The various formulations of the categorical imperative present us with a perplexing problem.1 Kant explicitly states that there is only one categorical imperative, but he then presents three other formulations of it. Are they simply paraphrases of the one categorical imperative from different points of view, or is Kant formulating more than one categorical imperative?
To answer this question let us examine Kant’s ethical debt to the Stoic tradition. In the first part of Section I, Kant says: “A person who deliberates, calmly, moderates his emotions and passions, and exercises self-control, seems to have all the essential elements of good character. These qualities were highly praised by ancient philosophers. . . .”2 The ancient philosophers to whom he refers were the Stoics, whose cardinal virtues included calm deliberation, moderation and self-control.
In his De Officiis, Cicero proposed various principles by which a person could determine his duty. Christian Garve (1742-1798 ), a contemporary of Kant, had translated the De Officiis into German and included some commentary notes. Kant possessed a copy, which represented to him the “Popular Moral Philosophy” he mentions in the title and body of Section II. This part of Section II can be taken as Kant’s attempt to incorporate the principles of Cicero (per Garve’s notes) into his a priori moral system. Such an application constitutes a brief “Metaphysics of Morals,” i.e., a deductive quest for particular moral rules from a given a priori foundation.
Cicero sought a universal rule which would resolve the conflict between duty and interest. He discovered three, in fact, and each is used by Kant as a basis for a variation of the categorical imperative. The three rules suggested by Cicero are:
1. Live according to Nature, i.e., Nature as it would be under ideal conditions (Convenienter cum natura vivere);
2. Honor every man as a human being, because he is a human being (Omnino hominem ex homine tollit);
3. Live as a member of a universal society of rational beings (Communis humani generis societas).
There is an obvious parallel between these rules and Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative, given here for comparison:
1. Always act on a maxim which you can will to become a universal law of Nature;
2. Always act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, as an end, never merely as a means;
3. Always act so that your will by its maxims can regard itself as making universal law for a possible kingdom of ends (human beings ).
The present chapter will examine the three formulations as variations of one general formulation. While Kant does not mention Garve or Cicero or Cicero’s three principles, this interpretation3 permits us to take Kant at his word that there is only one categorical imperative, which he later gives what he calls the “general” formulation. This general formulation serves as the direct or immediate ground of the good will. The other formulations, while they may be applied to moral situations in the same manner, are related to the good will only indirectly: they are ideas of popular moral philosophy subsumed under the general formulation. We might even think of them as illustrative variations of the one categorical imperative.
The universal law of cause and effect constitutes the basis for what we call Nature, in the general sense of structure or form. Nature may be defined as the existence of things as they are governed by universal laws. So we can express the imperative of duty in these words: always act on a maxim which you can will to become a universal law of nature.
For Kant, Nature is just the system of existing things governed by laws which describe patterns of events. These laws have two main characteristics. First, every law is universal, without exceptions. Secondly, each law is consistent with all the others. Nature does not work against herself.5 The Nature which Cicero speaks of is an ideal nature, a Nature working consistently with Divine Mind to accomplish divine purposes.6 The Stoic determined whether his proposed action was in accordance with duty by trying to see that his action agreed with the laws of nature. If he discovered an inconsistency, he would recognize that his proposed action was out of tune with Nature and thus would violate the moral law. If there was no inconsistency, then his action was in tune with the Divine purpose and conformed to moral law.
Kant adapts this idea to his own way of speaking: Always act on a maxim which you can will to become a universal law of Nature. What he does not say, but surely means for us to include, is that if we discover any inconsistency between our “naturalized” maxim and the laws of nature, then our action does not accord with duty. We can paraphrase this formulation of the categorical imperative as follows: Consider your proposed action as though it were a natural occurrence according to a law of nature. If there is no other law of nature inconsistent with the “law” exemplified by your maxim, then your action will be in accordance with duty.
In this section Kant describes four situations, each providing an example of a situation in which someone has a duty. These four examples are among the most famous in the history of philosophy. Kant uses the same four situations to illustrate each of the three variations of the categorical imperative. But it would be wrong to take them as argumentative examples: examples cannot validate a moral principle. Kant employs them to illustrate how we should apply the categorical imperative in its various formulations. We are perfectly free to take the concluding judgments as expressing Kant’s personal ethical beliefs about right and wrong, but such a perspective has only a historical value; to place too strong an emphasis on his examples would distort his theory. Yet, for his purposes, the examples are excellently drawn. Each illustrates one of the four types of duty.
Before stating the duties, however, Kant tentatively divides duties into two kinds, with two further divisions within each kind. There is no point in arguing for this particular division, since it is used simply as a schematic device to give some order to the illustrations. Were it an essential matter, Kant would surely have argued more strongly for it.
We will now consider a few duties, examining duties both to ourselves and to others, as well as perfect and imperfect duties.*
* I will postpone the division of duties for the Metaphysics of Morals which I hope to publish. The division here thus may seem arbitrary, but will serve to give order to my examples. Briefly, by a perfect duty I mean one which allows no exception in favor of inclination; such duties may be to ourselves or to others. The schools do not use this division, but I do not want to argue this question here, since the examples will serve whether the division be granted or not.
The division of duties is as follows:
1. Perfect duty to self (example 1).
2. Perfect duty to others (example 2).
3. Imperfect duty to self (example 3).
4. Imperfect duty to others (example 4).
What is the distinction between a perfect and an imperfect duty? After the fourth example, Kant distinguishes between them on the basis of the difference between thinking and willing a certain end. But an examination of the examples themselves will offer another distinction: a perfect duty is negative, an absolute prohibition. It commands us always and everywhere to avoid the action being considered (e.g., suicide and making false promises). An imperfect duty, on the other hand, is positive, bidding us do something, but not specifying the means to employ (e.g., benevolence to our fellow man). The particular action depends upon many considerations of the situation (such as how much money the benevolent man has to give, or to whom he should give it).
The first example, then, is that of a perfect duty to oneself. The question is: may a man commit suicide?
1. Perfect duty to self. Consider a man reduced to despair by a string of misfortunes; he is tired of living but is yet sufficiently reasonable to ask himself whether taking his own life would not be a violation of duty. He asks himself whether the maxim of his action could be a universal law of Nature. His maxim is: “From self-love, I will live by the rule to end my life when longer life seems likely to be miserable rather than satisfactory.” Can this maxim of self-love become a universal law of Nature? At once we see that there would be a self-contradiction in a system of Nature that allowed self-love to justify the destruction of life when the purpose of self-love is to motivate us to make life better. Nature cannot exist in such a way. Thus the maxim cannot be made into a law of Nature; and consequently it conflicts with the supreme law of duty.
The case is simple: a man whose future is one of pain, utter misery, even the loss of reason, asks whether he may legitimately end his life to avoid these horrors. He considers whether it could be a law of Nature that a man who foresees a life of misery may end his own life. But he also realizes that Nature has instilled in him an instinct for self-preservation. The self-made law is thus inconsistent with the actual law of Nature: self-love would lead to self-destruction at the same time that it leads to self-preservation. We must conclude, then, that suicide conflicts with morality, and that under no circumstances may a man take his own life without violating the moral law.
But we immediately think of heroes who have deliberately destroyed themselves for a cause (e.g., the man who throws himself on a hand grenade to save his comrades' lives). Would Kant say such deeds were immoral? Surely not. He speaks of one who is faced with a conflict between a duty and an interest. The maxim to take one’s own life is based on a desire to escape pain and misery. The heroic soldier, on the contrary, is not trying to take his own life but to save the lives of others. However, if he performed his heroic deed because it offered a way of suicide without shame, the morality of his action is then thrown open to question.
