Kantian Ethics And Politics Research Paper

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Kantian ethics judges an action as morally good if it is done autonomously out of duty and its maxim could be the foundation of a general law. Neither the purpose nor the outcome of an action have any impact on its moral value. This is why Kantian ethics is normally seen as contrary to any type of consequentialist ethics. Politics, according to Kant, has always to be strictly under the rule of law as it works to achieve the happiness of the people as an end of its own. Implementing the rule of law also in international politics, Kant hopes that international relations will move slowly toward eternal peace. (Because it is not in all cases clear whether Kant means ‘right’ or ‘law,’ and because he sometimes even seems to make use of the double meaning of the German word Recht, it is more appropriate to use the word ‘right’ instead of ‘law’ from now on, as Mary Gregor does in her translation; Kant 1996.)

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Kant draws a clear distinction between the fields of morality and legality. Hence, it is possible to discuss these topics separately, without denying the important connections that are due to the common origin of their key principles in (practical) reason (cf. e.g., Kersting 1993, 175ff ).

1. Ethics Of Duty—Ethics Of Autonomy

Although, as with any other label, it is an oversimplification to reduce Kantian ethics either to an ethics of autonomy or to a mere ethics of duty, it might help in finding an initial approach to say that somehow it is both. The close connection between these two central concepts will be clarified later. However, they both signify that Kant does not develop an eudaimomian or any type of consequentialist ethics. Kant does not think that happiness is unimportant, as we will see later. But he deliberately rejects ancient eudaimonian ethics as a possible foundation for morality, and centers his postcritical works on moral philosophy around the concepts of duty, autonomy, and moral law (Forschner 1993, Wike 1994). Simplifying again, it seems helpful to characterize Kantian ethics within three steps, more or less identifying each with one of the central Kantian works on moral philosophy.

1.1 Extracting And Vindicating The Categorical Imperative: The Groundwork Of The Metaphysics Of Morals (GMM)

In his first larger postcritical work on ethics, starting from the statement that nothing can be called good without restrictions except a good will, Kant shows that a will is good if and only if it acts autonomously out of duty and according to the famous categorical imperative (CI). Everything other than a good will may be used with bad intentions. Even some of the virtues can be held by immoral people as the ‘coolness of a scoundrel’ proves to us (Kant 1996, p. 50). By saying that lack of success does not diminish the moral value of good will ‘as something that has its full worth in itself ’ as long as good will acts ‘with its greatest efforts’ (Kant 1996, p. 50), Kant immediately answers some of the most tenacious objections to his ethics.

The main topic of the GMM is an attempt to clarify the relations between duty, autonomy, and the law of morals. First, he shows that the concept of duty is the best way to explain what is meant by a good will; particularly, how the moral worth of an action does not lie in its expected effect but in the principle of volition. An action is morally good if it is not only done in conformity with duty but from duty (Kant 1996, p. 53). Duty is defined as ‘the necessity of an action from respect for law’ (Kant 1996, p. 55) (according to the principle that I ought to act in such a way that my maxim could become a universal law) and respect is defined as a feeling that is ‘not received by means of influence’ but ‘self-wrought by means of a rational concept and therefore specifically different from all feelings … that can be reduced to inclination or fear’ (Kant 1996, p. 56). In Kant’s view, the question of whether our maxims could become a universal law provides us, ‘inexperienced in the course of the world’ as we are, with an easy test of whether the maxim of our volition is morally good. This is what ‘common human reason’ has ‘always before its eyes and uses as the norm for its appraisals,’ although it ‘admittedly does not think so abstractly in a universal form’ (Kant 1996, p. 58). It is important to notice Kant’s regard for common human reason and the morality of the common people, which is, according to his own testimony, due to the influence of Rousseau (Schneewind 1998, 487ff., Kant 1902, ff. XX, 44). Kant does not see the CI ‘act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’ (Kant 1996, p. 73), as an invention of philosophers, but as a precise and short formula of how ordinary people think about morality. However, what he claims is that, until now, no philosopher has found a clear and precise description of what common reason thinks about ethics.

Nevertheless, common human reason might indeed find some difficulties in the abstractness of this account, just as philosophers until now. This can be seen from the comment of Friedrich Schiller who felt immoral because he loved his friends from inclination and not from duty. Hence, it should be mentioned that actions in conformity with duty that are motivated by inclination are not immoral. We just have no means to judge whether they are moral. Kant does, however, distrust inclination which he characterizes in the Critique of Practical Reason (CPrR) as ‘blind and servile, whether it is kindly or not’ (Kant 1996, p. 235).

