Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum
Sign in to follow this  


Recommended Posts


I composed this study in 2009. It has been online at the OBJECTIVIST LIVING forum since then. It would be good to have it right here. (I began online posting in Objectivism-interested forums in 2005. That was at the site REBIRTH OF REASON. In a while, I found that I could compose serious extended philosophical writings on such forums, which was not the usual fare, and no one would object. Later the posting site OL came on the scene, and it showed the number of hits on a post. Then I could see that many were reading what I wrote, and the more informative or serious the post, the more hits. In 2009 the owner of OL, Michael Stuart Kelly, had the idea of creating a sector, shown always on the front page of the forum, with subsections dedicated to writings of certain  authors and to friendly comments on those writings. I was one of the authors he invited, and in a while, I came to develop full-scale scholarly essays for that sector, for in that setup, the essays do not become deeply buried by other posts on the site, and such long hard study and writing efforts become worthwhile for online, i.e., they stand a good chance of reaching appropriate eyes and minds. In 2014 I was invited to have such a dedicated sector here, for which I am very grateful. In January of that year, I had stopped writing essays—for the first time in 30 years, for one medium or another—to write a book. So in this sector I’ve written new pieces that were part of my studies and thinking for the topics only in that book project. This 2009 essay is tributary to my philosophy work day after tomorrow, and to be sure, it is worthy of wide exposure of itself.)

This study comprises four parts:

I. To 1781

II. Towards 1785

III. Into 1785

IV. Moral Worth, Necessary and Free (A/B)

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I. To 1781

Kant began to lecture at the University of Königsberg in 1755, at age 31. Hume’s Enquiry appeared in German in that year. A German translation of Hutcheson’s A System of Morality appeared the following year. German translations of Hutcheson’s two earlier major works on ethics were in Kant’s personal library. Kant remarks on ethical theory within his 1764 essay “Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality.”

Kant maintains in “Inquiry” that there is a lot of work needing to be done concerning the fundamental concepts and principles of morality. His is a search for what distinct and certain knowledge has been or could be achieved in ethics, like his search earlier in this essay concerning mathematics, metaphysics, and natural theology. He had argued that in mathematics, the not-analyzable concepts and the indemonstrable propositions are few, whereas in philosophy, they are innumerable. Nevertheless, in the area of philosophy that is metaphysics, as much certainty is possible as in geometry.

In all disciplines, the formal elements in judgments rely on the indubitable “laws of agreement and contradiction” (2:296). The proposition, “which expresses the essence of every affirmation and which accordingly contains the supreme formula of all affirmative judgments, runs as follows: to every subject there belongs a predicate which is identical with it. This is the law of identity. The proposition which expresses the essence of all negation is this: to no subject does there belong a predicate which contradicts it. This proposition is the law of contradiction. . . . These two principles together constitute the supreme universal principles, in the formal sense of the term, of human reason in its entirety” (2:294).

If the concepts in a proposition can be found identical or contradictory directly, without mediation by some additional concept (the middle term of a syllogism), the proposition is indemonstrable. Otherwise the true proposition is provable. In metaphysics, as in mathematics, there are material concepts and principles that are indemonstrable and foundational. The number of these is greater in metaphysics than in mathematics. Metaphysics is more difficult than Euclidean geometry, though not less secure in its truths. The grounds of metaphysical truths are objective. They are not subjective criteria of conceivability or feeling of certainty (2:294).

Turning to ethics, Kant ponders how necessity of moral obligation might be shown at the most fundamental level of the concept. At least we know this: moral necessity of means to ends derives from ends necessarily right in themselves. Unlike Aristotelians, Kant does not think happiness is an end necessarily right in itself. Whatever supreme source of moral obligation there might be, it will have to be manifest directly, indemonstrably. Otherwise, the purported moral end would be in truth only a means (2:298–99; cf. B613 A585, B662 A334, B868 A840).

Kant will concede, to the Wolffians, that they have gotten hold of a formal ground of moral obligation in their rules “perform the most perfect action in your power” and “abstain from doing that which will hinder the realization of the greatest possible perfection.” But nothing can follow “from those two rules of the good, unless they are combined with indemonstrable material principles of practical cognition” (2:299).

Now enters the influence of Hutcheson and Hume. “The faculty of representing the true is cognition,” whereas, “the faculty of experiencing the good is feeling, and these two faculties must not be confused with each other. . . . There is an unanalysable feeling of the good (which is never encountered in a thing absolutely but only relatively to a being endowed with sensibility). One of the tasks of the understanding is to analyse and render distinct the compound and confused concept of the good by showing how it arises from simpler feelings of the good. But if the good is simple, then the judgement: ‘This is good’, will be completely indemonstrable. . . . Take for example the principle: love him who loves you” (2:299–300). This practical principle is subsumed without meditation under the formal universal affirmative rule of good action. The special perfection in mutual love is not traceable back to the perfection of another perfect action.

That mutual love has a “special perfection” qualifies “love them that love you” as a material moral principle for acting in accordance with the most perfect action in one’s power. Kant takes that much for moral truth, but “to attain the highest degree of philosophical certainty in the fundamental principles of morality, . . . the ultimate fundamental concepts of obligation need first to be determined more reliably” than he or anyone had yet done (2:300). At this stage of his philosophic development, Kant proposes no specific ultimate end in itself from which moral necessity is imputed to moral acts. Certainly such an end in itself cannot be happiness, for in happiness, Kant evidently does not sense or cognize any special perfection by which “pursue happiness” might qualify as a material moral principle for actions that are most perfect possible.

Kant is unsure at this stage, however, whether it is the faculty of cognition or the faculty of feeling that decides the first material principles of ethics (2:300). To hold with the view that morality is based on moral sense or feeling goes radically beyond the safe saying that virtue presupposes feeling. Kant hesitates over taking the radical step. (See further, Kuehn 2001, 183–87.)

Hutcheson is mentioned in this essay. Francis Hutcheson was greatly influenced by Shaftsbury; those two greatly influenced Hume. In his “Announcement of the Character of His Lectures during the Winter Semester of 1765–66,” Kant remarks that “the attempts of Shaftsbury, Hutcheson and Hume, although incomplete and defective, have nonetheless penetrated furthest in the search for the fundamental principles of all morality” (2:311).

There is one thing, besides the framing in terms of perfection, I notice Kant does already at the earliest phase of crafting moral theory that he did not get from the British moralists. Kant puts some serious distance between happiness and virtue. Shaftsbury had taken on the perennial philosophic challenge of showing that private and public interest and happiness are in proportion to one’s moral virtue. Hutcheson had taken the virtue of an alternative to be gauged by greater amount of happiness brought to greater number of people. Hume had thought indifference to human happiness or misery to be, equally, indifference to virtue or vice.

By the time of his Inaugural Dissertation (1770), Kant has set aside the supposition that we have a distinct faculty of moral sense. Morality is still seen in terms of a concept of moral perfection, now taken to be a noumenal perfection. Here the term noumenal means simply the intelligible as opposed to the sensible. “Moral philosophy, . . . in so far as it furnishes the first principles of judgement is only cognized by the pure understanding and itself belongs to pure philosophy {pure, apart from sense}. Epicurus, who reduced its criterion to the sense of pleasure or pain, is very rightly blamed, together with certain moderns who have followed him to a certain extent from afar, such as Shaftsbury and his supporters” (2: 396). (I'll use curly braces for my own insertions into quotes and square brackets for insertions by the translator.)

For what error is Kant blaming Shaftsbury and other ethicists of moral sense or feeling? Shaftsbury had faulted hedonism, such as Epicureanism, for failing to provide a noncircular criterion for selecting which pleasures are virtuous. (To make this charge stick in the case of Epicurus, one would need to show he supplied no criterion for distinguishing necessary pleasures from unnecessary ones.) This criticism is familiar to readers of Rand. That is not the fault Kant is pointing to, in 1770, in both hedonism and moral-sense ethics. Kant has now come round to his settled view, for both theoretical philosophy and fundamental practical philosophy, that sense and sensibility should be kept radically distinct from intellect and intelligibility. Perfection is grasped conceptually. Fundamental principles of moral judgment are wholly an affair of the intellect. Happiness is partly sensory. Kant now has a systematic reason for keeping distance between happiness and virtue.

Rand once wrote that “the essence of that which is man” is “his sovereign rational mind” (AS 1069). That is a conception of human being common, in a variety of forms, to many philosophies not skeptical. One part of Kant’s variation on this positive theme is his view, expressed in 1781 in Critique of Pure Reason, that every practical purpose is to be tuned to wisdom, prize of philosophy. Why so? “Precisely because wisdom is the idea of the necessary unity of all possible purposes, it must, as an original and at least limiting condition, serve everything practical as a rule” (B385 A328).

