A Brief Look at Immanuel Kant's Moral Philosophy - "In Our Time" Episode by the BBC

BBC - In Our Time

The BBC hosts a wonderful program called "In Our Time," in which they host university scholars on all types of academic topics to have a round table discussion. In this episode they discuss Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy, especially his categorical imperative. If you're interested in going deeper into Kant's theoretical work on epistemology, then check out my previous post here.

Kant's Epistemology

Kant grew up in the the Pietist branch of Lutheranism. It was a movement towards enthusiasm and a personal relationship with God, though one with certainly rigorous morals. He received Rationalist philosophical training at university, and was optimistic about what human reason could tell us about God, the soul, freedom, and morals. Kant was influenced by Rousseau about the equality of humans, and Rousseau's idea of "amore propre." Newtonian science was also taught at university, and Kant brought it together with the power of reason (but also a skepticism towards it because of the influence of David Hume on him). 

His major work, "The Critique of Pure Reason" was a work of theoretical philosophy. In it he is grappling with his understanding of epistemology, how far can reason take us in our knowledge of reality? He is set on this question by Hume, and Hume's skepticism of universal truth claims. In accepting Humean skepticism towards metaphysics, Kant begins to believe that we cannot know that God exists or doesn’t. Such questions are just "beyond" us. But, given this type of agnosticism towards them, it is going to affect other disciplines as well. For example, he then thinks that we can’t then base ethics in the knowledge of God. Likewise, other metaphysical questions leave him stumped and in an agnostic state due to his skepticism. We cannot know if we have a soul or if we are really free. This is where Kant is going to turn to practical philosophy to address issues where the theoretical reason gives out. 

Kant's Moral Philosophy

The "Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals," is another place where he seeks this aid of practical philosophy. What is moral value? How do we define it, and bring it into our daily lives? From the influence of Rousseau, Kant believes that the ordinary peasant can know right and wrong. But can we really explain this? This explanation must lay in the subject, the person with rationality who can discern right from wrong. Morality then must be something intrinsic to humanity. What, though, could be an intrinsic source for all of us? 

Also, moral goodness, for Kant, has to have the character of being unconditionally good, meaning good in all circumstances. This too points to the intrinsic nature of morality as it is only the human will that can really be a source of unconditional good value. There are lots of good things or actions that can be used for evil by the will, and so the subject's capacity to form intentions and actions must be the source of what could make an action pure and good. In so many words, the only true thing through and through is the good will, or intentions. The will must then be the focus of morality. There’s an inward turn to find moral value. Moral value is not found in divine law giver, nor in authorities. 

The big problem, though, is how we get from subjectivity to objectivity, from the intention of the will to actual goodness embodied in the world? When it comes to the will, it is not just enough to do the right thing or have a plan for it, you also have to do it for the right reasons. Morality has to be purified from the contingent, personal, empirical, conditioned, or in the world reasons which might influence someone to act in a certain way. Rather, the will must will the good as such, just because it is good. But how does one know if something is good and worth fully willing? This is where Kant appeals to the "categorical imperative" to realize objective truths. There are three formulations that he gives of this law which helps turn the pure intention of the will into a concrete action. 

Three Formulations of the Categorical Imperative

The first formulation that Kant gives goes as such: “Act only on those maxims and principles that can be willed to be universal laws of nature for all rational beings." Basic moral responsibilities are issued from reason itself. Just thinking about, “What if everyone did this?,” will then clarify what is required of the individual. What if everyone made false promises that they didn’t intend to keep, such as falsely borrowing money? Then it devalues the whole institution of promising. You must try to will the principle as universal law to help others. If no one helped anyone else then we couldn’t survive because we are dependent on others. What if someone doesn’t want help from anyone else? Well there are duties to others and duties to the self. If you believe in reason at all, you can find morals, and Kant believes that we all have rational capacities. Thus, the duty that follows from this is the reason for acting morally. 

It is hard to tell if Kant was an atheist, agnostic, or theist. But in his writings he tells us that we must believe in God, not for theoretical reasons, but rather in morality and in duty. He at least considers the traditional metaphysical realities as possible: That we are free and able to legislate for ourselves, we are immortal, and that we must postulate God. Even so, we must do our duties even if it doesn’t make anyone happy here and now. The highest goods will and must be rewarded for the service to duty, even if it can’t be in this life. So we must hope for this reward in the next life, and thus God must exist because it would be illogical for there to be duty inherent in us all and yet there be no corresponding reward. 

The second formulation is sometimes also called the "humanity formulation," and goes as such: “Always act on those maxims such that you treat humanity never merely as a means but always as an end in itself.” We should never use rational beings purely as means to an end or solely as an object. To do such denies a person's rationality, and thus their dignity. It is our rationality that enables us to live as an autonomous agent, not as an object. And so just being a human being makes you an end in itself as a rational creature. 

But if Kant said we could not be sure if we had a soul or not, then how free are we to act morally? This is absolutely crucial to Kant and his moral philosophy, as a duty to do something must make it possible to do that thing and to reject that thing. So to think that we are just part of the mechanical order, and we don’t have options, is not how he sees it. And so central to our dignity is our capacity to act freely for ourselves. Again, for Kant, this freedom can’t be proven theoretically, but we can think of ourselves of free when we think about action, and that is a valid part of this equation. We can’t know, but have to presume that we are. We must take that responsibility for ourselves and applying that to our lives. 

This acting “autonomously” is also important because you can’t accept external moral value systems and still fully will them for yourself, giving the action a total character of goodness and purity. Rather, you have to set that up for yourself like the people in a state setting up their own laws from within. This is the only way we can get an authenticity and binding-ness to our moral demands. It can’t be because it is God’s will that I do things because then I do things only because God would like it. You should do the right thing to do because it’s the right thing to do according to moral duty. Reason to the moral law gives to itself the necessity of obedience. 

The third formulation is also called the "autonomy formulation," but the program ends before they can deeply into that aspect of things. A few take away points that are mentioned. Kant was very influential throughout the 19th century. Existentialism is essentially Kantian philosophy without the reason part, just the subjective and interior influence of choice. Also Kant represents an attack on dogmatic religion, i.e. moral universals that are established and given by God, from without, instead of from within the person and their sense of rational moral duty.

1 - In Our Time. BBC 4 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0952zl3#:~:text=Kant%20argued%20that%20when%20someone,known%20as%20the%20Categorical%20Imperative.