The act of highest moral value is one done solely from respect for law. But when we ask what constitutes respect for law, we immediately raise the question of what is the nature of law, and which laws are we to respect. There are volumes and volumes of laws in any law library. Since no one knows all of them, respect for law must mean respect for something common to all laws. This is the question to which Kant now turns: what in a law commands our obedience?
But what kind of law by itself alone can determine a will and make it absolutely good, not by considering any beneficial consequences but only by the awareness of the law itself? Since any motive based on the results of obeying the law has been excluded, the only rule remaining for the will is that all its actions should conform to the law as law. That is to say, I must never do anything from a maxim which I could not propose to be a universal law. Thus without having to consider any particular laws or kinds of actions, we find that merely conforming to law as law is our rule of the will. Only with this rule can we prevent duty from being a pompous flight of fancy. And, as a matter of fact, commonsense moral judgments are generally based on this rule.
By respect for law as law, Kant cannot mean any particular set of laws, but the idea of law as imposing obligation. Whatever the law, it must be obeyed because it is a law. In the realm of moral law, he means conforming to a moral rule because it is what one ought to do. No matter what the particular moral rules governing the situation, we ought to abide by it, because it tells us what we ought to do.
An illustration may help clarify this key concept. Suppose a parole officer told his parolee, “Obey the law and you will stay out of trouble.” A week later the parolee is apprehended in possession of a concealed weapon. The parole officer asks, “Didn't I tell you to obey the law?" But the parolee replies, “Oh, I kept one law, but you didn't say anything about the others.” Such an excuse simply could not be taken seriously. “Obey the law” clearly meant that the parolee was to obey all laws. The command was a formal rule, a standard. It said in effect, “Whatever you do, make sure you do not break any laws.” The officer did not have to specify any particular laws; he gave the parolee a standard for deciding what to do in any situation, a rule to cover all situations. A purely formal moral rule, one which covers every moral situation, would be no more explicit than Jesus' “Be ye perfect.” Such a law includes everything, but nothing in particular.
In what way does such a formal rule give us a standard for deciding the moral alternative in any particular situation? For an answer, we must look to that aspect of the particular moral rule which is common to all moral rules. Now, each particular situation differs in some respect from every other; but there is one feature they all have in common: one alternative in each situation is the moral alternative, commanded by a rule or law. That is, the common factor must be found in the nature of the rule or law itself, not in the particular command of the particular rule or law. The only factor common to all law, Kant proclaims, is universality. Every law is impersonal, impartial, or—which comes to the same thing—universally applicable to everyone in the same situation. The law of driving on the right-hand side of the road applies only to drivers, true, but it applies to all drivers equally and without exception.
If universality be the common element of all law, then the law of morality must incorporate universality. As Kant puts it, conformity to law as law is conformity to the universality in law. The question now becomes : how do we conform to the universality of law? Kant’s answer is his statement of the rule of morality: Never do anything from a maxim which you could not propose to be a universal law. That is, we must not do anything which we could not propose as the moral law for everyone. Whenever we want others to act differently than we do, whenever we make our own situation an exception to the rule ("But mine is a special case!"), we violate the canon of universality. We act in conformity to law when we can consistently will that everyone should act as we act in such a situation, and even more, that it should be everyone’s duty to act so. “How would you like it if everybody did that?” we often ask, thus confirming Kant when he says that “commonsense moral judgments are generally based on this rule.”
With this principle, that we must never do anything from a maxim which we could not propose as a universal law, Kant concludes his argument based on commonsense rational morality. Having analyzed the three propositions of moral value, he finds in the concept of conformity to law as such the central theme relating them to one another. The good will is one which conforms its maxim to law as law, thus acting from the moral motive (respect for law as law) in performing its duty (that action which conforms to law ). This principle or ultimate rule provides two things: a way of deciding when our actions are in accordance with moral goodness, and a yardstick for determining whether our motives are moral or not. When we act in accordance with the principle of conformity to law as law, then we perform a morally good action; and if conformity to law as law is the reason why we act, then we act with the moral motive. This principle, moreover, will apply to any action whatsoever, for it is a purely formal rule, without reference to any circumstances or persons.
