Jacques Maritain Center

Moral Philosophy


Christianity and Philosophy

The Ethics of Kant

I Modern Philosophy before Kant

Rationalism and Empiricism
1. The classical or pre-Kantian age of modern philosophy did not contribute any basic new departures in moral philosophy. The only thinkers of real stature and lasting historical importance in this field were Machiavelli, Hobbes, Pascal and Spinoza.{1} But the work of Machiavelli is not relevant to the present study, since it bears exclusively on political philosophy, which he separated from ethics (and in so doing appears as one of the fathers of the modern world -- and a poor ethician). The work of Hobbes is primarily negative. That of Spinoza, that great solitary column erected by absolute intellectualism from the remains of ancient Judeo-Christian wisdom, is in the last analysis more metaphysical than moral. And the great moral intuitions of Pascal have their origin in mystical experience and religious genius, not in the perspectives and elaborations of philosophy.

From the time of the Renaissance to that of Kant, the spectacle offered by moral philosophy is one of progressive secularization or "naturizing" of the traditional Christian heritage. Let us say, to be brief, that this process took two main forms. First of all, an internal change took place in the universe of thought inherited from medieval Christianity, with its effort (thoroughly compromised as it was by the decadent Middle Ages) to accomplish the synthesis of faith and reason. It was in fact the same universe of thought as regards its material constituents, or the various elements which make up its content. But the lighting changed, as well as the arrangement or internal order of the parts. A phenomenon of cleavage or separation occurred. Reason was isolated from faith, and assumed the task of organizing human life: a process of emancipation from the rationalist point of view; a process of disintegration from the point of view of the organic unity of culture. Montaigne, who had nothing of the rationalist in him, observed human nature with the amused eye of a Christian whose faith was a valid ticket to heaven but of no avail for putting things in order here below. On the other hand, great philosophers like Descartes or Leibniz posed as defenders of religion, either to make of it the celestial crown of a human perfection entirely produced by reason alone, or to reduce it to natural religion (there is not far to go from the Christianity of Leibniz to the gospel of Jefferson). Spinoza, for whom faith was only obedience, involving no knowledge even in an imperfect mode, having only the value of a myth, was to hand over to reason the whole of the ancient empire of religion, bag and baggage, including the matters of salvation and sanctity. But what seems to me especially worthy of notice is that this whole great effort to transfer the values of Christian ethics into a rationalist and naturalistic climate, at the same time retaining insofar as possible their cultural function, generally expressed itself in terms of Christian Stoicism: and there is nothing surprising in this, since, thanks to the historical ambiguity we pointed out in a previous chapter, the Stoic sage lay ready at hand as a substitute ideal for a Christian civilization become anthropomorphic. Thus nothing essentially new was contributed to the proper domain of moral philosophy.

2. What occurred in the second place was a labor of critical laying bare, in which the demands of empiricism and the offensive launched in the name of a pessimistic realism occupy the forefront.

In this connection, one might consider the cynicism of Swift as a counterpart of the scepticism of Montaigne -- a scepticism and a cynicism both perhaps more affected than real, but none the less significant.

The greatest thinker to be dealt with here is incontestably Thomas Hobbes. In my opinion his work had an importance in the realm of practical philosophy at least equal to that which the work of David Hume was later to have in the realm of speculative philosophy.

The moral philosophy of Hobbes derives from a radical and decidedly materialistic naturalism which had the merit of refusing all compromises. Hobbes did not seek to reconcile the system of traditional thought with one or another opposed inspiration. He broke with this system of thought. He was a kind of agnostic. Faith, for him as for Spinoza, was a matter of obedience, not at all a matter of knowledge -- but obedience to the State (conceived in a frankly despotic perspective). For him, human morality is completely and finally explicable in terms of man's desire for his self-preservation and his pleasure. The condition which makes it reasonable to conform to the fundamental moral rules is the fact that they are generally observed, and the condition on which this general observance depends is the power of the State. Here we no longer have a Christian Stoicism, but rather an Epicureanism controlled by Leviathan or the "mortal God", a policed Epicureanism. At the same time, Hobbes turned upside down the classic notion of natural law, and for the idea of an ideal order rooted in human nature he substituted a law of nature conceived in purely empirical terms, and signifying only a primitive state of fact -- that primitive state whose image, traced by his frank pessimism, is indelibly impressed on the modern imagination. One of the most curious (and least glorious) phenomena in intellectual history is the confusion which was to establish itself between these two concepts of the law of nature, radically opposed as they are.

