Supreme moral principle

An Analysis of the Kantian Categorical Imperative Kant seeks an autonomous moral principle purified of all empirical knowledge, a principle that determines the will before it undertakes any action whatsoever. Kant finds this supreme moral principle in the categorical imperative, which determines the will a priori and unconditionally and, it is thus that the categorical imperative emerges as the crux of his philosophy. В Indeed, against the various views in the philosophical moral tradition on human nature, Kant claims that the moral worth of an action is not in the purpose to which it attains but in its maxim, or principle, whose worth can be known a priori. Kant finds the categorical and unconditional basis of his metaphysics of morals in the pure rational will before it activates itself. The rational will autonomously supplies its own imperative structure for moral action: В«I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal lawВ» (Kant, 2002: 402). Instead of empirically deriving the supreme moral principle, Kant (1997: 28) takes the categorical imperative to be a В«fact of reasonВ» and sees reason as supplying its own telos in the practical sphere.

In the preface to Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant explains that he wants to purify the metaphysics of morals, to rid it of its empirical conditionality by examining the parameters that reason sets before itself autonomously, a priori, and unconditionally. To purify the metaphysics of morals, he examines duty and its relation to absolute necessity.   Kant seeks to establish reason as an end in itself, providing its own moral teleology. In Kant’s view, reason had precipitated a historical crisis of pursuing more and more «happinesses,» but only reason itself could supply the solution to this crisis. In morals, Kant separates the practical rules based on experience, via empiricism and philosophical anthropology, from the pure moral law. Precepts founded on experience can give us conditional rules for conduct but cannot give us an a priori moral law of necessity. Instead of determining moral worth or virtue on empirical or anthropological grounds, Kant insists that «all moral philosophy rests entirely on its pure part» (Kant, 2002: 389).   In this way, Kant advocates a morality of a priori and universal necessity, purified of all empirical or anthropological contingencies.

Kant’s presentation of the categorical imperative is persuasive because he avoids falling into a dogmatic metaphysics because, like the thing in itself, the good in itself cannot be known. Rather, Kant grounds his metaphysics of morals in the human will – specifically the rational will. The human will stands at a crossroads: one path leads to the hypothetical imperative of the will’s empirical objects of self-interest, the other to the categorical imperative of the moral law’s unconditionality. The technical rules of skill for attaining empirical objects are merely hypothetical imperatives because their determining power is contingent on their attainment, whereas the moral law is categorical because it commands a priori and therefore unconditionally. The categorical imperative admits no exceptions for our self-interest, an interest that Kant sees as another manifestation of empiricism in ethics – these exceptions to moral law are made in the interest of the self. As Kant focuses on the moral will and not its objects, he is the first to speak of the categorical imperative in morals (Allison, 1990).

Kant implies in the Metaphysics of Morals that our rational condition, which necessitates the virtuous self-restraint of natural impulses, eclipses holiness itself. Holiness would be a condition of perfection in which all actions are, by necessity, universal and morally good. The human condition, however, is characterized by both rational and natural impulses. This tension of reason and natural desire, however, allows for human virtue to overcome the limits of our physical nature. As the human will can overcome the pull of self-serving impulses and subordinate them to the categorical imperative of reason, humans can achieve a type of virtue not possible in holiness. В«But [human] virtue so shines as an idea that it seems, by human standards, to eclipse holiness itself, which is never tempted to break the lawВ» (1996: 396-7). В В For our actions to have unqualified moral worth, our self-serving natural desires must be subordinated to unconditional reason and universal morality.

The categorical imperative is integral to the theory of morality that Kant develops in the Critique of Practical Reason. В This theory h inges on reason and practical rational activity. Speculative reason becomes activated by the exercise of practical reason, and practical reason animates and completes Kant’s project of theoretical reason. With Kant’s view of the moral law as a В«fact of reason,В» В (Ameriks, 2001: 70) В pure reason is of itself practical in establishing the moral principle and completes Kant’s rational system. Indeed, Kant unifies reason and will in practical reason. В In this way, Kant prepared a new way for the definition of the will itself. Kant’s predecessors could only distinguish between higher and lower faculties of desire and, according to Kant, could not single out the unique feature of moral willing (Ameriks, 2001). For Kant, the will is the faculty of acting according to a conception of law, specifically rational law, which is not empirically discovered. By identifying the will with practical reason, the basis of moral willing is the universality of theoretical reason rather than the satisfaction of desire driven by impulse. It is the faculty of pure practical reason that gives the unconditioned condition for voluntary action. Kant’s moral principle is rational, universal, and unconditional – hence, categorical В В (Kant, 1997: 3). В В В

