distinguished from other creatures by our self consciousness and by our ability to reason First, let us suppose it is consciousness only that makes us free But what are we conscious ofHunger, thirst, exhaustion, desire, and various other things in our surroundings If something external to our bodies forces us to do something, we are obviously not free, just as a dog is not free when being trained by its master Consciousness seems to make no difference in that case But we also seem not to be free when following some desire For example, a dog is probably conscious of hunger, too, yet we do not usually think that dogs have free will when they pursue food Perhaps you can say you are free because you can chose which desire to satisfy but then what is the criterion by which one makes such a decision Another desire Clearly, something extra is needed rationality Our ability to use reason is what sets our decision making apart from that of dogs and cats Using reason, we can establish criterion that are not themselves desires We can reign in desire for fast food if we realize that it will have negative long term effects we can abstain from buying that expensive new luxury car by considering how it would affect our children s futures Ah, but that s not quite enough Because, even when we refuse to eat fast food, all we re doing is balancing our desire for something salty against our desire for long life In a sense, we re still in the position of a drug addict balancing his desire for a fix against his desire for a coat So not only must reason be the criterion, but reason must be the motivation, for free decisions We must both be determining our own actions and not pursuing some desire.Now we are in a position to ask ourselves what is morality To be moral is to decide to do the right thing it requires decision making, and therefore can only apply to rational creatures Not only can morality only apply to rational creatures, but morality can only apply to creatures insofar as they are rational.Anything non rational, therefore, cannot be moral Animals and inanimate objects cannot reason, so morality cannot apply to them We have previously determined that things like hunger, thirst, and other desires are non rational so such things are not the basis of morality Neither is morality concerned with achieving any particular goal in the world, because all goals derive their value from desiring them Phrased in a slightly different way, all goals are contingent they are only operative when the desire for them is operative and we know that our desires are ever changing Nor can morality even have anything to do with human nature, since all other rational creatures human, alien, or angel would be equally subject to it.So morality, being derived from rationality and only applicable to creatures insofar as they are rational, must not have anything to do with empirical reality it is, in other words, a priori Now, morality deals in oughts, commands, or imperatives what we should do Since morality cannot take into account states of fact, the commands of morality must apply under all conceivable conditions Also, since every rational creature is equally subject to the commands of morality, all moral imperatives must apply equally to all rational creatures In short, morality is equally operative no matter who you are or what you re doing It is not dependent on any circumstances it is a categorical imperative.From this alone we can draw the conclusion that any action which makes an exception of the actor cannot be moral In other words, any action which could not be universalized is immoral since the categorical imperative applies to everyone equally at all times Also, since morality applies to all rational agents equally, any actions which treat a rational agent as not deserving of equal respect is immoral This is to say, any action which treats a rational agent as a non rational part of nature is forbidden there is no valid reason for doing so.This test is a negative test The categorical imperative cannot tell you what to do it can only tell you what you may not do You may not make an exception of yourself you may not treat another rational agent as a part of nature In other words, act only on maxims that can be willed as universals never treat other rational agents as means only, but as ends in themselves deserving of respect The Categorical Imperative in a Nutshell So Kant does a very clever thing here Kant essentially makes morality and freedom synonymous You are only free if you are motivated by reason and when you are motivated by reason, you are abiding by the categorical imperative, and are thus moral Rationality is, for Kant, the basis of free will So when rationality fully determines the will, it is the will giving a law unto itself This removes the paradox of freedom We are not free when we are following a law from outside ourselves, nor when we are following our own desires we are only free when we are following the laws we created for ourselves you can see the Rousseau influence here And not only must we abide by these self made laws, but we must abide them purely for the sake of abiding by them, because only then are we free and moral Some Implications Before examining whether Kant s premise holds, let us take a moment to ponder out some of the implications of his conclusion In Kant s system, many things commonly regarded as immoral are forbidden lying, stealing, raping, murdering Stealing, for example, treats people as ends and not means to steal makes an exception of yourself from a general rule it cannot be willed as universal This consonance with popular opinion is at first sight, at least an encouraging sign.But consider further