Thank you RationalMadman for accepting this debate.
In the book, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant is seeking to determine a Metaphysic, a first principle, of morality. So I am going to attempt to do it justice and identify the Supreme Principle of Morality, and defend that reasoning.
Any ethical discussion takes places within four levels:
1. Particular case
2. Area rule - a rule that applies to an area of ethical responsibility
3. Overall principles - principles that apply to every area of responsibility, entire moral life
4. Basis of which upon those principles rest.
The basis upon which the principles of morality will be grounded is Reason alone. The reason is that whenever we make a moral judgement, it is influenced by two factors: the empirical input (such as the act of stealing) and the A Priori principle that we apply to that empirical input (the wrongness or rightness of the action). Therefore, the moral principles that we derive from Reason, will be reasoned A Priori. This means that morality is an extension of Reason A Priori. This foundation does not need to be questioned, because by virtue of questioning the reason of Reason, one has implicitly committed to using Reason.
The will is, "The faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action [3
One important idea to understanding Kant's system of ethics, is to understand his idea of autonomy. The word "autonomy" is composed of the greek word, "Nomos," meaning "law" [1
], and the greek prefix "auto-," meaning "self" [2
]. Therefore, to act autonomously is to act according to a law one gives oneself. The contrast of this is "heteronomy," [4
] or, "acting according to a law given by another [5
Our desires can, and oftentimes do, impose themselves on our will. If we are simply obeying the whims of our desires, then we are not acting autonomously, but heteronomously. This reasoning extends to moral autonomy. If one is to act morally autonomous, then they are to act according to a moral law they give themselves. But moral autonomy is not enough to take us to moral good, so Kant makes the classical distinction between things with intrinsic value and things with instrumental worth. The thing that is intrinsically good is the good will.
Talents, temperament, fortune, and even happiness, are not good without qualification. Only when they contain good will, do they gain moral value. It's moral value is not derived from what it brings about or accomplishes. Good will is to virtue and action, what a gemstone is to a ring. It has its full value in itself, and its value isn't modified by its setting. The good will is a broader concept, incorporating the dutiful will. A will acting from duty overcomes hindrances to maintain the moral law. Therefore, we may distinguish the dutiful will as a form of good will, that acts from good will in the face of adversity [6
There are only two types of motives: motives of duty, and motives of inclination.
All inclinations, preferences, and desires, are motives of action that are qualified by their satisfaction. All inclinations are arbitrary and cannot convey moral praiseworthiness to an action. Oftentimes, duty constrains us against our inclinations. Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between an action done from duty, and an action merely in accordance with duty.
Take the example of a shopkeeper who has the opportunity to shortchange his customers. He decides not to for the reason that he will lose reputation. While he did the right thing, it was for the wrong reason. He acted in accordance with the moral law, but not from duty to the moral law. Had he been following the maxim, "I will always give my customers the correct change, because it's the right thing to do," then his decision would have moral worth. That means that there are two kinds of moral imperatives, categorical ones, that are binding without qualification; and hypothetical ones, that are based on the satisfaction of inclinations.
A categorical imperative of morality is binding in all cases as a moral principle.
A hypothetical imperative of morality is an "if, then" statement. The moral obligation is always qualified by the satisfaction of the "if."
We have no room for hypotheticals in this approach, because we don't' want anything said to even resemble mere opinion.
The Supreme Principle of Morality is the Categorical Imperative.
Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative in two major ways that we will be analyzing:
1. The Principle of Universalizability
2. The Principle of Respect for Persons
The first formulation is the negative, restrictive form:
- Act as though the maxim of your action were to become, through your will, a universal law of nature.
Any A Priori principle must be Universal. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a metaphysic. Since we have established that the moral value is held in the reason for a moral action, then that reason must be taken up the stratum of thought to the level of principle if we are to establish whether it is in line with a first principle of morality. Since moral principles are founded in Reason, then they must be subject to the same laws as Reason, such as the law of non-contradiction. Therefore, if one's reason for a moral action is, when considered in the framework of a first principle, self-contradictory, then it cannot be a moral principle. It is inherently irrational to contradict yourself.
PRINCIPLE OF RESPECT FOR PERSONS
The second formulation is the positive form, describing how one ought to treat persons:
- Always treat persons as ends in themselves, rather than mere means.
The universalizability is conveyed by the word "always." We, as rational beings, are the end-setters. Without Persons, there would be no goals, no ends. Therefore, Rational Beings ought to be treated as ends in themselves.
In conclusion, as autonomous beings, we should be acting out of a sense of duty to the moral law we give ourselves. The reason we should respect the dignity of persons is because we are all rational beings. The exercise of that capacity for reason makes us worthy of dignity. Since it's the same capacity for reason, it is unqualified by the particulars of circumstance. It's the same Universal capacity for reason that delivers the moral law. So, to act autonomously, is to act according to a moral law we give ourselves, exercising our Reason. Not the particular reasons we have because of circumstance, but the reason that legislates A Priori, regardless of empirical ends.