The Final Form of Kant’s Practical Philosophy

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“The Final Form of Kant’s Practical Philosophy,” Mark Timmons (ed.) Essays on Kant’s Moral Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
The Final Form of Kant’s Practical Philosophy
Allen Wood

Yale University

By the year 1768, Kant claimed to be at work on a system of ethics, under the title “metaphysics of morals” (Ak 10:74).1 During the so-called ‘silent decade’ of the 1770s, when Kant was working on the Critique of Pure Reason, he promised repeatedly not only that he would soon finish that work but also that he would soon publish a “metaphysics of morals” (Ak 10:97, 132, 144).2 Yet it was not until four years after the first Critique that Kant finally wrote a work on ethics, and even then he merely laid the ground for a metaphysics of morals by identifying and establishing the supreme principle on which a system of duties would be based (G 4:392). Three years later, in the Critique of Practical Reason Kant once again dealt entirely with foundational questions in moral philosophy. Kantian ethics is primarily known, especially among English-speaking philosophers, through these two ethical works of the 1780s, neither of which contains anything like a ‘metaphysics of morals’.

Many of Kant’s chief works in the early 1790s are devoted to practical philosophy. The Critique of Judgment’s treatment of taste and teleology is concerned both with moral psychology and with the view of the world which a morally disposed person should take. Other works even deal with the application of Kantian principles to political and religious questions. Yet still there is still no systematic presentation of the practical philosophy which Kant had been promising for nearly three decades. It is not until 1797 that Kant published the first part of such a system, under the title “Doctrine of Right”, and it is only later in the year that the entire system, the long-promised Metaphysics of Morals, finally appears in print, among the very last of Kant’s published works.

What is a ‘metaphysics of morals’? For thirty years Kant intended to entitle his system of ethics ‘Metaphysics of Morals.’ But owing to his changing conception of ethical theory, and especially of the role of the empirical in a system of ethics, he did not always mean the same thing by this title. His first use of the term, in about 1768, probably expresses his rejection of the moral sense theory of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, with which we find Kant toying in his lectures of the early 1760s and in the prize essay Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morals (1762-64). But it is not clear that at this time his use of the term ‘metaphysics’ means anything beyond the idea that morality must be grounded in the analysis of concepts rather than in the immediacy of feelings.

By the time of the Critique of Pure Reason, ‘metaphysics’ (when applied to either nature or morals) refers to a body of synthetic a priori principles, and this sense governs Kant’s use of the term in the Groundwork (1785). At this point, Kant conceives of a ‘metaphysics of morals’ as a system of moral principles, or even of moral duties, which would be entirely a priori, and hence could be spelled out entirely independently of any empirical knowledge of human nature. Thus within the domain of moral philosophy, Kant ordains a strict separation between a ‘metaphysics of morals’ and a doctrine of ‘practical anthropology’ to which the principles of such a metaphysics would be applied.3 In the Groundwork, as in the Critique of Practical Reason, the term ‘metaphysics’ again underlines Kant’s insistence on the apriority of the supreme principle of morality and the purity of the moral motive. He is worried that to permit these to be adulterated by anything empirical may be to open moral theory to our human tendency to falsify moral principles by accommodating them to the self-love which biases all human inclinations. Kant requires so sharp a separation of the empirical part of moral philosophy from the moral part that he even suggests they be carried out by entirely different researchers, in order to reap the benefits of a division of intellectual labor (G 4:388-389).

Yet in the Groundwork and the second Critique it remains quite unclear what Kant intends a purely a priori system of principles to contain. If he intends anything like the system of duties which eventually emerged in the Metaphysics of Morals, he never hints at what a purely metaphysical system of duties might be like. Obviously the illustrations he gives in both works, and in particular the four famous examples he twice discusses in the Groundwork, involve the application of the pure moral law to the empirical nature of human beings, since they involve conceiving of our maxims as laws belonging to that nature, and they make use of empirical information about the natural purposes of self-love and human talents, as well as about the fact that human beings need sympathetic help from others if they are to have a rational expectation of achieving the contingent ends they actually set.

In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant does once again contrast the referent of that title with ‘practical anthropology’. But the sameness of the terminology may cause us to overlook the major change which has occurred in the way the two parts of moral philosophy are conceived. In the Preface to the Groundwork, a ‘metaphysics of morals’ contains only a priori principles; everything empirical is consigned to ‘practical anthropology’.