Because Kant has divorced morality from all consequences, and founded it purely on consistency, all moral actions are equally moral, and all immoral actions are equally immoral This is apparent at once, when one considers that one can either be consistent or inconsistent, not half consistent one can either treat someone as an end or not, not half as an end Therefore, lying and murder are equally immoral and equally forbidden The white lie you told your wife puts you on a level with the murderer in prison This is a chilling conclusion, as any punitive system which doles out punishments in proportion to the crime s consequences such as ours is itself immoral, or at least ammoral.Another odd implication of Kant s conclusion is that non rational creatures are completely exempted from the system, as they do not according to Kant have free will, and therefore cannot be bound by morality This means that all bets are off regarding animal cruelty Because animals are non rational, there is no restrictions on how one must treat them To pick a grim example, slowly torturing a squirrel to death can certainly be willed as a universal without contradiction the act doesn t treat a rational agent as a means thus, it is permissible Kant says so much himself Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature s, have nevertheless, if they are irrational beings, only a relative value as means, and are therefore called things rational beings, on the contrary, are called persons, because their very nature points them out as ends in themselves, that is as something which must not be used merely as means, and so far therefore restricts freedom of action and is an object of respect.One wonders whether this exemption from the strictures of morality applies to young children and the insane, who are also not capable of reason If so, infanticide is permissible, as is the mistreatment of the mentally ill Another chilling conclusion.But perhaps the most striking thing about this chain of reasoning is that, as a result of Kant s disdain for empirical facts, a moral person has no reason to expect happiness In fact, a person acting in accordance with the categorical imperative may reasonably expect to be miserable their unerring code of behavior would make them easy prey for anyone who wished to take advantage of them.This is not a theoretical objection to Kant But one may reasonably ask, then why be moral The only thing Kant can say is, to be free And if you ask, why be free Kant s famous response is to be worthy of happiness But I m sure many would rather take happiness than worthiness But was Kant Right Kant s argument rests on the premise that, when one acts rationally, one is not determined by anything else Rationality, for Kant, is not part of the world of nature, and is therefore the basis of freedom I am extremely skeptical that this is the case I do not see how anybody could make an absolutely free decision, independent of the normal laws of nature We cannot, so to speak, take ourselves out of the stream of causation It therefore seemslikely that freedom is an illusion, or a particular kind of ignorance In Spinoza s words, men are mistaken in thinking themselves free their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are conditioned Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause for their actions Thus, acting in accordance with Kant s principles would not make a personor less free Refraining from stealing based on the categorical imperative is just as free a decision as eating lunch because of hunger, or sleeping because of exhaustion We are always both subject to random processes and to deterministic laws, and all our decisions are just as motivated by desires as the drug addict s Even the strict Kantian is motivated by his desire to abide by the categorical imperative Kant makes the subtle and interesting argument that even if rationality doesn t actually make us free, the categorical imperative is still operative because, in order to act, we must assume we re free In other words, Kant says that, even if freedom is an illusion, his conclusions still hold But if freedom is an illusion, acting according to his principles might be literally impossible for sentient creatures as I suspect is the case so striving after some ideal of reason as Kant calls it hardly seems like the sensible thing to do Moreover, because we are not capable of completely free decisions, and because morality apparently does have its basis in empirical fact if it can be said to exist at all it behooves us to take into account things like human psychology, empirical conditions, cultural and historical forces, and consequences A moral system that treats lies as equivalent to murder is impracticable and a moral system that only binds rational agents may lead to inhumane acts Finally, no person can be reasonably expected to abide by a moral system that will not lead to their own happiness Parting Thought As I reread this book, a feeling suddenly took hold of me admiration I found myself almost in awe of Kant both of his boldness and his genius Even if I don t believe his premises are correct, I can t help but think it would be a beautiful thing if such a kingdom of ends were possible It just so happens that the world isn t as beautiful as Kant s mind When I was studying this book there were no copies available to buy for some reason but then I found it in the local library in a hard back edition printed in the 1930s or something I borrowed it and showed it to my lecturer and he said, You ought to steal that they only charge you what it cost the library to buy and that would have been cents back then I said, You want me to steal a book on morality