Kant: The Rationality of Morality

07Feb08

When Kant wrote about morality, he took up the challenge of sceptical empiricists like Hume. Our field of knowledge, thus emancipated from Humean skepticism, is nevertheless limited to the world of phenomena. All theoretical attempts to know things-in-themselves are bound to fail. This inevitable failure is the theme of the portion of the Critique of Pure Reason entitled the “Transcendental Dialectic.” Here Kant shows that the three great problems of metaphysics—God, freedom, and immortality—are insoluble by speculative thought. Their existence can be neither affirmed nor denied on theoretical grounds, nor can they be scientifically demonstrated, but Kant shows the necessity of a belief in their existence in his moral philosophy.

The sceptic’s question presupposes the validity of rationality. She is asking us to provide reasons that justify our moral claims. Kant’s response works from this presupposition: if it can be proved that morality is a matter of rationality then the sceptic must, by her own lights, accept morality as justifiable and binding.

So, Kant is attempting to show us how rationality applies in the sphere of morality. If morality is grounded in reason, then the same reason that fuels scepticism is the grounds for moral judgements and moral actions.

Kant argued that there is a single moral obligation – the categorical imperative – which is itself a principle of reason. Morality is held to apply to all rational beings by virtue of their rationality. This is the non-moral rational world of hypothetical imperatives, which is characterised by conditionals. (If you want x, do y.)

To be rational, Kant says, we must appeal to reasons. But appealing to reason involves an appeal to universality, since if x is a good reason for me then it is also a good reason for you. Whenever we try to give a reason for an action we appeal to universal motives.

This of course depends on accepting the principle of the categorical imperative. Kant argues that this is justified by rational agency itself, as Scruton notes:

“The autonomous agent is both the agent and repository of all value, and exists, as Kant put it “as an end in himself”. If we are to have values at all, we must value (respect) the existence and endeavours of rational beings. In this way autonomy prescribes its own limit”. Roger Scruton, Kant (Oxford, 1983) p.71

Kant applies the rational demand for universality to the will then we can rationally formulate universal categorical imperatives that are derived from our rational nature and apply equally to all. By deriving morality from reason, he hopes to overcome the skeptical objection that a belief in morality is somehow irrational. Many people consider this to be a powerful objection, as it turns the skeptic’s own emphasis on rationality against them.

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