2. Perfect duty to others. Another man finds himself forced to borrow money. He knows that he will be unable to pay it back, but he also recognizes that no one will lend him money unless he firmly promises to repay it by a certain date. He is tempted to make the promise, but he is still conscientious enough to ask himself whether or not it is unlawful and against duty to avoid his financial troubles in this way. If he decides to make the promise, his maxim would be: “Whenever I find that I need money, I will borrow with a promise to repay even though I know I will not be able to do so.” We can allow that such a policy of self-love will be entirely beneficial to his future welfare. The question, however, is whether such an action is right. Let him put this policy into the form of a universal law of Nature and ask: “What will happen if my maxim becomes a universal law?” At once he sees that his maxim could not be a universal law of Nature: it necessarily contradicts itself. For imagine a universal law of Nature that everyone who thinks himself in need would promise anything at all with no intention of keeping such a promise. Both the promise and the goal sought by it would be impossible. Who will believe such a promise? The very attempt would be taken as a ridiculous, laughable pretense.
This example has often been used as an argument that Kant needs consequences to determine the Tightness or wrongness of an action.7 It does appear, at first glance, that Kant is using the consequences of making false promises as the basis for saying that making such promises is immoral. But we must remember what Kant wants to illustrate. A proposed law of Nature allowing false promises would be inconsistent with the real law of nature. If a person decided to make such a promise and thereby raised making false promises to the status of a law of Nature, he would then be unable to make the false promise. The law of false promise-making would be self-defeating. A person makes a false promise assuming that his hearer will take it as made in good faith. But if the law of Nature rules that a promise made by a person in need of money would not be kept, to whom could such a promise be made? Surely there is an inconsistency in proposing an action which becomes impossible to perform at the same time that it is proposed. Since this would be the case in universalizing the maxim of making a false promise—as judged by the standards of the Law of Nature imperative—making a false promise must be judged immoral and it is our duty to avoid it.
3. Imperfect duty to self. A third man finds that he has a talent which, were it cultivated, would make him a useful person in many ways. But he lives in comfortable surroundings and devotes himself to pleasures without trying to develop and perfect his fortunate natural ability. Yet he asks himself whether his maxim of neglecting his talent, which surely agrees with his yen for pleasures, can also agree with what is called duty. He finds that a system of Nature could very well include a law that every man (like the South Sea Islander) could allow his talents to rust away while he devotes his life simply to idleness, enjoyment, and sex—in short, to a life of pleasure seeking. But this man cannot will that his maxim become a universal law of Nature, ingrained in our own nature as an instinct. As a rational being, he necessarily wills that all his abilities be developed; he must employ these abilities, given to him by Nature for any number of potential uses.
Here Kant is aware that there would be no rational inconsistency between a South Sea Island universe and the universe as it is. The inconsistency is found in the willing. What this means he will explain shortly.
4. Imperfect duty to others. A fourth man is prosperous but sees that others must live in dire distress. He could help them, but he thinks : “What is that to me? Let a man be as well off as heaven allows—or as well off as he can make himself. I ask nothing of him and envy him nothing. But I have not the slightest inclination to help him when he is in trouble.” Now if this maxim became a universal law of nature, mankind could still exist and perhaps exist in a better condition than where everyone praises benevolence and goodwill, even practising them at Christmas, but at other times cheats, betrays, and violates the rights of his fellow man. While there could be such a universal law of Nature, yet it is impossible to will that such a law should govern universally as a law of Nature. A will which proposes such a law would contradict itself. Occasions can indeed arise in which a person would desire the love and sympathy of others; but by proposing such a law of Nature, he would have robbed himself of all hope of the help he wants.
Here, too, the inconsistency is in the willing and not in the realized state of nature. Kant now explains what he means by saying that the inconsistency is in the willing.
These examples of what we may take to be actual duties are clearly derivable from the single principle. The general canon for judging the moral quality of our actions is this: we must be able to will that the maxim of our action be made a universal law. Some actions (as illustrated by the first two examples) are such that we cannot even think the universalization of their maxims without involving a contradiction; and it goes without saying that willing such a contradiction would be impossible. Other actions (as in the latter two examples) do not involve that kind of contradiction, yet it is still impossible to will that the maxim be made a universal law of Nature for such a volition would be self-defeating. The first two maxims clearly conflict with strict or narrow (rigorous) duty; the second two maxims conflict with broader (meritorious) duty. And thus these examples of every kind of duty (perfect, imperfect, to self, to others) clearly show that duty must be determined by this one principle, not by reference to any object.
The first two examples (ending misery by suicide, and making a false promise) illustrate inconsistency between a universalized maxim and a law of Nature. We can call this an “objective inconsistency,” because it postulates a system of nature with mutually opposing 'laws": the “law” I will by universalizing my maxim versus the actual law of nature. The latter two examples (living the South Sea Island existence, and refusing to help one’s fellow man) illustrate a “volitional inconsistency” which is brought about by my willing my maxim to be a natural maxim, when it is inconsistent with my genuine natural maxims. By “natural maxim” I mean one which we have by the very fact that we are human beings, e.g., the maxim to seek happiness. When Kant speaks of the “impossibility” of willing a volitional inconsistency, he does not mean that a person cannot choose to act from such a maxim, for obviously a person can and often does. But he cannot consistently will that his maxim be a natural maxim; a genuine natural maxim must cohere with all other natural maxims. For instance, it would be inconsistent for me to act from a maxim intended to make me miserable, for it is my natural maxim to seek happiness. By trying to universalize the maxim, I would make it into a natural maxim which would obviously conflict with my genuine natural maxim to seek happiness. Kant’s criterion for moral maxims is consistency: either a consistency between the “naturalized” and actual laws of nature, or between the “naturalized” and genuine natural maxims.
In order to understand where Kant finds the volitional inconsistency in the third and fourth examples, we must recall Kant’s assumption that Nature is purposive. Because man is a rational being with a purpose given him by Nature (the perfection of his rational nature in the good will8), he wills that purpose from a natural maxim. But when he chooses to waste his rational nature in a life of indolence, he is “naturalizing” a maxim which is inconsistent with his real natural maxim. Thus his maxim to spend his life as a South Sea Islander is immoral. Again, in many of our pursuits we depend on the assistance of others; we cannot know in advance that we will never need their help. When a man chooses to remain aloof from the needs of others, he proposes to “naturalize” a maxim which conflicts with his genuine natural maxim that he achieve his own purposes in life. By “naturalizing” his maxim that a rational being never assist another who is in need, he is cutting himself off from achieving possible future goals. The two maxims are inconsistent and thus his maxim not to help others is immoral.
But a moral transgressor does not test his maxim by the standard of universal law. What does happen when a person wills from a maxim which conflicts with his duty?
If we were to introspect when we transgress duty, we would find, of course, that we do not will that our maxim be made a universal law. Not only are we unable to will such a law but, more to the point, we wish the opposite maxim to remain the general norm while we allow ourselves an exception “just this once,” to follow our personal whims. But if we judged all cases from a single point of view, that of reason, we would find a contradiction in our own willing: we objectively will that a certain rule hold as a necessary universal law and at the same time we subjectively will that our own case be made an exception to the universal law.
