Features of morality and their relation to happiness according to Kant in the "Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals"
Does his conception match what you understand to be the nature of morality? And is it a conception that ultimately makes sense?
In The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant outlines his philosophical views on the distinctive features of morality and its relation to happiness. Kant’s view begins with our unique capacity as rational creatures to exercise reason, through which we are able to derive individual maxims, defined as personal principles we follow. From these maxims, we are able to generalize universal moral laws that Kant defines as categorical imperatives, which must follow three principles: the formula of Universal Law, Humanity, and Autonomy.
To begin, Kant establishes that it is in our human nature to strive for happiness, which is defined by him as things going the way one wants them to. However, this is largely out of our control, and even with reason, we are unable to determine what we ought to do in order to achieve happiness; afterall, we ourselves go through so much of life not knowing what makes us happy. Yet, while reason is not equipped to tell us what experiences we will find the most enjoyable, it is, however, adequate in determining what we ought to do in terms of what is morally right or wrong. Kant believes that morality is the next logical step from rationality, and because morality is something that is able to be universalized, he believes it is something intuitively self-evident and can be logically derived by every person through reason.
In addition, establishing morality on the foundations of reason gives us the rational grounds on which to criticize someone else’s morality; because it is not based on subjective, emotive experiences, we are able to objectively and logically evaluate moral laws. Happiness is an end goal of any human being, but it should not never be the motivation to individual actions; instead, our duty regarding happiness lies in cultivating ourselves to becoming sensitive to choices that will make us happy, and exercise reason to make moral decisions that will allow us to be deserving of happiness. The purpose of our capacity to reason is to produce a good will: one that compels an agent to act not just in accordance to moral duties, but out of an intrinsic sense of respect towards upholding moral laws. Qualities like benevolence, perseverence, and intelligence may make life easier and happier, but without a good will, these qualities may as well be harmful and contemptible because they are only morally desirable insofar as they are influenced by a good will.
Through an exercise of reason, we are able to generate our own maxims: a basis of principles we individually act by. However, as humans, we have gaps in our reasoning, and Kant believes that we can assess whether our personal maxims are in line with universal moral laws by subjecting them to the formulae of Universal law, Humanity, and Autonomy, which will be expounded upon below. Before we do that, it is worthy to observe Kant’s differentiation between a hypothetical imperative and a categorical one; a hypothetical imperative is what you ought to do to achieve a certain end, where if you will the end, you must also will the means to that end. An example is the hypothetical imperative of going to the gym constantly in order to achieve the end goal of staying in good health. In other words, the statement can be made that I ought to go to the gym because I want to stay fit. It is also not a moral choice when someone goes to the gym. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, consists of moral laws that hold unconditionally regardless of personal desires and interests. Its validity does not depend on any end, as there are no conditions like the prior willing of an end to derive the “ought” conclusion. “I will always tell the truth” has no premise; it is a priori, and exists unchangingly prior to experience.
Kant’s first principle characterizing his moral point of view allows us to determine whether our personal maxims enter the space of the categorical imperative. Called the Formula of Universal Law, it dictates that one should operate at a maxim you would want everyone else to operate by as well. A personal maxim like “steal from others” would not be capable of being universalized because you would not want other people to steal from you. If a maxim is universalizable, it then becomes morally permissible. Because Kant believes in absolutes, the opposite holds too and anything that is not morally permissible would be morally forbidden. This absolution manifests in what Kant defines as the “purity of will,” where he rejects moral maxims that offer ambiguities like “always keep my promise, except when…”. Any maxim that is not in accordance to moral law should be constrained, and it is this duty to uphold these moral laws that restrains our will.
Kant’s second principle dictates that we always treat rational agents as an end, and never merely as a means. Our ability to exercise reason is such a hallmark of our humanity that we should value our rational agency as an end in of itself. This can be understood in the same way that we would always wish to have a freedom to make our own choices; we want to uphold our own rational agency, and we can reasonably expect that other rational beings have the same desire. Because rational agents are always pursuing ends, we should value other peoples’ rational agency as something intrinsically valuable: it is not a relative end, and must be valued for its own sake. An example of failing to do so is subjecting a foreign worker to work long hours with low pay by confiscating their passport. You would be using this person solely as a means of production, and disregarding their agency and rationality by forcing them to do something they would not normally agree to. The contrary to this would be to negotiate a fair wage with the worker and take into consideration his interests and rational decision making; if you were in the shoes of the worker and you would arrive at the same logical conclusion to go ahead with this transaction, then the morality of your actions would be justifiable by reason. As a result, Kant believes that someone who transgresses upon the rights of human beings is inherently treating a rational agent as a means and would be infringing upon the second law of morality.
Kant’s third principle called the Law of Autonomy calls upon us to always perform actions solely out of our sense of duty and respect towards upholding these universal moral laws. Our motive behind actions should stem from an internal free will and not those of external pressures such as those from society for fame, honor, and recognition, or those from a higher power like from God. In fact, Kant believes that only acts done from duty have moral worth. For example, you may find great joy from helping a senior citizen with crossing the road, but Kant believes that if you perform this action for the purpose of the emotional satisfaction you derive, even this act of benevolence does not have moral worth. Instead, you must perform this action for the sake of its intrinsic moral good and your duty to always helping people in need. Feelings of benevolence and good will do not establish moral goodness; only a sense of respect for upholding moral laws do. Another example that illustrates this is a situation where your attempt to save a bunny but end up accidentally killing a child. Here, the consequence of a dead child over a saved bunny does not decide whether your action is good or bad; only your intention and manner through which you intended it does. Hence, Kant believes that only principles are subject to moral appraisal, not actions. As a result, to have moral worth, an action must be done from principle, and hence only rational agents are capable of moral actions.