As Höffding has written, "the naturalistic basis which he [Hobbes] gave to ethics and politics originated in a movement which has been strikingly compared to that inaugurated by Darwin in the nineteenth century."{1} The fact remains, however, that even with Hobbes the moral philosophy of the pre-Kantian era brought no fundamental renewal of ethical perspectives. Hobbes simply reworked the old themes of Cyrenaic and Epicurean ethics, making the latter into something more inflexible and more sombre by subjecting it to the yoke of determinism and incorporating it in the absolutism of the State (which was completely contrary to the spirit of Epicurus). He performed an essentially negative task, chipping away, eroding the already existing body of the classical tradition. He revealed no new constructive principle to moral philosophy.

As for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose thought was inconsistent but whose sensibility was prophetic, we have reason to mention him here only because of the influence (more emotional than philosophical) exerted on Kant by his message and his enthusiasm (which was moreover too naturalistic for the philosopher of pure reason) for the liberty of the individual and for moral law.

The English School of the Eighteenth Century
3. I do not believe that moral philosophy has any important lesson to learn from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill. This social-minded and upright hedonism, which conceived of the end of human life in statistical terms, and which in the case of Bentham had a decidedly mercantile flavor, in Mill was colored by the virtues proper to the gentleman, remained quite inferior to the moral sentiment which furnished its substratum in the popular conscience and which it attempted to rationalize. Moreover, it overlooked the fact that Mandeville had already demonstrated the extreme naïvete of the Benthamite principle according to which "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" results from the sum of pleasures and utility of each individual when they are properly calculated. All that the utilitarianism of the latter part of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century succeeded in accomplishing was the complete destruction -- even in the very camp of these defenders of virtue -- of the idea of moral good properly so called, of the bonum honestum (good as right), which they replaced with the idea of the moral good as equivalent to the advantageous, or the "good state of affairs".

The English school of the eighteenth century, on the contrary, has genuine interest for moral philosophy. Whether, with Shaftesbury, it appeals to an aesthetic sense of beauty and harmony which, with a reassuring spontaneity, harmonizes the impulses of egoism and the requirements of social life; or, with Hutcheson, it appeals to the instinctive judgments of a moral sense distinct from reason and perceiving good and evil as intuitively as the sense of sight perceives colors; or whether in the case of Adam Smith, it appeals to the sympathy which assures us of the goodness of our actions when, duplicating ourselves so to speak in two beings, we feel ourselves sympathizing as benevolent and disinterested spectator with our other self as actor -- it abandons all pretension to philosophical profundity, with the candor of an empiricism perfectly satisfied with itself. But the astonishing weakness of their theoretical explanations has at least the merit of bringing into sharper relief the fact which they were struggling to explain, namely, the presence in man of a pre-philosophical moral knowledge, acquired in a different way than that of conceptual discourse and reason, a knowledge whose certitudes seem only the stronger for its being ill-adapted to demonstrating them. Precisely by reason of the flagrant impotence of the systems they propose, without knowing it these philosophers turn out to be witnesses of that knowledge by inclination which moral philosophy has to recognize as a fundamental datum, and for which they sought substitutes in vain, retaining all the while an authentic though wretchedly conceptualized feeling for the kind of immediacy which characterizes it.

II The Kantian Revolution

4. It is with Kant that something really and positively new makes its appearance in post-Renaissance moral philosophy. In the process of summing up and concentrating in himself the complex heritage and the long effort of three centuries of thought, he performed a revolutionary task in the realm of ethical philosophy, as in that of speculative philosophy. Not that he wished to destroy or overthrow anything in the realm of morals -- on the contrary, his effort was to restore. But in order to construct his imposing edifice he was in fact compelled to transform completely the whole architecture of ethics. He found himself at the point of convergence of two opposed traditions, On the one hand, the process of rationalist separation which we have mentioned culminated with him in a sovereign cult of Pure Reason and a belief in the absolute hegemony of philosophy as a critical discipline. On the other hand, the influence of Christianity and fidelity to originally Christian convictions left its mark in a similarly absolute and irrevocable way on his moral ideal and his conception of human conduct (just as Leibnizian metaphysics left its imprint on his critical work in the speculative realm). It was in order to achieve the work of integration which his philosophical genius was undertaking in regard to these two contrasting intellectual heritages, these two conflicting worlds of thought, that he was led to a kind of "Copernican revolution" in the practical as in the speculative order. That is to say that in the practical order he founded the whole moral life not on the good but on the pure form of duty, as in the speculative order he founded knowledge and the object of knowledge no longer on being but on the knowing subject and its a priori forms.

