On Kant: Sage of Duty

I distinctly remember that there was no writer I had more trouble reading in college than Immanuel Kant.  His “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” stood out to me, even during an era when I was reading tedious postmodernists and complex 19th century literature as singularly dense, obtuse, and, in the end, not worth it.  I saved that old college copy of Kant, as I did with all of my other college books, for years on the shelf, before eventually – and this is rare for me – tossing it in the recycling bin.

But over the last few years, I’ve started to see Kant’s name cropping up more and more in the work of educational philosophy writers I admire, like Nel Noddings and Philip Jackson.  What’s more, as I’ve written about on this blog, I’ve always been fascinated / repulsed by direct appeals to a kind of moral imperative – the sort of thing that has been in great supply in the field of education for many years.  It always seems as though someone, somewhere is making an argument about how a particular reform is a “moral imperative,” raising the social stakes for noncompliance or even disagreement, and cloaking their preferred philosophy, goal, or method in the language of the righteous.  When I began teaching, it was the neoconservatives; more recently, the postmodern critical theorists.  But in that time it has been everyone in between.

And so, in my ongoing question to understand how to see through such arguments, I thought that, rather than merely take such appeals to conscience and duty as just that – rhetorical appeals designed to emotionally persuade the reader – I actually want to understand more clearly the substantial, philosophical claims and implications inherent in anyone’s appealing to one’s sense of moral duty.  

For years, as I read such appeals, a single phrase would come to mind, one that I first encountered way back in college when I spent all of that awful time trudging through that impossible little green book I later recycled: a “categorical imperative.” So then I thought, what better place to investigate the philosophical construction of “duty” and “imperatives” than the high priest of deontological ethics.  Back to the bookstore I went to procure something I never thought I’d buy: a brand new copy of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.  Now, I’ve read it again – what do I think?

My First Thoughts

First, some preliminary observations: Kant is nowhere near as hard to read as I’d remembered.  Yes, he’s no shining star of concise clarity, no William James or John Stuart Mill, but he’s certainly no John Dewey (forever and always the gold standard in needless incomprehensibility).  That said, there’s certainly a lot of vocabulary that’s hard to understand – much of it Kant’s personalized (or era-specific?) use of basic words.  For example, “the will” – it took some time to understand that.  

But beyond that, after the first reading, I have to say, I didn’t really “get it” with Kant.  

His goals, which he lays out quite clearly in the introduction, are massive, no less than to “work out for once a pure moral philosophy, completely cleansed of everything that might be in some way empirical” (4).  He begins from the “common idea of duty and of moral laws” (4) and from there concludes that if there are moral laws, they must represent an “absolute necessity” for everyone (not just humans – all rational beings!), and that they must descend from “pure reason,” not from either “the nature of the human” or from “the circumstances of the world in which we are placed” (5).  Although certain laws deriving from “principles of mere experience” can “in a certain sense be considered universal” (5), these are merely “practical rule(s) but never a moral law” (5).  In Kant’s view, moral philosophy “gives (humans) laws a priori as rational beings” (5).  This still requires “a power of judgment sharpened by experience” in order to know how to follow these moral laws, but everyday practical judgment and hard-won experience does not a moral person make us.  

Kant writes that it is imperative to trace out the true, a priori moral principles, so that our approach to morality is not “corrupted” (5).  Here Kant includes another key distinction: “For in order to be morally good, it is not enough to conform to the moral law, but one must act for its sake” (5).  This is an issue, as we shall see, of intentions, not impacts, mattering, as well as a matter of strategy.  So Kant proposes to move from common knowledge about humanity (empirical) steadily upward to what he calls “pure” knowledge of the “supreme principle of morality” (7).

This is lofty stuff – the apparent attempt by one man to prove that there is a rational, apparently immutable law or laws of morality that it is all of our obligation to follow for its own sake.  This premise, when you step back from it, is just the sort of thing I normally recoil from – a kind of rhetorical play toward requiring compliance with whatever the author’s pet opinion is.  It’s clearly very different from the types of moral arguments we hear today – most of which prioritize empirical knowledge (experience, identify, even the concept of “lived experience”), or of the arguments for the grounding of understanding ourselves that normally appeal to me (ontological ones, normally grounded in some savvy understanding of human nature).  But then again, there are surely many calls to a kind of innate sense of “justice” and fairness today, and so, while I’ve almost never come across a modern writer appealing so strongly to pure rationalism, the invocation of a supreme and overarching set of moral rules we are obligated to follow is surely a familiar stance nowadays.  