I believe that Kant’s conception of morality is an extremely utopian vision of how a society should operate, and I think it is precisely because of its idealistic nature that I raise questions on whether it is practical. A critique of Kant’s morality must begin by evaluating the premise on which he bases his reasonings, namely that our capacity to reason allows us to discover universal moral truths. Unfortunately, history has shown that morality is not as objective and ubiquitously discoverable as Kant has outlined, considering the countless moral differences that different societies and cultures have developed. One example is the moral controversies regarding abortion. A mother’s personal maxim can take the form of “I will never take a life, which I define as anything that has been conceived in the womb” and happily universalize it to become a categorical imperative that holds everyone else to the same standard, yet another mother can completely disagree with this sentiment with the maxim: “I will always prioritize my autonomy above all else” and expect the world to abide by her maxim too. Of course, the morality of abortion is especially complex and lies outside the scope of this paper, but it shows that personal moral maxims that can be universalized still may not manifest as absolute moral laws. In fact, the very existence of contradicting universalizable moral laws goes against the claim that morality is a priori; if something universally exists unchangingly prior to experience, it cannot also be in part dependent upon humans and subject to preferential nuances.
In addition, while “purity of will” is appealing and admirable to think about in the abstract, it is not feasible in practice. It is logical for laws to reside in the absolute space; afterall, a law that said “never kill, except in circumstances a, b, c” would be confusing and inefficient. However, an actual moral system that resides in an absolute space would be inhumane and unforgiving. An example to illustrate this is the maxim, “always speak the truth.” When expressing his idea of purity of will, Kant uses the example of a Nazi at the door asking if there is a Jew in your basement. He would speak the truth for the reason that his truth would not cause the Jew’s arrest; it would be the doing of the Nazi regime. In other words, he has no obligation to compromise his own moral maxims. Yet, anyone who can truly believe this narrative must live with a cognitive dissonance; surely, he may not have caused the Jew’s arrest, but if he does not speak the truth, he could likely increase the Jew’s likelihood of survival by tenfold. Would you will yourself to lie to increase someone’s chance of survival? Kant would not, but that means he also would not will his friends to do so for him either by the law of universalizability. Yet that would contradict the given assumption that each rational being wants to maximize his or her survival, and thus, while purity of will is admirable, it does not make logical sense when carried out.
Furthermore, Kant’s Law of Autonomy, which states that only actions performed out of duty have moral worth, creates tension between self-interest and morality. Kant establishes duty as the only justifiable moral motive, but it is interesting to question whether it truly make sense for us to be able to operate solely with duty as an impetus. This duty traces back to our uniquely human capacity for reason, and Kant’s premise for this is because reason is a hallmark of our humanity; yet it is very much apparent that reason is not the only feature of our decision making process and is most certainly not what uniquely makes us human. We are characterized by our emotions: by empathy, compassion, hatred; by our interactions within a greater group in society: jealousy, yearning for recognition, and desire for fame; and to act solely out of moral duty, taking account only predefined moral laws that we have rationalized, and disregarding our whims, our impulses, our spur-of-the-moment spontaneity, is directly invalidating a huge portion of what distinctly makes us human. Instead, I believe we have good reason to consider emotions to be just as good of a moral motive as duty; moral decisions must be made purposefully, but reason should not be the only justifiable rationale behind each purpose. Emotions may not be as solid or objective of a ground as reason to critically evaluate actions, but we can still definitively distinguish emotions into categories of good will and those of mal-intent, allowing us to distinguish purposes driven by emotions into categories of good and bad.
In fact, another consideration is how there is no tangible manifestation or proof, to others or to even to oneself, if an action has been carried out purely out of moral duty. Only the individual would truly know if he or she performed an action out of duty, and even so, we must raise the question of whether it is possible to perfectly and objectively evaluate the rationales behind our actions to string out the “sense of duty” from the tangle of emotions and worldly influences we must necessarily experience behind each action. Hence, this idea of duty thus becomes something abstract that we should strive towards achieving, but has no actual measurable success.
To conclude, I believe Immanuel Kant’s conception of morality paints an extremely optimistic outlook on how we should operate. He calls upon us to treat others the way we would like to be treated, to respect the freedom and intrinsic human rights of each individual, and to practice a mental toughness to will our actions to always stem from moral principle. Like many philosophies however, I believe its many aspects will only be able to reside in the space of the ideal. Kant’s conception of morality is a visionary way of life, an approach to living in this world that we can each individually hold ourselves to and aim to build our political institutions upon, but like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, may never be perfectly executed in the courtroom or even in our day to day. Kant’s philosophy is a refreshing affirmation of our humanity, but fundamentally, we must accept that morality is a lot more multifaceted and very much less cookie-cutter-perfect than Kant makes it to be.