The operation which he carried out with singular systematic power thus consisted in the construction of a purely philosophical ethics, an ethics of Pure Reason, which would be at the same time an ultimate completion of -- and substitute for -- the traditional ethics inspired by the Christian faith. In other words, after having secularized them, he transferred the features of revealed ethics and of Christian morality -- as they had come to be understood through the vicissitudes of a secular human experience -- into a purely philosophical moral theory, where reason, sovereign organizer and legislator of human life, concerned itself with religious belief (whose fate, in what concerns the renunciation of knowing, was henceforward shared by metaphysics, which was to be saved at this price) only in order itself to determine the legitimacy of that belief and the conditions of its existence and the proper bearing of its content.

It is impossible to understand Kant's ethical doctrine if one does not take into account the convictions and the fundamental inspiration he derived from his pietist upbringing. He prided himself on founding an autonomous morality; he took great pains to that end. But in fact his accomplishment was dependent on fundamental religious ideas and a religious inspiration he had received in advance. That is why, however we may regret not being able to keep the analysis within exclusively philosophical bounds, we are obliged, if we wish to grasp the real significance of the moral philosophy of Kant, to take note of all the points of reference to traditional Christian ethics in its essential structure. It is not with the idea of opposing the two systems to each other that we shall have recourse to this kind of confrontation. We would have preferred to avoid it. But it is forced upon us in spite of ourselves by the exigencies of the subject, and because without it the historian of ideas cannot form an accurate notion of what Kant's moral system really is.

The religious background of which we have just spoken is the source of what characterizes Kantian ethics from the outset, namely, its absolutism, the privilege it assigns to morality as revealer of the absolute to man, the seal of the absolute which it impresses upon morality, the saintliness with which it is clothed. The saintly and absolute value of moral obligation and of the ought; the inverse value -- sacrilegious and absolute -- of moral wrong; the saintly and absolute value of good will; the saintly and absolute value of purity of ethical intention: so many traits whose origin lies in the influence of revealed ethics, and which have been transposed therefrom. But since at the same time the whole universe of objective realities on which that revealed ethics depended in its own order and in the supra-rational perspective of faith had been eliminated, along with the universe of objective realities which metaphysics imagined itself to know, the saintly absolutism of morality required a complete reversal of the bases of moral philosophy and rational ethics. Moral philosophy became a-cosmic. The world of morality had to be constituted purely on the basis of the interior data of the conscience, while severing itself from the world of objects -- confined in sense experience -- which our knowledge attains, and especially from that search for the good, the object of our desires, which also belongs to the empirical order, and to which up to this point the fate of ethics had been tied.

The Good as End excluded as a constituent element of Morality Elimination of the Subjective Ultimate End -- Kantian Disinterestedness
5. The idea of disinterestedness is absolutely central with Kant. In a sense it is one of the elements of his morality which derives from the Christian heritage, for it has obvious historical ties with that search for pure love which had posed so many problems for the Christian conscience, especially in the age of quietism, and which was not without indirect repercussions even on Lutheran pietism. But in another sense Kantian disinterestedness, in which love plays no role, is the peculiar privilege of the ethics of Pure Reason, distinguishing it by opposition both from the morality of Aristotle and from traditional Christian morality. Kant saw the weak point in Aristotelian eudemonism; he also saw the weak point in a great many of the popular expositions of religious morality which were not careful enough to avoid presenting it simply as a transcendent eudemonism. He was deeply aware of the necessity for the moral life to be suspended from a supreme disinterested motive, and to be definitively freed from the supremacy of self-love. For this he deserves the gratitude of philosophers, whom he has put in a position to elucidate this point better than they ordinarily do. This perception also explains the favor with which the Kantian ethics has been received in broad sectors of our culture, and the powerful attraction it exerts on minds in spite of its internal weaknesses: for if the hands of man are egotistical and rapacious, still it is a disinterested ideal (no matter what a great many pseudorealists think) which has the strongest hold on his dreams and even on his thought.

But Kant formed so exclusive, so excessive a concept of what he perceived so clearly, that in order to have a really disinterested supreme motive he thought it was necessary to reject from morality as such the pursuit (which he supposed to be necessarily interested) of any good as the end of action, and especially the pursuit of the supreme good or of a supreme end, the pursuit of the sovereign Good. In other words, he believed it was necessary to withdraw morality, as far as its basic constituents are concerned, from the order of finality. Yet if it is true that "without an end the agent would not act", a disinterestedness so conceived would only disinterest, or cut moral action off from existence itself. It is in the very order of finality that a real disinterestedness can be attained: when a person acts for love of another whom he loves more than himself, because through love the good of another becomes our end. Kant, on the contrary, sought a morality of absolute disinterestedness by cutting off morality as such from the order of love, by the very fact that he cut off morality from the order of finality, and from the pursuit of the good as the end of action, which in his view was merely the pursuit of pleasure.