Kant observes that there is an analogy between systematic organization by reason and the organization of animate nature. “Under reason’s government our cognitions as such must not amount to a rhapsody; rather, they must amount to a system, in which alone they can support and further reason’s essential purposes. By a system, however, I mean the unity of the manifold cognitions under an idea. This idea is reason’s concept of the form of a whole insofar as this concept determines a priori both the range of the manifold and the relative position that the parts have among one another. Hence reason’s scientific concept contains the whole’s purpose and the form of the whole congruent with this purpose. The unity characteristic of a purpose, to which all the parts refer and to which in the idea of the purpose they also refer among one another, makes possible the fact that every part can be missed if the remaining parts are familiar, and the fact that there is no place for any contingent addition or indeterminate magnitude of the whole’s perfection . . . . Hence the whole is structured . . . and not accumulated . . . . It can indeed grow internally . . . but not externally; i.e., it can grow only like an animal body, whose growth adds no member but makes each member stronger and more efficient for its purposes without and change of proportion.” (B860–61 A832–33)

Kant does not see that the essential purpose of reason and understanding is the making of that systematic unity that is life for the human animal. Rather, in Kant’s view, one essential purpose of reason is to make our cognitions systematic. Another essential purpose of reason is to be a self-justifying moral legislator. Kant does not see that reason is given its purposes by human animal life, even though he knows that “everything in the animal has its benefit and good intent” for the life of the animal and its kind (B868 A840).

“Essential purposes are not . . . the highest purposes, of which (in the case of perfect systematic unity of reason) there can be only one. Hence essential purposes are either the final purpose itself or subsidiary purposes that necessarily belong to the final purpose as means. The final purpose is none other than the whole vocation of the human being” (B868 A840). What is the whole vocation of the human being in general terms? Happiness? Life? Something beyond them?

At this stage (1781), Kant says the whole and general vocation of the human being is to become ever worthy of happiness. “Do that whereby you become worthy to be happy” (B837 A809). Kant’s system of morality “is linked inseparably—but only in the idea of pure reason—with the system of happiness” (B937 A809).

“Happiness is the satisfaction of all our inclinations (extensively, in terms of their manifoldness; intensively, in terms of their degree; and also protensively, in terms of their duration). The practical law issuing from the motive of happiness I call pragmatic (i.e., rule of prudence). But the practical law that has as its motive nothing but the worthiness to be happy . . . I call moral (moral law). The pragmatic law advises [us] what we must do if we want to partake of happiness; the moral law commands how we ought to behave in order to become worthy of happiness. The pragmatic law is based on empirical principles; for in no other way than by means of experience can I know either what inclinations there are that want to be satisfied, or what the natural causes are that can bring about the satisfactions of those inclinations. The moral law abstracts from inclination and from the natural means of satisfying them. It considers only the freedom of a rational being as such, and the necessary conditions under which alone this freedom harmonizes with a distribution of happiness that is made in accordance with principles” (B834 A806).

Notice a superseding dynamic in Rand’s ethical theory. A person’s self-esteem is “his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living” (AS 1018). Self-esteem is a cardinal value for life of the animal who must reason to live. Self-esteem is a feature of the human form of conscious life. The value self-esteem presupposes the ultimate value life. The concept worth, like moral value, presupposes life of the rational animal.

Kant thinks of the world of morality as an intelligible world “in whose concept we abstract from all obstacles to morality (i.e., from inclinations)” (B837 A809). In that world, “a system of a proportionate happiness linked with morality can indeed be thought as necessary. For freedom, partly impelled and partly restricted by moral laws, would itself be the cause of general happiness; and hence rational beings, under the guidance of such principles, would themselves be originators of their own and also of other beings’ lasting welfare. But this system of morality that rewards itself is only an idea” (B837–38 A809–10). Though taken only as a guiding and limiting idea by Kant, such a world corresponds to Leibniz’ kingdom of grace.

“Morality in itself amounts to a system; but happiness does not, except insofar as its distribution is exactly commensurate with morality. This however is possible only in the intelligible {not sensible} world . . . .” (B839 A811).

Because morality delivers rational, necessary commands, moral laws must be connected a priori with commensurate promises for and threats to welfare and happiness in an ideal limit. But such commanding, “the moral laws cannot do unless they reside in a necessary being that, as the highest good, can alone make such a purposive unity possible” (B840 A812). In Kant’s view, happiness is by itself incapable of being the complete good; happiness needs to be united with worthiness to be happy in order to instance complete goodness. On the other side of the union, “morality by itself—and with it the mere worthiness to be happy—is also far from being the complete good. In order for this good to be completed, the person who in his conduct has not been unworthy of happiness must be able to hope that he will partake of it” (B842 A814).

To the shortfall of happiness that ought to ensue one’s moral actions, Kant tried to leave open a not irrational hope for happiness in life beyond the limit of the one we know. For such a shortfall, Rand rested with the fully rational consolation of having been touched by the rays of a morally ideal rational world (AS 1068).

The absolute finality and spur of life as moral value, in Rand’s theory, stems from the self-sufficiency of life itself and the absolute stillness and value-void of its cessation. Kant thought that for all areas of science, including biology, all empirical causes of unity are derivative of final absolute necessary unity beyond the empirical world. Though we should suppose it in our research, though we should reach in its direction in our research, this self-sufficient basis of any derivative contingent unities in the empirical world, including the distinctive unities of organisms, is beyond our reach (B644–45 A616–17).

For Kant moral concepts are concepts that surpass the possibility of experience. The concept of what is virtuous will be shown to be to some degree feasible by actual persons, but the standard is the concept, not some actual archetype (B372 A315).

The idea of an organized society “consisting of the greatest human freedom according to laws through which the freedom of each can coexist with that of others (not an organization consisting of the greatest happiness, for this will no doubt follow on its own)” is a moral concept (B373 A316). Kant is here posing a transpersonal archetype within which greatest happiness among persons would follow. It is a perfect arrangement that has never been fully instituted. Although this ideal is only a concept, the closer actual constitutions approach it, the closer human beings come to the greatest perfection possible (B373–74 A317).

At this stage of his thought, Kant understands organisms in the same manner. “A plant, an animal, the regular arrangement of the world edifice (hence presumably also the whole natural order) show distinctly that they are possible only according to ideas” (B374 A317–18). The term idea here means a concept formed by reason from concepts originating (not empirically, but) solely in the understanding and surpassing the possibility of experience (B377 A320). The arrangements within and among plants and animals show that “no individual creature under the individual conditions of its existence is congruent with the idea of the most perfect creature of its kind” (B374 A318). We are justified in rising “from the merely replicating contemplation of what is physical in the world order to this order’s architectonic connection according to purposes, i.e., according to ideas” (B375 A318).

Kant sees that happiness can follow naturally from acting according to ideals other than happiness. He sees that happiness can follow from a certain ideal form of organized human activity. He does not see that life of physical organisms is the ground, the fully adequate ground, of any manifest functions or purposes in their internal and external activities. He does not see that life is the ground of purpose, reason, and happiness.

(To be continued.)


Kant, I. 1764. Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality. In Walford 1992.

——. 1765. Kant’s Announcement of the Programme of His Lectures for the Winter Semester 1765–66. In Walford 1992.

——. 1770. On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World. In Walford 1992.

——. 1781, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett.

Kuehn, M. 2001. Kant – A Biography. Cambridge.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

Walford, D., translator and editor. 1992. Immanuel Kant – Theoretical Philosophy 1755–1770. Cambridge.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

II. Towards 1785

In the years 1762–64, Johann Gottfried Herder had been a student of Kant’s at the University of Königsberg. Herder went on to become a clergyman, a renowned author, and Superintendent of Lutheran clergy in Weimar. He was leading opponent of the Enlightenment (e.g. Herder 1774). He was significantly under the influence of Rousseau; puffing up the goodness and happiness of primitive peoples; portraying the philosophies he had seen in school as pretentious and damaging to the natural goodness already in one’s soul. Opposition to the Enlightenment set Herder against Kant’s philosophy in both its Precritical and Critical phases. Herder was doubly opposed to Kant’s mature, Critical philosophy (Herder 1799; cf. Peikoff 1982, 44), and Kant was uniformly opposed to the attempts at philosophy by his former student (Kant 1785; Beiser 1987, 149–53; Kuehn 2001, 292–301).

However often he reiterated that his philosophizing was to protect folks from philosophy, Herder’s works show that he was powerfully drawn to philosophy of nature, especially human nature. Shortly after finishing university, Herder writes that his own philosophical approach would be to “dissect the subjective concept of thought and the objective concept of truth, . . . [to] unfold them, and by means of an extensive analysis of the concept, so to speak, seek the origin of all truth and science in my soul” (1765, 10). He would aim for a logic that comprehended not only intelligence, but imagination and sensation. Logic should preserve “the human spirit its natural strength in full vivacity” (11).