The next step is to describe what it means to propose one’s maxim as a universal law. Kant uses an example familiar to everyone, the case of a man who makes a false promise in order to gain some advantage.
As an example, consider this question: When things are going badly for me, may I make a promise without any intention of keeping it? The question has two clearly different meanings: on the one hand, will such a promise be to my advantage? and on the other, will it be right to make such a promise? Without question such promises are often advantageous, at least in the short run, although on this basis I should anticipate the possibility that long-run disadvantages might follow from the lie. And no matter how clever I might be, I cannot foresee all possible consequences. The long-term result of giving one’s word falsely could outweigh any short-term advantages I would gain, which might make it more prudent to follow the universal rule never to make a false promise under any circumstances. But clearly this maxim is based on nothing more than fear of consequences.
In an essay entitled “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives,” Kant expands on this example. A friend, pursued by a murderer, runs to my house and I hide him. The murderer arrives and asks if my friend is hiding inside. May I lie to save my friend? Kant’s answer is that I may not, since it is always wrong to lie. He argues that we do not find in anticipated results the absolute moral criterion we need. Suppose we universalize the maxim: whenever I hide a friend from a murderer, I will lie to protect him. Surely, it would seem, we could willingly allow anyone to lie in such a situation. Isn't it better to save a life than to tell the truth here? Generally speaking, yes, but in such a case we cannot be sure that our purpose in lying will actually result; moral decisions require some absolute criterion, not one offering merely high probability. Even if I do lie, I cannot be certain that I will be believed; and if I am believed, I cannot be certain that my lie will ultimately prevent the murderer from carrying out his plot. Suppose, for instance, that my friend, hearing me stall the murderer at the door, escapes through a rear window. The murderer believes me, searches elsewhere, finds my friend outside, and kills him. By my lie, I helped cause the very result I had intended to prevent. The anticipated consequences upon which I based my decision to lie did not occur. And so, Kant concludes, from an examination of what we expect to happen we can never derive that assurance of moral goodness. But this is only an elaboration of what we already know, that neither the moral import of the maxim, nor the moral worth of the action, can depend upon the results desired, no matter how beneficial such results may be.1
Kant insists, first, that an action must be based upon a rational principle, not an empirical one; this principle is respect for moral law as such. Secondly, this rational principle extols the universalizability of maxims, without primary consideration of consequences. The expected consequences alone cannot serve as a basis for the universalization of a maxim; the purpose alone cannot determine the moral goodness of an action. An action intended to produce good results may be laudable, but it will not on that account have moral value, unless it is also done from respect for law. Surely it is praiseworthy to save one’s friend out of friendship, but friendship can in some cases lead us to do immoral deeds. Respect for moral law, on the contrary, can never lead us to immoral actions, even though, in ignorance, we produce bad results.
To tell the truth for duty’s sake is one thing: but it is something else altogether to tell the truth because we fear the results a lie might cause. In the first case, the very idea of my having a duty to tell the truth involves a law which commands me, whereas in the second case, I must first try to determine what will result from my action. Actions which violate a law of duty are always morally bad, but actions which violate a maxim of prudence may occasionally work out to my benefit (even though this is not generally so ).
The quickest and surest way to answer the question, “Can a false promise be in accordance with duty?" is to determine whether I could propose my maxim—"When in trouble, get out of it by making a false promise.”—to hold as a universal law, binding myself and everyone else. Would I want everyone to be allowed to make a false promise when that is the only way he could escape trouble? Certainly I can choose to lie, but I cannot propose that there be a universal law for lying. Were there such a law, I could never make a promise at all, since it would be impossible to find anyone who would take my word regarding what I promised to do; or if someone unthinkingly did take my word, he would try the same thing on me. As soon as I try to universalize my maxim, it negates itself.
It is always and certainly immoral to act against duty. It is, obversely, always and certainly moral to act for duty’s sake. But it is neither always nor certainly moral to act from expediency, since expediency may lead us to do what is morally wicked from an expectation of future benefits. We cannot allow our desires for certain consequences to determine what is our duty. Duty must be determined on some other grounds than consequences.