A metaphysics of morals is, namely, a “pure moral philosophy, completely cleansed of everything that might be only empirical and that belongs to anthropology’ (G 4:389). In the Metaphysics of Morals, however, Kant concedes that the system of duties falling under that title consists of pure moral principles insofar as they are applied to human nature: a metaphysics of morals itself, he says, “cannot dispense with principles of application, and we shall often have to take as our object the particular nature of human beings, which is known only by experience” (MS 6:217).4 A metaphysics of morals is bounded, on the empirical end, only by the fact that it limits itself to duties which can be derived from the pure principle as applied to human nature in general, leaving to a more broadly empirical moral philosophy all duties which involve reference to particular conditions of people and special human relationships (MS 6:468-469).5 As the scope of a metaphysics of morals expands in the direction of the empirical, that of practical anthropology seems correspondingly to contract; for now it concerns itself with “the subjective conditions in human nature that hinder human beings or help them in fulfilling the metaphysics of morals” (MS 6:217), and not, apparently, with the comprehensive treatment of the human nature to which the a priori principle of morality is to be applied.

Perhaps it deserves emphasis that in the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant is asserting as firmly as ever that the supreme principle of morality itself is wholly a priori and borrows nothing from the empirical nature of human beings. The earlier claim he is withdrawing is only that a metaphysics of morals concerns solely “the idea and the principles of a possible pure will and not the actions and conditions of human volition generally” (G 4:391). Or to put it in other words, Kant now regards a metaphysics of morals as constituted not by a set of wholly pure moral principles, but instead by the system of duties which results when the pure principle is applied to the empirical nature of human beings in general.

A system of duties. In addition to this significant change in the meaning of its title, here are a number of other things in the Metaphysics of Morals which ought to surprise anyone whose image of Kantian ethics is based on the earlier, more foundational works. In effect, however, this means that the Metaphysics of Morals ought to be both surprising and enlightening to most Anglophone moral philosophers, since their image of Kantian ethics is derived almost exclusively from the Groundwork and the second Critique. Even those who have dipped into the Metaphysics of Morals have seldom let it shape their conception of the basic principles and standpoint of Kantian ethics as they have gotten it especially from the first fifty or so pages of the Groundwork. They have almost never let it significantly influence their interpretation of what they have already read in those pages. Consequently, the familiar image of Kantian ethics is in serious error on some fairly basic points.

For example, it is almost universally supposed that Kant’s conception of ordinary moral reasoning is that when considering a course of action, we should formulate the appropriate maxim and decide whether it can be universalized. Kant’s admirers, in fact, as well as his critics, tend almost by reflex to think of the universalizability test as his most (or even his only) significant contribution to moral reasoning. But the universalizability test is used very seldom in the Metaphysics of Morals. In fact, it is used exclusively in connection with a single duty: the ethical duty of beneficence to others (MS 6:393, 453). Perhaps this should not have come as a surprise, since the Metaphysics of Morals is a system of positive duties and the universalizability test is almost exclusively of negative import, used mainly in deciding whether a given maxim is permissible or impermissible rather than in establishing positive duties. The case of beneficence to others is in fact the only one where it can be used to ground a positive duty, since in Kant’s view there is only one end which all human beings have necessarily, namely that of their own happiness. Hence it is only in this one case that we necessarily adopt a maxim (that of self-love) and therefore have a duty to adopt it only in a form which may be universalized – namely, that which includes also having the happiness of others as an end (MS 6: 453).

In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant conceives of ordinary moral reasoning instead as the prioritizing, weighing and balancing of duties – and of the obligating reasons (rationes obligandi, Verpflichtungsgründe) based on them (MS 6:224). Some duties, those which are strict or perfect, require specific actions or omissions; others, the wide or imperfect duties, require only the setting of ends. With wide duties there is consequently considerable latitude for different agents, or for the same agent at different times, to decide how far and by which actions she will promote these ends. It is only in the case of strict duties that the performance or nonperformance of an action is wrong or blamable; actions in promotion of the ends grounding our wide duties are meritorious, but the omission of any specific action of this kind is not wrong unless it involves the general abandonment of the required end. Kant’s category of wide duties thus encompasses much of what others prefer to categorize as ‘supererogation’ and regard as falling altogether outside the scope of duty properly speaking. Kant, however, thinks that the concept of duty applies to such actions because we can, and sometimes must, rationally constrain ourselves to perform them.6

Right and ethics. The Groundwork, with its examples of perfect and imperfect duties and duties to oneself and to others, prepares us for the taxonomy of ethical duties found in the Metaphysics of Morals -- even if it has not prepared most of the Groundwork’s readers to think of this taxonomy as central to Kant’s conception of moral reasoning. But the Groundwork does not prepare us at all for a whole new division of duties separate from all ethical duties, with its own fundamental principle. -- I mean, the principle of right and the class of juridical (or coercively enforceable) duties.