The best Herder sees a moralist can do for a person, in a practical way, is not to “preach virtue to his understanding, but preach to his conscience the virtue which he understands, . . . [by this,] merely lend a hand to nature. On the ground of his conscience, the whole field already sleeps, . . . wake it up” (24).

Curiosity is a drive in the human soul, but “a drive composed from self-preservation and self-defense” (16). Beyond defense, taking the offensive, curiosity is a refined artificial drive aiming at pleasure. The drive to extend our ideas is not the first main law of the soul. The drive for extending ideas is taken as first principle by study-philosophers, but they are mistaken, and within each such philosopher, there dwells yet a human being with deeper drives and truer, healthier understanding (16–22; see also 1772, 134–35).

In his famous Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), Herder observes “that the human being is far inferior to the animals in strength and sureness of instinct, indeed that he quite lacks what in the case of so many animal species we call innate abilities for and drive to art” (77–78). To understand rightly the drives to art of animals, and thereby to better see the nature of the human soul, Herder takes the perspective of what he calls “the sphere of animals.” Each animal has a circle distinctive of its kind, a distinctive extent “of their movements, elements, nutrition, preservation, reproduction, upbringing, society,” as well as distinctive “drives and arts” (78).

The size and diversity within an animal’s circle are in inverse proportion to the drives and arts of the animal’s kind. The bee and the spider are artful builders, and their two circles of life are small. However large the circle for any animal, the world beyond its circle is as nothing to the animal. The forces of representation and communication are adequate to the animal’s destiny in its circle of efficacy. The living mechanism tightly ruling their artful behaviors and communications is called instinct (79).

Animals with larger circle have more numerous functions and have to attend to a greater number of objects. “The less constant their manner of life is, . . . the larger and more diverse their sphere is {and} the more we see their sensuousness distribute itself and weaken” (78). Attention and behavior are less rigidly bound for animals with a larger circle of existence.

The sphere of the human being is wide, and far from uniform. “A world of occupations and destinies surrounds him” (79). “His senses and organization are not sharpened for a single thing; he has some senses for everything and hence naturally for each particular thing weaker and duller senses. / “His forces of soul are distributed over the world; {there is} no direction of his representation on a single thing; hence no drive to art, no skill for art, and . . . no animal language.” (79)

Animal language is wholly inadequate for the human being’s circle of efficacy. Animal language “is an expression of such strong sensuous representations that they become drives. Hence, {animal} language is innate and immediately natural for the animal. . . . How does the human speak by {such a} nature? Not at all!—just as he does little or nothing through sheer instinct as an animal” (80).

Enormous is the circle of efficacy of human beings. For spanning the gulf between his needs and prospects, on the one hand, and his lack of instinct and animal language, on the other, there is a gift of nature “as essential to him as instinct is to the animals” (81). This substitute for instinct is “the true orientation of humanity” (81).

Thought, reason, and human language are the natural gifts essential to human beings. “The human being has no single work, . . . but he has free space to practice in many things and hence to improve himself constantly. Each thought is not an immediate work of nature, but precisely because of this, it can become his own work” (82). If for humans instinct must disappear, “then precisely thereby the human being receives ‘more clarity’. Since he does not fall blindly on one point and remain laying there blindly, he becomes free-standing, can seek for himself a sphere for self-mirroring, can mirror himself within himself. No longer an infallible machine in the hands of nature, he becomes his own end and goal of refinement” (82).

“The rationality of the human being, the character of his species, is . . . ‘the total determination of his thinking force in relation to his sensuality and drives’” (84).

It is their natural reflective awareness that allows humans to invent and acquire human language. “The human being demonstrates reflection when the force of his soul operates so freely that in the whole ocean of sensations which floods the soul through all the senses, it can, so to speak, separate off, stop, and pay attention to a single wave, and be conscious of its own attentiveness. The human being demonstrates reflection when, out of the whole hovering dream of images which proceed before his senses, he can collect himself in a moment of alertness, freely dwell on a single image, pay it clear, more leisurely heed, and separate off characteristic marks for the fact that this is that object and no other. Thus he demonstrates reflection when he can not only recognize all the properties in a vivid or clear way, but his own mind acknowledge one or several as distinguishing properties. The first act of this acknowledgment provides a distinct concept; it is the first judgment of the sou.l” (87–88)

Herder did not accept the sharp division between the faculty of intelligence and the faculty of sense that Kant had proclaimed in 1770 and had elaborately maintained in 1781 and thereafter. In the best human beings of the past, according to Herder, “cognition and sensation flowed together for human life, for action, for happiness” (1778, 226). Cognition and sensation are living (243). The body is a living machine. Its life is a harmonious rhythm of activity “in perpetual effort and recuperation, right down to the subtlest instruments of sensations and thoughts” (191). The activities of everything in the body are ordered together by a single life force. The human soul is not an existent independent of the living body (193). There is a living formative force in nature, seen in Haller’s research on muscle contraction; seen in tropisms and reproduction by plants; seen in the unification of sensations received by the heart into a single pulse; and seen in the head’s “power to bring sensations which flow through its body into a single representation, and to guide the former through the latter” (194; see further, 205–6).

‘The soul cognizes that it senses” (208). It cognizes nothing purely out of itself (209). Cognition is not only a striving, but a having and a feeling of having. There is no cognition without volition, and there is no volition without cognition (213). Conscience, or moral feeling, is not at odds with cognition (214). “True cognition and good volition are just one sort of thing, a single force and efficacy of the soul” (215).

Volition is “from and full of human sensation” (213). The noble standard according to which we cognize and act is humanity. The living expansion and contraction of our will is expressed in self-feeling and other-feeling. “Loving is the noblest cognition, as it is the noblest sensation” (214). Loving is feeling, in a human way. Virtue is loving, the sure pull towards other human beings and towards “the great Creator in oneself” (214).

The moral end of human being is to be the intelligent sensorium of God, awake to “everything living in creation in proportion as it is related to him,” the human being (214). “Everything feels itself and creatures of its kind, life flows to life” (214). Our human self-feeling is fixed point for our ends, but not our end. Loving ourselves is necessary means to the noble end of loving our neighbor. “If we are disloyal to ourselves, how will we be loyal to others? In the degree of the depth of our self-feeling lies the degree of our other-feeling for others, for it is only ourselves that we can, so to speak, feel into others” (214).

Herder knows that human loving is not possible without a living body; so value is not possible apart from life. He knows a lot about human beings, I would say. He does not know that the order of inanimate nature and living nature obtains without divine craftsmanship and love. He does not know that life is conceptually prior to knowing and loving and that human life is the first and last word of meaning and value.

Kant rightly thinks Herder’s reasoning too intuitive, analogical, and poetic, and anyway contoured to mystical theology. Kant thinks that inferring general moral rules merely from empirical description of certain facts and speculative interpretation of those facts is unsound. Furthermore, we do not need to see all the value in human life, thought, and will as accruing from their relation to God. In humanity itself there is an ultimate self-sufficient value.

In 1784 Kant writes that what is evident from the behaviors and internal organization of animals—that their natural dispositions tend, purposively, to a complete development—is true also for the rational animal. The goal of our predispositions is the use and development of reason. The projects of reason are endless; they span generations on and on. Reason “does not operate instinctively” (8:19). Reason “is a faculty of extending the rules and aims of the use of all its powers far beyond natural instinct” (8:18–19). Though no individual can fulfill the vast natural aim of reason in their limited life, an individual can participate by principle in the larger purpose of reason for the human species.

Nature has given to the human being: reason and “the freedom of the will grounded on it,” with “a clear indication of [nature’s] aim in regard to that endowment” (8:19) Nature has given that the human being “should now not be guided by instinct or cared for and instructed by innate knowledge; rather he should produce everything out of himself. The invention of his means of nourishment, his clothing; his safety and defense (for which nature gives him neither the horns of the steer, nor the claws of the lion, nor the teeth of the dog, but merely his hands), all gratification that can make life agreeable, all his insight and prudence and even the generosity of his will, should be entirely his own work” (8:19; see also 1786). The human constitution is such that however far a human being may perfect his skill and thinking and thereby approach happiness on earth, he “may have only his own merit alone to thank for it; just as if [nature] had been more concerned about his rational self-esteem than about his well-being. For in this course of human affairs there is a whole host of hardships that await the human being. But it appears to have been no aim at all to nature that he should live well; but only that he should labor and work himself up so far that he might make himself worthy of well-being through his conduct of life” (8:20).