I cannot consistently will that everyone should be permitted to tell a prudent lie, still less that it should be everyone’s duty to tell such a lie. The reason is simple. If, through some quirk of moral fate, my maxim did become universal law, no one could ever tell a prudent lie. Since everyone might freely lie whenever he believed it to be advantageous, no one would believe anyone in anything, and thus no one could promise anything at all. We must not, however, base the immorality of a prudent lie on these consequences, any more than we base morality on consequences. The point of the principle of universalization is that, when we wish to do something which cannot be universalized, our intention is to do something which other people are not allowed to do. We insist that others not be allowed to tell prudent lies, in order that our promise will be taken as truthful. We want an exception made in our case. But law admits of no exceptions. That is what Kant means by saying, “I can choose to lie, but I cannot choose a universal law for lying.” The outlaw thrives on other people’s respect for law; he could not wish for the entire population to become outlaws.
This rule of universalizing our maxim is not a rule which makes an action morally good. The rule gives us a process for deciding, a formula for judging whether our action is consistent with duty or not. We may determine, by this rule, that the action is compatible with duty, and still not perform it for duty’s sake. We act from duty under two necessary conditions : knowing what is our duty, and doing it because it is our duty. Kant’s rule of universalization is primarily a matter of the way we come to know our duty. As Paton succinctly puts it: “Consistency is the test, but not the essence, of moral action.”2
Consequently I need not be a genius in order to know how to act with a good will. Though I may be a babe in the woods as far as understanding all the varieties of worldly circumstances is concerned, I need merely ask: Can I propose my maxim as a universal law? If I cannot, then I must reject the maxim, not because it may lead to any harm to myself or others, but because it cannot be used as a rule for universal law, a law which commands the immediate respect of reason. Although I may not understand the whole question—which is a question for a philosopher—at least I understand this much: respect is an estimate of a value superior to any based on desire; respect for moral (practical) law, by making my action necessary for me to perform, makes it my duty; and every other motive must bow to duty, for duty is the condition for an absolutely good will, a will whose value is supreme. By this reasoning we reach that principle which is the foundation of commonsense rational morality.
Kant believes that this question, “Can I (consistently) propose that my maxim be a universal law?" is the basic question in a moral decision. If I cannot consistently propose it, then my duty is to avoid any action based on it. On the other hand, the ability to propose my maxim as a universal law does not mean that I must act on the maxim. I need not make any promises at all, for instance, unless failing to make a promise involves some other maxim.
Respect for morality and for law is a recognition of the unqualified value inherent in moral actions, actions which are the mark of a good will. Since respect for the moral law is the basis for the good will, which is the only unqualified good, such respect has supreme moral value. For obviously, in Kant’s mind, the necessary condition for an absolute good must likewise be absolutely good. As we saw in the previous chapter, this does not mean that we have two absolute goods. One cannot say that respect for law and the good will are distinct things: the goodness of the good will is its respect for law.
The purpose of this first section has been to analyze the commonsense propositions of rational morality in order to find the principle upon which they rest. The main steps of the argument are these:
1. The only absolutely good thing is the good will, that will which acts not merely in accordance with duty but also for duty’s sake. When we perform a good action, one which we ought to do, we achieve moral credit only when we do what we ought to do because it is what we ought to do. If we act only to obtain the possible consequences, we gain no moral credit, no matter how beneficial the action.
2. The moral goodness of an action is determined by the maxim, not by the purpose to be achieved. The motive determines the moral goodness, not the goodness of the desired consequences. Though we may judge an action by its results, we judge the agent by his motive.
3. The moral motive is acting from respect for law. A person who knows his duty and does it because it is what he ought to do, is acting with a special kind of attitude, namely, an awareness that the law imposes obligation upon him. Acting from duty is the best reason for acting, since the goodness of the will cannot depend upon other motives. To act for the sake of duty is to act from a recognition of the ultimate value of moral goodness.
