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John Eberts

Immanuel Kant: Eighteenth Century Thought

Immanuel Kant, one of the most brilliant philosophers of the eighteenth century, is also the most misunderstood. If Kant's writings are difficult, it may be because of the method he employed. Although Kant spent nearly twelve years in his systematic analysis of his philosophy, his actual writing of the Critique took only five months. "The result of reflection which occupied me for at least twelve years. 1 brought it to completion in the greatest haste within four or five months, giving the closest attention to the contents, but with little thought of the exposition, or rendering it easy of comprehension to the reader — a decision which I have never regretted, since otherwise, had 1 longer delayed and sought to give it a more popular form, the work probably never would have been completed at all." (Smith, N. 1962. p. XIX) Kant's writings were designed only for the philosophical minded. In fact, he felt that if you didn't understand them, you were just not intellectually gifted.

The major problem that confronted Kant was the use of language. The German language was still crude in explaining philosophical thought, and had not established a technical terminology. This forced Kant to invent German philosophical phrases for some Latin terms, and, at times, he could not even do this. He also gives new meanings to old words and does not always define them or uses them interchangeably.

In Kant's moral philosophy this lack of consistency causes several problems. Kant first describes the difference between man and animal as "Freedom" — "men derive their worth from freedom, the characteristic which essentially distinguishes man from any other creature in nature."( Murphy, J. 1970. P.40). Man then passes the essential ability to act, to a degree, from reason and not mere physical causes. The question that arises is: how is man Free, and what is involved with this Freedom. To explain this, Kant must introduce the Concept of Morality. Kant explains that freedom is derived from morality and is itself contained within morality; that morality and freedom come from 'Practical Reason.' "Morality makes sense only if men are Free: Freedom is just the ability to act from reasons; thus, morality will make sense only if it is grounded on rationality." (Murphy, J. 1970. P.42) At this point one can ask, how Kant can justify such an assumption. According to Kant, morality and Freedom are possible only because of the existence of a rational good will in beings, a Freedom to choose which cannot be coerced by any outside force. Here Kant introduces his underlying presupposition (Goodness and Goodwill), which he claims is self-evident, and only with it can one understand his (man's) moral demands. "Goodness (for Kant) is an objective quality inherent in rationality — that is, a rational order of things governed by universally valid laws." (Freund, E. and Mourant, J. 1964. P. 82) Man's goodness then comes from nature and is defined in reflection on objective reason. Kant defines this even more closely. Kant feels that if goodness comes from many qualities, then there must be a special quality within the whole. This becomes (is) the absolute good: i.e. good without qualifications, good in itself.

The Goodwill is a composite of aft the Rational means available within the individual.

Kant's philosophy, as one can see, becomes hinged upon his terminology. The use he gives his terms becomes critical and leads to Kant's circular confusion. What we have at this point is morality, freedom, and will, all of which are needed to make logical sense, and all of which must be contained in reason.

First, you have Freedom, which is needed by man to choose the absolute good based upon his morality. This Freedom becomes absolute good only with the associated idea of Goodwill. The terms cannot be separated. They all must be ends in themselves, not just means. Freedom and will become the cause and event bases in morality during this process. However, morality also becomes the cause and event of Freedom and will. Kant's whole ethical theory then becomes one that will be based upon the law of Freedom. "That is, rational principles for the intelligent direction of the activity of Free Beings. Anything less would not count as morality at all but would at most be a sociological description of how people do behave, not a normative prescription of how they as free agents 'ought' to behave." (Murphy, J. 1970 p. 43) It can be seen from this that Kant's system of morality must therefore also be a system of Freedom. Therefore, Freedom must contain morality and will.

The will must be autonomous and cannot be heteronomous. It must be an autonomous will which adheres to its own dictates. These dictates must be derived from the will inherent in Freedom.