As a matter of practice, however, we regard our action from two points of view: the one of a will which conforms in every way to reason, and the other of a will as it is influenced by desire. This avoids an open contradiction, producing instead a clash of desire against the law of reason. In this way the universality of the principle weakens to a general rule of conduct, allowing our maxim to reach a compromise with the practical law of reason. While we could never justify this ploy by an impartial judgment, we demonstrate that we do in fact recognize the validity of the categorical imperative, but at the same time allow ourselves (who still “respect” the law) a few minor, unimportant exceptions, which appear “necessary in this case.”
Kant here expresses a valuable insight into the psychology of a transgression of duty. A person who fails to do his duty may still recognize the dutiful action as his usual obligation. When he recognizes an action as a duty, he recognizes the validity of a moral imperative; when he refuses to perform his duty, he makes an exception in his own case. He concedes that the moral law is usually binding but insists that the present situation has extenuating circumstances.
When a duty is refused, Kant suggests, there is another inconsistency. The transgressor proposes to make an exception to a law which is universally and unconditionally binding. When he allows such an exception, he rejects the law as a law. Yet in continuing to recognize his general obligation, he recognizes the law. Thus, says Kant, to transgress a duty knowingly is to act inconsistently; it is to acknowledge the universality of a law and yet deny its universality.
But at least we have proved that if duty is a meaningful concept which has true legislative authority over our actions, duty must be expressed in categorical imperatives only, never in hypothetical imperatives. We have gone even further, showing clearly and precisely for every kind of situation what the categorical imperative contains, namely, the law of duty. But is there in fact such a thing as duty? We have not yet come far enough to prove a priori that there really is such an imperative, a practical law which of itself commands us absolutely and without any other motive, and that to obey this law is to do one’s duty.
The categorical imperative is the only law of morality; no imperatives grounded in self-interest can command us unconditionally. But we have not yet proved that the categorical imperative can or does command us under moral obligation. We believe that it does, because we experience a feeling of constraint which we refer to as the call of duty. But duty must be proved a priori, not by any feeling. The next three paragraphs reaffirm that a valid morality must be a priori, expressed in categorical imperatives, and independent of any empirical elements.
But while we seek to prove that duty is real, we must at all costs avoid thinking that the proof can be based upon the particular characteristics of human nature. Duty refers to the practical, unconditional necessity of acting. The imperative of duty must then apply to a being only in so far as that being is rational, and this only can be its foundation as a law for the human will. Particular characteristics of human nature, such as certain feelings and propensities, and (if it be possible) even unique functions of human reason which would not necessarily belong to every rational being—any of these may produce a maxim for us, but not a law. They can provide a subjective rule for us to follow, given that we have the impulse and incentive, but never an objective law which can command us to act despite every natural propensity, desire, and feeling to the contrary. In fact, the less subjective motives support doing one’s duty and the more they oppose it, the greater shines the sublime, inherent value of the command, for the conflicting inclinations do not in the slightest lessen the authority or validity of the law.
At this point our philosophy is in a critical position: it requires a firm basis, even though nothing in heaven or on earth will serve to support it. Here our philosophy must prove its virtue as absolute authority for its own laws, not as a delivery boy of laws whispered by some implanted sense or heaven knows what guardian spirit. While such laws are better than no laws at all, they cannot equal that law which only reason can dictate. Such commands of reason must be derived wholly a priori in order to have any commanding authority; they cannot depend upon any human inclinations but only on the sovereignty of the law and reason’s respect for the law. Without such a law, man is condemned to self-contempt and inward abhorrence.
Empirical elements, then, not only fail to assist the principle of morality, they even sully its purity. For in morals the proper and supreme value of the good will rests exactly on the freedom of its principle of action from all those contingent influences arising from experience. We cannot repeat the warning too often or too strongly—avoid the lazy, narrow-minded habit of looking for moral principles among empirical motives and rules. Weary human reason too quickly seeks repose on this pillow, to dream sweet fantasies in which it embraces no Juno but only a cloud. In such an illusion, reason substitutes for legitimate morality a bastard formed from limbs of varied heritage, resembling whatever one wants to see in it but bearing no resemblance to Virtue’s true figure in the eyes of those who have once beheld her.*
* To see Virtue’s proper form one must show morality “in the nude,” stripping her of all trappings of sense and paste decorations of reward or self-love. How lovely she then appears, surpassing everything else that lays claim to our affections! Such a vision anyone can perceive with the slightest effort of reason—providing, of course, he is still capable of abstracting.
Kant has emphasized these points before, pointing out that we have not yet proved that morality can be justified. We cannot base morality on the nature of man as we know him by experience but must ground morality in reason alone. The moral law is most apparent when it conflicts with and not when it conforms to self-interest. Kant then raises a different question: do rational agents have a duty to examine their maxims by the standard of the categorical imperative? If so, what is the basis for their obligation?
The question then is raised: Is it necessarily a law that all rational beings judge their actions by maxims which they could will to become universal laws? Such a law must be connected entirely a priori with the idea of the will of a rational being as such. But to find the connection we must take a reluctant step into metaphysics, but not into speculative philosophy—rather into the metaphysics of morals.
In practical philosophy we do not seek reasons for what happens, but objective, practical laws for what ought to happen (even if it never does ). We need not ask why this pleases or why that displeases, how a mere pleasant sensation differs from the pleasures of an acquired taste, or how the latter differs from the rational satisfaction of approval. We need not seek the bases of pleasure or displeasure, the sources of desires and impulses, or know how these join with reason to generate maxims. These are all questions of empirical psychology which we saw belong to that part of the material philosophy of Nature which is based on empirical laws.
Our question here concerns objective practical law, involving how the will determines itself by reason alone, which it can only do a priori. Thus anything related to experience must be discarded. Let us then inquire whether reason can determine its own activity.
We cannot determine by any kind of experience whether a rational being has an obligation to judge his maxim according to the categorical imperative. If we have an obligation to determine the moral status of our own actions—if we have a duty to make sure that our action conforms with moral law—this obligation itself must rest solely on reason. Our question, then, is not so much whether we have such an obligation—for if we do not, moral principles are pointless—but how reason makes such commands.
Every action has a purpose. We do not act unless we act for some end; without a purpose, direction, or point for acting, we simply do not act. We walk in order to get somewhere, to exercise, to carry something. Actions which are pointless, or purposeless, are really not actions at all, but are more properly called re-actions, or bodily responses to feeling. We always do something and aim at something. What we wish to accomplish is called our purpose in acting, our goal—or in Kant’s vocabulary, our end. Some ends are immediate, others are long range, and still others are ultimate. For example, a Christian attends Sunday worship with the immediate end to pray; his long-range goal might be the salvation of his soul and eternal bliss in heaven, while his ultimate purpose is to achieve a life of union with God. All of these can be his purposes for attending Sunday worship.
Once we achieve an immediate end, we set up another immediate end under the guidance of a long-range end. As steps in the achievement of long-range ends, immediate ends are not ends in themselves, but are intermediate ends, i.e., ends which are also means to further ends. In order to get downtown I must go to the first street crossing, then to the next, and so on. Each is an end, since I walk to arrive at that spot. But I do not wish merely to get to the first crossing; I seek that point only as a part of the way downtown. Only an end which is desirable in itself and for itself alone and not as a means to something else can be called an end-in-itself, or an ultimate end.
There are ends which a person seeks because they will satisfy his personal desires or needs. These are called subjective, or personal, ends. On the other hand, there may be some end which everyone ought to seek. Such an end would be objective since it would not depend on any desire to achieve it or need for it.