On the other hand, as Kant explains in the outset of the second part of his Groundwork, we never really know whether we, or anybody else, acts from duty. If we look closely enough at all empirical actions, even at those ‘from love of humankind’ that are generally in conformity with duty, we ‘come upon the dear self, which is always turning up’ (Kant 1996, p. 62). Therefore, we require an ‘isolated metaphysics of morals’ that is made for all rational beings. Thus, there are the two results: (a) that morality is something for rational beings and (b) that a will is a good will not from love of mankind or any other inclination but from its accordance with the moral law. With good will reason itself becomes practical.

An ongoing subject that is discussed several times in this and in the later works is the relation of happiness to morality. Kant constantly argues that morality cannot be based on any principle about happiness. He has different reasons for saying this. First, because instinct is a much better guide to happiness than reason, it would have been an unnecessary and useless effort of nature to provide us with reason if it were for the sake of happiness. While this argument has been criticized for its obscure ‘naturalism,’ one may in fact agree with the view that happiness is a natural aim for rational beings, so it is useless to set the pursuit of happiness as a norm. According to another argument ‘it is a misfortune that the concept of fortune is such an indeterminate concept that, although every human being wishes to attain this, he can still never say determinately and consistently with himself what he really wishes and wills’ (Kant 1996, p. 70). Further-more, because it is very difficult to predict the result of an action, it would be very difficult to decide whether it is right or wrong, whereas, in Kant’s view, it is very easy to know how the categorical imperative handles this. However, it is important to notice that morality and happiness are by no means necessarily in conflict. They are just logically independent, insofar as happiness is the most general term for an object of the will, i.e., for the matter of the will, while the will’s moral goodness is due to its form (CPrR, Kant 1996, p. 160). It is even a moral duty to preserve one’s own happiness just to avoid the temptation to act immorally out of poverty or envy.

The rejection of happiness as the basic moral end in itself leads Kant to the characterization of the CI as the one and only unconditionally valid imperative. In contrast to the imperatives of skill and prudence (prudence teaches us how to achieve happiness), there is no external end that justifies the categorical imperative. Another result is the special status of rational beings as ends in themselves. Kant’s hypothetical construction of a ‘kingdom of ends’ (Reich der Zwecke), which is somehow included in the concept of every rational being, may be the best tool to show how closely duty, autonomy, and the moral law are interrelated in his moral philosophy. In the kingdom of ends, every rational being, including God, i.e., every person, is seen as a lawgiver of the moral law. This is the reason why they are autonomous. Every finite rational being has the duty to follow this law. Every rational being is an end in itself and thus benefits from the moral law. Because of its deeply egalitarian character, obviously influenced by the Rousseauist view of the volonte generale, it might be better to follow Mary Gregor’s suggestion for an alternative translation of Reich der Zwecke by ‘commonwealth of ends’ (Kant 1996, p. 83, on the ‘moral force of reciprocity,’ cf. Korsgaard 1996, 194f.). In the discussion of the few last decades on animal and medical ethics, the question has been raised whether the circle of those who benefit from the moral law should be expanded to beings that are not rational or only potentially rational.

Due to the inordinate reliance on the Groundwork in the attempt to clarify Kant’s moral philosophy, the charges of formality and emptiness have been laid against Kant. An integral reading of his works shows, however, that this charge is misplaced. It even becomes clear that it would be misleading to label Kant a ‘rule ethicist.’ True, maxims can be tested as to their universality, but on the ground of maxims alone it is not always possible to decide what to do in a particular situation. Kant is perfectly aware of this, as his stressing of the importance of the faculty of practical judgment and his casuistical questions in the Doctrine of Virtues (DV ) in the Metaphysics of Morals make clear. Before we deal with these issues, we must look at why the CI is valid or why we should be moral, in Kant’s words, how the categorical imperative is possible (cf. Guyer 1998). Although Kant’s main thrust on this issue is to be found in the CPrR, it is worth seeing how he deals with the question in the Groundwork.

1.2 The Moral Law, Free Will, And The Highest Good: The Critique Of Practical Reason

In the third part of the Groundwork that points to a critique of pure practical reason, Kant himself poses the question: ‘But why, then, ought I to subject myself to this principle and do so simply as a rational being, thus also subjecting to it all other beings endowed with reason?’ (Kant 1996, p. 96). Here he answers this question by removing a ‘kind of circle’ (Kant 1996, p. 97, Schonecker 1998). It seems that, on the one hand, we must be free from causal determination to be subject to the moral law and on the other hand, we must declare that we are subject to the moral law because we are free. However, freedom, i.e. autonomy, consists of the self-constraint of the will through the moral law.