Will and Freedom must combine and cannot be separated, but there is more involved before a qualified concept contained in morality or the moral law can be fully demonstrated. To make this more explicit, the concept of Goodwill must be further defined. "Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification except a Goodwill." (Freund, E. and Mourant, J. 1964. P. 83) Therefore, the will or Goodwill of a person is absolute, it performs not for any end, it is simple, and the virtue of willing it is an end in self, i.e. good in itself. The Goodwill is above any inclination a person could have. Here again Kant implies that the will is an end in itself and good. It is now a priori; it is self evident resolved by reason. However, how does reason gain this upper hand upon the will, and how is reason conceived? In a defense for reason, Kant states that the question itself is paradoxical. "If the person as being the question is prepared to listen to reason seriously. This shows his question (since he already does value rationality) lacks a point. If he is not prepared to listen to reason, one wonders what he could mean by asking for a defense or justification." (Murphy, J. 1970. P.41). Reason becomes self-evident, guarding against any claim that can be made against it based purely on common sense.

Reason thus based upon self-evident worth shows that man is a rational being. "Thus the concept of a fully rational being is (for Kant) a model of explanatory value in characterizing ideals of rational decisions for Human Beings ... So when Kant, in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, asserts the primacy of the good will in morality, he is, in effect, telling us that the principles of morality bind not because we desire the ends attained by them, but because they are the sort of principle that a Being of Good Will (that is, a fully Rationalized Being) would adopt." (Murphy, J. 1970. P. 45)

Kant then proceeds, out of necessity, to develop the principles of the Categorical Imperative. The Imperatives are needed because man not being fully rational (this being only a transcendental ideal) is subject to human desires. The Categorical Imperative then binds Freedom and Will within morality to determine a person's duty, being not subject to desires as ends. It is important to realize that Kant is not saying that the only value of ends is irrelevant in determining duty, only that their value is not a function of the degree to which they are desired. Failure to see this distinction is what has caused the common theory that Kant is totally anti-theological.

The Categorical Imperative then becomes the supreme principle of morality. It is used to test a Being's actions and from it equates whether their actions are morally permissible or impermissible. At this point, Kant interchanges the words duty and Categorical Imperative, and the reader must be aware that they are synonymous in his terminology. "The Categorical Imperative would be one which presented to an action as of itself objectively necessary, without regard to any other end."( Beck, L. 1959. P. 3 1) The Imperative and duty are both universal in that they hold true for all Rational Beings. Kant uses this as the basis for his pure moral philosophy.

A person must then be guided by moral action to do what 'ought' to be done and not what he desires, testing his behavior by the Imperative. Is the interchanging between the Imperative and duty valid?

Following Kant's ideas, one sees that a Dutiful action derives its worth not from its consequences, but from some general law or principle (Imperatives and Maxims — this is done because it is a right in itself, not because it leads to something beyond itself 'becomes end in itself as related to Imperatives'). This concept then leads to a law of right behavior. The law of right behavior is always to act in a manner in which one would wish others to act toward him. In a word, strictly moral behavior is always founded on a universally applicable maxim. This idea of duty can be seen as a common sense notion derived from observations of moral conducts. It could be called "Morality empirically discovered." Kant feels this is just the basis; what is important is the universal maxim by which the goodness of an act is tested. Kant feels this maxim itself is not empirical.

The maxim is derived by a priori standard by which we are somehow able to judge events and our reactions to them immediately and to estimate the moral worth of what we do. Everyone has a sense [a] , Kant feels, of right and wrong, and it is by these (sense) that maxims are applied.

The form to equate this type of sense must be accomplished by the a priori structure of the will, not by empirical content. We have already seen that to act morally is to act as a man motivated by reason would act. Briefly the win actuated by sense of right and wrong is only reason in action (practical reason).