Kant, like Rand, understands that reason is the means to human survival, well-being, and happiness. But he does not see the utility of reason as serving the ultimate end of life of the individual or species. He does not see life as an end in itself, rather he sees fullest development of reason as an end in itself beyond its service to life. As Kant puts it in his 1785 reviews of a work of Herder’s, humans happy simply in their animal life and enjoyments would lack the end essential to being human, “the always proceeding and growing activity and culture” (8:65).

Before turning to Kant’s major works in ethics Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), I want to add a bit more in preparation.

Firstly, in Kant’s view, the source(s) of moral obligation must be knowable by reason, however ignorant of the world we may be. “What in all possible cases [of action] is right or wrong we must be able to know according to [a] rule, because it concerns our obligation, and what we cannot know we also have no obligation to do” (B504 A476).

Secondly, moral law does not derive from the will of God. This is consonant with the Leibnizian stance that moral law is part of the divine understanding, like the eternal truths of logic or geometry, not open to divine will. Moral laws, according to this tradition, have a necessity durable—they hold fast—under any contingencies grounded in the divine will. “As far as practical reason has the right to guide us, we shall not regard actions as obligatory because they are commands of God, but shall regard them as divine commands because we are intrinsically obliged to them” (B847 A819).

Thirdly, Kant holds there can be no moral rightness or goodness unless agents to whom they pertain are free to follow moral rules. Practical freedom of the will is necessary also for human prudence. In prudent behavior, “the entire business of reason consists in taking all the purposes assigned to us by our inclinations and uniting them in the one purpose, happiness, and in harmonizing the means for attaining this happiness” (B828 A800). We are free in reasoning prudentially to make choices “determined not merely by what stimulates, i.e., by what directly affects the senses. Rather, we have a power of overcoming, through presentations of what is beneficial or harmful even in a more remote way, the impressions made upon our power of desire. These deliberations, however, concerning what is with regard to our whole state desirable, i.e., good or beneficial, rest on reason (B830 A803). Our deliberations are free in this practical sense, both for prudential and for moral deliberations.

Kant thinks that if the phenomenal world were the only world, then its deterministic natural laws would rule the operations of the practical will. Our free will evidenced in the rational regulation of our actions would then be an illusion, as Spinoza had maintained earlier and as Johann Heinrich Schulz maintained in Kant’s time. Morality then would go out the house of rationality (B562–65 A534–37). Kant will not have that, and anyway, full determinism for rational beings is incoherent (1783). Resolution of this conundrum is one of his reasons for thinking there must be, in addition to the phenomenal world, a noumenal world, from which originating causes, courses not necessitated by natural law, can obtain in the phenomenal world.

(To be continued.)


Beiser, F. C. 1987. The Fate of Reason. Harvard.

Forster, M.N., editor and translator. 2002. Herder – Philosophical Writings. Cambridge.

Herder, J.G. 1765. How Philosophy Can Become More Universal and Useful for the Benefit of People. In Forster 2002.

——. 1772. Treatise on the Origin of Language. In Forster 2002.

——. 1774. This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity. In Forster 2002.

——. 1778. On the Cognition and Sensation of the Human Soul. In Forster 2002.

——. 1799. A Metacritique on the Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant, I. 1783. Review of Schulz’s “Attempt at an Introduction to a Doctrine of Morals for all Human Beings Regardless of Different Religions.” In Immanuel Kant – Practical Philosophy. 1996. M.J. Gregor, editor and translator. Cambridge.

——. 1784. Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim. A.W. Wood, translator. In Zöller and Louden 2007.

——. 1785. Review of J.G. Herder’s Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity. A.W. Wood, translator. In Zöller and Louden 2007.

——. 1786. Conjectural Beginning of Human History. A.W. Wood, translator. In Zöller and Louden 2007.

Kuehn, M. 2001. Kant – A Biography. Cambridge.

Peikoff, L. 1982. The Ominous Parallels. Stein and Day.

Zöller, G., and R.B. Louden, editors. 2007. Immanuel Kant – Anthropology, History, and Education. Cambridge.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

III. Into 1785

In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant tells us that ethics should be conceived as determination of what constitutes a good character, in particular a good will. To be a good person is to have a good will. The sight of someone who is continuously prosperous, but is “graced with no feature of a pure and good will,” does not delight us. Having a good will “seems to constitute the indispensable condition even of worthiness to be happy” (4:393).

Rand gives one of her protagonists in Atlas Shrugged these lines: “To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will. Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his own mind and his effort” (AS 411). “Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: money will not give him a code of values, if he’s evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he’s evaded the choice of what to seek” (AS 411). Prosperity in the absence of the moral virtues of rationality and purpose in ones values would not engender a sense of being worthy of happiness, and for that matter, it would not make for happiness.

The general distinctively moral purpose of anyone’s life is his own happiness, in Rand’s view. “The achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and . . . happiness . . . is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values” (AS 1059).

Rand writes of men of good will. Where does she locate a good will in morality? The text on money maintains that with a good will a person will respect the sovereignty of other persons’ minds over their values and labors. Having a good will of this kind and to this extent is not morally singular; it is a moral requirement for anyone. Results and marks of failing to have this minimal level of good will would be, for example, takings by force or fraud (AS 1019, 1022–23). Restricting one’s takings to the consensual is an occasion of a minimally good will respecting the minimally good will of others. Then too, with this type and level of good will, one treats others as ends in themselves. “Just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others” (OE 27).

The moral person set on his own happiness does not take his pleasure to be the proper goal of the lives of others nor does he take the pleasure of others to be the proper goal of the life that is his (AS 1022). One of good will, however, will find personal pleasure in seeing the value efforts of others (AS 1060). There are “no victims and no conflicts of interest” necessary among moral, rational people (AS 1022). Each can craft his values and desires, while respecting the circumstance that “by the grace of reality and the nature of life, man—every man—is an end in himself.” (AS 1014). There is a lovely harmonious world, a “kingdom of perfection,” in one’s soul and society (AS 1058, 1068).

Good will towards others, in Rand’s view, is only part of human good will. More generally and more deeply, “every act of a man’s life has to be willed” (AS 1057), and the basic act of human will is the choice to think, to focus, or not. The fundamental human question, “the question ‘to be or not to be’ is the question ‘to think or not to think’” (AS 1012). To choose living and thinking is a basic free choice within which all others are arranged. Choosing living and thinking is good choosing, good willing (AS 1017–18).

In Kant’s view, a good will is a fitness to attain various ends, but it does not derive its goodness from those ends. Rather, regarded by itself, it is good in itself. It is “to be valued incomparably higher than all that could be merely brought about by it in favor of some inclination and indeed, if you will, of the sum of all inclinations” (4:394). If unfavorable circumstances prevent attainment of one’s ends, in spite of one’s greatest efforts, with a good will, then “like a jewel, {the good will} would still shine by itself, as something that has its full worth in itself” (4:394).

Kant puts together a little argument to show that the goodness of a good will does not derive from the ends of preservation or welfare of one’s life. Nor from the end of happiness. If those were the proper ends of a creature with reason and will, what a poor arrangement nature has hit upon for their accomplishment. For those ends, actions would be better marked out more reliably by instinct than by reason. Notice too that people who are highly cultivated in reason dedicated to the enjoyment of life and happiness do not find true satisfaction, but bring trouble upon themselves and multiplication of their needs. Often they end up with some envy of “the common run of people, who are closer to the guidance of mere natural instinct and do not allow their reason much influence on their behavior” (4:395–96). That is not to say that Kant, champion of the Enlightenment, urges a return to the primitive. The upshot is this: There is another, far worthier purpose of one’s existence to which “reason is properly destined, and to which, as supreme condition, the private purpose of the human being must for the most part defer” (4:396).

In Rand’s ethics, a good will, a good character, is necessary for preservation of human life and achievement of happiness. However, in contrast to Kant’s conception, moral goodness is for the purpose of prospering life and happiness. A good character does indeed have its solitary reward of pride, but the value of a good will derives from the value of human life.

Happiness is “complete well-being and satisfaction with one’s life” (4:393). It is the unified purpose of all the purposes we undertake according to natural inclinations (B828 A800), “the sum of satisfaction of all inclinations” (4:399). Kant is cognizant of the connection, made by Greek ethicists, between happiness and physical health. He argues that because of the broad compass of this general concept of happiness and the tenuousness of the link between happiness and health, happiness is feeble as a moral precept. One might act on a present inclination, even though it is against health, unsure that the happiness won by health would be greater than the happiness won by satisfying the present inclination (4:399; see further 4:417–19). What does not catch Kant’s eye is that health might be a clearer and firmer standard of morality than happiness and that a concept of happiness might be sensitively conformed to the concept of health. He does not see that health—better yet, human life—could be the source of moral obligation, a standard to look to through present inclination and through which to see present inclination.