And it is intuitively appealing, isn’t it?  The idea that there are real moral laws that are discoverable?

But what is his reasoning to support this grand claim that such a rational system not only exists a priori, but must be followed to a T, and for its own sake?  As I began reading the first chapter, I had Aristotle’s Ethics in my mind, specifically his “function” argument: that the way to discover what is best for humans (the good or best life, in his inquiry) is to identify the “function” or distinctive element of a human, and to practice that function with excellence (to achieve “virtue,” in his vocabulary).  Would Kant attempt to make some similar function argument?  Or would he attempt to rationalize his way into some truth – particularly to some already-commonly-accepted truism, like the Golden Rule?

What is the Will?

The first element of Kant that I struggled with right out of the gate was his ubiquitous use of the word “will,” particularly his use of the phrase, a “good will.” I found this especially confusing.  In common parlance, nowadays, a “will” – as a noun – is a kind of internal drive, motivation, or desire; it means to really want something: to be “of strong will” or to possess “force of will,” or to “will something to happen.” Even the phrase, “where there is a will, there is a way” implies will is a kind of desire.” In this sense, it’s something active, powerful, deliberate, conscious, and strong.  

On the other hand, in today’s terms, the phrase “good will” usually means something far more passive and benevolent, almost a kind of wish: “peace on earth and good will toward men,” or “the plan depends on the good will of the existing residents.” It’s not quite being of good cheer, but it’s pretty close – it’s far less active and far more passive than “will” alone.

But when Kant uses the phrase “good will” – right off the bat in chapter 1 – he seems to mean something more like the contemporary definition of “will” rather than that of “good will.”  Immediately he writes, famously, “It is impossible to think of anything in the world . . . that can be taken to be good without qualification, except a good will” (9).  Taken in this sense (and this took me some time to understand), a “good will” is the opposite of passive; it means the strong desire, motivation, or intention to do something good.  It doesn’t exactly mean “intention” or desire, but it definitely doesn’t mean something passive like “wish.” Yet it doesn’t mean actually accomplishing something, either.  It means, as best as I understand it, “the desire or intention to perform good actions.” 

Later, Kant fleshes this out somewhat.  In attempting to argue that intentions are more important than outcomes, he has to make it clear, nevertheless, that a will is not just a wish.  He writes that the good will is not just a “mere wish, but . . . a mustering of all means that are within our power” (10).  So in this sense, a good will is both a desire or intention, and a conscious effort to bring this desire to bear.  It is intention and effort.

Section 1

So given this, Kant’s initial statement is a fascinating one: Although he goes on to follow up this famous sentence with some fairly solid reasoning about why the rest of the common virtues can all be misused (being courageous for evil causes, for instance), what’s especially interesting is that he is insisting that good intentions are more important than good outcomes.  It’s a provocative argument, and it’s phrased with admirable succinctness.  Kant even states, right at the start, that a good will is far more praiseworthy than happiness, since happiness is clearly achievable by bad actors.  Kant appears to be arguing with Aristotle to some extent here, and he even cites “the ancients” right on the first page when he critiques the notion of moderation constituting inner worth – a clear reference to the God of Moderation himself.  “For without the principles of a good will they can become thoroughly evil” (9).  Kant is clearly conducting a different inquiry than Aristotle; where the latter found happiness to be the highest good, Kant sees the following of moral principle as the highest good.

Kant is very clear, as he was initially, that it is only intentions – or perhaps, the following of moral laws – that is important, not the outcome.  As stated above, as long as a person has the right desires, and gives it everything they have to make these desires come true, they possess a good will, and that is meritorious.   

 (Of course, here lies an obvious challenge to Kant’s reasoning: the question of to what extent one is obligated to work toward making his will a reality?  This seems to me an especially thorny question when one is dealing with imperatives, obligations, and duties.)

But here, Kant really takes an interesting turn: he makes almost the same function argument (I have also heard it called a “teleological argument”) as Aristotle, but to a different end.  He argues that good will, the following of moral laws, is the highest human good precisely because, first, we possess reason, and second, because reason is not a good tool for achieving happiness.  Here, he clearly diverges from Aristotle, who believed that the use of pure reason – contemplation – equals pure happiness – an argument, to be fair, that I never bought.  Be that as it may, Kant’s argument, too, seems suspect to me.  He argues that reason must have a higher purpose than preservation:

“Now if in a being that has reason and a will, the real end of nature were its preservation, its welfare, in a word its happiness, then nature would have hit upon a very bad arrangement by appointing the creature’s reason to accomplish this purpose.  For instinct would have been better at mapping out the actions and the general rule needed for this purpose, and would thereby have attained happiness much more reliably than could ever happen through reason” (10).  

