Kant’s Moral Imperative

Jerome questioned whether Kant actually said: “.. people become ends in themselves.” Kant’s second formulation
of his categorical imperative states, “Act in such a way that
you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the
person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the
same time as an end”.


Jerome asks: In what is this moral mandate grounded?

My reply: Jerome, I would have to go earn a PhD in Kant or get REAL lucky in Google, but this saying of Kant’s is quoted all over the place in books about Kant (you dont think I read him in German, do you?)

To me it just seems like common sense, except Kant was the first to really put it in words. A different saying “We are supposed to love people and use things; not love things and use people.”

Kant was also the VERY FIRST to suggest that some stars are actually an entire nebula cloud of stars.

But, just for you Jerome, I will look around for the grounding of this moral mandate.

One of my best “real life” friends (he won’t use computers”) was watching a PBS show about the history of the King James Bible. He asked me “King James was a KING, with power, wealth, luxury; so why would he care about the common people or making scriptures accessible to them.” (get it, people as ends in themselves rather than means to an end). So I said “Look. All those princes who backed Martin Luther, do you think they gave a crap about theology or the people or the purity of the faith?” No, it was part of a power struggle to wrest power away from the Church and distant Rome (ultramontainism means beyond the mountains/Alps). Henry VIII only formed his own Church when he couldn’t get what he wanted and not because he had the moral conviction that it was best for “the people.” So same thing with King James; it was a power play to gain more autonomous hegemony. Thats my take, anyway.

Jerome, do you actually READ the links I post? Sometimes I do. I just started re-reading the above link, and it does seem to discuss how and where Kant arrived at the conclusion in question.

A more interesting question would be: Was Kant REALLY the first to assert this, and if so, WHAT did everyone before him assert and WHY.

It seems like only the past hundred years that nations will go to war simply because some alien people in a distant land are being mistreated. Such a new seemingly altruistic trend in foreign policy must have its roots in Kant’s realization. But I don’t know. I am no genius and no expert. All I really have at my disposal is Google, but that is more than most of mankind has ever had all through prior history.

So, let’s get down to Google and find some links:


(excerpts from above link continue)

Kant’s philosophical reflections on both politics and religion rest on a historical conception of the state and the church, and are self-consciously designed for an age of enlightenment.

When we turn to the transcriptions of his lectures on ethics, we find that throughout his career, Kant began his lectures with a brief survey of the history of ethics, which was, no doubt, presented with the intention of providing his students with a routine overview of the history of the subject matter. At the same time, however, we can also see how Kant is using his historical introduction to motivate his own original approach to the topic of searching for a supreme principle of morality. And in this way, we can come to understand Kant’s own enterprise in ethics as a projection of certain vital historical developments in ethics, as Kant sees them. If to conceive philosophy historically is to recognize that philosophers, and human culture generally, thought quite differently about things at different times, and to see the historical development of this thinking as a progressively deepening understanding, then Kant conceived moral philosophy historically, and even of moral reason historically. And like Hegel, he saw Christianity as playing a pivotal role in the course of historical development.

Of course this is for Kant a history of failed attempts at a moral principle, because all the principles listed in it are principles of heteronomy, which derive morality from something other than the will of the rational being itself. But it is clear from Kant’s discussion in the Groundwork and even more from his treatment of these principles in his lectures, is the fact that for Kant these proposed principles of morality, though none of them is adequate, form a sort of hierarchy of approximation to an adequate principle.

[William interjects: I am reminded of Socrates’ arguments in The Republic that the all-powerful tyrant is really the most unfortunate of people]

Kant distinguishes five different ethical ideals in antiquity, the first three focusing on our natural powers, and the last two involving our relation to the supernatural:

1. The Cynic ideal (of Diogenes and Antisthenes), which is natural simplicity, and happiness as the product of nature rather than of art.
2. The Epicurean ideal, which is that of the man of the world, and happiness as a product of art, not of nature.
3. The Stoic ideal (of Zeno), which is that of the sage, and happiness as identical with moral perfection or virtue.
4. The mystical ideal (of Plato), of the visionary character, in which the highest good consists in the human being seeing himself in communion with the highest being.
5. The Christian ideal of holiness, whose pattern is Jesus Christ. (VE 27:100-106, 247-250, 483-485; 29:602-604).