It would be well at this point to avert a possible misunderstanding. H. J. Paton, in a remarkable book,{1} has defended the ethics of Kant against the oversimplified objections of Schiller. It is not true, he says, that Kant taught that no action can be moral if we have some natural inclination toward it or if we obtain the least pleasure from its performance. In this Mr. Paton is right.

But he goes too far in the opposite direction when he affirms that for Kant self-love, pleasure or happiness can play a role in the moral life as motives acting conjointly with the will toward duty for the sake of duty. Kant's texts resist this interpretation.{2}

For Kant the pursuit of happiness, the consideration of pleasure or utility and self-interest, the rational love of self, can no doubt play a role in matters of morality, as being related to certain things that a wise man can and even ought to propose to do -- for example, he ought to see to the conservation of his health -- but always on the condition that the unique formal reason or motivation be that of duty, of reverence for the law.

These empirical attractions -- pleasure, self-interest, happiness -- can also play the role of factors which remove obstacles, in counterbalancing the attractions of vice; and even the role of substitutes for right intention, which prepare man to enter into the moral life.

But they can never be the motives of the moral act itself and as such, even conjoint and secondary motives of the weakest order. Insofar as they intervene in the intention, they taint it and cause it to cease to be moral. They cannot act as motives for the autonomous will, the pure moral will. They have no place in ethical motivation and in the formal constituent or proper constituent of morality. An action which satisfies an inclination of nature, which causes joy or pleasure, can be moral, to be sure! But if in my decision to perform it, I adopt that pleasure or that joy as my end -- even as a secondary motivation -- I fall off to that extent from the moral order. Pleasure, and even the desire for pleasure, can accompany the moral act. But they cannot play any formal role, any motivating role, in the intention of the moral act.

Let us add that for Kant what is true of pleasure is also true of happiness. He hardly distinguishes between pleasure and happiness, because happiness is for him an empirical notion and one which derives from the world of sensibility; to seek my happiness is to seek that which pleases me. Moreover, even if like Aristotle and to an even greater degree St. Thomas, Kant had had an ontological notion of happiness -- a notion of happiness as the full achievement or perfect fulfillment of the being and powers of the subject and of the desires rooted in his nature -- and if consequently he had clearly distinguished between happiness and pleasure, happiness would still have remained for him a state which one can only desire for love of oneself, and the search for happiness would still have been tainted by egoism, and thus incompatible with the disinterestedness inherent in an authentic morality. In short, it is not enough to subordinate the search for one's own good to a higher motive in the order of motivations, because according to Kant it cannot in fact be subordinated; once accepted as a motive, it is sovereign. It must be purely and simply eliminated from moral motivation.

6. Thus we see the peculiar significance of Kantian disinterestedness. The sacredness of good will and moral intention is such that any thought of happiness, any desire for happiness entering into the motivation of our acts can only soil that intention, and cause it to fall off from the order of morality. Good will is good -- limitlessly good{1} -- precisely because it is a manifestation of the pure practical Reason and performs duty solely for the sake of duty. Duty for duty's sake, such is the only authentically moral motivation; and only one impulse of the heart is permitted to contribute to this pure motivation: respect for the law. Reason admits only one sentiment into moral dynamics: respect for the moral law, reverence for the law{1} -- which is an emotion of a unique kind, a sentiment directly engendered by a concept of reason, without the intervention of any sensible object. Still further, if the moral law has nothing to do with happiness, it is because its essential character consists in its being obligatory, and how, asks Kant, could a person be obliged to wish to be happy? There is no moral obligation to be happy. (This is true, as we have pointed out already,{2} because we desire happiness by a necessity of our nature; but there is a moral obligation to choose the true happiness -- it is at this point that the universe of freedom inserts itself into the universe of nature -- and this is what Kant's perspective kept him from seeing.)

In a word, then, Kant cut the moral life off at the same time from Aristotelian Happiness and from Christian Beatitude, from all impetus toward a supreme earthly felicity and from all impetus toward a supreme transcendent felicity. Neither the natural aspiration toward happiness, which for him had to do solely with the world of nature, not at all with the world of freedom, nor the aspiration to partake of the divine beatitude, which for him derived only from a kind of transcendent eudemonism or even hedonism, was involved in the proper order of morality. What we have called the subjective ultimate end, which in the original perspective of revealed ethics was the super-fulfillment of the being and the desires of the human subject through the vision of God, and the joy which derives from it as an inherent property, are definitely banished from this proper order of morality.