Kant falls into an ambiguous use of his terminology when he refers to maxims. To be more explicit, his definitions of maxims must first be stated. "A maxim is a subjective principle of action and must be distinguished from the objective principle, namely practised law. The former contains the practical rule set by reason according to the conditions of the subject (often its ignorance or its inclinations), so that it is the principle on which the subject acts; but, the law is the objective principle valid for every rational being and is the principle on which it ought to act — that is an imperative." (About, T. 1949. P.38)

Given this definition, we must now look at the terms Kant interchanges with maxim. In different sections of his writings he used the terms "plan" or "project", and in certain sections his use of the term duty means the same as maxim. With the aforementioned definition one can see that plan or project can be interchanged; because they are used to express subjectively. Kant's major problem develops out of his use of "duty." He expresses duty as both objective and subjective and states, "It must be noted here that 1 reserve the division of duties for a future metaphysics of morals; so that 1 give it here only as an arbitrary one (in order to arrange my examples) .... This is contrary to the use of the word adopted in the schools; but 1 do not intend to justify it here, as it is all one for my purpose whether it is admitted or not." (About, T. 1949. P.39) Thus, in his examples of duty and where the term duty is implied, one must always be conscious of how he is using or presenting them. If Duty is subjective, it can be stated in place of maxim following the definition. On the other hand, if this is done, Duty no longer remains synonymous with the Imperative, i.e. if it is done to achieve your own end, it has no moral worth. But duty to be moral and contain value must be done as an end-in-itself yet morality is derived from Duty. "Thus the first proposition of morality is that to have moral worth an action must be from duty." (Kant, 1964. P. 89)

A major conflict thus results as to how to derive an action done by duty. Kant answers this in the second proposition. "That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object or desire." (Kant, 1964. P.89) The problem then comes back to the maxim. For if the maxim can be subjective and can be influenced by desires (this can be shown when Kant states in the definition "often its ignorance or its inclination" which the subject acts upon), then how can a duty be morally worthy when based upon a being's maxims? (Subjective to desire?) At most, morality could be only a hoped for effect. Kant is then forced to return to the beginning, the will. "It cannot lie anywhere but in the principle of the will with regard to ends in which case every material principle has been withdrawn from it." (Kant, 1964. P. 89) Or as Kant states elsewhere, "Thus the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it, nor in any principle of action which requires to borrow its motive from the expected effect. For all these effects-agreeableness of one's condition, and even the promotion of the happiness of otherscould have been also brought about by other causes, so that for this then there would have been no need of the will of a rational being; whereas it is in this will alone that supreme and unconditioned good can be found." (Kant, 1964. P. 90)

Kant then tries to clarify the point by stating that this could be only a pre-eminent good and can be moral only if found in law, and in which only rational Beings can take part. Here, Kant is forced to return to the concept of the Moral Law. [c] Kant feels that since he has taken all desires and instinct out of reason, which could result from any particular law, the only thing which remains is that of "Universal Law." The problem results because the Universal Laws have to be based upon the Maxim and Categorical Imperative. To make understanding even more difficult, he defines the Categorical Imperative in two (2) ways:

  1. 'Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will it should become a Universal Law."

  2. B. 'Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become Universal Law of nature." (Beck, L. 1959. P. 39)

Kant becomes ambiguous when he states that both are Categorical Imperatives. In fact, he even treats them as equivalent in the passages of the foundations. It is not until the Critique of Practical Reason that he states that (B) is (A) when (A) is provided with a typic [b]. Even with this we see that it becomes both 1. an analysis of the nature and presupposition of nature and 2. moral adage. So that (A) can be taken as a condition necessary and end-of-itself for a Universal Code of behavior that is considered Rational Morality. It would be a pure principle without any reference to empirical thought. In this pure rational state it could be no more than a descriptive; it would be a transcendental idea about man. Given a typic (A) can provide guidance for Rational Beings to act only in conjunction with Rationality in General. Kant is again unable to define rationality (it is self-evident a cause-effect form). This can only be established by universality of the maxims.

What seems to be developing is that the basic idea of universality is defined as rational criterion of conduct, and Kant is forced to go in his circular wanderings to prove that this Universality is based upon Moral Law, Freedom, and Will. These postulates in turn must rest on morality which must be characterized in terms of the value of each Rational Being (specified objective end).

