Immanuel Kant – Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Regardless of what you think of Kant’s philosophy, his ideas, how much sense they make and how useful they are – you have to respect him. The man tried to dig ridiculously deep into human thought. His is the drill that pierced philosophy. The difficulty in understanding Kant is not in his writing. The writing is fairly analytic and linear. What’s difficult is the distance Kant takes from human thought.

Human thought is built by layers upon layers. Spread all your ethical laws. Notice how you’ll find a hierachy between them. One law is derived from another. A classic example is that of rape. It’s derived from the law of bodily autonomy, of not forcing people to do things against their will. In turn, this is derived from the law of freedom of action. That one is derived from the law of not causing suffering, since we assume here that violating freedom causes suffering.

Now, this is an off-the-cuff example that doesn’t require deep thinking. It’s popular enough to make my point clear about these layers. Kant isn’t satisfied in stopping where I did. He goes as high as he can, he tries to understand the bare skeleton of what moral thinking is.

Kant goes so high that he doesn’t even talk about humans anymore. He’s obsessed with reason. In his world, only reason and the ways of thought he exists. When he talks about universal ethics, they exist way before Man himself exists. Although he separates the natural world (what we experience) and what is really there (which we can’t access), his dissection of reason is like a mathematicians’ dissection of the rules of nature. He creates a logic that everything is subject to. Only Kant deals with words, with terms that have loaded and not definite meanings. The task is automatically more difficult.

Which is why it’s so impressive. Once you understand how Kant functions, it’s easier to read him. The Categorical Imperative becomes more than mere ‘do what you want others to do’. That rule seems simple and intuitive but Kant removes the subjectivity from it. You can use that rule to justify theft. If you don’t believe in public property, you can expect others to steal and not feel guilty about stealing. What Kant does is ask whether a behavior like this can actually exists. If everyone steals, then we don’t have anything to steal since everything’s stolen. When I respect someone’s property rights and he respects mine, society doesn’t fall apart.

The main issue with Kant’s idea is exactly how detached it is from human experience. In the end, the moral behavior has to come down to the World of Appearances. Once it does, it no longer exists in isolation. There are results. If a moral behavior in an individual instead happens to lead to results which give power to immoral people than how good is it? The problem with pure reason is that it tries to isolate things with its strict laws, but that doesn’t actually happen.

As an attempt to set a groundwork for discussing morality, this part is a bit of a let down. He moves too forward, and although the Categorical Imperative remains in the World of Reason, it naturally leads to the World of Appearances and that’s where we’ll test it.

The better part, however, are when Kant discusses what exactly is moral. The Categorical Imperative becomes convincing once Kant defines what morality actually is compared to other things. His writings about free will feel as though he shuts down the whole discussion by solving the problem. Morality needs freedom. Rationality demands freedom. We cannot prove freedom exists because our notions of ‘proving’ relate mostly to the World of Appearances. However, once we think that freedom doesn’t exist we can no longer think morally or rationally since we give in to natural impulses. Do you do this? Does anyone live only by natural impulses? Even if freedom doesn’t exist, we have to act and think as if we’re free.

His definition of morality as fairly convincing – it is goodness, plain and simple. At first it seems overly simplistic, but it actually makes sense. By ‘goodness’, he means thinking beyond our natural impulses. Here you can see how Kant spent too much time thinking and not enough doing. This idea is understandable, but he has to connect it to the World of Apperances. Intelligence and morality may exist in the World As Itself which is important because it’s the basis for the World of Appearances, but the World of Appearances is what we actually experience. So if I act morally, the results were bad (in various ways), does it matter if I were moral?

The only blind side to Kant’s case is that he never proves that reason is so awesome that it improves reality (or the World of Appearances). All the love he has for reason is convincing that it’s important, but seeing that reason in action would be the final proof. The clearest benefit from Kant’s way of thinking is how critical he is, how willing he is to vivisect ways of thought so it feels more like ‘reason’ and ‘morality’ are beasts he analyzes using microscopes and scalpels.

At worst, the book lives up to its title. Since Kant goes so deep in his definitions and dissection, it does come off like the starting point for moral thinking. He separates morality from other ways of thought. He separates other needs and the free will and the moral action. Only he never puts them back together, but you can start forming your own Theory of Ethics using this. Later, McLuhan would criticize the Typographic Man for their linear, fragmented thinking. Kant is an excellent example of this fault. Everything is split up to tiny little pieces, which is useful to understanding them. If only Kant went the extra mile to connect these piece – he was sure aware that he should, but I guess we needed new technology to help us realize the world is happening all at once.

Keep in mind this review was written by someone who just started his voyage on the seas of Philosophy. At the time of writing this, I haven’t taken any courses and this book was difficult to read, almost incomprehensible at times. The final section especially felt like a great mental exercises going nowhere. Still, as a place to start it’s great. It lays down the most important question and is fairly accessible, despite how huge the ideas are in here.

4 morals out of 5 metaphysics


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