It is not that something equivalent to this subjective ultimate end, though exterior to the proper order of morality and superadded to it, was not admitted by Kant. In his doctrine of the postulates of the practical Reason there is a kind of final harmony between the law of the world of freedom (duty for duty's sake) and the law of the world of nature (the desire for happiness), which is rendered possible through those objects of belief which are the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. But it is a harmony which is realized after the fact, as a final reconciliation between two heterogeneous worlds. The desire for happiness and the choice of true happiness, the aspiration toward beatitude, play absolutely no role and have absolutely no place in the proper order of morality, and in the internal dynamism of the world of freedom. And this final reconciliation of the two worlds, this final achievement of happiness, is not only exterior to the realm proper to morality, which is entirely constituted and fulfilled without any reference to it, but Kant conceives of it as a "recompense", in the most anthropomorphic and extrinsic sense, a gratification offered in reward for good conduct. For in fact this is only a reconciliation between pure reverence for the law (the world of freedom) and pure eudemonism (the world of nature). In rejecting the desire for happiness from the proper order of morality, Kant renounced the possibility of making it transcend itself, and of freeing it from eudemonism.

Although love has no place in it, the pure disinterestedness of his ethics is really a replica of the doctrines of pure love in their most extreme form. He sought more than the disinterestedness of the morality of the saints; he proposes to us the super-disinterestedness of an ethic in whose essential structure the notion of a subjective ultimate end has no part.

In the last analysis this amounts to making of the moral agent an agent who is absolutely self-sufficient, and who acts rightly without needing to perfect or fulfill his being. An expression of the sovereignly autonomous and sovereignly legislating Reason, by the very fact that he belongs to the world of freedom and morality, he has nothing to receive, he is not expecting anything to be given him. It is rather he who gives, who presents to the supreme Being acts whose goodness is entirely independent of that Being. He makes a present of his rectitude and the purity of his intention, to be recorded in the books kept by a God who is a kind of eternal Accountant or Notary charged with establishing the final balance between the absolute Disinterestedness of the moral act and the invincibly interested Appetites of nature.

Elimination of the Absolute Ultimate End -- Kantian Autonomy
7. In the same way that he eliminates the subjective ultimate end, Kant also eliminates the absolute ultimate end, which similarly has no part in the proper structure of the Kantian ethic.

It is very difficult for a rationalist philosophy to understand that a being which naturally desires happiness can love another being, even God, otherwise than for its own selfish sake. That is why although the Kantian ethic is, as we have pointed out, a rationalistic replica of the most exaggerated mystical theories of pure love, it is at the same time the extreme opposite of these theories. Love has no place in it. To act for the love of God, whatever the mystics say, would still be to act out of that love of self which in the rationalist way of thinking, consummately formulated in the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, is the reason for all other love. In the last analysis, it would still amount to seeking one's own happiness in a concealed way, to obeying an interested motivation, falling off from pure disinterestedness.

But it is not only in the name of pure disinterestedness of ethical motivation, it is also and above all in the name of the autonomy of the will that for Kant the absolute ultimate end must be eliminated from the constitutive structure of ethics and from the proper domain of the moral life.

God plays no role in this domain. It is true, His existence is one of the postulates of the Practical Reason; but, as we have already indicated, it is only after the fact and outside the proper structure of ethics, once the universe of ethics has already been entirely constituted in and for itself, that this universe requires us to believe in the unknowable objects thus postulated (immortality, free will, God), objects which owe to the universe of ethics the existence we attribute to them. In their intimate origin in the thought of Kant (haunted as he was by metaphysics, which he sought to save in his own way), were these "postulates of the Practical Reason" really present as presuppositions, in particular, and most importantly, the belief in that intemporal Freedom which from the heights of the intelligible world fixes our empirical character once and for all and from which the world of morality is suspended? In any case their function in Kant's system is not at all that of presuppositions.{1} The Kantian postulates are not, like the postulate of Euclid with respect to geometry, indemonstrable assertions which play a necessary role in rationally establishing the ethical theory. They are indemonstrable assertions which, once the ethical theory is rationally established, Practical Reason requires us to believe in order to bring our speculative Reason and the universe of our objects of thought, the picture we have of things, into harmony with practical Reason, and with the already completed edifice of morality. Since everything in this picture which is knowable and is the object of science belongs only to the phenomenal order, constructed or fabricated by our understanding through its a priori forms, it is the universe of the practical and of morality which, out of a need for harmony and final unification, makes as it were a present to the speculative universe of that which surpasses the phenomenal and belongs to the order of the absolute, in the form of postulates or objects of belief in which the transcendental Ideas at last find employment, and this in order that the world of thought may be adjusted to moral action. I am quite aware that the Kantian conception of belief is highly debatable, for in opposing "belief" to "knowledge" he opposes it not only to science (that is, to evident knowledge) but to all knowing. Belief cannot, consequently, consist in knowledge of a non-evident object through the testimony of somebody who has evidence of it (as faith for the theologians consists in knowledge of divine things through the testimony of the first Truth); it is an adherence by which we affirm without knowing it something which no one attests and in which nevertheless we must "believe" in the name of the exigencies of moral action. That this theory of philosophical or moral belief and of postulates is logically inconsistent, and that in the last analysis it is worth no more, in spite of all the seriousness of Kant's convictions, than the common idea of religion as a "comforting illusion" answering our needs, however, lies outside our present concern. What is important here is that it makes out of God an appendix to morality, not its foundation.