We think of the will as an ability to act self-determiningly according to the idea of certain laws. Only rational beings have this ability. That basis of self-determination which lies beyond the willing itself we call an end. If this basis comes from reason alone, then the end so derived holds for all rational beings alike. On the other hand, that action which may produce such an end we call the means. The subjective urge of desire is the impulse to act, and the objective reason for willing to act we call the motive. Thus we can distinguish between subjective ends which arise from desires, and objective ends which rest only on rational, and hence universally valid, motives. Rules for acting are formal if they have no subjective ends; they are material if they have subjective ends based on particular desires.
Whatever material end a rational being arbitrarily chooses to produce by his action has value as an end only in relation to the particular kind of desire in the agent. Such a relative value obviously cannot be the foundation for a practical law which will be universally valid for all rational beings and all their volitions. Relative ends can generate only hypothetical imperatives.
We must distinguish between a subjective ground and a subjective end, between an objective ground and an objective end. Every action has both a subjective ground and an objective ground, in that every action springs from some incentive and seeks to achieve some goal. The inner desire, the source of my wanting some object, is the subjective ground. The goal of the action, achieving the desired object, is the objective ground for which I act. “Ground,” whether subjective (as the source of the purpose) or objective (as the object of desire), refers to the fundamental springs in any act of willing. “End,” on the other hand, refers only to the result willed, not to anything in the act of willing. A subjective end is one which is sought because the agent desires it. Although the goal is sought through the action, it still remains a personal goal arising from some desire, making it a subjective end. Every subjective end, of course, is at the same time an objective ground of a particular act of will.
Kant calls all subjective ends material, since they are ends only in the context of a situation involving a person who desires them. Any principle of action (maxim) which is based on such a personal, subjective desire has imperative force only because the person actually desires to achieve the end. “If you want to be skilled in bowling, you ought to practice every day.” The imperative, “Practice every day,” has authority only to the extent that the agent actually desires to be skilled in bowling. Thus subjective ends can serve as the foundation for hypothetical imperatives only.
An objective end, on the contrary, is not dependent on desire (although, as an objective of the will, it would be an objective ground). But being independent of desire, yet worthy of being an end, it must have its value as an end in itself. That is, it must have intrinsic value and be desirable for its own sake; its value must be independent of particular situations and personal inclinations. In a word, it must be an end which all rational beings ought to seek simply because it is a thing good in itself.
But suppose there were something which by its very existence would have an absolute value all by itself. This would constitute an end in itself and could generate exact laws. Only in such an end could we find the basis for a practical law, that is, for a categorical imperative.
Such an end must be sought because of its own intrinsic worth. Its status as an end could not depend on its being desired by someone; it ought to be sought solely because it has intrinsic value. Such an end would provide the basis for a law for all rational beings in every situation, i.e., it would be the foundation for a categorical imperative.
Man is such an end. Man, or more generally, every rational being, exists as an end in himself. Whatever he may do, involving only himself or other rational beings, he must always be valued as an end, not merely as a means to be used at the whim of this or that will.
Objects of desire have at best a conditional value. Unless they be the basis of some desire or need, they have no value at all. But the inclinations which give rise to needs are themselves so far removed from absolute value that every rational being must wish himself completely freed of such desires. Thus any object which our actions may produce will have only a conditional value. Nonrational beings which exist in Nature independently of our wills have at best a value as means, and we refer to them as things.
But rational beings, on the other hand, we call persons, since by their very nature they exist as ends in themselves, never to be treated simply as things. A person is an object of respect; thus we cannot treat him in any arbitrary fashion. He is not simply a subjective end, as though his value rested solely on our desires; he is an objective end, one who exists in himself as an end. We cannot make him a mere means to some end substituted in his place. If a rational being be not such an end, nothing whatsoever has absolute value. But if everything has only relative contingent value, then there can be no supreme principle of practical reason.
The only object of intrinsic value is man as a rational being. He is thus an object of respect and can be seen as a valid foundation for a universal principle of action. In his first proposition of morality, Kant insisted that a rational being has intrinsic worth: the only absolutely good thing is the good will. The good will is grounded in reason, and whatever serves as the foundation of an absolute good is itself of intrinsic value. All rational beings, because they are beings who can reason, are objects having intrinsic value. Consequently, every man is an object having absolute value, for as a rational being he is the foundation of his own good will, which is the absolute good.
The intrinsic worth of a rational being does not depend upon his having a good will, for few men, if any, have such a worth. Rather it is because every man is a rational being and as such could have a good will, that we consider him a being of intrinsic value. A diamond in the rough is valuable because it can become a beautiful jewel, not because it already is one.
The first variation of the categorical imperative considered whether the maxim of the action could consistently be willed to be a universal law of nature. The second variation refers to the purpose or end of the action as an end of intrinsic value, and so as an objective end for every rational being.
If there be a supreme practical law, a categorical imperative for the human will, it must be derived from the idea that what is an end in itself is necessarily an end for everyone. From this we can conclude an objective principle for the will, that is, a universal practical law. The principle rests on this: rational nature exists as an end in itself. Now so far as I necessarily think of my own existence this way, the principle serves me only as a subjective rule of human action. But what is more, every rational being thinks of himself in the same way as I do, based on the same rational grounds that hold for me.* This makes the rule an objective principle and thus a supreme practical law from which we can derive all laws of the will. The practical imperative, then, is this: always act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, as an end, and never merely as a means.
* I state this proposition here as a postulate. Grounds for it will be presented in Section III.
We see clearly the similarity between this variation of the categorical imperative and Cicero’s second rule: Honor every man as a human being, because he is a human being. Just as the first variation commands us to consider the maxim of our action—no matter what maxim it may be—as a universal law of nature, so this variation commands us to treat human beings—no matter who or in what situation—as having unconditional value, not as something which serves merely as a means to some personal (subjective) end.
We cannot conclude, just because every human being views himself as an end, that we ought to treat men as ends in themselves. A general truth cannot serve as the justification for a moral law since we learn the general truth by experience, whereas a moral law must be based on reason. But if man necessarily views himself as an end—and always from the same rational ground—then we can conclude that every man must never treat himself or any other human being as a mere means. Only in this way can the universal statement be shown to be a priori and a valid ground for a moral law. However, it is one thing to assert that every man necessarily sees himself as an end in himself and quite another to prove it. The proof, however, will be postponed until Section III (chapter 9), where Kant will attempt to validate the ultimate principle of morality.
Kant again examines the four examples previously given, this time from the standpoint of humanity as an end.
Let us see now whether we can derive particular moral laws from this principle. Consider again our previous examples:
1. Necessary duty to self. A man thinking of committing suicide will ask himself: “Would my action be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself?” If he kills himself to escape a painful situation, he uses a person (himself) as a mere means for keeping his life tolerable so long as he lives. But man is not a thing; he is not something to be used as a mere means. In all his actions and at all times, man must be considered as an end in himself. So I cannot mistreat the humanity of my own person by mutilating, ruining, or killing myself.*
* Certain questions, however, may arise in this matter, leading to confusion. For example, may I risk my life now in order to make my life safer in the future? We must leave the examination of such questions to ethics proper.
If rational nature exists as an end in itself, then I may not use it as a means to the achievement of some merely personal objective. It makes no difference whether it be my own rational nature or another’s: the law holds alike for every being having a rational nature. I cannot act in any way which would tend to harm my rational nature. This applies not only to self-destruction, but also to less permanent harm, such as drunkenness and narcotic addiction.