4. The law, which stands as the condition of a good will, which determines our duty, and which we must respect, is not a particular law, but the concept of law as such, that is, the concept of moral command and obligation. In moral matters we can determine the lawfulness of our actions by proposing that our maxim be universalized. If we can honestly and consistently do this without making our own case an exception, then our action accords with moral law and conforms to duty.
5. The philosophical principle which underlies the three commonsense propositions may be expressed in the following way: The fundamental and necessary condition for any moral value in a will or action is the moral motive, arising from a recognition of duty, expressed in moral law. A person may act lawfully with an evil intention or motive, while another may act unlawfully while trying to be moral. If a person acts because he sincerely believes what he is doing to be the moral thing to do, then he gains moral credit, no matter what benefit or harm he actually produces.
Throughout the argument summarized above, Kant keeps reminding us that moral goodness depends upon reason, not upon experience. The moral motive is grounded in reason, on a priori principles. The fundamental principle is a principle of reason, and we have found it not by an investigation from experience but by rational analysis. However, it is one thing to conclude a principle from a given set of premisses or postulates: it is quite another to prove the principle valid as the true ultimate principle of morality. Kant could have tried to prove the truth of the principle by deriving it from premisses he could justify on other grounds. But then the principle would depend upon the other premisses and would not be the ultimate principle.
Kant’s task, then, is to prove that the principle is self-justifiable, so to speak, and then show that the derived principles are true because the ultimate principle is true. In the above argument he asked: given the truth of the three propositions of moral value, what must be the fundamental truth? His answer did not prove the fundamental principle true; only that its truth is a necessary condition for the truth of the other propositions. To prove the fundamental principle itself requires a different approach.
David Hume had argued that we have a native sentiment of benevolence, a moral awareness akin to feeling, which guides us in our moral judgments.3 Kant agrees, to an extent.
Of course, commonsense moral reasoning does not use the abstract, universal form of this principle, but it always uses something comparable as its criterion for moral judgment. We could easily illustrate how commonsense uses something like this principle to judge what is good or bad, what is dutiful and what opposes duty. Like Socrates, we would not have to teach anything new but only to clarify the principle in order to show commonsensically that one can be honest, good, even wise and virtuous, without any knowledge of science or philosophy. In fact, we could have assumed from the beginning that a knowledge of duty must be within the reach of even the most ordinary men.
Most people, having attained a certain level of maturity, generally make sound moral judgments. For the most part, we know right from wrong and have a fair idea what the difference is. And the vast majority of our judgments are made without any theoretical knowledge of abstract principles. The question is not whether we make sound moral judgments—the world would be in far worse shape if we did not—but whether the principles which these judgments tacitly presuppose are capable of justification independently of the general soundness of our judgments. Since experience and maturity evidently provide a day-to-day basis for practical wisdom, one might raise the question whether such an independent justification is even necessary.
We must admit that practical judgment has a good advantage over theoretical judgment in everyday human reasoning. In theoretical matters, whenever ordinary reasoning exceeds the boundary of experience and sensation, it winds up in meaningless and self-contradictory tangles, or at least in a welter of unclear, wavering uncertainties. But in practical matters, moral reasoning begins to show its power as soon as it eliminates all sensuous influences from its laws. Its decisions become clearer, it hones its own conscience, it searches other claims of morality—all in order to judge for itself the value of different actions.
And in this, ordinary men have as good a chance of finding the right answer as philosophers have, perhaps a better chance. While the philosopher has no practical abilities which the ordinary man lacks, the ordinary man is free of the mass of irrelevant and trivial ideas which so often lead the philosopher astray. The wiser way, then, might be to rest content with the judgments of ordinary practical reason, using philosophy merely for insuring completeness, clarity, and workability of our rules and of course in moral arguments. Why should we drag common sense reasoning from its cozy simplicity in moral judgments and push it with philosophy onto a new road of inquiry and instruction?
In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that theoretical reason, when it attempts to decide questions outside the realm of experience (such as the questions of the infinity of space, or of the origin of the universe ), will come to contradictory conclusions. These conflicts he called the Antinomies of Pure Reason. It seems, says Kant, that practical reason has the advantage over pure (or speculative) reason, for it is just in such matters removed from experience that practical reason finds its surest employment. We can determine our duty only by an a priori judgment, not by experience; duty involves a kind of necessity which experience cannot justify.