8. We have said that the Kantian notion of the autonomy of the will requires that the absolute ultimate end be excluded from the proper and constitutive domain of ethics. It is so because the Practical Reason, or the pure rational will (these two notions are apparently identical for Kant){1} is absolutely autonomous, that is to say, it is not submitted to any other law than that which it gives itself, or rather, which is one with itself.{2} In other terms, the dignity of the person is such that, in the words of Rousseau, it can only obey itself. This perfect autonomy first of all excludes God as Legislator from the proper and constitutive domain of morality, since in dividing good from evil the eternal reason and will of God as Legislator (or his simple arbitrary will, the popular conception of which St. Thomas held to be a blasphemy{3}) would impose upon us from without the law of Another. The Pure Practical Reason is alone the legislator. And this same perfect autonomy also excludes God as absolute ultimate end from the proper and constitutive domain of morality; it excludes from this order the subsistent Good, which must be loved above all things, and in the love of which the supreme motivation of the moral agent must consist. If love is rigorously excluded from Kantian motivation, it is because love, so it seems, is irremediably heteronomous. Is there any worse heteronomy than to do the will of another, and to say to another whom one loves: thy will be done, not mine?

In a "cosmic" ethical theory, or one with an ontological foundation, which takes both the line of final causality and the line of formal causality into account, it is possible to understand, on the one hand, that the moral act can depend on both these lines of causation at the same time: it derives its intrinsic value from its conformity to its formal rule, and it is accomplished in virtue of a motivation which derives from finality (on which its definitive existential value depends, for the end also must be good); in traditional Christian morality a good man does that which is good (or in conformity with reason, the formal rule) for love of subsistent Good (final causality). And one may understand, on the other hand, that a subordination is possible in the order of ends (a good act can be motivated by love of self and personal interest, by love of the social group, etc., all this being subordinated to a supreme motivation which is the love of God) as in the order of formal reasons (reason constitutes the proximate rule of human acts, itself subordinated to the rule of natural law, which is in turn subordinated to the Eternal law). But Kant constructed his moral system solely in function of the order of formal causality, totally eliminating the order of final causality. He retains (necessarily) the notion of motivation, which in itself derives from final causality; but he can only account for it by referring it to the line of formal causality, and by making of it a unique "feeling", the direct product of a concept of reason -- reverence for the law or for the formal rule itself. As a result, the idea of subordination of ends disappears, along with the whole order of finality, which has been eliminated (just as the idea of subordination of formal reasons also disappears, presupposing as it does an ontologically founded ethics). At the same time, any intervention by the love of some end, be it even love of the absolute ultimate End, in the motives which make us act can only violate or destroy the moral character of a motivation which has been conceived exclusively in function of formal causality, and whose purity depends on its unique connection with the formal rule, its unique privilege of manifesting the dignity and sacredness of duty and of the law. The only morally valid motivation is reverence for the law.

Briefly, in Kantian ethics respect for the law or reverence for the law has taken the place of the love of God above all things, which is the foundation of traditional Christian ethics -- and this in virtue of a transposition of traditional Christian morality into terms of pure reason. Reverence for the law has taken the place of the love for God, just as the unlimited goodness of the will, existing within the moral agent, has taken the place of the infinite goodness of the absolute ultimate End, which exists outside him and above him.

9. If it is true that man is a creature, it is nonsense to claim an absolute autonomy for him as a moral agent. He gains his autonomy progressively, and remains forever subject to the law of another, to a law which depends not on himself but on nature and the author of nature. But this heteronomy is not in itself a servitude, for this law established by another is the law of our own nature -- it requires us to act as men, or according to what we are essentially -- and it corresponds to our will's radical desire for the good. This heteronomy only becomes a servitude for a will which is in fact turned toward evil. Moreover, it is not incompatible with autonomy, for the autonomy of the moral agent is realized through the interiorization of the law. This process of interiorization is a double one: interiorization through intelligence, and interiorization through love. The only authentic autonomy for the human being is to fulfill the law -- the law of another -- which he has made his own through reason and through love.