Kant finds his solution by making the distinction between two ‘standpoints.’ In one, we are in the world of senses, having only cognition of appearances, never cognition of things in themselves. In the other, we are, especially in a practical context, members of the world of understanding (Kant 1996, p. 98). However, ‘as a rational being, and thus as a being belonging to the intelligible world, the human being can never think of the causality of his own will otherwise than under the idea of freedom’ (Kant 1996, p. 99) and this means submitting to the moral law. However, Kant admits that we can never explain how pure reason becomes practical (Kant 1996, p. 104). This seems to be the problem of his moral philosophy in general: either the ‘good will’ through which pure reason becomes practical is in the intelligible world of understanding. Then it is difficult to understand how it can be my will. Or it is my will, and then it is difficult to see how it can be completely separated from all my emotional attitudes. To talk of two standpoints does not help much while there can be no explanation of their inter-relationship.

The close connection between the freedom of will and the rule of the moral law—the first is what makes the law hold, the second what makes freedom known to us (CPrR, Kant 1996, p. 140)—is one of the main topics of the CPrR where Kant maintains several times that, with moral law, we have in practical contexts as a reality what could in theoretical philosophy only be proved to be not impossible in the solution of his ‘third antinomy’ in the Critique of Pure Reason (Kant 1902, ff. III, 366ff., cf. Wood 1999, 172ff., Ertl 1998).

In a comment in Sect. 7 of the chapter on the principles of pure practical reason, he explains the fundamental law of pure practical reason, i.e., the CI, as a ‘fact of pure reason’ (Kant 1996, 164f.) that is not empirically found. Although it is not quite clear what is meant by this cryptic formula, which is repeated several times within the CPrR and other Kantian works, sometimes with slight variations, it appears not to mean that something is revealed to pure reason or to us by pure reason but rather that the use of pure reason in practical contexts implies that we are under obligation by moral law.

Because happiness is the natural object of desire of human beings, i.e., of all rational and finite beings, whereas the moral law rules the formal structure of the will, happiness, like any other material content, cannot be the incentive for moral law. Kant explicitly rejects the moral relevance of any distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Nevertheless, Kant tries to reconcile the human wish for happiness with his concept of morality in his theory of the ‘highest good’ where he finds in the doctrine of Christianity (in contrast to the teachings of the Epicureans and the Stoics (Kant 1996, 241ff.)) a chance to give to those who are worthy of happiness the ‘hope of some day participating in happiness to the degree that we have been intent upon not being unworthy of it’ (Kant 1996, p. 244). To support this hope, he proposes in his doctrine of postulates not only the freedom of will but also the immortality of our soul that continues its way towards perfection even after our death and the existence of an almighty god who can and will give deserved rewards to those who lived in conformity with moral law. Perhaps one cannot be sure that a postulated god can give real hope to everybody and an incentive to follow the moral law. Perhaps, instead, some may find this incentive in the hope for glory or in the hope to contribute to the moral improvement of the world or in something similar.

1.3 Living The Categorical Imperative: The Doctrine Of Virtues

In the Doctrine of Virtues (DV ) of his late masterpiece The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant deals with the different types of duties that cannot be ruled by outer laws—duties of man concerning himself and his perfection and duties concerning the happiness of others. In the DV it becomes clear that for Kant there are obligatory ends for human beings: this indicates that his moral philosophy, which is surely not a variation of consequentialism, is not a pure Gesinnungsethik either, i.e., the outcome of an action does matter, although it is not always in our hands what this outcome might be. To be sure, that does not mean that the moral quality of an action is determined by anything else other than the quality of the motivation and the universality of the maxim in question. This includes the idea, however, that the agent must do everything he or she can to make morality (in the form of moral actions) a reality in the world. Because we have a duty to follow the CI, we have a duty to pursue our own perfection and the happiness of others. We also have duties toward ourselves. These are due, again, to our ‘double existence’ in the world of appearances and the intelligible world. We have duties toward ourselves as rational beings, i.e., toward the humanity in us (§ 3, Kant 1996, p. 544).