If taken this way, a misunderstanding of Kant's basic statements — morality is grounded upon the value of each Rational Being — results. How can this statement stand when in the Critique of Practical Reason he states that good and evil ends cannot be defined prior to the moral law? It would seem possible, then, if you can't know the ends until you know the Moral Law and Moral Law is, in fact, defined by ends, you could not have a Moral Law. If this proved true, Kant's whole analysis would be perverse.

This problem is centered again in Kant's ambiguous use of terminology. Here, Kant defines "Ground" in two ways and uses them interchangeably.

  1. Ground — that which motivates to perform a moral action

  2. Ground — Those rational ends in terms of which we may define the Moral Law as an objective state. (Beck, L. 1956. pp.59-68)

Given the distinction in his terminology, one sees that if ground (B) is used, then in fact, no end (ground) can be a definition of morality. Kant here is referring to subjective ends, which would be based only on hypothetically commanded Imperatives (those that one desires). This, therefore, would not be his autonomous Rational Being in action. This can only be done by objective ends because these are derived in reason and therefore would be Free. To state this in another form, the rational individual is doing what is required by Duty and the will as an end in itself. It cannot be grounded (A) just out of Desire, but it can be grounded (B) in an end objectified.

I can now charge Kant with a circular theory. Given: morality can only be understood by the concept that Rational Beings have worth as ends in themselves. That if the value of rational nature itself is moral good and that — Rational Beings have worth in relation to a morally good will, then — morality is defined in terms of the Moral Value.

If Kant believed (and there is a possibility) that the value of rational individuals as an end depends upon the possession by the individual of a good or moral will, then besides being circular these develop future complications. Then, your rational nature and good will become identical or, as H.J. Paton claimed, 'An end in itself must ... be a self-existent end, not something to be produced by us. Since it has absolute worth, we know already what it must be — namely, a good will. This good or Rational Will Kant takes to be present in every rational agent. And so in every man, however much it may be overlaid by irrationality." (Paton, H. 1963. pp. 168-169)

The former would lead to the following dispute. If you were to treat everyone as having a good will as end, and never as a means only, as Kant states in the 2nd Categorical Imperative, it would not fit any more. Kant states with explicit emphasis that you never can know that a person has good will, because it is outside the Phenomenal World. This would leave everyone outside the boundaries of morality, for men could never be sure they were ends-in-themselves.

Paton arguments, on the other hand, contain some merit, for if a Being is totally incapable of appreciating the importance of the Moral Law or is unafFected in relation to them, then it is hard to regard that Being with the universal moral good will (i.e. respect). The fact is that people who are mentally disturbed could not be in a position, under this concept, to be considered as ends-in-themselves. If this were so, and it seems very possible with Kant's rational analysis, then given this theory Kant would be forced to consider these people as ranging in the animal specter and not human. This would lead to a future consideration of Kant's view on the dignity of man and moral worth. At the same time, any imperative on moral judgement would be neglected. The rational Being's value as an end could not, therefore, be dependent on possession of good will.

The concept of Good Will must again be looked at. That is — the only thing good in itself is a good will. A Rational Being could be an end in itself and absolute values and not be morally good in itself. This shows that good will doesn't have to be the only endin-itself with absolute value.

Kant, at this point, introduced a new concept which clears up some of his former ambiguity. He points to the fact that a Rational Being's values need not, and, in fact, do not depend upon the holding of a good will. The value of Being depends not upon Morality, but Freedom, which gives the Being moral value. This value becomes dignity "that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end-in-itself do not have mere relative worth, i.e. a price, but an intrinsic worth i.e. dignity. Now morality is in the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, because only through it is it possible to be a legislative member in the realm of ends. Thus morality and humanity in so far as it is capable of morality, alone have dignity." (Beck, L. 1959. P. 53)

Kant's definitions seem to avoid the circular pattern mentioned before. If the being is worthy because of its Freedom and is capable of being moral, this does not allow one to make moral judgements about Beings. Dignity, because it is a predicate of morality, cannot be subjected to moral evaluation. Yet even this definition does not rule out all possibilities of a circular pattern.