When I have understood, through my reason, that the law is just and good, it is my own reason that I am obeying when I obey the law. That is why reason is the immediate rule of human acts. This is the first degree of autonomy. But insofar as our heart remains evil and our will turned toward evil, this first degree remains imperfect and does not eliminate servitude; it is through fear of this law, which I have made my own through reason and which coerces me, that I refrain from doing what my heart desires and my will inclines to.

But there is a second degree of autonomy, which proceeds from the interiorization of the law through love. Even in its most impoverished forms love brings with it a kind of freedom, because it makes of the one we love another self. A man who renounces his own will in order to do the will of another -- even with all the infirmities of passion -- because he loves him, and if he truly loves him, has more real autonomy, however weak it be, than a man (if this Kantian fiction could exist) would have who obeyed the categorical imperative through respect for the law and without any love. But when it is a matter of love in its highest form, of love for the absolute ultimate End, who is more ourselves than we are and whom we love more than ourselves, then autonomy makes an end to all servitude, then it is complete freedom that love brings with it. For then, in doing what the law prescribes through love of the law and of the Author of the law, man is following the deepest desire of his whole being -- a desire which through his love he has himself rendered more intimate and more natural to his heart than any other desire of his nature. He is following the most personal movement of his will, whose radical aspiration he has himself delivered up to the good, in the freedom of a supreme love. Perfectly interiorized through love, the law has become connatural with him. He is no longer under the law, says St. Paul, he is doing what he loves. This is the privilege of those whom St. Paul calls the "sons of God"; they have come to be not above the law but above the constraining imperative that it imposes. There is no higher human autonomy than that of Christ on the Mount of Olives. In saying to His Father: Thy will be done, not mine, He was asking, in an act of supremely free, voluntary and spontaneous obedience, for the fulfillment of a will that was more His than His own -- the will of Him whom He loved, as against that which was dearest to Him but which He loved less.

As a result of carrying autonomy and disinterestedness to an extreme which was contrary to the human condition, Kant missed the mark and failed to find what he was looking for. He missed the only complete disinterestedness that man can really attain and to which he is really called, and which, like autonomy, is achieved little by little and progressively: the disinterestedness which, following the very channels of our natural desire for happiness, but catching that desire in the trap of love as it were, begins by subordinating to the love of the absolute ultimate End, loved more than ourselves, the search for a supreme happiness that we still desire for love of ourselves (although primarily for the love of God). This disinterestedness comes to fruition in such a complete love of the absolute ultimate End, loved more than ourselves, that we no longer wish supreme happiness to ourselves except for love of that End, so complete a love that we even forget (without being able to renounce it) the search for the supreme happiness we wish for ourselves without having to think about it, since we only wish it for ourselves for the love of God, not of ourselves. Because genuine Christianity does not despise the natural desire for happiness and does not reject it from the proper domain of morality but directs it to something better and more loved, genuine Christianity transcends all eudemonism. That Kant did not see.

He also missed, as we just pointed out, the only full autonomy that man can really attain and to which he is truly called. In terms of historical influence, which is subject to all the alterations and accretions of time, the libertas christiana, Pauline autonomy, is the remote ancestor of the Kantian idea of autonomy. Kant raised autonomy to an absolute because he separated it from the Absolute on which our being depends, and from the love of that Absolute. One might say that his ethics of Pure Reason is a Christian ethics whose theological root has been severed, leaving only the stiffened moral branches. Thence what could be called the Kantian hypermoralism. There is no longer any order of grace, and consequently no order of charity, of infused virtues and gifts which render man connatural with that which is better than man. There remains only the order of the Law. We have pointed out that for Kant respect for the law takes the place occupied by the love of God above all else in traditional Christian ethics. This means that the Law, respect for which constitutes the only motivation compatible with moral rectitude, can never cease to impose on man its constraining imperative, to subjugate him to its sacred dignity. Man is always under the Law. There can be no sons of God nor freedom of the sons of God. Access to supreme autonomy is refused to man.