The principle of right is: “Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law” (MS 6:230). This principle bears a superficial resemblance to the Formula of Universal Law. Like that formula, it provides us with a test only of the permissibility (in this case, juridical permissibility) of actions, and it does so with reference to some possible universal law. But Kant presents no deduction of this principle, nor does he explain how it applies to examples. The latter task would seem to be redundant in any case, since it turns out later in the Doctrine of Right that which actions accord with right, along with the content of rights of property, is to be determined not by the application of any such procedure but by the external legislation of the general will of a specific civil society, insofar as the legitimacy and rightfulness of this legislation can be derived from a pure theory of right and satisfies its general conditions for rightfulness (MS 6:264-266, 311-314).7

Discussions of the Doctrine of Right usually take it for granted that the principle of right is somehow to be derived from the fundamental principle of morality in one or another of its formulations. There are three points in the text of the Metaphysics of Morals which might be read in this way. One is in the Introduction, where Kant seems to present the Formula of Universal Law as an illustration of the general the idea of legislation for freedom, and then proceeds to distinguish juridical from ethical legislation as two species of such legislation (MS 6:214). This might suggest that he intends to derive the principle of right, on the one hand, and the Formula of Universal Law as a law of ethical duties, on the other hand, from a more general principle grounding both of them. The second is Kant’s remark that our innate right to freedom (as specified by this principle) “belongs to every human being by virtue of his humanity” (MS 6:237). This might suggest that the principle of right, governing all rights and hence also the innate right to freedom, could be grounded in the Formula of Humanity as End In Itself. The third is Kant’s remark that a doctrine of morals (Sitten) is called a doctrine of duties rather than of rights because our awareness of the concept of right as well as that of duty proceeds from the moral imperative whose command gives us the concept of duty (MS 6:239).

This last passage tells us that we derive the concept of right from the moral imperative, but does not assert that the principle of right is derived from it. And neither of the other two suggestions is ever developed in the direction of deriving the principle of right from that of morality. Later in the Metaphysics of Morals, in the Doctrine of Virtue, Kant very explicitly discredits the whole idea that the principle of right could be derived from the fundamental principle of morality by declaring that the principle of right, unlike the principle of morality, is analytic (MS 6:396). The analyticity of the principle is clearly the best explanation of Kant’s omission of any deduction of it, and also renders redundant any derivation of the principle from the law of morality, since it would be nonsense to think that we need to derive an analytic proposition from a synthetic one.

But how are we to understand the claim that the principle of right is analytic? Kant says it is analytic because we do not need to go beyond the concept of freedom in order to see that external constraint is rightful if it checks the hindering of outer freedom (MS 6:396). Even if we grant this point, however, it is hard to see how it shows that in order to do no one wrong, my action must coexist with the freedom of all according to universal laws. In the Doctrine of Right, Kant declares that the concept of right is not made up of two elements, namely an obligation to act in accordance with universal law and also an authorization to coerce others to fulfill this obligation. Instead, the authorization to coerce is supposed to be included in the concept of right itself. This was the main point Kant had made against Gottlieb Hufeland in his review of the latter’s Essay on the Principle of Natural Right (1785) (Ak 8: 128-129). Hufeland had derived the authorization to coerce those who would violate rights from an alleged natural obligation to increase our own perfection. Kant insisted that this would have the absurd consequence that one may not refrain from enforcing all one’s rights to the full. Instead, he argued that the authorization to coerce another who hinders one’s rightful action is already contained analytically in the concept of the action as rightful.

As for the principle of right itself, I suggest that Kant intended it merely as an explication of the concept of right, telling us what it means for an action to be juridically right (or not wrong, not a violation of anyone’s right to external freedom). This is plausible if we accept the idea that right is analytically connected with some notion of legislation, and also that the scope of the duties it imposes is restricted to what may be externally coerced in the name of protecting external freedom. The only claim here Kant thinks we might not concede to be analytic is that we have an authorization or warrant (Befugnis) to coerce anyone whose action violates the principle (since Hufeland had thought this needed to be derived from an independent obligation to promote one’s own perfection).

Even if we do not question Kant’s analysis of the concept of right, however, we may still think that his principle has to go beyond that concept if it is to provide us with a reason (a moral one) for respecting the external freedom of others. Now there is no question that Kant believes the dignity of humanity provides us with a moral incentive for respecting people’s rights. It might thereby also provide us with strong moral incentives for setting up a just system of right and for trying to reform existing legal and political systems so that they better protect the rights of persons and do not infringe on them. But to confuse all these (quite correct) points with the idea that this moral incentive grounds the principle of right is to miss entirely Kant’s distinction between the juridical and ethical realms and the systems of duty constituting them. That distinction is based on the idea that it is only in the ethical realm that duty must be the ground or incentive for action; juridical duties are precisely those where the incentive need not be duty – it may, for example, be the threat of coercion connected to the law by the legislative authority which promulgates it (MS 6:218-219). Thus although it may make a difference to the moral worth of my action of repaying a debt whether I do so only because I fear that my creditor will sue me, this makes no difference at all to whether my act of repayment is just or fulfills a juridical duty. Hence it would be superfluous, and even contradictory to the very concept of the juridical, to include the rational incentive of duty as part of its principle.

