Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

KANT: First Principles of Morals (Good Reason)

The first part of Kant’s principles of morals was hard reading.  Unfortunately that was just a warm up session.  That reading covered “transition from the common rational knowledge of morality to the philosophical.”  In other words we covered the easy (common) stuff first.  Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and really get down to business.  We move on “from popular moral philosophy to the metaphysic of morals.” 

Maybe the best approach is to take Kant’s own words (in translation).  He says “we can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret springs of action; since, when the question is of moral worth, it is not with the actions which we see that we are concerned, but with those inward principles of them which we do not see.”  Kant’s not so much interested in what people are actually doing; he also wants to know why; what’s the motivation behind what they’re doing?  If someone’s doing a good work isn’t that enough?  Do we really need to know why they’re doing it?  Kant would answer no and yes.  No, it’s not enough that someone is doing a good deed.  For a “metaphysic of morals” we also have to establish the reason they’re doing it.  We need to know why.  Kant wants to locate the bedrock foundation of moral behavior.  How do we do that? 

Kant believes we have to use Reason because “reason of itself, independent of all experience, ordains what ought to take place.”  Real life gets messy.  The best way to determine the right thing to do is to step back, take a deep breath and try to think clearly.  Even that method will probably fail.  Despite our best intentions human nature has a way of leading us down the wrong path.  What we all have a tendency to do is decide what we want first and then reason our way backwards to justify getting what we want.  Because we’re fallible, even in our reasoning, we have to set aside everything else and only look at moral behavior in its purest conception, stripped of all human motivations.  Kant admits this isn’t easy.  He says “we must not make its (Reason’s) principles dependent on the particular nature of human reason… since moral laws ought to hold good for every rational creature, we must derive them from the general concept of a rational being.”

What Kant seems to be saying is this; we have to become a character like Spock in Star Trek.  We have to set aside our own wants and wishes and think like a purely “rational being” would think.  What would Spock do?  Kant would go along with that.  But why is this point so important?  It sounds like Kant wants us to turn into mechanical thinking machines.  How would that make us any different from a computer running on a pre-set program?  Kant would answer, because we have free will.  We must think like a machine but act like a human being.  How do we do that?  Kant says, “Everything in nature works according to laws. Rational beings alone have the faculty of acting according to the conception of laws, that is according to principles, i.e., have a will… the will is a faculty to choose that only which reason independent of inclination recognises as practically necessary, i.e., as good.”  The key phrase here is “rational beings alone.”  Only rational beings can understand what Law is.  They may not like it.  They may not want to do it.  But they understand that it’s “necessary” to do it anyway because it’s “good.”  How do they know it’s good?  Reason tells them so.  All rational beings would agree on this.  It’s up to us to join the ranks of rational beings and act according to rational principles of morality.  It’s not much fun but for Kant it’s the right thing to do.  Spock would agree.     


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