A second important achievement of the DV compared to earlier works is the casuistic element that demonstrates how Kant’s ethics might be applied, at least in some cases. There are also considerations on the use of judgement (Urteilskraft) in the CPrR (Kant 1996, 194ff.). But here, ‘the rule of judgment under laws or pure practical reason is this: ask yourself whether, if the action you propose were to take part, you could indeed regard it as possible through your will’ (CPrR, Kant 1996, p. 196, on moral judgment see Herman 1993). In his later work, however, Kant uses the humanity formula, i.e., our duty to respect the moral law and our duty to respect every man as an end in himself to deal with particular subjects. Among these questions and subjects are suicide—that is to be seen as ‘debasing humanity in one’s person’ and therefore morally forbidden (§ 6, Kant 1996, p. 546), as well as ‘defiling oneself by lust’ (Kant 1996, 548ff.), avarice (Kant 1996, 555ff.) and servility, ‘self-esteem is a duty of the human being to himself’ (§ 11, Kant 1996, 558), and also duties like beneficence and gratitude (Kant 1996, 571ff.) and vices like envy and malice (Kant 1996, 576ff.). He also deals with friendship (Kant 1996, 584ff.). Particularly in the ‘casuistical questions’ that are added in different places, one can find that Kant’s views on these subjects are somehow strict. However, they are much more diversified than might be expected after reading the Groundwork and even the CPrR. Nevertheless, a remaining problem appears to be that Kant supplies no guidelines on how to interpret the moral law in ‘hard cases.’ This is partly due to his view that a law court, which he often uses as a metaphor for the internal judgment of the conscience (DV § 13; Kant 1996, p. 560) must apply the law via imputation, not interpret it, i.e., the court has to decide whether this individual case falls under the law, not to explain what the law means. This seems to have been a common view of eighteenth century continental legal theory. On the other hand, Kant may be the first philosopher who recognized that to apply a rule we need a faculty of its own, which he called the faculty of judgment, a discovery that is sometimes attributed to Wittgenstein’s reflections in rule-following.

2. Right And Politics

According to Kant, any ethically acceptable politics has to take place under the rule of right. It is the duty of ‘moral politicians’ who are opposed to hypocritical ‘political moralists’ to do their best to bring constitutions of states and political relations between states ‘into conformity with natural right, which stands before us as a model in the idea of reason’ Toward Perpetual Peace, TEP, Kant 1996, p. 340). Nevertheless, there is an aim of politics on its own, i.e., the happiness of the citizen (TEP, Kant 1996, p. 351)—something that might be surprising to some of Kant’s critics. Pivotal to Kant’s legal and political philosophy is, therefore, first his treatment of right and how to determine its realm and, second, his hope on historical development towards peace and republican government. The key engine for bringing about legal progress is the public use of reason (Toward Perpetual Peace, TEP, Kant 1996, p. 351).

2.1 Right As Compatibility Of Freedom

Defining right in the Introduction to the Doctrine of Right (DR) of his Metaphysics of Morals as the condition for the compatibility of one person’s outer freedom with that of the other (Kant 1996, p. 387), Kant gives an account of every human being’s innate right of freedom as ‘independence from being constrained by any other’s choice’ (Kant 1996, p. 393). In fact, according to Kant, ‘right is connected with an authorization to use coercion’ (Kant 1996, p. 388) as long as this coercion is opposed to a wrongful ‘hindrance to freedom in accordance with universal laws’ and so is understood as ‘a hindering of a hindrance to freedom’ (Kant 1996, p. 388). ‘Strict right’ that is ‘not mingled with anything ethical’ can even ‘be represented as the possibility of a fully reciprocal use of coercion that is consistent with everyone’s freedom in accordance with universal laws’ (Kant 1996, 388f.). The strict reciprocity of rightful coercion shows how crucial the egalitarian element is in Kant’s legal philosophy, together with the emphasis on freedom from any other’s arbitrary coercion.

Kant’s doctrine of right begins with private right ‘concerning what is externally mine or yours in general.’ There have been vehement discussions within the few last decades about whether the fact that private right is treated before public right together with Kant’s view that there is possession already in the state of nature (§ 9, Kant 1996, 409f.) justify looking at Kant as a possessive individualist (Saage 1994, Zotta 2000) or whether one should stress his statement that this possession is only provisional and ‘conclusive possession’ is possible ‘only on a law of a common will’ (§ 9, Kant 1996, p. 410), such that Rousseauist and therefore egalitarian parts would gain more weight. Anyway, Kant rejects Locke’s founding of property on work, because work is something ‘accidental’ to the land that cannot decide whose property it is (§§ 15, 17), and bases provisional possession on first occupation, conclusive possession on the common will (cf. Williams 1983, p. 94, cf. Kersting 1993, 337ff.). Perhaps one might say that although Kant’s primary concern is with individual freedom—according to his definition of right—he nevertheless has a sense for public welfare and distributive justice (Rosen 1993).