Kant suggests two interesting questions, although he does not discuss them. First, to what extent may a man risk his life to save himself? The answer is by no means obvious and would depend upon the many factors of the particular situation. The second question, implicit in this example, is this: may a man mutilate himself if it does not harm his rational nature in any way? May a person offer one of his eyes to a blind man for some financial compensation? On the surface, at least, he is not involving his rational nature in such an operation. Perhaps it would depend on the motive: whether he gave up his eye in order to help the blind or just for the money. It does not seem to be a clear-cut case which can be decided by the categorical imperative alone.
2. Necessary duty, or strict obligation, to others. Anyone who proposes to make a false promise can see immediately that he plans to use the other person as a mere means to an end which ignores the other person’s value as an end in himself. The person I intend to exploit for my own benefit cannot possibly consent to being used in this way, and thus I cannot at the same time consider him as sharing the purpose of my making such a promise. This violation of the duty we owe to other men becomes more evident when we use examples of attacks against their freedom and property. Then we see patently that one who violates the rights of men intends to exploit the person of others as mere means, without any thought that they must always be valued as ends. They are rational beings who must themselves be thought of as sharing in the purposes of the action.*
* The trite rule, “Quod tibi non vis fieri, etc.” (Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you), cannot serve as a moral principle. Indeed, while it may be derived from our principle, it is limited by various restrictions. It cannot be a universal law, for it lacks a basis for duties to self as well as strict duties to others. One cannot even derive duties of benevolence from such a rule, for many a man would be willing for others not to help him so long as he was not obliged to help others. If this rule were a guide, the criminal could use it against the judge who punishes him, and so on.
Making false promises is clearly immoral, for one who makes such a promise is using another person solely as a means to his own subjective end. The same immorality attends slavery, racial discrimination, theft, unfair taxation, and poor wages—in brief, any action which treats another human being as a thing rather than a person.
The similarity of the second variation to the Golden Rule leads Kant to emphasize that the Golden Rule cannot be a valid principle of morality. In the above footnote Kant argues that this rule—"What you do not want done to you, do not do to another”—allows certain actions which are contrary to morality. The basic flaw, however, is that the Golden Rule is grounded in desire or aversion, not in reason alone, so it cannot serve as a principle of morality. Still it has a certain practical value: no man wishes to be treated as a mere means and so in common fairness should not treat another as he himself would not wish to be treated. But in the end, such a rule by itself has no moral validity.
3. Contingent, or meritorious, duty to self. It is not enough that our action not exploit the humanity of our own person as an end in itself, but more, the action must harmonize with the idea of humanity. Every human being has talents for self-improvement; these are grounded in Nature’s purposes for humanity. If we fail to exercise our talents, we may not conflict with the continued survival of humanity as an end, but we surely do nothing to further it.
4. Meritorious duties to others. Every man seeks his own happiness as his natural goal. Perhaps humanity would survive even though no one helped others to become happy, as long as no one got in the way of another’s happiness. But this would be only a negative kind of harmony with humanity as an end. A positive harmony requires each person to do as much as possible to promote the happiness of others. For since a person is an end in himself, then as far as possible his ends must become my ends too, if the idea of harmony with humanity as an end is to have any positive effect on me.
When Kant discusses the third and fourth examples, he again presupposes a purposiveness in nature. Every man, he assumes, naturally wills his own improvement and his own happiness; and nature intends each of us to develop our rational natures. Life on a South Sea Island would not, strictly speaking, harm my own rational nature. But it surely does nothing to improve it. Since my own rational nature naturally seeks its own improvement, then in neglecting to improve I am prostituting my rational nature to satisfy my desires for comfort and pleasure. By not improving myself, I act contrary to my duty to further the goal of rational nature.
To what extent can the goals of others become my own? Must I seek the improvement of another’s rational nature as my duty in the same way that I am duty bound to seek my own improvement? No, says Kant. My duty to others is to promote their happiness. In Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals he distinguishes between the ends of nature and a natural end. A natural end is one which all men as human beings actually seek: happiness. But the end of nature for man is that which all men ought to seek: namely, the improvement of their own rational natures.11 Our duty to others is to further their natural end, happiness, since each individual himself must be held responsible for improving his own rational nature. Hence Kant’s dictum: “Seek the perfection of self and the happiness of others.” But there is an obvious limitation to our duty to seek the happiness of others: we must not seek their happiness to such an extent that we fail to improve our own rational natures, nor to such an extent that we prevent others from seeking their own perfection. We cannot, for instance, ply a friend with gin to the point of drunkenness with the excuse that we are fulfilling our duty to make him happy. “Happy” he may well be, but he is in no condition to improve himself.
This principle—that humanity and generally every rational nature is an end in itself—is the supreme restriction on a man’s activity. Being a universal principle, applying to all rational beings, it cannot be grounded in experience, since experience cannot inform us about every possible rational being. Furthermore, the principle does not propose humanity as a subjective end which men actually determine for themselves, but rather as an objective end, one which serves as the supreme limiting condition for all subjective ends whatsoever. The principle must then be derived from pure reason.
We have already noted that the idea of man as a being having intrinsic worth cannot rest on each man’s conception of his own worth. Rather it rests upon the necessity which attends each man’s conception, and such a necessity can rest only on reason. (This will be discussed in Section III.)
Rational nature is the supreme limiting condition on our freedom of action. Evidently Kant intends something similar to St. Augustine’s famous precept: “Love God, and do what you will.” In Kant’s language, “Treat humanity always as an end, and do what you will.” Kant does not intend the principles to spell out what life a man should lead; they command a man to lead his life whatever the particulars in a moral manner. And since morality is the control of inclination by a rational will obedient to universal law, it is surely immoral to relegate any rational will to the status of a mere means for the satisfaction of inclination.
The second variation of the categorical imperative does not forbid us to treat others as means; it forbids our treating others as mere means. Every time I trade at a store or deal with anyone for some personal advantage, I treat the person as a means to my advantage. The principle says: Never treat a person merely as a thing, but always treat him as a person.
This variation incorporates two concepts : the autonomy of the will and the kingdom of ends. Kant first develops the idea of the will as self-legislating (autonomous), and from this he constructs the concept of a kingdom of ends. He believes that each of these ideas can be related to one of the variations already presented. Given that the will elevates its maxims to the status of a universal law (first variation), it follows that the will is self-legislating; given that each rational nature is an end in itself (second variation), it follows that all rational wills together constitute a “kingdom of ends.”
4a. The Will as Self-Legislating
According to the first variation of the categorical imperative, the objective basis for all practical lawmaking lies in the rule and its form, universality, which lets us conceive the rule as a law, even a law of Nature. The purpose of an action provides a subjective basis only. The second variation shows us that any rational nature which seeks an end is an end in itself. From these two variations we can deduce a third practical law for the will, a principle which is the ultimate foundation for harmonizing the will with universal practical reason. This principle is grounded in the idea that every rational being has a will which makes universal law.
From the standpoint of the will in its relation to the law, the basis for respect is the unconditional universality of the law. Because the moral law is a universal law, binding all rational wills, the will is constrained to obey. But from the standpoint of the will as the origin of its own choices, the will must recognize itself as an inherently valuable end in itself. Because every rational nature has inherent value, one’s own will is an end in itself and must never be treated as a mere means.
Kant now combines the two ideas, that of a rational being and that of a will which makes universal law. The latter idea, that of a will making universal law, forms the first part of the third variation of the categorical imperative: Always act as a being which makes universal law.
According to this principle, we must reject any maxim which does not conform to the universal lawmaking of the will. Thus the will is subject to the law in so far as it makes law for itself. This is the only way it can be both subject and author of the law.