Needless to say, he was much better at lecturing on Neitzsche.This is a remarkably di When I was studying this book there were no copies available to buy for some reason but then I found it in the local library in a hard back edition printed in the 1930s or something I borrowed it and showed it to my lecturer and he said, You ought to steal that they only charge you what it cost the library to buy and that would have been cents back then I said, You want me to steal a book on morality Needless to say, he was much better at lecturing on Neitzsche.This is a remarkably difficult book to read not as hard as some of Kant s other works the Critique of Pure Reason which I ve started many times and will probably start many timesshould only be attempted with fear and trepidation all the same, it repays the effort The main problem is Kant s endless sentences he is the Henry James of the philosophy world Some feel that his categorical imperative act in a way that allows you to imagine the maxim that is guiding your action could be used as a universal law for anyone needing to act in similar circumstances my longer than Kant take on it is a fascinating basis for building a morality.Some say that the categorical imperative is just the Christian golden rule written in a way that makes it hard to follow The golden rule not being he who has the gold makes the rules , but rather treat others as you would be treated yourself There is something to that, but I think it is a littleinteresting when Kant does it The idea that other people should be treated like ends and not means seems to me to be as good a basis of a moral system as anyone has, as yet, come up with I m terribly fond of Kant, almost protective of him, not because I think he is the greatest philosopher of all time, but because he was what we would today consider a boring little man who never left his home town, but thought remarkable thoughts He even worked out why the solar system is a flat disk shape pretty cool, if you ask me He had world changing thoughts in some ways.I would go so far as to say that understanding his idea that one cannot know the thing in itself is perhaps one of the core ideas in understanding virtually all philosophy after him If you were thinking of starting reading Kant and weren t sure where would be a good place to make such a start this wouldn t be too bad a book to buy The other place to look, perhaps, is the Critique of the Judgement which is quite an easy read for Kant and fascinating stuff on taste taste in art, that is Covid 19 is first and foremost a social disease If we ever needed an example of Kant s categorical imperative, Covid 19 is the best we could find Remember that Kant distinguishes between hypothetical and categoricaI imperatives Examples of the former include if I want to lose weight, I need to go on a diet If I want to win the next general election, I need to complete as necessary In other words, going on a diet is not good in itself, but is only good if one wants needs to lose weigh Covid 19 is first and foremost a social disease If we ever needed an example of Kant s categorical imperative, Covid 19 is the best we could find Remember that Kant distinguishes between hypothetical and categoricaI imperatives Examples of the former include if I want to lose weight, I need to go on a diet If I want to win the next general election, I need to complete as necessary In other words, going on a diet is not good in itself, but is only good if one wants needs to lose weight The action is good given a certain aim As Kant puts it,The hypothetical imperative thus says only that the action is good for some possible or actual aimBut there are actions that are good in themselves, and this what morality is about.Morality, says Kant, cannot be based on hypothetical imperatives Morality is about what is good in and for itself We are moral beings because and insofar as we do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do, not because we hope to gain something out of it A very different kind of imperative comes in here, the categorical imperativeFinally, there is one imperative that, without being grounded on any other aim to be achieved through a certain course of conduct as its condition, commands this conduct immediately This imperative is categorical It has to do not with the matter of the action and what is to result from it, but with the form and the principle from which it results and what is essentially good about it consists in the disposition, whatever the result may be This imperative may be called that of morality In other words, when it is a question of morality, the law does not allow of equivocations No ifs, no buts But how do we know what s the moral thing to do in any given case To help, Kant gives a series of formulations, of which the best known one is the so called FUL or The Formula of Universal LawAct only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law When I make it my maxim to practice social distancing, i.e when I practice social distancing consistently as a principle of my actions rather than incidentally, my maxim is consistent with a giving of a universal law always and at all circumstances practice social distancing I do it because it s the right thing to do and not because I hope to gain something out of it By contrast, if I only practice social distancing when it suits me, my maxim is not consistent with the giving of a universal law because I act haphazardly One time I practice social distancing and at another time not To put it simply, I don t practice social distancing because it s the right thing to do, but because and insofar as I feel like it Let s see now how FUL applies to dealing with