Yet in the moral judgments which persons of commonsense usually have little difficulty in making, sophistication often seems to be a disadvantage. Who hesitates, if not the man who sees "objectively" both sides of an issue? The intellectual is inclined to ponder: 'Wait a minute. Is what I think my duty really my duty?" A fanatic, on the other hand, is never afflicted with such doubts. Would it not be better, then, to follow our commonsense moral judgments and use philosophy as an ancilla fidei, a servant for belief? Why should we disturb ourselves with a variety of "doubts, distinctions , disputes, and devilish devices of dis quietude"? What good is philosophy, anyway, in living the moral life?
How wonderful it is to be innocent, yet how easily the innocent are seduced. Those wise in practice need theory, not so much as a guide, but to guard their principles and make them stronger. Everyone recognizes that his needs and desires-which promise happiness when satisfied—raise powerful obstacles to those commands of duty which reason proposes as worthy of respect. But reason commands the will under necessity, promising nothing to desire. Reason, we might say, ignores and scorns the demands of inclination, which in turn will not let themselves be cowed by reason’s commands. Here is the source of that dialectic of human nature, from which we tend to belittle the validity of laws of duty, or at least to doubt their purity and strictness, so that we may adapt them wherever possible to our own feelings and desires. This, of course, rots the very roots of morality and degrades it, which result not even commonsense reason can accept.
To the question, what good is philosophy in moral life, Kant gives a two-part answer. In this paragraph he shows that prudential wisdom by itself is subject to subversion; in the following paragraph he explains why practical reason is necessary to prevent the distortion.
Common wisdom is not infallible. David had his Bathsheba, Antony his Cleopatra, and W. C. Fields his Mae West. When a man clearly knows his duty but is strongly tempted by his own desires and deepest needs, will he still follow reason without being seduced by the undulations of Lady Happiness? How frequently we begin to “think this thing through,” take a second look at the situation, and finally put reason in the back seat. “Would God want me to do this, really? Doesn't He want us all to find happiness? He is Good. He couldn't want us to be in pain and misery, could He? ... Of course not!”4
This self-deception is quite human and happens to us all at one time or another. The moral issue, however, is more serious than it might appear at first. The “dialectic” between reason and inclination is liable to cast doubt upon reason’s judgment, so that we are even more likely to violate the moral law. Furthermore, if reason’s judgment is disputed, then any decision to act will be based on factors other than reason and the moral motive. Human as we are, when we find ourselves in a conflict between reason and some other inclination, the decision often goes against reason. Even when we act according to duty, our decision is frequently based on inclination, not on respect for moral law. Unless moral judgments can safely and finally be grounded on a firm a priori foundation, we are always in danger of subverting reason by inclination. And unless we can rationally justify our moral judgments, we can never have any assurance that our judgments are valid.
This is why ordinary human reason must seek the help of moral philosophy. Human reason by itself is sufficent, so long as it avoids theoretical speculation. But in moral matters it must be aided by moral philosophy in order to gain information and clear instruction about the source of its principle, and how this principle may be used in the face of counterclaims from our needs and desires. In this way human reason may avoid the confusion of opposing moral claims and escape the danger of losing its principles in a swirl of ambiguous theory. In short, whenever ordinary moral reason tries to improve itself, it tends to move unawares into a dialectic, and it needs philosophy to determine the answers. The same thing happens in the theoretical function of reason. In both cases, reason can find the answer only by a critical examination of human reason itself.
Our quest must be for a stable foundation for morality, for a principle which cannot be subverted by maxims based on needs and desires. To find such a principle, we must leave the world of commonsense morality and enter the realm of a priori practical reason, that realm of purely formal concepts and principles which constitute moral philosophy. Having found the principle of the good will to lie in respect for law, we must determine a priori what this law of all morality is and what is its relation to the moral understanding. The first task then will be to investigate the concepts of morality themselves, by a priori analysis. By doing so, we should arrive at the first structure of a valid metaphysics of morals.