When I obey a command because it is given me by some particular person, then I do not obey the command itself, but rather the person who commands me. My motive may be self-interest or respect for authority, but it is not respect for law as such.12 When a soldier obeys his commander from fear of being confined to the guardhouse, his motive is prudence. However, whenever I obey a command because it is the law, then I must impose this command upon myself. The moral necessity of obligation, expressed by the moral “ought,” is grounded in my own reason, not in someone else’s authority. One soldier may obey his commander because he considers it his moral duty to do so, while another may obey from fear of the consequences of disobedience. The first acts morally, because, although the command itself arose from another’s authority, the soldier makes the command into a moral law binding on himself. The second soldier does his duty, but from prudence, since the incentive is not respect for law but respect for the commander’s authority—perhaps fear would be more accurate in some cases. All actions done from duty are done from respect for a law given by a self-legislating will.
The first two variations of the categorical imperative—the first commanding us to conform our actions to the idea of a natural order or law, the second commanding us to treat every rational being as an end in himself—excluded from their sovereignty every element of motive based on desire. In no other way could they be categorical. But we only assumed that these principles are categorical imperatives in order to explain the idea of Duty. Our purpose in this section does not allow our offering an independent proof.
What could be done at this point, however, would be to show that the distinguishing mark of the categorical imperative, as opposed to a hypothetical imperative, is a will which acts from duty while renouncing all self-interest. And we have this mark shown in the third variation, in the idea of the will of a rational being as making universal law.
A will may be subject to a law from self-interest. But if the will makes universal law, we must conclude that it is free of any self-interest. For otherwise the will would require yet another law which commanded that the maxim of acting from self-interest conform to the idea of universal law.
The principle that every human will can make universal law from its maxims* is a good basis for a categorical imperative, assuming we can prove it. Grounded as it is on the idea of making universal law, it excludes any basis of self-interest; and so of all possible imperatives this one only can be unconditional. Or better yet, let us turn it around: a categorical imperative, as a law for the will of every rational being, must command us to act always on a maxim by which the will considers itself as making universal law. Only in this way can the practical principle and the imperative be unconditional, since the will which obeys them cannot find its motive in self-interest.
* I need not provide examples to illustrate this principle; those we have already used for the first two variations will serve here quite well.
Another way of expressing this part of the third variation is to say that an agent must never act in a manner in which interest would conflict with self-legislation. This does not forbid our acting from self-interest; such would be an intolerable rule and quite impossible to follow. But if an agent can act from duty at all, he can do so only as a rational being who rules himself. When he acts from duty in opposition to interest, he obviously recognizes the validity of the imperative on grounds other than self-interest. When his self-interest and his duty coincide, the question of conflict or ground does not arise. Yet even here the morality of the action must be judged by the moral imperative, not by self-interest. But when an action done from self-interest cannot also be done from self-legislation, then it violates the imperative of morality. Hence we can set up as a standard for moral judgment: Always act as a self-legislating agent.
Let us take Kant’s footnote suggestions and see how this variation can be applied in the four situations. First we shall briefly discuss the first and third examples from the viewpoint of the s elf-legislating will. (Since the second and fourth examples involve our duties to other rational beings in a community of ends, they more properly apply to the second part of the variation and we shall examine them when we discuss the kingdom of ends.)
1. Perfect duty to self. A person contemplating suicide cannot consistently will to take his own life and at the same time act as a universal lawgiver, since in killing himself he is destroying the very source of the law. It is a moot law which by its very promulgation nullifies itself.
3. Imperfect duty to self. One who intends to live a life of ease on a South Sea island does not destroy the source of the law, true, but he cannot will that such a life be commanded by universal law. For by refusing to improve the talents of his rational nature he is legislating that the lawgiver limit his own ability to make law, namely, by remaining rationally undeveloped. Man’s natural maxim to develop his intellectual capacities, evidenced by his natural curiosity, would thereby be opposed by the “naturalized” maxim that he remain ignorant, and this generates a volitional inconsistency. (Note that the question of limiting one’s ability to make law is independent of how many laws a lawgiver actually makes. No lawgiver makes every law that could possibly be made.)
It is no wonder, then, that all previous attempts to find the principle of morality have failed. Moral philosophers recognized that man was bound to law by duty; but they failed to see that he is bound only to a universal law which is self-made and that he must conform only to a will which, while it is his own will, yet is designed by Nature to make universal law. So long as they saw man simply as subject to a law, whatever it might be, they insisted that this necessarily required some principle of self-interest as the spring or impulse to obedience. Not understanding that the will was the source of its own law, they concluded that something else had to constrain the will to act in this or that way.
By following the path of such logic, they wasted all their efforts in finding an ultimate foundation for duty. Rather, they found only the (subjective) necessity of acting from self-interest, whether for oneself or another. But the resulting imperatives were at best conditional, incapable of being true moral commands.
I will call this moral principle the principle of the autonomy of the will; all other principles which oppose it I will classify under Heteronomy.
By “heteronomy” Kant means a will acting through self-interest, willing nonautonomously.13 No heteronomous principle can serve as a moral command but only as a general rule of prudence, expressed in a hypothetical imperative. Failure to understand that self-legislation (autonomy) is the foundation of morality has misled all previous attempts to discover the ultimate principle of morality. The above paragraph foreshadows the last part of Section II (Chapter 8) in which Kant discusses the “spurious” attempts to discover the ultimate principle in a heteronomous will.
4b. The Autonomous Will in a Kingdom of Ends
The idea that every rational being must consider himself as making universal laws by his maxims and must judge himself and his actions by this standard, provides us with another and very fruitful idea, namely, that of a kingdom of ends.
By “kingdom” I mean the orderly community of different rational beings under a common law. By law the universal validity of an end is determined, so if we abstract from the personal differences between rational beings, as well as their personal goals, we can conceive the totality of remaining ends as forming an orderly system: each rational being as an end in himself and as capable of proposing personal goals for himself. In this way, from the previous principles, we can derive the idea of a kingdom of ends.
Every rational being is subject to the same law which commands that he treat himself and all others as ends in themselves, not merely as means. This establishes an orderly system of rational beings under a common law—in short, a kingdom. And since this law defines how each rational being relates to every other as end and means, we can call such system a kingdom of ends (which is, of course, only an Ideal ).
Kant thus introduces the idea of a kingdom of ends. This idea combines two familiar concepts : that of the autonomous will and that of each will as an end in itself. The principle here advocated is the ideal harmonization of all autonomous wills in a systematic, harmonious community. This ideal kingdom of ends has two distinctive features: (a) every member is himself the lawmaker by willing his own law; (b) every member has duties to every other member. But how can there be a kingdom in which every member makes laws for every other member? This would produce chaos, unless every member legislates the same law, for himself and others. And if, as Kant believes, every perfectly moral rational nature would will the same maxim in a given situation, then in the ideal community of ends, every member would legislate the same moral law. Though each in fact would command himself, the law would be the same for every person. Hence we have the complete third variation of the categorical imperative: Always act as a self-legislating (autonomous) member of a kingdom of ends. That is, always act according to a maxim which a rational being, living in a community of rational beings, would will autonomously for the benefit of every member in the community.
The positive command is that we act in such a way that all ends (both subjective and objective) are harmonized. Forbidden by this imperative is any action which would tend to prevent ones own perfection or another’s happiness. From this point of view the relation of the third variation to the second is quite clear (see above, p. 161). Since everyone has duties to himself and to others, it is the duty of everyone to harmonize the performance of these mutually related duties.