[William observes: The following passage about the cynics reminds me of the Shaker hymn “A Gift to be Simple A Gift to be Free” and also the movie of that boxer “Hurricane” who does his years of prison time by “needing and wanting nothing”]

The Cynic ideal is that of innocence, separation from the misery and corruption of human society, and freeing oneself from the burdens of artificial needs and inclinations. Thus Kant associates it in the modern world with Rousseau, “that subtle Diogenes” (VE 27:102, 248, 484, 29:603). The Cynics “posited the greatest good in the abstine, i.e. the pleasure of being able to do without, and thus the enjoyment of life under the fewest possible requirements… Hence their symbol was the club of Hercules, signifying strength of mind with self-sufficiency” (VE 27:484). I suggest we read Kant’s view that Cynicism captures part of the truth (the least adequate part, as it will turn out) as a limited endorsement of Kant’s claim in the Groundwork that inclinations have so little worth in themselves that it is the universal wish of every rational being to be free of them (G 4:428, 454). Thus Kant says that the Cynic ideal “were it attainable, would be preferable on the system of Diogenes even for the Epicurean, since there is more pleasure contained in doing without than in the burden of all the means acquired for the purpose”

Kant seems to be endorsing the Christian (and the specifically Pauline, Augustinian and Lutheran) doctrine that the true morality is one that regards human agency as morally impotent unless assisted by divine grace. Our aim, on this view, should apparently not be human morality or endless progress, but superhuman holiness; moral ideals that depend on our natural powers are misguided and even corrupt; and we are in a state of total depravity unless we are given help from above. Kant seems to be siding with Augustine against the heresy of Pelagius, whose name is universally hated throughout all Christendom merely because he maintained the reasonable and even self-evidently correct position that we should be morally required to do only what lies within our power and should be given moral credit or blame only for what we ourselves have done.

Kant appears to accept the Augustinian position to this extent, that our innate propensity to evil seems to stand in the way of the possibility that we might reform ourselves through our own effort: “But does not the thesis of the innate corruption of the human being with respect to all that is good stand in direct opposition to this restoration through one’s own effort? Of course it does, so far as the comprehensibility of, i.e. our insight into, its possibility is concerned” But it does not stand in the way of our assumption that reform is possible. “For if the moral law commands that we ought to be better human beings now, it inescapably follows that we must be capable of being better human beings.”

“Everyone must do as much as it is in his powers to do; and only then, if a human being has not buried his innate talent (Luke 19:12-16), if he has made use of the original predisposition to the good in order to become a better human being, can he hope that what does not lie in his power may be made good by co-operation from above” (R 6:52). Kant emphasizes that nothing but good conduct can be regarded as a pre-condition for receiving this aid—to think of some irrational belief state, for instance, or ceremonial expressions of penitence or groveling before the divine being as such conditions would be “religious delusion”, “fetishism” and “superstitious counterfeit service” of the Deity (R 6:190-200). “It is not essential, and hence not necessary, that every human being know what God does, or has done, for his salvation; but it is essential to know what a human being has to do himself in order to become worthy of this assistance”

In light of these views, Kant’s support of the Augustinian or anti-Pelagian position must be regarded as at best very qualified. There is nothing in his position that is inconsistent either with his critical strictures against cognition of the supernatural or with the foundations of Kantian ethics in the autonomy of reason.[12] He rejects the position of orthodox Augustinian Christianity if it says that apart from divine grace we can do nothing to better ourselves, and especially if it regards belief in specific means of grace (such as the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ) as a precondition for receiving divine grace. Kant is especially emphatic in rejecting the Pietist idea (with which he was far more familiar than he would like to have been) that salvation requires an enthusiastic ‘born again’ experience of the supernatural effects of grace (R 6:53). (The pernicious influence of this religious temper was as evident to him as it is in our own day.) At the same time, however, Kant regards the Christian idea that we cannot comply with the demands of morality solely through our own powers as the unique historical source of pure principles of morality.

Kant is very tempted by the idea that anyone who regards our capacity to obey the moral law as restricted to our own natural powers is bound to form a corrupted conception of the moral principle, one that adapts the demands of morality to human weaknesses by taking what people are observed to do as the proper measure of what they are able to do, and hence the proper standard for what they ought to do. Closely associated with this idea, in my view, is the fact that whether or not it follows from his ethical doctrines or is consistent with his critical epistemology, Kant was always tempted by the thought that no one who thinks of the powers of human beings as solely those grounded in the sensible or natural world can ever fully value rational beings as ends in themselves or think of us as free and autonomous legislators of the moral law.

Human reason stands alone and the individual must act with integrity as the sole author of his or her intentions. God is no longer the external guarantor of moral righteousness. Similarly, evil is not an alternative force influencing one’s choices: there is no battle of good over evil. Rather, evil is the absence of a ‘good will’ and the total failure to act with any sense of moral duty (a theme explored with great contemporary relevance with the current popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).

Jerome, I became curious and googled on “king of all the earth” which appears to refer to God and comes from Psalm 47 and perhaps some other verses.

Kurt Godel’s indefiniteness theorem seems to cast a shadow upon the ultimate power of mathematics. I am not certain how Philosophy is more pristine than Theology. Faust seemed disappointed in everything and turns to technology
(sweeping back the ocean to make more land and a utopia) and political power.

If there is some great moral lesson to be learned (and I am not certain that there is) then humanity seems too much of a dunce and dullard to learn it and put it into practice.

I am delighted by the blow which the above essay strikes at Pietism, pathetically groveling at God’s feet for mercy, yet themselves bankrupt of the works and deeds of mercy which might show them worthy of God’s assistance.


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