From the start, Kant sees the moral imperative itself as В«a fact of reason.В» Moral theory had traditionally been founded on the good as a natural, external object of our capacity of understanding. For Kant, any moral theory that takes the good as a natural phenomenon makes morality contingent (and a posteriori) and deprives morality of its a priori universality. By taking the moral law as a fact of reason, Kant begins with morality as a part of our capacity of reason. The moral law is simply an a priori fact of reason, immediate and universal; it is not a fact of nature gained through experience.

Kant’s position separates the realms of reason and sensibility, but our disparate faculties of rational cognition and natural desire are to be harmonized. Pure reason is to become practical, as happens when reason legislates over our desires and the rational will determines itself autonomously. The very form of the law of morality is the determining ground of all moral maxims. Kant lays out the primacy of the moral law in the В«Fundamental Law of Pure Practical ReasonВ» in the second Critique: В«For, pure reason, practical of itself В is here immediately lawgiving. The will is thought as independent of empirical conditions and hence, as pure will, as determined by the mere form of law, and this determining ground is regarded as the supreme condition of all moral maximsВ» (Kant, 1997: 28). В В For Kant (1997), this immediate lawgiving capacity of pure practical reason engenders a sense of philosophical wonder and gives morality a metaphysical dimension that was traditionally believed not possible. В В
Kant does not completely separate metaphysics and ethics, whereas Aristotle distinguished them as the science of being that cannot be otherwise and the science of being that can be otherwise. Nor does Kant appeal to an external, theologically driven morality, for that would be a heteronomous exercise of the moral will. Kant specifies that В«for, the a priori thought of a possible giving of universal law, which is thus merely problematic, is unconditionally commanded as a law without borrowing anything from experience or from some external willВ» (Kant, 1997: 28). В В By focusing on the will in moral theory, Kant has uncovered heteronomy not only in the objects of the will, but in the will itself in traditional, theologically based ethics. By shifting the focus from the objects of ethics to the moral will, Kant gives central importance to an autonomous will that can activate our capacity of reason in the moral sphere.

In closing, I would like to emphasise that I agree with Kant – moral requirements must be categorical. В В В My agreement stems from my understanding of Kant’s conceptualization of moral law. В For Kant moral law is analogous in form to the natural law, but it additionally carries the force of law. Henry Allison contends that Kant is quite clear about this moral incentive as the principle of execution for the supreme principle of the categorical imperative В (Allison, 1990). В В Indeed, Kant (1981: 46) В notes in his Lectures on Ethics that: В«Man is not so delicately made that he can be moved by objective groundsВ» (p. 45). В В To be able to affect the will and to effect its autonomous rational ends, the moral law must have both the form and force. For Kant, form is the organizing principle, specifically the form of law, which makes imperative force intelligible. Although the moral law is analogous to the universality of natural law, the moral law is not empirically derived – it is made possible through freedom. It is this presupposition of freedom as a postulate of practical reason which makes me agree with Kant, largely because moral laws are only possible in relation to freedom. There would be no tension between the В«isВ» and the В«oughtВ» unless we were free – free to do otherwise.


Allison, H. E. (1990) В Kant ‘s Theory of Freedom. В Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ameriks, K. (2001) В В В В Kant and the Fate of Autonomy: Problems in the Appropriation of the Critical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I. (1981) В Lectures on Ethics. В Translated by В Louis Infield. В Indianapolis: Hackett.

Kant, В I. (1996) В The Metaphysics of Morals. В Translated by В Mary Gregor. В Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, В I. (1997) В Critique of Practical Reason. В Translated by В Mary Gregor. В Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Kant, I. (2002) В Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. В В Translated by В James W. Ellington. В Indianapolis: Hackett.
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