But it seems to me that one could make a very compelling argument that man possesses reason – calculating and practical – precisely in order to further his “preservation” (if not his happiness).  This seems especially consistent with Darwinian understanding of the evolution of human beings: reason as a tool for survival.  It’s also interesting to consider whether reason actually hinders or helps us achieve happiness.  Again, I never bought Aristotle’s notion of contemplation being true happiness, but does reason necessarily *hinder* either survival or happiness?  It’s certainly more debatable than Kant thinks, in my view.

Here Kant makes another interesting and – in my view, questionable – turn.  Instead, he writes, reason is more properly directed to something else, other than happiness.  Since reason is meant to guide *something* (it is a “practical faculty,” in Kant’s terminology) – and since that something it is supposed to guide is clearly our choice of course of action – in a word, our “will” – then the guidance of the will is properly said to be reason’s function, and therefore, the highest aspiration of reason (and therefore of human beings, since reason is our defining feature) is to guide a good will.  As Kant writes: 

“[Reason’s] true function must be to produce a will that is good, not for other purposes as a means, but as a good in itself.  For this function, reason is absolutely necessary; here as elsewhere, nature has gone to work purposively [sic] in distributing its capacities.  So although this cannot be the only and complete good, it must yet be the highest good, and the condition of everything else, even of our craving for happiness” (12).  

Since we are gifted with reason, and because reason is so poor at leading us to happiness and so good at helping us deliberate and determining our actions, reason’s highest good must be in the determination of right, or good, actions, and therefore, since this is the calling of our defining feature, according to the function argument, this must be our highest calling as humans.


And that’s it.  In a way, Kant is now finished making his argument for the supremacy of a good will over any other human goal; the rest of the book in a sense rests on these rather dense four pages of reasoning.  

But these are some big leaps: that reason does not aid in happiness, that reason is our defining feature, that our defining feature (rather than the sum of all our features) should be the sole determinant of our highest aim.  It also seems to me that Kant takes a sudden moral turn when he swings away from the usual function argument – which might be satisfied by saying that our highest good is the determination of correct action according to reason – and posits that the highest good is the determination of *good* action according to reason: not just the formation of a will, but of a *good* will.  That’s an interesting normative claim.

It’s interesting too that Kant makes something of an empirical claim to clinch his argument: he disagrees with Aristotle that the use of reason equates to happiness.  He has some astute, and very clearly true, observations about how reason actually makes us less happy.  But these are empirical observations, after all, something Kant otherwise denigrates.  Another really important issue for me is Kant’s insistence that reason is the best guide of the will in doing good or right actions.  That is a claim which is open to all sorts of debate, on a whole variety of grounds.  After all, young people have their sense of reason just as developed as anyone else, but doesn’t making good actions require more than just the ability to reason?  Doesn’t it require the kind of experience in perspective-taking that only comes with experience, education, and maturity?  Being able to evaluate whether one’s maxim should become a universal law is a nice idea, but in order to make a reasonably mature, plausible evaluation of a given maxim requires more than just a well-developed reasoning ability.  

The Categorical Imperative

There is so much discussion of duty and obligation in Kant, and in a way, that’s why I wanted to read him: to try to get to the heart of a very famous philosophy that is built around the notion of obligation.  And the centerpiece of this is Kant’s Categorical Imperative: act as though whatever you’re doing you could will to become universal law (that is a very rough paraphrase).  It is hard, here, not to think of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you’d have others do unto you.  But the Categorical Imperative seems much more strict, and much more rationalist.  Under this sort of argument, you should never lie, never cheat, never steal, and so on.  It’s a very pure, idealized form of ethics.  

I am always trying to see these thinkers in context, to understand what made their thinking such a radical step forward from the conventions of their era.  Kant’s ethics clearly represent a major break from Christian thinking; rather than being responsible to an authority (the church, God), human beings – individual ones – possess autonomous wills, and are responsible to laws which – as Kant puts it – they themselves legislate.  Meanwhile human beings are not mere canon fodder, peons or serfs, disposable underclasses or minions – in Kant, they are each and every one of them and end in themself, not a means to an end.  Additionally, Kant’s Categorical Imperative introduces an element of universalism to ethical requirements; one should always be thinking about conduct that might be acceptable to everyone, everywhere – not just to those of his tribe, town, country, or creed.  