What is wrong with Kant’s argument that if the function of reason and a good will were only to attain life and happiness, we should have been equipped with unerring instinct for such ends, rather than with deliberative reason? This thought supposes that the extensive creative survival behaviors of humans and the wide range of human ways of living could be attained with only instinct and obligatory, non-symbolic animal communication. Herder was right in denying such a possibility. Human life requires language and the reflective awareness that makes it possible.

Kant’s second argument at 4:395–96 was that people more highly cultivated in reason, pursuing only life and happiness, often end up dissatisfied and envious of less cultured folk who are less reflective and closer to being guided by instincts. This circumstance, supposing it true, is to be taken as evidence that the function of developed reason does not lie ultimately in its service to life and happiness. This argument is fallacious, for it trades on an ambiguity in the term instinct. That some people are guided more by feelings than by deliberative reason does not show they have any more instinct than sophisticated people have, where instinct is taken unambiguously as inborn biologically fixed skill.

Rand gets it right. When it comes to the human animal, “a sensation of hunger will tell him that he needs food, . . . but it will not tell him how to obtain his food. . . . He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought” (OE 21). More generally, “a desire is not an instinct” (AS 1013), and a feeling will not tell one how to hunt, farm, or cook (AS 1036, F 737). Kant’s second argument, like his first, does nothing to show that the ultimate function of reason and a good will cannot be to attain life and happiness.

Kant flirts with this current of argument again, in 1788, in his Critique of Practical Reason. He writes:

“Certainly, our well-being and woe count for a very great deal in the appraisal of our practical reason and, as far as our nature as sensible beings is concerned, all that counts is our happiness if this is appraised, as reason especially requires, not in terms of transitory feeling but of the influence this contingency has on our whole existence and our satisfaction with it; but happiness is not the only thing that counts. The human being is a being with needs, insofar as he belongs to the sensible world, and to this extent his reason certainly has a commission from the side of his sensibility which it cannot refuse, to attend to its interest and to form practical maxims with a view to happiness in this life and, where possible, in a future life as well. But he is nevertheless not so completely an animal as to be indifferent to all that reason says on its own and to use reason merely as a tool for the satisfaction of his needs as a sensible being. For that he has reason does not at all raise him in worth above mere animality if reason is to serve him only for the sake of what instinct accomplishes for animals; reason would in that case be only a particular mode nature used to equip the human being for the same end to which it has destined animals, without destining him to a higher end. No doubt once this arrangement of nature has been made of him he needs reason in order to take into consideration at all times his well-being and woe; but besides this he has it for a higher purpose: namely, not only to reflect upon what is good or evil in itself as well—but also to distinguish the latter appraisal altogether from the former and to make it the supreme condition of the former.” (5:61–62)

It is false to say reason cannot have as its continual and ultimate purpose the attainment of life, and at the same time have its own further purposes that are auxiliary and highly removed from the daily struggle for existence and happiness. Not only can reason make a dinner, it can set the table in a beautiful way. It is also mistaken to think that seeing reason’s main function as for survival of the human animal fails to capture the vast leap of our species beyond the other animals. The “higher ends” of reason that Kant has in mind are not removed from the daily struggle for existence and happiness, of course, for he is here thinking of one’s moral ends. Establishment that there are such ends not identical with the ends of life and happiness is not accomplished by Kant’s argument here.

In Kant’s view, it is good to preserve one’s life, good to be socially adept and beneficent, and good to assure one’s own happiness. But any moral goodness or inner worth to be found in these efforts—and in all other harmonious, beneficial efforts—arises from their being done from a sense of duty. For striking example: “If adversity and hopeless grief have quite taken away the taste for life; if an unfortunate man, strong of soul and more indignant about his fate than despondent or dejected, wishes for death and yet preserves his life without loving it, not from inclination or fear but from duty, then his maxim [preserve one’s life] has moral content” (4:398).

Contrary to Kant, I say that such a resolve in such a circumstance is morally virtuous so far as the unfortunate man continues to commune with the goodness that is life, however slender has become the possibility for his further original enjoyments.

Kant will not have the pursuit of life, nor pursuit of any other object, be the source, purpose, or standard of moral virtue or obligation (5:64). Before digging into Kant’s reasons for standing moral by standing off from life and happiness, I want to point to two precursors of Kant’s mature ideas about ethics in his early education: one from Luther, one from Cicero.

In his early formal education at Königsberg’s Collegium Fredericianum (from age 8 to 16), Kant would have memorized Luther’s Small Catechism and studied the Large. He would know Luther’s explication of the First Commandment. In the Lutheran doctrine, God is the source of goodness in the world. Every good in the world—health, wealth, and family—are gifts from God. Every right gift one might give to another or receive from another, must be seen as a gift from God. It is more than a pleasing coincidence that the words Gott and Güte are so similar. God commands that one’s heart and mind be set first and foremost on God. He will bring good things, temporal and eternal, to people who follow this commandment, and he will bring woe to people who put other goods in first place, higher than God. To keep the true God in first place, one must have the right heart and head, the right faith.

In his secular construction of morality, Kant would give to good will the role Luther had given to right faith. Kant wants to keep with individual necessary reward and penalty for individual condition of will, and he thinks he can find this necessary connection right here in the constitution of human will and reason. Beyond the sure sanctions for a good will is the hope of happiness in this life and hereafter.

At Collegium Fredericianum, Kant had excelled in Latin. Among the Latin works he read there was Cicero’s On Duties (De Officiis). Cicero sees virtue in terms of duty. It is no controversy to say, as anyone should, that moral virtue is a performance of or disposition towards what one ought to do. But when a philosopher such as Cicero or Kant undertakes to cast all occasions of doing the morally right thing as performances of duties, he is giving a systematic and controversial slant to the entire moral plane.

Duties are various things owed, usually in various social relationships. In all things, Cicero is on the lookout for bearings on duties. “No part of life, neither public affairs nor private, neither in the forum nor at home, neither when acting on your own nor in dealings with another, can be free from duty. Everything that is honorable in a life depends upon its cultivation, and everything dishonorable upon its neglect” (O 1.4).

Duties are things owed. I think that to reduce the idea of what ought to be done to what is owed is an impoverishment of the idea. A truer way of moral life is to perceive and nurture value. Let value and valuation bring forth virtues and things owed.

Kant’s ethics, like Cicero’s, is an ethics of duty. For Cicero the source of duties is honorableness, which is in contrast to personal advantage. “There are some teachings that undermine all duty by the ends of good and evil things that they propound. The man who defines the highest good in such a way that it has no connection with virtue, measuring it by his own advantages rather than by honorableness, cannot . . . cultivate either friendship or justice or liberality. There can certainly be no brave man who judges that pain is the greatest evil, nor a man of restraint who defines pleasure as the highest good” (O 1.5).

As the source of duties, Kant will replace honorableness with the nature of pure reason and a good will. That replacement understood, the following formula of Cicero will agree with Kant. Ethical systems in which the highest good is personal advantage “say nothing about duty; nor can any advice on duty that is steady, stable, and joined to nature be handed down except by those who believe that what is sought for its own sake is honorableness alone . . .” (O 1.6).

(To be continued.)


Cicero, M.T. 44 B.C. On Duties. E.M. Atkins, editor and translator. 1991. Cambridge.

Gregor, M., editor and translator. 1996. Immanuel Kant – Practical Philosophy. Cambridge.

Kant, I. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.

——. 1788. Critique of Practical Reason. In Gregor 1996.

Rand, A. 1943. The Fountainhead (F). Bobbs-Merrill.

——. 1957. Atlas Shrugged (AS). Random House.

——. 1961. The Objectivist Ethics (OE). In The Virtue of Selfishness. 1964. Signet.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

IV – Moral Worth, Necessary and Free


Many are moved to right beneficent acts, not by motives such as vanity or self-interest, but simply because “they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work” (G 4:398). Such beneficent acts “deserve praise and encouragement but not esteem” (G 4:398). Such beneficence flows from inclination, and though this action on inclination is praiseworthy, it is not action meriting our esteem if it is performed without being motivated by its moral rightness. These views are from Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (G 1785).

Suppose another man were in the same position to render assistance in the very same situation. But suppose this man “is by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others, perhaps because he himself is provided with a special gift of patience and endurance towards his own sufferings and presupposes the same in every other or even requires it; if nature had not properly fashioned such a man . . . for a philanthropist, would he not still find within himself a source from which to give himself a far higher worth than what a mere good-natured temperament might have?” (G 4:398). Why, Yes. The man with little sympathy in his heart has a will. Taking beneficence in the circumstance to be a matter of moral law, he might render assistance for the sake of the law, from respect for moral law (G 4:398, 390; see further, Herman 1993, 1–22; Allison 1990, 107–20).