A rational being belongs to the kingdom of ends as a member by making universal law for it, and at the same time being subject to its law. He is its sovereign when he makes the law without being under the influence of any other will. As a rational being he may think of himself as either a member or a ruler in this kingdom of ends (which has its basis in free will); but either way he must consider himself as making the law. He could not, however, think of himself as ruler simply because of the maxims of his will, but only if he sees himself as a completely independent being, without needs and possessing the absolute power corresponding to his will.
To speak of a sovereign in this kingdom of apparently equal and autonomous ends seems contradictory. In Part I of the Metaphysics of Morals,15 Kant describes a sovereign as having many rights but no duties toward his subjects. The sovereign makes the law but is not subject to the law. In the Critique of Practical Reason,16 he postulates faith in God, the stabilizing “sovereign” of the human kingdom of ends. Neither of these concepts, however, seems to fit here, where Kant says explicitly that every rational being may think of himself as both a member and as sovereign of the kingdom of ends. And while a human being must consider himself as a rational being, he would presume somewhat to think of himself as God, the Holy Will. Furthermore, a rational being must consider himself subject to the law, while the Supreme Lawgiver is not subject to it.
The only reasonable interpretation17 of this bipolarity is that Kant is using the concept of the sovereign to emphasize the kind of laws that the “true” sovereign makes. Notice the characteristics of the sovereign: he is completely independent, he has no desires, and possesses absolute power. And as sovereign his sole function is the welfare of the state or commonwealth, both as a community and as a totality of individuals making up the community. In so far as he is sovereign he makes laws not to his own interest (for he has none) but solely for the good of the community. And this good can be defined as the harmonization of the goals of all rational beings composing the community.
Thus when a rational being, as a member and sovereign of the kingdom of ends, makes laws which bind all the members, including himself, these laws must have as their sole objective the welfare of all the members as rational beings. That is, the laws must treat all members of the kingdom of ends as ends in themselves and also seek to harmonize as far as possible the personal goals of all the members. This concept, then, serves as the guiding principle for making moral judgments. We might paraphrase the third variation of the categorical imperative in the following way: Always act as the absolute and autonomous sovereign of a community of rational beings, making laws in a completely disinterested manner, laws which will harmonize the goals of all the members, including your own. Any maxim which seeks personal advantage to the harm of the community is immoral; any maxim which is influenced solely by one’s own desires or the will of others fails the test of being universal law. In brief, the principle commands us to act as if we were God, with supreme power to make laws that have as their object the welfare, happiness, and perfection of all rational beings, and yet to keep in mind that these laws apply to ourselves no less than to any other.
The second and fourth examples, postponed above, can now illustrate the application of the second part of the third variation.
2. Perfect duty to others. Anyone who accepts a promise from me assumes that the promise will be kept, and he may make his plans accordingly. Anyone who lends me money will have some future use for the money he expects me to repay. However, when I propose the maxim that when in need I will make a false promise, I propose a situation in which the legitimate expectations and plans of my creditor will be thwarted. Such a maxim impedes the harmonious realization of goals and purposes and so contradicts the law that my maxim should promote such a harmony. Thus my maxim is immoral.
4. Imperfect duty to others. As an autonomous and thus sovereign member of a kingdom of ends, I cannot put my own interests above the general welfare of the community. A situation, in which by my aid others can more effectively and harmoniously achieve their personal and rational purposes, puts me under obligation, as sovereign, to give such aid. But if my maxim permits me to refuse aid to others, then the maxim contradicts my natural maxim as sovereign; it allows me to act for my own interest, rather than the welfare of the community. When I, as sovereign, will my own purposes to the detriment of the community, I generate a volitional inconsistency. My maxim, therefore, is immoral.
The rational will is an end in itself because it is self-legistative, regarding itself as making universal law by its maxim. It acts morally when it acts out of respect for its own legislation, not from self-interest. But since all rational beings are equally self-legislative, their interrelating self-legislation forms a community based on a common law, which ideally tends toward the complete harmonization of all ends.
Traditional and historical conceptions of the sovereign have carried with them the flavor (and often the assertion) of the superiority of the sovereign. But Kant, while he insists that each rational member of a kingdom of ends is an autonomous sovereign, nevertheless emphasizes the equal value of all members in this ideal kingdom. There must be something about each member, then, which forbids our elevating any one man—whether oneself or any other—to a superior status. This characteristic is what Kant refers to as the incomparable dignity of rational nature.
What then is morality? Nothing but the relation between an action and that law which establishes a kingdom of ends. This law, however, is grounded in the will of every rational being, and by it he commands himself always to act by a maxim which he would will to be a universal law. In other words, the will can conceive of itself as making universal law through its maxim. When a maxim does not already conform to this objective standard—that the rational will make universal law—the necessity of conforming ones maxim to this standard becomes a moral necessity, a duty.
The practical necessity, or duty, of acting on this principle cannot rest on feelings, impulses, or desires. It must rest solely on the relation of one rational being to another, a relation wherein each rational will is taken to be a maker of universal law. Only in this way can the rational will be regarded as an end in itself. Reason, then, relates every maxim of the will, in so far as the will makes universal law thereby, to every other rational will; it even relates the maxim to the action of others which are directed at itself. It does so, not from any personal motive or desire for advantage, but from the idea of the dignity of a rational being as one who obeys no law except the law he himself makes.
In a kingdom of ends, everything has either a price or a dignity. Anything having a price can be replaced by something else with an equivalent value. But if its value is priceless, having no equivalent, we say it has a dignity. Those things which relate to general human desires or needs have a market price. On the other hand, things which we value not from need but from taste, for the immediate purposeless enjoyment we derive from them, are said to have an aesthetic price. But that which is the fundamental condition for all value must be an end in itself; its value is not relative, but inherent. Such is its dignity.
Everything for which we act has a value. This is obvious : were an object valueless, we would ignore it. So every end, by the very fact that it is an end, has some value or other. Ends may have a purely subjective value (e.g., “I just like it, that’s all"), or an objective value (e.g., “This will relieve my headache"). If the valued object is such that something else will serve just as well, we say this end or object has a price. We value money, and we value ice cream; we exchange one for the other. The price of the money and the price of the ice cream are given a value-equivalence.
If the price can be stated in some financial equivalent (the most common price system of a society), then the object has a market price. But some values have no monetary equivalent, and among these we find aesthetic pleasures. We cannot say that the experience of hearing Das Rheingold is worth ten dollars. Everyone attending the opera may have paid that sum for a seat, but it does not follow that any person’s enjoyment can be valued at ten dollars. Yet aesthetic experiences are equivalent to other experiences. For instance, I could perhaps enjoy The King and I just as much as West Side Story and more than Das Rheingold. This kind of value Kant calls an aesthetic price, a price of taste.19
That which has no equivalent in value we say is priceless. An end in itself, having an intrinsic objective value, is above price: it has a dignity. Moreover, one thing may have dignity because it is a thing of unqualified value (the moral will), while another may have dignity because it is the condition or foundation for that unqualified value (rational nature).
Now morality is the sole condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only by conforming to moral law can a rational being be a lawmaking member of a kingdom of ends. Consequently, only morality and humanity—in that a human being is able to be moral—have dignity. Skill and hard work have a market price; wit, lively imagination and humor have an aesthetic price. But keeping one’s promises and helping others, from principle rather than from inclination, have inherent value. Nothing in Nature or in art can take their place, for their value does not consist in any effects they may produce nor in any resulting advantages or benefits, but only in the way reason conceives of them. That is, by the maxims of the will, these virtues exhibit themselves in actions even when there seems to be no chance of success.