The main issue for me is that Kant’s philosophy is too rationalist.  For starters, it’s hard not to contrast Kant’s deontological approach rather unfavorably with utilitarianism.  Kant seems too strict, too inflexible.  If a murder is going to ask me where his potential victim is, I have no trouble lying.  Context matters.  Plus, Kant’s system seems too ripe for abuse.  It’s obvious that any philosophy that prizes – not even proceduralism, but the intentions of a decider (rather than the consequences) opens up all sorts of potential for abuse.  It seems very different to me to, on the one hand, act as an admirable person of higher principle, refusing to tell a murderer, under threat of death where a potential victim is (which seems praiseworthy), versus, on the other hand, acting in a coldly rational fashion, refusing to lie to a murder on some sort of inflexible principle.  Kant’s rational individual is an abstract individual, free of context; his ethics operates at 10,000 feet at all times, in the realm of pure theory.  This offends my Burkean sense of the importance of tradition, context, and personal experience for making careful, prudent decisions.  It also offends my Burkean sense of the danger of rationalism leading to unintended consequences – the vision that our rational powers are greater than they are.  I find the rationalism in Kant appealing – who wouldn’t? – the notion that we can somehow uncover a perfect, pure, uncorrupted “answer” to morality.  But at the end of the day, I simply don’t think the human power of reason is strong enough to be its own legislator, its own, sole source of decision-making.  Kant is right that it is a defining human characteristic, but he was wrong to believe that therefore reason alone must be the sole guidance system in determining our wills.

Our reason is too susceptible to corruption, error, mistake, and influence by our emotions; we need history, wisdom of the past, tradition, convention, custom, law and legislation, discussion and debate with diverse viewpoints, and a judicious, careful education to give us all any fighting chance of making good decisions – decisions which must be measured by more than just the “good will” of those involved.  

In my view, Shakespeare knew better than Kant: 

“Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices still are overthrown. 

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.”

As for the notion of “duty” or imperative in Kant – I’m not buying it.  It’s one thing, as I said, to try to live up to an inner code that requires you treat people honestly and fairly despite this going against your personal interests sometimes – but it’s quite another thing, it seems to me, to always act out of a grim sense of “duty” to abstract principles.  There’s something noble about the former – and there is something noble to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, clearly; but it strikes me after reading Kant that there’s nothing particularly noble to his rational actor.  It feels very Puritanical, very dry.  Plus, as I wrote above, I simply don’t buy the groundwork reasoning that he does at the start – particularly his argument that a good will is the only thing that is “taken to be good without qualification.” I don’t agree with that, and in fact, I don’t think the way he frames this observation is even particularly helpful; I much prefer Aristotle’s rather more commonsensical starting point – happiness is the only state considered to be preferable for itself, not for any other reason.  


Well, that’s it.  I’m glad I revisited Kant 23 years later, and it’s probably a good sign that I can read Kant straight through with no problem nowadays, compared to the trouble I had at 19.  That must mean I’ve learned how to read!  Beyond that, I’m glad I gave Kant another read; say what you want about him, but he certainly had a strong vision of the good.  While I find rationalism appealing, I’m much more of a utilitarian, I suppose, a situationist, a contextualist.  In my view, what I don’t particularly like about anyone who implores you to “do your duty” or to bow to their own particular brand of imperative is that most of these entreaties ask us to move quickly, to rationalize – and *not* to slow down, be deliberate, look carefully at the facts, to weigh and consider, to contextualize, and to ask questions and be critical.  

But the irony here is that perhaps Kant is an anomaly: typically the word “duty,” the sense of “ought,” the imploring of an apparently necessary “imperative” tends to work best on us when it circumvents our rational faculties, when it bypasses our critical thinking brains; it works best when it is pressing against our sense of guilt or shame.  That is when the nag of “duty” works most insidiously.  Kant’s conception of duty is not like that; it seems to have nothing to do with emotions like guilt at all.  Yet it is hard for me to imagine any notion of duty or imperative that is so dryly rational that it is unaffected by emotion at all.  And any system of ethics that does not consciously plan for this corruption is a system that is ripe for abuse.