Choosing moral action

Fabricio Pontin

If we follow Kant, on his own terms, how can we say we choose to be moral? How is it possible to establish a connection between our necessary condition as rational, our existential status as free and our placement in a world marked by the predication of moral assertions.

In my view, Kant states the categorical imperative as a procedure through which a subject abstracts all material or empirical perceptions and takes an universal perspective that allows one to maximize the value of one’s actions beyond circumstantial conditions.

But what do I mean by a categorical imperative? Well, the general form of a categorical imperative is (by GMS 4:421) “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become an universal law”. This means that the categorical imperative works as a principle of orientation of a determined moral conduct. As such, it does not provide us with any content or prescription as to how to act. The Categorical Imperative does not give you an action, it rather provides the foundation in which your moral assertions will occur. Unlike virtue-based (say, Aristotelian or Thomistic) ethical doctrines, Kant does not provide a exhaustive list of authentically ethic or moral actions. The Prussian philosopher invites you to think your own moral claims and test them accordingly to a general principle. This principle allows you to take distance of your own circumstances when you think an action, so if you claim that “A priest should not rape young children inside religious institutions”, you should not take it for granted that your claim is sound only because the idea of a rape offend your senses , or because the idea of a priest offend your senses (though those are a good start, and Kant would probably say are the only possible way to start). You should rather think your claim through, and see if you can generalize it beyond yourself. You should ask “Am I saying this because I find it offensive, or is it something I can universalize as offensive?”. Once you take that procedure, Kant is hoping you would be able to take out all the empirical circumstances of your claim “A priest”, “Young children”, “Religious Institutions” and obtain something like “One should not rape”, so you now have a general imperative that is valid beyond circumstances, beyond the news that you read in today’s paper (and it is fine that you are taking the newspaper as the source of your moral claims, it is not fine, however, if you decide to stop it in being just affected by the newspaper).

But why speak of categorical imperatives? Shouldn’t one procedure be enough to give us the guideline into moral action? It seems to me that Kant doesn’t exactly talk of different procedures, as much as he indicates a modification of the first general rule into three different set of procedures that allow you to claim the universalizing content of your action/maxim.

These modifications are expressed into, first, a requirement that any claim “x” that you take must be at the same time consistent with nature. That does not imply a moral naturalism. Why not? It’s quite simple, actually: morality cannot be natural because that would be completely inconsistent with the critical project, since there is no freedom in Nature and no morality without Freedom by transitivity there is no Morality in Nature. So what nature refers to, since it obviously does not refer to Morals? It refers to the natural condition of men as Rational, now Reason is indeed necessary to Men and it implies the capability to think in terms of consistent and connected thoughts. So this criteria is not a criteria of naturalization of moral claims, it rather implies a Principle of Reasonability, where any moral claim “x” must be consistent with itself – in this Kant is referencing to the speculative use of reason and the necessity of being consistent to the pure-practical use of reason in any moral claim, in the same way that pure reason is necessary for any scientific claim. Consequently, the development of speculative reason is necessarily a development of moral consciousness.

The second modification of the general CI-procedure involves not taking others as means but as end in themselves. This is what I’ll call a Principle of Recognition. Kant is implying that any moral claim is the case (which for Kant, in this context, is the same as saying “universal”) if and only if it does not take a fellow human being as an object. Kant is inserting here an argument that will be of first importance to the critique of practical reason: the integrability and indivisibility of a person. Fellow subjects must be respected and recognized as also capable of having priorities and interests, and your moral claims are only sound insofar they do not take those priorities as means to your own. Rather, your actions and maxims must be so posited that they do not override the capability of your fellow subjects to posit their own claims. This procedure implies the respect and recognition of the interest of others as potentially universal. Which brings us to the third and last modification of the CI-procedure.

Constructing the moral framework of an intelligible world (that goes beyond mere sense) will finally require any assertion about values to aim at the Kingdom of Ends. In this, Kant is reminding us that the construction of the intelligible world is part of a ongoing cosmopolitan project, wherein moral consciousness is not fully realized in one self. This is the Historicity Principle, that indicates the situation of any moral claim as part of an ongoing project, and the universalizing characteristic of your claim. Also, the historicity principle makes recognition even more important, since the framework of an intelligible world is not solitary, but done with others.

Now I must clarify the necessary relation of the categorical imperatives to freedom. I have already indicated where my take on this issue will focus in the previous section, when I noted the relation between Nature, Freedom and Morals. But in order to make the point a bit more clear, I will propose three scenarios:

a) A man drowns in a river. Can we say the river acted immorally?

b) A tiger rips the head of a baby out. Can we say the tiger acted immorally?

c) I lie to my professor about supporting the Bears, when I actually support the Raiders. Can we say I acted immorally?

I believe it is not absurd to suggest that in terms of the repulsion of the action, most of us would say that (b) is more repulsive than (a) and (a) more repulsive than (c). After all, (c) is just a tiny lie about a sport, whereas (a) involves a man dying and (b) involves a baby having his head ripped from his small body. However, in Kant only (c) is a moral problem. Why? Because (c) is the only scenario wherein the subject could have chosen otherwise. A river cannot act morally because it is not free. A river can only change its course by external circumstances, it cannot decide to change its course. A tiger ripping the head of a baby out is certainly a dreadful scenario, but the tiger is just being a tiger. It cannot stop being a tiger and act otherwise. The tiger does not choose the rip the head of the baby out, it reacts to its nature in terms of stimulus-response.

Human beings are not machines, and they are hardly determined by natural circumstances. Humanity in Kant is about resisting sensitive input and reasoning about the sensitive input that is affecting us. This is the sense in which the idea of freedom is connected to moral action: No one is obliged to kill, to lie or to let a friend drown in a river. We can decide otherwise, and that’s precisely why when we are free we are no longer part of a nature marked by a vulgar display of sensitivities. Rather, we are part of a world of understanding marked by the conscious option towards morality. And we are only free insofar we decide on morality – because that’s what situates us in a world, that’s why in the concluding remarks of the Groundworks Kant writes that “The speculative use of reason with respect to nature (natur) leads to the absolute necessity of some supreme cause of the world (Welt)” (GMS: 4:463). This beautiful passage introduces a remarkable distinction between nature and world, where the cause of a world is the comprehension of the causes of the categorical imperative: our condition as free. Freedom makes the imperative of morality possible, it works as a foundational structure wherein we can situate the field where the CI-procedure is conceivable. So possible, in this sense, means that in Nature, without freedom, the Categorical Imperative is therefore inconceivable, it cannot be thought at all because the reference point to its necessity is missing.

Our intelligence, our reason, allow us to think beyond nature and into a world of understanding, the idea of Freedom (as a transcendent concept) guides us into this world, and our free practices (this is what Kant defines as negative freedom in GMS: 4:446) are the modes of reasoning about this ideal concept. Kant knows that speculative reason cannot give you the full content of transcendental freedom (by 4:461-2), but he also knows that this ideal gives you the guidelines through which you can think, autonomously, a way into moral practices and development of the self. This is why Kant writes that all my [moral] actions ought to be consistent with the Autonomy of the Will: our existential condition as free men is foundational to our moral practices.

This moral practices of a self that, with others, constitute the framework and density of a world of understanding (which is grounded on the ideal of freedom) provides a necessary tool to the project of a “supreme principle of morality”. Actually, it constitutes the conditions wherein we can speak of morality at all.

One comment

  1. marcosfanton · · Responder

    I really enjoyed your text. But, what I missed in it is WHY we choose to be moral? How could we answer it in kantian terms?

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