Such virtuous actions do not depend on subjective attitudes or tastes in order to secure our immediate favor and approval; they require no intuitive feeling of satisfaction. These actions show the will which performs them to be worthy of immediate respect, and reason requires no further inducement in order to impose such duties on the will—in fact, using other inducements to impose a duty would be a contradiction. We thus evaluate reasons moral disposition as having dignity, a value infinitely beyond price. Nothing whatsoever can be held up to compare with it without violating its sanctity.
How can we justify such a lofty claim about the moral disposition or virtuous activity? By showing that it gives the rational being a sharing role in making universal law. His own nature as an end in himself makes him worthy for membership in a possible kingdom of ends. As an end in himself he makes universal law in a kingdom of ends, free of Nature’s law, obeying only the law he himself makes by his maxim, law to which he is himself subject. Nothing has value except by law. So the maker of this value-determining law must have a dignity, an unconditional and priceless value. Only the word “respect” conveys the esteem a rational being must have for the law and the lawmaker. Autonomy is therefore the foundation of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature.
Such inestimable value is based on autonomy. Precisely because man is self-legislating, he is an end in himself. In making his own law, he is making law which is universally binding for every rational nature. Herein lies the essence of dignity. For whatever determines the value of everything else must itself be above value. Persons must be of greater value than any end they create by their interest. But the value of moral action is incomparably greater than anything in nature or art; only the good will, the source of the moral choice, has unqualified value. The autonomous lawmaking by the rational will is the basis for the incomparable value of a moral action. Hence, the autonomy of the rational will is the basis of man’s incomparable dignity. In the concept of autonomy, we may conclude, we find the ultimate foundation of all morality.
Kant himself summarizes his discussion by relating the three variations to form a systematic triad of principles. He states explicitly that the three variations are only variations of the same law and that the difference is basically the point of view.
These three ways of expressing the principle of morality are basically variations of the very same law, and each one incorporates the other two. While there is indeed a difference between them, the difference is a matter of subjective emphasis rather than objective duty. The point was to relate more closely an Idea of Reason to direct perception, and by such an analogy bring this Idea closer to our feelings.
In the beginning of Chapter 3 we saw that every action involves three elements: the motive, the result, and the will. Correspondingly, the maxim of a moral action involves all three factors, and each of them emphasized by a variation of the categorical imperative.
All maxims have:
1. A Form, which is the universality of the maxim. Accordingly, the first variation of the moral imperative states: “Choose only that maxim which could hold as a universal law of Nature.”
2. A Matter, that is, an end. The second variation, insisting that a rational being by its very nature is an end in itself, states: “In every maxim rational nature must be the absolute standard which limits all merely relative and arbitrary ends.”
3. An Ultimate Source, in autonomy. Thus the third variation: “All maxims, since they arise from autonomous lawmaking, must harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends, just as with a system of Nature.”*
* From a teleological point of view, Nature is a system of ends. This theoretical ideal of a system of ends helps to explain why things happen the way they do. So morality can view the possible kingdom of ends as a system of Nature. As such it becomes a practical ideal for producing what is not yet actual, but which may become so if we act in accordance with this ideal.
We saw in Chapter 6 that the form of every moral maxim is its universality; the first variation is thus an analogy with the universal laws of nature. Furthermore, every action must aim at some desired objective; so the second variation insists that, whatever the value of one’s personal goal, humanity has an intrinsic value which cannot be subverted to subjective values. To humanity all other goals must give first place. The third variation combines the “form-imperative” and the “matter-imperative.” The first part of the third variation is derived from the universality of the form: that the self-legislation of the will constitutes its maxim as a universal law. The second part follows from the conception of the intrinsic value of human rational nature: that every rational nature is an end in itself, and that all actions ought to harmonize towards the accomplishment of all human purposes, both natural and moral.
At this point Kant introduces a second analogy, comparing the kingdom of ends to a system of Nature. He is careful to state that the moral kingdom of ends is possible; it is not, in theory, a nonsensical notion. It may indeed be an Ideal which we recognize will never actually come into being; yet it functions as do all Ideals, holding out a promise of a society in which all personal goals harmonize as completely as do natural purposes—an ideal society which is never impossible, yet always just ahead of any particular resting place, urging us ever onward with the enticement of perpetual peace and a millenium of human paradise.
Here is a progression (similar to that of the a priori categories of speculative reason) from the unity of the form of willing (universality), through the plurality of the content (the objectives or ends), to the totality or complete system of the ends. However, when we are forming a moral judgment, we will do better to apply the strict formulation, that is, the general formulation of the categorical imperative: always act on that maxim which can at the same time be made a universal law. Still, if we want to make the moral law acceptable, it will help to apply the above three variations to a single action. In this way we can relate the general formulation to our more natural moral perspectives.
If one wants the best method of moral evaluation, he should use the general formulation: universalizing one’s maxim. It is the essence of the moral law as law. But Kant recognizes that this method can be too rigorous and unappealing to the average person. Thus in order “to gain a hearing for the moral law,” he has presented the three variations of the general formulation. They are closer to the ways the average man thinks in moral situations. When we consider some of our customary standards of moral evaluation (e.g., “You ought to act according to your true self,” “You ought to treat everyone as a human being,” “You ought to try to make others happy"), we see how Kant views these variations.20 He believes that the employment of any formulation of the categorical imperative will produce the same moral judgment. Hence the particular formulation is relatively unimportant from the aspect of reaching the correct moral decision. The three variations, as derivations from the general formulation, have practical use in moral decision, but no one of them states completely the essence of the moral law, though they all necessarily presuppose it—that is, the law of autonomy.
This “Metaphysics of Morals” contains many problems, some of which we have discussed, others of which we have ignored. For example, to what degree must Kant rely on the purposiveness of nature? Do his particular examples illustrate his point satisfactorily? Would three persons, each applying a different variation of the general formulation, necessarily arrive at the same conclusion as to his duty? We must leave these matters to higher criticism. But there are two corollary matters that require brief notice as a kind of afterview.
First, Kant does not give us an infallible method of discovering precisely what we ought to do, though he does provide a method for deciding what we ought not to do. The categorical imperative with its variations is not a guide to particular duties; it is a standard by which we judge whether or not what we propose to do is moral. The moral law commands us to keep our promises already made; it does not tell us when to make promises. The moral law then has a strictly negative function; but when I am faced with a positive action (e.g., “How should I promote the happiness of my children?"), the categorical imperative alone cannot provide the answer. I must judge which of the alternatives open to me can effect what I propose, and then which of these effective alternatives would fulfill the formal requirements of morality.
Secondly, how important is this “ethical interlude” to Kant’s basic argument? Not very. True, he introduces the concept of autonomy here, but he takes it up later, and more emphatically. We can take Kant at his word that this part was included to “make the moral law more acceptable.” It adds nothing essential to his main argument and it might even be an obstacle, since it may mislead us into taking the primary purpose of the Foundation to be the discovery of our particular ethical duties, rather than finding the supreme principle of morality. Even so, we would be philosophically poorer without this section, the most familiar passage of all Kant’s writings; it is the most frequently quoted, the easiest to read, and the longest remembered. Without trying to diminish its genuine worth to moral philosophy, I have tried to present it in its proper perspective, namely, as an important but nonessential discussion of great interest and practical value. To paraphrase Kant’s language, we could say that this part has its own inherent value, but not as a part of the a priori quest for the ultimate foundation and supreme principle of morality.