In The Metaphysics of Morals (MS 1797), Kant remarks that nature has given humans a receptivity to the feeling of sympathetic joy and sadness. This is compassion, and there is an indirect duty to cultivate compassionate feelings in oneself. The feeling of compassion is conducive to the free will of practical reason to share in other’s feelings. There is a direct duty of active, rational benevolence towards those worthy of happiness (MS 6:457). Somewhat like the Stoics before him and Rand after him, Kant distinguishes compassion from pity and says the latter “has no place in people’s relations with one another” (MS 6:457).

Morality is more than good inclinations and their rational coordination. From Critique of Practical Reason (KpV 1788): “An inclination to what conforms to duty (e.g., to beneficence) can indeed greatly facilitate the effectiveness of moral maxims but cannot produce any. For in these {moral maxims} everything must be directed to the representation of the law as determining ground if the action is to contain not merely legality by also morality. Inclination is blind and servile, whether it is kindly or not; and when morality is in question, reason must not play the part of mere guardian to inclination but, disregarding it altogether, must attend solely to its own interest as pure practical reason.” (KpV 5:118; see also KpV 5:71–72 and 1793 6:4n)

As with sympathy, so with one’s own happiness. “People have already of themselves, the strongest and deepest inclination to happiness because it is just in this idea that all inclinations unite in a sum” (G 4:399). There is an indirect duty to assure one’s own happiness, for “want of satisfaction with one’s condition, under pressure from many anxieties and amid unsatisfied needs, could easily become a great temptation to transgression of duty” (G 4:399; also KpV 5:93).

There is, however, no direct duty to pursue one’s own happiness. Rather, there is the direct duty to pursue one’s own perfection. It would be a contradiction to say one had an obligation to pursue something one does automatically, specifically, pursue one’s own happiness (MS 6:386; KpV 5:37; G 4:415). It seems Kant is here in some contradiction with his talk of the suffering man (in G 4:398) who has lost the taste for life. Rand writes truly “man’s desire to live is not automatic” (AS 1013). Kant’s premise to the contrary is false, and his little case here against a direct duty to happiness would weigh also against an indirect duty to happiness, which he upholds.

Concerning others, it is Kant’s view that one has a direct duty to be concerned for their happiness. But “it is a contradiction for me to make another’s perfection my end and consider myself under obligation to promote this. For the perfection of another human being, as a person, consists just in this: that he himself is able to set his end in accordance with his own concepts of duty; and it is self-contradictory to require that I do (make it my duty to do) something that only the other himself can do” (MS 6:386). Making someone happy, of course, “is quite different from making him good” (G 4:442).

The perfection one has a duty to pursue in oneself is the perfection belonging to a human being as such. Specifically, the duty to self-perfection entails duties to cultivate one’s natural faculties, especially understanding, and to cultivate one’s will such that moral law becomes the incentive to one’s actions. This self-perfection is a species of the teleological perfection of living things in general: “the harmony of a thing’s properties with an end” (MS 6:386). The duty to self-perfection is a duty commanded absolutely by morally practical reason so that the individual “may be worthy of the humanity that dwells within him” (MS 6:387).

The virtue of self-perfection in Rand’s ethics derives from the nature and value of human life. It needs to be recognized “that of any of the achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character. . . [that man] must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining . . . that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection . . . .” (AS 1020–21)

In Kant’s analysis, respect is a moral feeling, where now, in his mature ethical theory, moral feeling is not elementary as with the moral-sense theorists, but derives from the intellectual activity of setting aside sensory feelings and self-love for the sake of conforming to moral law in action. This free intellectual redirection is an infringement on self-love, the latter being prior to moral law in us. The resulting moral person has rational self-love (KpV 5:72–76).

Respect is not something one can have towards objects of one’s actions as objects nor towards one’s inclinations towards those objects. “Only what is connected with my will merely as ground and never as effect, what does not serve my inclination but outweighs it or at least excludes it altogether from calculations in making a choice—hence the mere law for itself—can be an object of respect and so a command” (G 4:00). It is in the will of a rational being that “the highest and unconditional good alone can be found. Hence nothing other than the representation of the law, insofar as it and not the hoped-for effect is the determining ground of the will, can constitute the preeminent good we call moral . . .”  (G 4:401).

Reason tells us that the commands of duty deserve the highest respect. In each individual, there is a powerful counterweight to the command of duty: “his needs and inclinations, the entire satisfaction of which he sums up under the name happiness. Now reason issues its precepts unremittingly, without thereby promising anything to the inclinations, and so, as it were, with disregard and contempt for those claims . . . [which] refuse to be neutralized by any command” (G 4:405). One’s own happiness and the demands of morality are perpetually at odds, in Kant’s conception.

Kant thinks that “respect is always directed only to persons, never to things” (KpV 5:76). Behind our respect for persons is consciousness of moral duties they occasion (KpV 5:76–81).

Not only can we respect ourselves and other persons, we can love ourselves and others, we can promote the well-being and happiness of ourselves and others. That we will love ourselves and try to win our own happiness is entirely dependable.
There is also a dependable natural satisfaction we have in the well-being of others. But there is no need in everyone, such as a sympathetic sensibility, such that as long as one remains a rational being, one is impelled to promote the well-being of others (KpV 5:35).

If I will limit my prudential maxim to pursue my own happiness, my maxim based on inclination, so as to include in it concern for the happiness of others; then my prudential maxim can become an objective, moral maxim, as “obligation to extend my self-love to the happiness of others as well” (KpV 5:35). The feature of obligation derives, however, not from the satisfaction we take in the well-being of others—though their well-being is the object, or matter, of our volition—rather from the form of a maxim of self-love made suitable for universal application by enfolding the happiness of others within it (KpV 5:35; see further, Wood 2008, 34–38, 175-81; Beiser 1987, 190–91; Herman 1993, 45–72; Sherman 1997, 129–30, 141–58).

Duty is the necessity of an action from respect for law” (G 4:400). What is the source and nature of this necessity and this law?

The term duty (Pflict) appears a few times in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (KrV 1781), and all its uses there are ordinary, without a philosophic role distinctive to Kant’s philosophy. In the second edition (1787), the term is added in two places (KrV Bxxxii and B29, including translator’s note 290) in its pivotal role in Kant’s mature ethics: as the moral tension pulling action out of direction by inclination. (Cf. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”) It is from this general opposition that consciousness of freedom of rational will arises (KrV Bxxxii–iii; MS 6:380n, 387–88).

The terms obligation or obligate (Obliegenheit, Verbindlichkeit, verbinden) appear several times in the first edition. Most are in connection with epistemological obligations. Five of the uses are in claims about moral obligations (KrV B507 A477, B617 A589, B662 A634, B838 A810, B839 A811). They speak about obligations to follow moral precepts, obligations as issuing from moral law, and obligations as being impositions. In no case is obligation used in the special role for which Kant adopts duty in his additions to the second edition: as the moral pull in free reason against direction of action by inclinations. That specific concept duty had been announced and set in its central place, for Kant’s ethics, in Groundwork, which was between the two editions of the first Critique. The emergence of this concept in Kant’s ethics signals perhaps a further development in his thought about the subject. More surely, it amounts to a shift in his strategy of presentation.

(To be continued.)


Allison, H. E. 1990. Kant’s Theory of Freedom. Cambridge.

Gregor, M. J., editor and translator, 1996. Immanuel Kant – Practical Philosophy. Cambridge.

Herman, B. 1993. The Practice of Moral Judgment. Harvard.

Kant, I. 1781, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett.

——. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.

——. 1788. Critique of Practical Reason. In Gregor 1996.

——. 1793. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. In Immanuel Kant – Religion and Rational Theology. A. W. Wood, editor. G. Giovanni, translator. Cambridge.

——. 1797. The Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

Sherman, N. 1997. Making a Necessity of Virtue – Aristotle and Kant on Virtue. Cambridge.

Wood, A. W. 2008. Kantian Ethics. Cambridge.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

IV. Moral Worth, Necessary and Free


In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant reasoned that if the causal connections lain out in time and space were sufficient to produce any of the phenomena there are, if every particular cause is itself necessitated by other causes, if even a human choice to rise from a chair is necessitated by antecedent causal conditions lain out in time and space; then there are no choices of humans free of necessitation by empirical inputs (KrV B473–80 A445–51, B560–86 A533–58). Then no choices of action by humans are truly originative.

What if there are other conditions, ones transcending the empirical, phenomenal world that set its character, that can never be experienced in empirical, phenomenal ways, that form an ultimate opaque stopping ground of rational comprehension? What if the human being, an empirical being, dwells also in that empirically transcendent realm in all occasions of truly originative rational choices of actions, where these actions effect no results in contradiction of natural laws and where the root cause of these actions is not necessitated by empirical fact? (KrV B566–69 A538–41). What if the phenomenal causal determinism of we human causes is not so determinative that we never make truly originative choices of action, free of coercion by empirical factors? (KrV B562 A534).