In defining morality so that it is not a circular term, we must show that Freedom is separate from moral concepts. Kant does the exact opposite. "Some have tried to define Freedom of choice as the power to choose between alternative of acting with or against the law. But Freedom of choice cannot be defined in this way, although the power of choice as phenomenon gives us frequent examples of this in experience. For as we know Freedom (as it is first made knowledgeable to us through the moral law) only as a negative property in us: the property of not being necessitated to act by any sensuous determining ground." (Gregor, M. 1964. pp. 10-99) Or to state it in a positive sense, where pure reason shifts to practical, "Man regarded as a person — that it, as the subject of morally practical reason — is exalted above any price ... when, as he must do, he regards himself not merely as a person who has duties laid upon him by his own reason — his insignificance as a natural man cannot detract from his consciousness of his own dignity as a moral man." (Gregor, M. 1964. pp. 10-99)

With these excerpts from Kant it seems that we can deduce that Freedom is that which is done in accordance with practical reason, i.e. morally. A person can then only act morally. This leads back to the problem of Kant's circular theory.

The only possible way to correct the imposed problem is to analyze the way Kant uses the term freedom. In his terminology he again develops two meanings for one of his major concepts. Kant defines Free (Freedom) in two aspects but interchanges them without reference.

  1. Free (Willkur) — Freedom of choice on the spontaneous self-activity of persons

  2. Free (Wille) — Autonomy or acting on the Basis of a Moral Universal Law of Reason. (Beck, L. 1960. p. 176ff)

If Free, as defined in (B), is used to justify man's national status, then the argument must be circular.

This is what Kant seems to describe in the statements quoted on Freedom. But if he meant free as defined in (A), then he could adequately define morality using Freedom and escape the circular argument.

The definition of (A) would allow man free choice to use his capacity to choose his own actions (Moral or not), and in this respect one could with reason (not taking desire or empirical feelings into account) be cruel, evil, or a murderer by his own rational violation. In the world of factual reality, this indeed not only seems possible but could be proved. The problem is that Kant didn't expand upon this aspect and therefore it must be left to one's own speculation. It must be-noted that without this type of interpretation, Kant's theory could not stand and would result in a circular ambiguous statement. It is therefore essential to use Free (A) to establish man's dignity. With Free (B), any action a person took which was wrong (according to moral law)' would demonstrate that Freedom was not present. Therefore, if you committed an immoral act you would be absolved, because the act being without Freedom would in itself pay for the crime.

Kant, out of necessity to support his theory of morality would have to use Freedom as defined in (A). Having the Freedom to choose, which is the basic underlying issue of morality, it seems only fitting that to choose between good and evil is what makes morality worth defending. If the human individual had no potential for improvement, then he wouldn't possess the Rational Faculty as described by Kant. Man would be as mentally advanced as a cow and would need only the basic instinctual drives (hunger and the need to survive). To reverse the situation, if man had complete morality and could only do 'good', he would already be perfect and not need any future development.

With both of these cases, the categorical imperative would be of no use. In the first place, the individual would not possess the rationality needed to use the imperative. And in the second, man already being perfect would be beyond and above the desired effect of the imperative.

In referring to Kant's terminology, one can only take small chunks of it apart. The complicated, rambling structure, accompanied by its disjointedness and its repetition, combined with Kant's interchanging of words make precise interpretation very difficult, if not impossible. Kant relies on self-evident and common sense truths, and sees no need in justifying them. Yet, if one takes his conceptual exploration of his writings in outline form, they become explicit.

Man is a Rational Being, who not only thinks and speculates Beings, who understand the structure of phenomena and speculates as to its final meaning and the reason for its composition; we are also part of it possessed with interests, drives, ideas and purposes. Man has 'wills' as well as intellectual ability. As an active will, we become the originators of our own behavior. We are therefore free to modify and resist modification of the environment. Possessing this freedom also makes man responsible for what he does.