Covid 19 What we know so far is that the coronavirus is extremely contagious It will get transmitted fareasily than flu viruses we are familiar with In addition, infected people can infect others even if they do not present any symptoms In fact, if I understand this correctly, coronavirus is very infectious at its early stage, i.e before the carrier presents any or serious symptoms If people infected with Coronavirus practice social distancing haphazardly, that means that the transmission rate is going to be far higher than if people were to practice social distancing consistently because it s the right thing to do We know that of those infected a percentage will die Given the exponential rate of the growth of infection see Manny s review here, the number of infected people will increase at a rate that will soon outstrip the capacity of the national health service system to cope.If I understand correctly, there is currently only one way to deal with the coronavirus, which is to cause it to run out of carriers However, there are two strategies to bring this about The one followed by the Chinese involves aggressive testing and draconian enforcement of social distaning The other strategy is the one favoured by the British government In its purest form, this strategy is premised on the idea that the virus will run out of carriers when the vast majority of the population has been infected with the virus and has become immune whilst a smaller, high risk group waits it out by self isolating The former staregy appears to have worked in Wuhan but it has come at a cost that Western countries may not be willing to pay It requires a disciplined population and it is easier to be enforced by an authoritarian government The latter strategy is easier for the population to accept initially, but will lead to a considerably higher number of deaths in the long run Is there a categorical imperative here, and if so, what does it bid us do It may seem obvious that if one values human life, practicing social distancing strictly is the right thing to do right now But you see, I put in an if there Does this make my imperative hypothetical An adept dialectician might push me on this what does it mean to value human life Are all lives equally valuable When doctors have to make decisions on who is to live and who is to die, don t they flout this universal value And won t they have to make such decisions whatever their personal code of ethics when hospitals run out of ventilators It is being vigorously denied that an adviser to the PM allegedly argued against strict measures to contain the coronavirus because that would hurt the economy But even assuming that such arguments were never voiced, the fact is that this strategy uses older people or people with underlying health problems as collateral Are we happy to see this happen One has to ponder this possibility carefully

  • Paperback
  • 120 pages
  • Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
  • Immanuel Kant
  • English
  • 27 August 2019
  • 0521626951

About the Author: Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was an 18th century philosopher from K nigsberg, Prussia now Kaliningrad, Russia He s regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of modern Europe of the late Enlightenment His most important work is The Critique of Pure Reason, an investigation of reason itself It encompasses an attack on traditional metaphysics epistemology, highlights his own contribution to these areas Other main works of his maturity are The Critique of Practical Reason, which is about ethics, The Critique of Judgment, about esthetics teleology.Pursuing metaphysics involves asking questions about the ultimate nature of reality Kant suggested that metaphysics can be reformed thru epistemology He suggested that by understanding the sources limits of human knowledge we can ask fruitful metaphysical questions He asked if an object can be known to have certain properties prior to the experience of that object He concluded that all objects that the mind can think about must conform to its manner of thought Therefore if the mind can think only in terms of causality which he concluded that it does then we can know prior to experiencing them that all objects we experience must either be a cause or an effect However, it follows from this that it s possible that there are objects of such a nature that the mind cannot think of them, so the principle of causality, for instance, cannot be applied outside experience hence we cannot know, for example, whether the world always existed or if it had a cause So the grand questions of speculative metaphysics are off limits, but the sciences are firmly grounded in laws of the mind Kant believed himself to be creating a compromise between the empiricists the rationalists The empiricists believed that knowledge is acquired thru experience alone, but the rationalists maintained that such knowledge is open to Cartesian doubt and that reason alone provides us with knowledge Kant argues, however, that using reason without applying it to experience will only lead to illusions, while experience will be purely subjective without first being subsumed under pure reason Kant s thought was very influential in Germany during his lifetime, moving philosophy beyond the debate between the rationalists empiricists The philosophers Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer saw themselves as correcting and expanding Kant s system, thus bringing about various forms of German Idealism Kant continues to be a major influence on philosophy to this day, influencing both Analytic and Continental philosophy.


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