July 24, 2015
July’s Quarterly Discussion focused on Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals. Reading Kant can be very challenging. One has to learn and understand his terminology and then be able to trace a single thread of an argument for pages and pages. For some reason, this seems more difficult in a language like Kant’s than in, say, a novel. Kant was thorough and scientific. Admittedly, the Metaphysics of Morals was a daunting, ambitious selection for the limited time of a Quarterly Discussion. As a result, nearly every participant stated up front that they had wished for more time to review the material. Everyone felt they needed a better handle on the material at the time of the discussion. Yet, despite all fears, we had fantastic discussions.
One main discussion topic revolved around the complicated way that Kant arrives at the idea of morality as an ‘a priori principle’. Morality is based upon Kant’s idea of Categorical Imperatives, a universal set of principles that stem from human reason. In order to arrive at these Categorical Imperatives, Kant removes empirical factors, such as emotion and consequences. He solely looks to motivating forces that power the will. Kant believes that previous authors have not gone into enough detail regarding a scientific investigation of human reason. He states, “[T]hey [other authors] do not distinguish the motives which are prescribed as such by reason alone altogether a priori, and which are properly moral, from the empirical motives which the understanding raises to general conceptions merely by comparison of experiences; but, without noticing the difference of their sources, and looking on them all as homogeneous, they consider only their greater or less amount. It is in this way they frame their notion of obligation, which, though anything but moral, is all that can be attained in a philosophy which passes no judgement at all on the origin of all possible practical concepts, whether they are a priori, or only a posteriori.” Kant’s purpose, in this treatise, is to separate human from human response to nature. Therefore, he creates a dichotomy of objects of sense versus objects of understanding.
Coming to terms with terminology alone can be difficult. To Kant, metaphysics is restricted to the ‘definite objects of the understanding’. One of our participants suggested that a possible interpretation of Kant’s metaphysics could be: ‘existing in the mind before and beyond experience’, which offers a neat view of the landscape that Kant seeks. From there, we wandered into Kant’s definition of the will and of duty. Each group noted how Kant takes the golden rule and amends it slightly. Kant states, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only”. Kant does not require that you would do unto others as you would have done to you, but that each person respects the inherent purpose of everyone else. The idea of humans as ends is not new, however, it is vital for Kant’s underlying arguments regarding duty and morality. According to Kant, if we treat each other with this rational, purposeful respect, then we all create a ‘kingdom of ends’. Participating in this society grants humans total freedom. It is ironic that a world of law and duty offers the best access to freedom itself.
Freedom is also linked to the will. In Kant’s terms, the will is goodness in itself. The will can lead to happiness. He states, “The pre-eminent good which we call moral can therefore consist in nothing else than the conception of law in itself, which certainly is only possible in a rational being, in so far as this conception, and not the expected effect, determines the will.” The ironic part is that this morality, this attention to duty, must be self-imposed to be genuinely moral, which means that following the moral law leads us to freedom. One participant noted that Kant’s kingdom is not meant to be political, but a group with like foundations accessing their greatness. Therefore, Kant’s kingdom has the greatest potential to attain happiness. Yet, happiness is another of those extremely complicated ideas, difficult to define for any one person, let alone group. In conversation, one can qualify happiness, and define its parameters to fit the conversation. However, happiness in general can mean many things to many people. While our discussions did not fully answer this question, we felt that Kant would think happiness as bound in man’s ability to understand, access and trust pure reason.
Quarterly Discussions are always enlightening. The texts from the Great Books offer such wonderful opportunities in the form of thought and dialogue. Many thanks to all of the participants. Plan to include October’s discussion on your calendar! Questions? Email as****@hm*.edu. Thank you!
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