Because in the state of nature property and any right are insecure ‘however well disposed … human beings may be’ (§ 44, Kant 1996, p. 456), we have the moral and legal duty to enter a state of public right (§ 42). What Kant describes in his DR is ‘the state in idea’ that ‘serves as a norm for every actual union into a commonwealth’ (§ 45, Kant 1996, p. 457). Kant clearly prefers a republic with division of powers that is the only alternative to despotism and ‘any true republic is and can only be a system representing the people’ (DR § 52, Kant 1996, p. 481) which is obviously incompatible with the absolutist and feudalist systems of his times. Therefore, there is another discussion on whether he really rejects every resistance against unjust regimes so bluntly as it looks like in the published works (DR § 49 A, Kant 1996, 463f., Of the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, but is of no Use in Practice, OCS, Kant 1996, p. 303) or whether there might be some more or less hidden hints that he sees it in a more nuanced manner (Beck 1993, Westphal 1992). Anyway, it seems to be clear that Kant prefers reform of the constitution (Goyard-Fabre 1996, 217f.) and for this he claims again and again the transcendental principle of publicity, of freedom of the pen (OCS, Kant 1996, p. 302).

According to an interesting and attractive interpretation, Kant accepts the political systems of his time—and perhaps he would do the same with those of our time—mainly because they provide us with the possibility of a change toward more just societies that are closer to the state in the idea (Brandt 1982, Kersting 1993). But this change has to be done by the sovereign via reform and not by the people via revolution (DR § 49 A, Kant 1996, p. 465). As we have to accept the state of affairs in the distribution of property at least provisionally for being able to enter a civil state with distributive justice (DR § 41), we have to accept the actually existing legality for being able to transform it by rightful means until it comes close to a true republic. On an international level, we have to accept large parts of the actual distribution of power for being able to approach eternal peace via a commonwealth of free republics. The common tool for this treatment of nonperfect social situations is the permissive law that allows us to live in circumstances that are contrary to the principles of right as long as a quick change by means of right is impossible and as long as there is a serious effort to improve the state of affairs.

2.2 Toward Eternal Peace

One of the most influential and effective elements in Kant’s political philosophy might be his proposal of an international legal order that could be able to guarantee eternal peace that is not only ‘a suspension of hostilities’ (TEP, Kant 1996, p. 317). There had been considerations how to realize a peaceful world through a council of the sovereigns like the Projet pour rendre la paix perpetuelle en Europe of the Abbe St. Pierre. What Kant does—again under the influence of Rousseau—is to connect the international order with the inner structure of the state. His first ‘definitive article for perpetual peace’ therefore says that ‘the civil constitution of every state shall be republican’ (TEP, Kant 1996, p. 322) and the second that ‘the right of nations shall be based on a federalism of free states’ (Kant 1996, p. 325). This ‘surrogate’ for a worldrepublic—which seems to be unachievable under current conditions—provides a way to maintain the sovereignty of the participating states with the rule of right, the only alternative to the unacceptable rule of war, ‘right cannot be decided by war and its favorable outcome’ (Kant 1996, 327f.).

On the other hand, Kant is not a categorical pacifist. He accepts that wars had played an important role in the development of mankind (Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltburgerlicher Absicht, Kant 1902, ff., VIII, 24ff.), and he would prefer the warlike state of nature to a repressive world monarchy (TEP, Kant 1996, p. 336). He is not an unrealistic dreamer who expects world peace within a short time. Anyway, as Doyle (Doyle 1986) and others have shown, it was not an unrealistic assumption that democratically governed states tend much less to bellicose behavior than others. Kant rather thinks, or hopes, that with the help of the ‘great artist nature’ (die große Kunstlerin Natur, TEP, Kant 1996, p. 331), human societies will move slowly but steadily towards the federation of free republics guaranteeing eternal peace. Kant’s idea seems to be that even immoral actions ultimately lead to an improvement of the legal order without discharging the culprit of his responsibility, however. Somehow behind the back of the agents who are looking for their personal advantage, the artist nature works in a way like Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ towards this federalism of republics that might even turn into a world republic. Anyway, this historical development prepares conditions under which persons may act morally much more easily than it is for them now in a situation that is closer to the state of nature.

Kant does not consider this ‘mechanism of nature’ (ib.) as a natural law. Rather it is a projection of practical reason, a hope we must have because we have a duty to move toward eternal peace. Elsewhere, Kant says, if we can’t prove that a development will take place but can’t prove the contrary either, a need of reason (Vernunftbedurfnis) gives us the right to expect what seems more rational (Kant 1902, ff. VIII, Kleingeld 1995, p. 94).


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