Juridical duties, in other words, are those whose concept contains no specific incentive for doing them, while ethical duties are those connected in their concept with the objective incentive of duty or rational lawfulness, and their principle therefore requires a deduction in order to establish this synthetic connection. Because juridical duties are independent of the incentive for doing them, it is not out of place for Kant to refer at times to the existence of moral incentives for us to respect the right to external freedom which human beings have in virtue of their humanity. But these moral incentives have nothing to do with the principle of juridical duties. In other words, a civil society based on right does requires no moral commitment on the part of its members to respect one another’s rightful freedom. It requires only a system of external legislation, backed by coercive sanctions sufficient to guarantee that rights will not be infringed. “It cannot be required [by right] that this principle of all maxims be itself in turn my maxim, that is, it cannot be required that I make it the maxim of my action, even though I am quite indifferent to his freedom or would like in my heart to infringe upon it. That I make it my maxim is a demand that ethics makes on me” (MS 6:231).

To put it another way, the principle of right merely tells us which actions do and do not infringe external freedom (and therefore count as ‘right’). It does not, however, directly command us to perform those actions (as the moral principle does). Through the principle of right “reason says only that freedom is limited to those conditions in conformity with the idea of it and it may also be actively limited by others; and it says this as a postulate that is incapable of further proof” (MS 6:231). The principle of right therefore differs from the principle of morality in two crucial ways: First, it tells us, as that principle does not, which actions are ‘right’ – which actions infringe external freedom in general and which do not. But second, the principle of right also lacks one element essential to the principle of morality: its criterion of external rightness, though it refers to what can be consistent with external freedom according to a universal law, makes no mention (as the Formulas of Universal Law and Autonomy do) of what a rational being can or does will to be a universal law. This goes along with the fact that it does not itself directly command or enjoin the conduct whose rightness it defines and specifies.

Of course, right (Recht) along with ethics (Ethik), in the context of the Metaphysics of Morals, both belong to practical philosophy or ‘morals’ (Sitten). And Kant holds that juridical duties as such are also ethical duties (MS 6:219). Insofar as juridical duties are regarded as ethical duties, they can be brought under the principle of ethics, which can also be used to show that we have good reasons for valuing external freedom (or right) and respecting the institutions which protect right through external coercion. To this extent, it may be correctly said that Kant’s theory of right falls under or can be derived from the principle of morality. That is, this may be said insofar as juridical duties are regarded not merely as juridical but also as ethical duties. Considered simply as juridical duties, however, they belong to a branch of the metaphysics of morals which is entirely independent of ethics and also of its supreme principle.

“Kantian” treatments of individual rights, and of other topics related to natural right, law and political authority, have often been inspired by the Groundwork’s formulations of the principle of morality. Whatever their philosophical merits, such accounts necessarily diverge from Kant’s own treatment of such topics, simply because the territory covered by the Doctrine of Right necessarily falls entirely outside that surveyed by both the Groundwork and the second Critique.

Such treatments of external right can also infect the understanding of Kantian ethics proper, because they may involve some deeply un-Kantian assumptions about morality itself. Perhaps the commonest such assumption in Anglophone philosophy is the idea (found in Chapter Three of Mill’s Utilitarianism), that morality, like right, is a mechanism of social coercion, differing only in the degree of heavyhandedness of the sanctions it employs. Kantian morality, however -- though the content of its duties may be socially oriented -- is never about the social regulation of individual conduct. It is entirely about enlightened individuals autonomously directing their own lives. From a Kantian standpoint, any use whatever of social coercion in any form to enforce ethical duties (whether through private blame, or public opinion, or the associations of moral education to shape people’s feelings) must be regarded as a wrongful violation of individual freedom by corrupt social customs.

Another important philosophical point is contained in the claim that right is independent of ethics. Kant’s theory of ethics requires conduct to conform to and be motivated by the considerations cited in Kant’s own moral theory if it is to be regarded as virtuous or meritorious. (Conduct which is motivated solely by self-interest, or concern for the greatest aggregate happiness, or obedience to the divine will, and not by respect for rational nature or the universal law of one’s own autonomous reason, does not count as meritorious according to Kant’s theory). But conformity to right, and the institution of systems of right, as long as they do in fact protect right or external freedom, may be motivated entirely by non-Kantian considerations – such as rational self-interest, the Hobbesian quest for peace, or obedience to the divine will. This means that Kant’s practical philosophy can ground and endorse any set of political institutions that is substantively just, even if others accept and participate in those institutions on the basis of values and motivations which are quite alien to anything in Kant’s practical philosophy. This is a large advantage of Kant’s theory of right, as applied to a society in which many people are not Kantians. This advantage would be forfeited by Kantians who want to hold that the principle of right requires the moral law as its foundation.
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