Being free and responsible, our action originates not in a sensible world, but in the unknown world of things-in-themselves. Free-will, then, is a penetration of reality by the human mind. Therefore, free actions are related to a supersensible Being not in experience, but in the transcendental realm of things as they are.

The chief and most important aspect of human behavior then is human relations (with others). This is what develops moral actions, and the ideal way of these actions is based upon moral obligations — Duty. This action is expressed in the Universal Law or Categorical Imperative. When our conduct is motivated only by the rule, it is disinterested, only by the idea of what consists of duty. Then and only then is our will completely Free, self-legislating and self-fulfilled.

This, in turn, leads to our need for Immortality of the Soul and God. Man, because he faces discouraging circumstances (i.e. sorrow and misfortune inherent in the human quality), can't really possess self-fulfillment in this world. Therefore, the soul must be immortal, so that by living morally we gain self-fulfillment in immortality.

Even with this, there is' no guarantee that immortality is any better than this fife. To grant that we shall obtain self-fulfillment, we must therefore feel that God exists. Therefore, our moral actions are done as if he in fact does exist.

What this means is that, although thinking rationally, one can never prove the existence of God, Freedom and immortality. Acting rationally or morally is impossible unless we presuppose that they exist. This must all be based upon faith, and can neither be proved or disproved with reason. "Hence, since we can neither prove nor disprove by the methods of science that we must choose the right rather than the wrong, that we are Free so to choose, and that the universe is governed somehow by a moral law, and since we are absolutely compelled, being the creatures that we are, to live as though these were true, we are justified in assuming that they are. Where science can neither prove nor disprove, we are justified in having faith." (Randall, J. H. 1926. pp. 412-413

Kant's main underlying emphasis in his writings is to give religion a foothold. It was recognized that religion had no rational basis whatever, and that the only way of escaping Atheism and materialism lay in attacking the competency of reason and rational experience to reveal final truth. Kant thus showed that science was inadequate to prove or disprove religion and that only "practical reason" (faith) could still establish the concepts of natural religion, God, Freedom, and Immortality. It is my feeling that Kant, motivated by his piestic background (against Empiricism and Leibniz rationalism), did more than any other philosopher in saving religious belief, and that he helped in the revival of religion in the first part of the nineteenth century.


1. Abbott, Thomas K. Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (New York: The Library of Liberal Arts, 1949) p. 38.

2. Beck, Lewis White Kant: Critique of Pure Reason (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1956) pp. 59-68.

3. Beck, Lewis White Kant:Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1959) p. 31,39,53.

4. Beck, Lewis White A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago 1960) pp. 176ff.

5. Freund, E. Hans and John A Mourant. Problems of Philosophy (New York: MacMillan Company, 1964) p. 82-83.

6. Gregor, Mary J. Kant's Metaphysics of Morals (New York, 1964) p. 25,10,99.

7. Kant, Immanuel. "Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic Morals" in Problems of Philosophy ed. By E. Hans Freund and John A. Mourant, (New York: MacMillan Company, 1964) p. 89

8. Murphy, Jeffrie G. Kant: The Philosophy of Right (London: MacMillan, St. Martin Press, 1970) p. 40,43

9. Murphy, Jeffrie G. Kant: The Philosophy of Right (London: MacMillan, St. Morens Press, 1970) p.41

10. Paton, H.J. The Categorical Imperative (London, 1963) pp. 168-169)

11. Randall, John Herman, Jr. The Making of the Modern Mind (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926) pp. 412-413 12. Smith, Norman K. A Commentary to The Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' (New York: Humanities Press, 1962) p.xix


a. Kant uses sense here not as an empirical sense, but one that is related to a mental insight yet not a priori. This is one of the problems; Kant changes meanings with no justification and doesn't refer to their origins.

b. a typic makes use of certain empirical facts about man's nature and purpose such as the question, "what makes man rational?", can be answered.

c. moral law refers to a formula which expresses the necessity of an action done from duty in terms of one's own reflection.