Then “the effects can be considered as free with regard to its intelligible cause, and yet with regard to appearances be considered simultaneously as resulting from these according to the necessity of nature” (KrV B565 A537). Then too, we cannot theoretically know we have such freedom nor even that such freedom is a real possibility. But we can conceive of such a freedom without contradiction of the natural order, and we can take such freedom as presupposition for all our moral operations (KrV  B568 A540, B575–79 A547–51, B585–86 A557–58; KpV 5:54–57).

From our modern perspective, sensitive to developments in physics and neuroscience of the last several decades, we should realize that Kant is mistaken about causal structure and necessity in the empirical, phenomenal world. Kant’s conception of the physical (and physiological) realm is overly deterministic. He presumes, as do many thinkers of his day and ours, that physical necessitation entails predetermination by past conditions however far into the past one might look. Complementing that error is another: he presumes that physical causal determinism implies in-principle predictability.

“All actions of a human being are determined in appearance on the basis of his empirical character and the other contributing causes according to the order of nature; and if we could explore all appearances of his power of choice down to the bottom, there would not be a single human action that we could not with certainty predict and cognize as necessary from its preceding conditions” (KrV B577–78 A549–50). “But if we examine the same actions in reference to reason, . . . we find a rule and order quite different from the order of nature” (KrV B578 A550).

“Reason is the permanent condition of all the voluntary actions under which the human being appears. Each of these actions, even before it occurs, is predetermined in the human being’s empirical character. But in regard to the intelligible character, of which the empirical character is only the sensible schema, no before or after holds, and every action—regardless of its time relation to other appearances—is the direct effect of the intelligible character of pure reason. Hence pure reason acts freely, i.e., without being dynamically determined in the chain of natural causes by external or internal bases that precede the action as regards time. And this freedom of pure reason can be regarded not only negatively, as independence from empirical conditions (for the power of reason would thus cease to be a cause of appearances {the manmade}). Rather, this freedom can be designated also positively, as a power of reason to begin on its own a series of events. Reason begins the series in such a way that nothing begins in reason itself, but that reason, as unconditioned condition of any voluntary action, permits no conditions above itself that precede the action as regards time—although reason’s effect does begin in the series of appearances, but in the series can never amount to an absolutely first beginning.” (KrV B581–82 A553–54)

That is not so. That we can, in our symbolic, reflective and self-reflective consciousness, contemplate things and relations and possibilities outside the course of nature unfolding immediately before us and within us does not show that power of consciousness to be itself outside the temporal unfolding of nature. We have the freedom of thought and action we have entirely within the one and only world there is: the world of concretes, within which and over which our thought ranges. (On Kant’s theory of free will, see also Allison 1990, 11–82; Bird 2006, 689–718; Wood 2008, 123–41.)

In the Prolegomena (1783), Kant again proffers his way of reconciling the (overly) deterministic conception of nature with human freedom:

The law of nature remains, whether the rational being be a cause of effects in the sensible world through reason and hence through freedom, or whether that being does not determine such effects through rational grounds. For if the first is the case, the action takes place according to maxims whose effect within appearance will always conform to constant laws; if the second is the case, and the action does not take place according to principles of reason, then it is subject to the empirical laws of sensibility, and in both cases the effects are connected according to constant laws . . . . In the first case, however, reason is the cause of these natural laws {adopted maxims} and is therefore free, in the second case the effects flow according to mere natural laws of sensibility, because reason exercises no influence on them; but, because of this, reason is not itself determined by sensibility (which is impossible), and it is therefore also free in this case. Therefore freedom does not impede the natural law of appearances, any more than this law interferes with the freedom of the practical use of reason, a use that stands in connection with things in themselves as determining grounds. / In this way practical freedom—namely, that freedom in which reason has causality in accordance with objective determining grounds—is rescued, without natural necessity suffering the least harm with respect to the very same effects, as appearances.” (P 4:345–46)

Kant is using the concept natural laws in the broad sense of constancies or patterns that are necessary. Kant chased the relation of moral necessities to natural necessities across more than three decades, without a clear and stable settlement.

There are practical laws having obligatory force reason cognizes as (not relatively, but) absolutely necessary (KrV B662 A634). In moral life, “there is an absolute necessity that something must occur, viz., that I comply in all points with the moral law” (KrV B856 A828). Having made these moral precepts my operating maxims, required by reason for fruitful operation of reason, these, “my moral principles, . . . I cannot renounce without being detestable in my own eyes” (KrV B856 A828).

We saw in Part I that in Kant’s precritical “Inquiry” (1764) he thought moral necessity of an end must stem from something necessarily right in itself. In his mature, critical philosophy, he continued with that general doctrine. Our ends can be unfolded towards a “necessary unity of all possible purposes” (KrV B385 A328). This systematic unity of purposes is an ideal world, intelligible apart from the sensible world, in which there is an exact balance between happiness actual and happiness deserved by free, rational beings who have made themselves worthy of happiness (KrV B841 A813; 1793 8:278n).

We know the necessity in moral obligation within ourselves (e.g. G 4:401; KpV 5:161–62; MS 6:216). The basis of that necessity is the concerted causal effectiveness of free, morally right action taken in a world in which everyone acted only morally, as if their actions “sprang from a supreme will comprising all private power of choice within itself” (KrV B838 A810). The basis of moral necessity is not natural causality alone, under which happiness does not necessarily follow from right action. For there to be a necessary connection between right action and hoped-for happiness, “a supreme reason that commands according to moral laws is also laid at the basis of nature, as nature’s cause” (KrV B838 A810).

In the first edition of Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant had written: “Pure morality contains merely the moral laws of a free will as such; the doctrine of virtue examines these laws as impeded by the feelings, inclinations, and passions to which human beings are more or less subject” (KrV B79 A55). Kant had realized however that certain empirical concepts must be presupposed in thinking about the pure, a priori principles and concepts of morality. In the second edition (1787), coming after Groundwork, Kant enters the concept duty into an expanded articulation of the relation between concepts of empirical origin and the concepts and principles of pure morality. “Although the supreme principles and basic concepts of morality do not lay these empirical concepts themselves at the basis of their precepts, they must still bring in such pleasure and displeasure, desires and inclinations, etc., in [formulating] the concept of duty: viz., as an obstacle to be overcome, or as a stimulus that is {nevertheless} not to be turned into a motive” (KrV B29; see also MS 6:217).

In 1783 Christian Garve published Philosophical Remarks and Essays on Cicero’s Books on Duties. Garve was influenced by Leibniz and Wolff, but he was influenced much more by Lockean empiricism. Garve published also that year an early critical review of Kant’s first Critique, objecting to Kant’s characterization of sensation and its relation to understanding, to his courting skepticism, to his undermining of common sense, and to his inversion of objects and subjective nature (53–77).

Composition of Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) was influenced by Garve’s book on Cicero. Manfred Kuehn writes that publication of Garve’s book “brought home to Kant not only the importance of Cicero, but also his continuing effect on Kant’s German contemporaries” (2001, 278). Kant intended his little book to be accessible, like Cicero’s, to a wide audience. So it is.

Like Kant and many other ethicists, Cicero had upheld an ethics based on reason and in opposition to impulse and hedonism. Kant needed to wrest Cicero’s key concept duty from the eudaimonistic setting given it by Cirero. He needed to reform the concept duty and trumpet it in his inaugural work devoted entirely to ethics, the Groundwork. Cicero had maintained that following duties is ultimately following the tendencies of human nature to self-preservation, to prevention of harm, to procreation, and to protection of offspring. Kant aimed to give duty a new meaning for a new rational ethical theory.

I think Kant had in addition an even greater ambition for Groundwork. Not only did he aim to supersede Cicero and other eudaimonists, he aimed to offer an entire and entirely rational alternative to the ethics of Lutheran Christianity. Kant needed to craft a naturalistic ethics with basic moral force equal the commands of an all-wise supernatural God. That is not to say that what is proclaimed as virtuous or right action in Kant’s ethics are to be roundly at odds with what is proclaimed by Christianity of his day.

A rational being can represent principles and by will conform her conduct to them. A moral necessity is one in which conformity is open to choice (G 4:413). Kant presumes that distinctly moral norms and choices are those affecting minded selves, affecting persons. Choices about the control and treatment of persons, one’s own person or another’s, are the distinctly moral choices. This is the presumed topic of moral principles and necessities.

The most general moral laws, the most general objective practical laws, pertain to “the relation of a will to itself insofar as it determines itself only by reason” (G 4:427). Formulas of universally applicable moral commands of reason, Kant calls imperatives. The Kantian imperative of special interest for the present study is this one: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (G 4:429; see also KpV 5:87).

