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Immanuel Kant. The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics.


Language: English

Table of Contents:


by Immanuel Kant

translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott


If there exists on any subject a philosophy (that is, a system of
rational knowledge based on concepts), then there must also be for
this philosophy a system of pure rational concepts, independent of any
condition of intuition, in other words, a metaphysic. It may be
asked whether metaphysical elements are required also for every
practical philosophy, which is the doctrine of duties, and therefore
also for Ethics, in order to be able to present it as a true science
(systematically), not merely as an aggregate of separate doctrines
(fragmentarily). As regards pure jurisprudence, no one will question
this requirement; for it concerns only what is formal in the
elective will, which has to be limited in its external relations
according to laws of freedom; without regarding any end which is the
matter of this will. Here, therefore, deontology is a mere
scientific doctrine (doctrina scientiae). *

* One who is acquainted with practical philosophy is not,
therefore, a practical philosopher. The latter is he who makes the
rational end the principle of his actions, while at the same time he
joins with this the necessary knowledge which, as it aims at action,
must not be spun out into the most subtile threads of metaphysic,
unless a legal duty is in question; in which case meum and tuum must
be accurately determined in the balance of justice, on the principle
of equality of action and action, which requires something like
mathematical proportion, but not in the case of a mere ethical duty.
For in this case the question is not only to know what it is a duty to
do (a thing which on account of the ends that all men naturally have
can be easily decided), but the chief point is the inner principle
of the will namely that the consciousness of this duty be also the
spring of action, in order that we may be able to say of the man who
joins to his knowledge this principle of wisdom that he is a practical

Now in this philosophy (of ethics) it seems contrary to the idea
of it that we should go back to metaphysical elements in order to make
the notion of duty purified from everything empirical (from every
feeling) a motive of action. For what sort of notion can we form of
the mighty power and herculean strength which would be sufficient to
overcome the vice-breeding inclinations, if Virtue is to borrow her
"arms from the armoury of metaphysics," which is a matter of
speculation that only few men can handle? Hence all ethical teaching
in lecture rooms, pulpits, and popular books, when it is decked out
with fragments of metaphysics, becomes ridiculous. But it is not,
therefore, useless, much less ridiculous, to trace in metaphysics
the first principles of ethics; for it is only as a philosopher that
anyone can reach the first principles of this conception of duty,
otherwise we could not look for either certainty or purity in the
ethical teaching. To rely for this reason on a certain feeling
which, on account of the effect expected from it, is called moral,
may, perhaps, even satisfy the popular teacher, provided he desires as
the criterion of a moral duty to consider the problem: "If everyone in
every case made your maxim the universal law, how could this law be
consistent with itself?" But if it were merely feeling that made it
our duty to take this principle as a criterion, then this would not be
dictated by reason, but only adopted instinctively and therefore

But in fact, whatever men imagine, no moral principle is based on
any feeling, but such a principle is really nothing else than an
obscurely conceived metaphysic which inheres in every man's
reasoning faculty; as the teacher will easily find who tries to
catechize his pupils in the Socratic method about the imperative of
duty and its application to the moral judgement of his actions. The
mode of stating it need not be always metaphysical, and the language
need not necessarily be scholastic, unless the pupil is to be
trained to be a philosopher. But the thought must go back to the
elements of metaphysics, without which we cannot expect any
certainty or purity, or even motive power in ethics.

If we deviate from this principle and begin from pathological, or
purely sensitive, or even moral feeling (from what is subjectively
practical instead of what is objective), that is, from the matter of
the will, the end, not from its form that is the law, in order from
thence to determine duties; then, certainly, there are no metaphysical
elements of ethics, for feeling by whatever it may be excited is
always physical. But then ethical teaching, whether in schools, or
lecture-rooms, etc., is corrupted in its source. For it is not a
matter of indifference by what motives or means one is led to a good
purpose (the obedience to duty). However disgusting, then, metaphysics
may appear to those pretended philosophers who dogmatize oracularly,
or even brilliantly, about the doctrine of duty, it is,
nevertheless, an indispensable duty for those who oppose it to go back
to its principles even in ethics, and to begin by going to school on
its benches.

We may fairly wonder how, after all previous explanations of the
principles of duty, so far as it is derived from pure reason, it was
still possible to reduce it again to a doctrine of happiness; in
such a way, however, that a certain moral happiness not resting on
empirical causes was ultimately arrived at, a self-contradictory
nonentity. In fact, when the thinking man has conquered the
temptations to vice, and is conscious of having done his (often
hard) duty, he finds himself in a state of peace and satisfaction
which may well be called happiness, in which virtue is her own reward.
Now, says the eudaemonist, this delight, this happiness, is the real
motive of his acting virtuously. The notion of duty, says be, does not
immediately determine his will; it is only by means of the happiness
in prospect that he is moved to his duty. Now, on the other hand,
since he can promise himself this reward of virtue only from the
consciousness of having done his duty, it is clear that the latter
must have preceded: that is, be must feel himself bound to do his duty
before he thinks, and without thinking, that happiness will be the
consequence of obedience to duty. He is thus involved in a circle in
his assignment of cause and effect. He can only hope to be happy if he
is conscious of his obedience to duty: and he can only be moved to
obedience to duty if be foresees that he will thereby become happy.
But in this reasoning there is also a contradiction. For, on the one
side, he must obey his duty, without asking what effect this will have
on his happiness, consequently, from a moral principle; on the other
side, he can only recognize something as his duty when he can reckon
on happiness which will accrue to him thereby, and consequently on a
pathological principle, which is the direct opposite of the former.

I have in another place (the Berlin Monatsschrift), reduced, as I
believe, to the simplest expressions the distinction between
pathological and moral pleasure. The pleasure, namely, which must
precede the obedience to the law in order that one may act according
to the law is pathological, and the process follows the physical order
of nature; that which must be preceded by the law in order that it may
be felt is in the moral order. If this distinction is not observed; if
eudaemonism (the principle of happiness) is adopted as the principle
instead of eleutheronomy (the principle of freedom of the inner
legislation), the consequence is the euthanasia (quiet death) of all

The cause of these mistakes is no other than the following: Those
who are accustomed only to physiological explanations will not admit
into their heads the categorical imperative from which these laws
dictatorially proceed, notwithstanding that they feel themselves
irresistibly forced by it. Dissatisfied at not being able to explain
what lies wholly beyond that sphere, namely, freedom of the elective
will, elevating as is this privilege, that man has of being capable of
such an idea. They are stirred up by the proud claims of speculative
reason, which feels its power so strongly in the fields, just as if
they were allies leagued in defence of the omnipotence of
theoretical reason and roused by a general call to arms to resist that
idea; and thus they are at present, and perhaps for a long time to
come, though ultimately in vain, to attack the moral concept of
freedom and if possible render it doubtful.