History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Kant Lecture 3

I. Kant makes some interesting observations in Remark II to Theorem II that provide a crucial transition to Theorem III. In Theorems I and II, recall, Kant claimed, first, that no practical principle which is conditioned on a contingent desire could be (regarded to be) a practical law; and second, that all such material practical principles are instances of the principle of self-love. In Theorem III he will maintain that a rational being ``can think of its maxims as practical univesal laws'' only by ``considering them as principles which contain the determining grounds of the will because of their form and not because of their matter.'' (26)

Recall also that the reason Kant thinks that no material practical principle can be regarded to be a practical law is that no desire for a particular object is common to rational agents. So none can form the basis of an objective principle or practical law.

At the beginning of Remark II, however, he says that ``to be happy is necessarily the desire of every rational but finite being …'' So, the question arises, if this desire is thus universal, then why cannot it form the basis of a practical law? Why can't the principle, do whatever is necessary to become happy, be a practical law?

Kant responds: ``since, though, the concept of happiness always underlies the practical relation of objects to the faculty of desire, it is merely the general name for subjective grounds of determination …'' We are happy when we find our experiences agreeable. But different people find different things agreeable. And what really underlies our desire for happiness is a desire for the particular things we find agreeable---which will be different in different people.

The desire for happiness, ``therefore cannot yield any practical law, because in the desire for happiness it is not the form (accordance with the law) but only the material which is decisive; it is a question of whether I may expect pleasure from obedience to this law.'' (25)

Thus: the person motivated by the desire for happiness is motivated by a desire for those specific things in which his happiness consists. But these desires are not universal, and the desire for happiness is universal only because, as self-conscious beings, it is true of each that he desires what he finds agreeable, that in which his happiness consists. So the universality of the desire for happiness cannot possibly form the basis for a practical law.

Note Kant's framing of the alternatives: ``in the desire for happiness it is not the form (accordance with law) but only the material which is decisive;'' (25) This leads us to Theorem III.

II. Theorem III. ``If a rational being can think of its maxims as practical universal laws, he can do so only by considering them as principles which contain the determining grounds of the will because of their form and not because of their matter.''

Now this may well seem puzzling. What does Kant mean by form here? And how can a principle be a determining ground of the will by virtue of its form?

First, let's be clear what form is supposed to contrast with. What is matter? A practical principle contains the determining grounds of the will by virtue of its matter, recall, just in case the agent determines his will in accord with a given rule because he (antecedently) desires a certain object and is motivated to embrace the rule because of his desire for the object.

Second, Kant says that it is by the ``mere form'' of the maxim that they are ``fitted for being universal law''. So, one way of understanding the form of the maxim is as ``that which fits it to be a universal law''. This may sound strange, but bear with me.

Now Kant says that ``what form of a maxim makes it suitable for universal law-giving and what form does not do so can be distinguished without instruction by the most common understanding.'' (26) And he proceeds to give an example. The maxim ``I will increase my property by every safe means'' does not have a form fitting it to be universal law. We can see this, he thinks, by applying the following test. Could I, ``by the maxim, make the law that every man is allowed to deny that a deposit has been made when no one can prove the contrary.'' That is, we take the maxim, applied to a kind of action in hand, and ask whether, ``by the maxim'' one could make it a law that everyone act as the maxim dictates. This could not be done, Kant argues. He says very little about the reasons here, but he makes similar arguments in the Groundwork to the effect that: (a) it would be impossible that this hold as a universal law, since a world in which everyone denied such a deposit would be a world without the trust necessary to fund the system of credit which made it possible for me to have the deposit in the first place. (b) Even if it were possible for everyone to act on such a principle, this would not advance the end for which I made the maxim; indeed, it would detract from it.

What Kant means, therefore, by saying that a maxim has the requisite form to be a universal law, is that it can pass the test of what, in the Groundwork, he calls The Categorical Imperative--what he calls the Fundamental Law of Pure Practical Reason in CPR, roughly:

Act only on maxims which you can, at the same time, will to hold as a universal law of nature. Note, therefore, the implicit premise Kant must be accepting in arguing for Theorem III:

There are only two possible determining grounds of the will:

(a) an object of desire

(b) the conviction that a maxim is fit to be universal law; i.e. it can pass the test of the Categorical Imperative (or the Fundamental Law). This amounts to saying that it can determine one's (the agent's) will because the agent can will it as law---she can will that everyone, herself included, act on it.

[Compare here Kant's remark (18) that ``laws must completely determine the will as will''. Material practical principles, which can furnish only hypothetical imperatives, determine the will ``from the outside'', as it were; they determine the will as focussed on some contingent end that is simply given.]

IV. This brings us to Kant's two ``problems'' in which he draws the consequence of his arguments to this point, viz., that ``freedom and unconditional practical law reciprocally imply each other.'' A will that can be determined by the ``legislative form'' of a maxim---i.e. not by any given desire for some object, but by the thought that the maxim passes the Categorical Imperative---is free. And a free will is one that determines itself by the ``legislative form'' of its maxims.

But this only gives us that if we are free, we stand under practical laws; and if we stand under practical laws, we are free. So, if we know either, then we know the other. But how do we know either?

In the Groundwork, as I mentioned last time, Kant argues that we cannot act but under the idea of freedom. In CPR, however, he takes a different tack. Here Kant takes the view that ``we become immediately conscious'' of the moral law ``as soon as we construct maxims for the will.'' (29) And that we are led to infer our freedom as a necessary condition of our genuinely being subject to the moral law.

Kant calls the ``consciousness of this fundamental law'' a ``fact of reason.'' (31) Here is his idea:

``Experience also confirms this order of concepts in us. Suppose that someone says his lust is irresistible when the desired object and opportunity are present. Ask him whether he would not control his passion if, in front of the house where he has this opportunity, a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust. We do not have to guess very long what his answer would be. But ask him whether he thinks it would be possible for him to overcome his love of life, however great it may be, if his sovereign threatened him with the same sudden death unless he made a false deposition against an honorable man whom the ruler wished to destroy under a plausible pretext. Whether he would or not he perhaps will not venture to say: but that it would be possible for him [not to (presumably?)] he would certainly admit without hesitation. He judges, therefore, that he can do something because he knows that he ought, and he recognizes that he is free---a fact which, without the moral law, would have remained unknown to him.'' (30)

Now Kant is a compatibilist in some sense---i.e. he believes that it is both true that we are free and that every act we take is determined by prior causes. But this passage makes it clear that his view must differ from that of other compatibilists such as Hume. Hume held that an agent was free if he could have done otherwise; and he could have done otherwise if it is true that if his desires had been different, he would have done otherwise. But this is the sense in which the person who doesn't resist his lust could have done so. And Kant evidently means to contrast the sort of freedom he is saying we have to suppose we have with this. WHAT IS HE SAYING?

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