Here again we see Kant attaching moral necessity in ends to the idea of something that is an end in itself. At the same time, he attaches moral necessity to the purely formal, the non-empirical. Only in one’s reason, and apart from consideration of material incentives and means, is one able to determine oneself by objective moral motives towards objective moral ends. Kant thinks there is one thing, and really only one thing, “the existence of which in itself has an absolute worth, something which as an end in itself could be a ground of determinate laws,” by which he means universally applicable determinate moral laws (G 4:428). “I say the human being and in general every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion” (G 4:428). At bedrock “rational nature exists as an end in itself” (G 428–29).

It is true, I should say, that rational nature is a similitude of an end in itself. That comes about because rational nature is the living nature that is the overarching information and control system of the animal that is man. When Rand writes “I am, therefore I’ll think,” the existence of the thinking self is a living existence (AS 1058). In apprehending that one exists, one apprehends that one lives and that this, oneself, is an end in itself.

We saw in Part 1 that, in his first Critique (1781), Kant had drawn an analogy between systematic organization by reason and organization of animate nature (KrV B860–61 A832–33; cf. B425). Kant knows that living things grow, that they are self-generating in individual development and in species reproduction, that they are self-preserving, and that in their essence they are purposive, or of-functions, in their structure and action (KU 366–71). He knows they are that way naturally, without artifice of intelligence. He does not see the natural purposive organizations that are organisms as ends in themselves. Life is not an end in itself.

“Rational nature is distinguished from the rest of nature by this, that it sets itself an end” (G 4:437). An end that can be the end of a will that is unconditionally good would have to be not some particular end to be effected, but an independently existing end. This end “can be nothing other than the subject {rational agent} of all possible ends itself, because this subject is also the subject of a possible absolutely good will; for such a will cannot without contradiction be subordinated to any other object” (G 4:437). Only rational nature is an end in itself without further qualification.

The internal purposive characteristic of organisms is a matter of objective fact, but for Kant it is an analogical objective fact. The anatomist and the embryologist are rewarded by proceeding under the general hypothesis that the parts and behaviors of organisms have specific functions analogous to our own conscious, rational purposes. Kant does not see it the other way around, the way Rand and many contemporary thinkers see it: conscious purpose is a species of natural animal behavior. This is one reason Kant would not see that life of the organism is an end in itself.

That rational nature is the only real end in itself would make one think Kant would take rational nature as the ultimate end towards which all good ends should be directed. Kant addresses ultimate purposes in a more restricted sense, as “the purpose by reference to which all other natural things constitute a system of purposes” (KU 429). The contrast of nature is to freedom. In Kant’s sense, the ultimate end for humans is the end (presumed single) set by nature for humans. That cannot be happiness. What happiness amounts to is not something determinately set by our animal nature. Rather, happiness is an idea humans formulate for themselves, with great variety and changeability. Even if the concept of happiness were restricted “to the true natural needs shared by our species, . . . [man] would still never reach what he means by happiness, and reach what is in fact his own ultimate purpose, . . . for it is not his nature to stop possessing and enjoying at some point and be satisfied” (KU 431). Moreover, nature “is very far from having adopted him as its special darling, . . . but has in fact spared him no more than any other animal from its destructive workings. . . . In the chain of natural purposes, man is never more than a link” (KU 430).

What nature has done for man, aside from constitution for the pursuit of happiness on earth, is to prepare him “for what he himself must do in order to be a final purpose” (KU 431). Final purpose is distinct from ultimate purpose in Kant’s fully developed ethics. Final purpose is “a purpose that requires no other purpose as a condition of its possibility” (KU 434).  If man makes happiness “his whole purpose, it makes him unable to set a final purpose for his own existence and to harmonize with this final purpose” (KU 431). Yes, I say as Rand says: happiness alone is an inadequate standard to guide one’s actions for the purpose of achieving happiness. For us the standard is human life, but as we have seen, that candidate is on the field for Kant mainly in the shadow of happiness. Nature’s ultimate purpose with regard to man is giving him the “aptitude in general for setting himself purposes, and for using nature (independently of [the element of] nature in man’s determination of purposes) as a means [for achieving them] in conformity with the maxims of his free purposes generally. Producing in a rational being an aptitude for purposes generally (hence [in a way that leaves] that being free) is culture. Hence only culture can be the ultimate purpose that we have cause to attribute to nature with respect to the human species.” (KU 431)

One might have wondered, at the end of Part II, why (in 1785) Kant had taken ever-higher development of reason and advancing culture to be something valuable in itself. In Critique of Judgment (KU 1790), Kant has set out somewhat more the way in which culture can be valuable—a sort of natural ultimate value—by its relation to the one true valuable end in itself, which is rational nature.

The skills we acquire from culture are not all that is needed in order to have an aptitude to promote purposes generally. We require also our own directing will. Nature through culture liberates “the will from the despotism of desires, a despotism that rivets us to certain natural things and renders us unable to do our own selecting; we allow ourselves to be fettered by the impulses that nature gave us only as guides so that we would not neglect or even injure our animal characteristics, whereas in fact we are free enough to tighten or to slacken, to lengthen or to shorten them, as the purposes of reason require” (KU 432).

As we have seen, Kant resisted the thought that happiness might not be one’s aim when direction of one’s purposes by will is slackened. Rand rightly held that human beings do not automatically desire happiness. More fundamentally, humans do not automatically desire to live; their directive will extends that widely. Kant would hold that were that indeed the case, then Rand’s standard of morality would be profoundly inadequate.

In all of nature, according to Kant, it is only in man’s supersensible, noumenal nature that there is a purpose that is not conditioned on other purposes. Only in man’s existence as a moral agent, where moral legislation is not conditioned by any of the purposes in empirical nature, do we find a purpose not dependent on other purposes. That is unlike every purpose in empirical nature (KU 435–36; 1793, 8:279–80). Life could not be a final end, for it is conditional. It would not do as a standard for morality. Furthermore, if life is subject to continual choice by humans for its continuance, then human life is all the more conditioned and all the less suitable as a standard for morality. Requirements of morality conditioned by the clause “if you want to live,” would fail to have the objective necessity of themselves that Kant thought required of distinctly moral principles (G 4:414). (For more on Kant’s conception of life, see Ginsborg 2001, 246–54; Zammito 2007, 54–56, 67n13; Huneman 2007a, 86–92; Richards 2002, 229–37.)

That conception of moral necessity was wrongly tuned (cf. Rand 1974). The conditionality of life and the circumstance that human life is open to choice has the structure of necessity right for morality. The absoluteness of life or death is the absoluteness of moral necessity. That one freely chooses life, originates life, in thought and action respecting its requirements and opportunities—this is one’s moral glory.


Allison, H. E. 1990. Kant’s Theory of Freedom. Cambridge.

Bird, G. 2006. The Revolutionary Kant – A Commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason. Open Court.

Garve, C. 1783. Review of Critique of Pure Reason. In Kant’s Early Critics. B. Sassen, editor and translator. 2000. Cambridge.

Ginsborg, H. 2001. Kant on Understanding Organisms as Natural Purposes. In Kant and the Sciences. E. Watkins, editor. Oxford.

Gregor, M. J., editor and translator, 1996. Immanuel Kant – Practical Philosophy. Cambridge.

Huneman, P. 2007a. Reflexive Judgment and Wolffian Embology: Kant’s Shift between the First and the Third Critiques. In Huneman 2007b.

——., editor, 2007b. Understanding Purpose – Kant and the Philosophy of Biology. Rochester.

Kant, I. 1764. Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality. In Immanuel Kant – Theoretical Philosophy 1755–1770. P. Walford, editor and translator. Cambridge.

——. 1781, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett.

——. 1783. Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics that Will Be Able to Come Forward as Science. In Immanuel Kant – Theoretical Philosophy after 1781. H. Allison and P. Heath, editors. G. Hatfield, translator. Cambridge.

——. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.

——. 1788. Critique of Practical Reason. In Gregor 1996.

——. 1790. Critique of Judgment. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett.

——. 1793. On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, but It Is of No Use in Practice. In Gregor 1996.

——. 1797. The Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.

Kuehn, M. 2001. Kant – A Biography. Cambridge.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

——. 1974. Causality versus Duty. In Philosophy: Who Needs It. 1982. Signet.

Richards, R. J. 2002. The Romantic Conception of Life. Chicago.

Wood, A. W. 2008. Kantian Ethics. Cambridge.

Zammito, J. H. 2007. Kant’s Persistent Ambivalence toward Epigenesis 1764–90. In Huneman 2007b.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Sign in to follow this  

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

  • Create New...