The Good as a Value inherent in the moral Object excluded as a constituent element of Morality -- Kantian Formalism
Primacy of the "you ought", pure of all content
10. The commandments of Sinai, written by the God of Israel on the two tables entrusted to Moses, were like an irruption from heaven, imposing its law on the world of man. They nevertheless had a definite content, expressing with the authority of revelation what are called the fundamental "precepts" of the "natural law", or the fundamental practical judgments which nature and the natural inclinations of the being gifted with reason spontaneously incite the spirit of man to formulate. The Kantian "you ought" is similarly like an irruption from the heaven of the Pure Reason, imposing its law on the empirical world. It is a primary fact, of unique significance, which has no more need of any ulterior justifying reason than did the divine law, justified in itself, for the Psalmist,{1} because it is a manifestation of Reason itself in the practical order.{2} It surges up in us and imposes itself on us, in the thunder and lightning of our conscience, and there is nothing for us to do but yield to it. Kant is the mediator through whom the tables of the Pure Practical Reason are transmitted to us. But nothing is inscribed on these tables, save the form of duty. The Kantian "you ought" has no content, indeed this is the price levied for its supra-empirical character, absolute and unconditioned. It is only the manifestation of Pure Reason's rule over us, without the least reference to intrinsic goodness, to the good as value in the object of human acts, any more than to any law outside the moral agent as such, any natural law or law of God. Just as the good as end has been excluded from the motivation of the moral act, the good as objective value is excluded from its specification. That which constitutes the value of the moral act is not the goodness of its content or of its object, but its conformity to the formal universality of the pure and primordial "you ought", from the beginning empty of all content.

This results from the fact that the universe of freedom or of morality, the ethical universe, has been totally and absolutely separated from the universe of nature, which, from the point of view of knowledge, is the domain of phenomena, of their laws and their determinism constructed under the unifying power of our a priori forms, and, from the point of view of action, the domain of desire and sensibility, of things outside the moral agent as such, the domain of the empirical, therefore of the non-moral. To make the value of the moral act depend on the goodness of its object, or on a quality which intrinsically determined this object in virtue of what things are, and on the ideal order of exigencies of which nature is the vehicle and the witness, would not only attribute to us a supra-phenomenal knowledge that we do not possess, but from the point of view of ethics and in its proper order it would cause the moral commandment to lose its absolute dignity and its unconditional authority by making it depend on empirical reasons and specifications. It is the unique privilege of the Pure Practical Reason to transmit something of the intelligible world to man, to procure for him a visitation from the absolute, not certainly in the form of a knowledge but in the form of an injunction, a commandment. And it is only by its form -- expressed by the "you ought" -- that this commandment is manifested to us as a visitation from the absolute, for it is only in virtue of its form that it derives from the Pure Reason and bears its emblem.{1} It thus impresses the seal of the law of the Pure Practical Reason or of the rational Will (which have their seat in that intelligible world the notion of which Kant inherited from Leibniz) on the life of sensibility and empirical determinations, the world of nature in us; and it does this by means of an imperious and coercive "you ought", because the world of the senses and instincts, of desires and inclinations, the empirical world, is a rebellious world.

Before knowing what I ought to do, then, I know, Reason tells me, that I ought. Reason submits me to the pure form of moral obligation and unconditioned commandment. In Kant's personal preoccupations and intentions this formalism was attenuated or mitigated by a concrete and authentically human sense of moral realities.{2} In his system it is rigorously pure.

11. I ought; but what ought I? How does this pure form of duty acquire a content, or rather (since its absolute and unconditioned character forbids its undergoing any influence from nature), how does it give itself or determine for itself a content?

Kant is using here the classical notion of conformity to reason as a measure of the moral act. But now it can only be the reason in its purely formal function, exclusively on the level of the properties and connections which are the object of logic (since any possibility of determination by nature or by the being of things has been suppressed). The essential trait that reason in its pure formal function offers to Kant is the double character of universality and noncontradiction. It is this that Kant adopts as a criterion.

It is sufficient for our purpose to consider the first of the five formulations of the categorical imperative that Kant proposes: "Act only on that maxim which will enable you at the same time to will that it be a universal law."{1} This is the formula of universal law -- or of the logically possible (non-contradictory) universalization of the maxim of the act -- to which the third formula (the formula of autonomy) is akin: "Act in such a way that the will can always at the same time regard itself as giving in its maxim of action universal law."

In the case of an act such as: not keeping a trust, it would be a logical impossibility or a contradiction to erect the following maxim into a universal law: one must never keep a trust; for if each individual is to receive a trust only with the intention of not keeping it, "trusts would no longer exist". A universal law prescribing that trusts should not be kept would cause its own object to disappear.{2} Or to take another example, think of an act such as: killing a man who has trespassed against me. Here the erection of the maxim of the act into a universal law (we must always kill those who trespass against us) involves no contradiction. But what would imply a contradiction and a logical impossibility would be to will that the maxim in question be erected into a universal law: for then I should wish that the person whom I happen to trespass against put me to death. There is a contradiction involved in willing a law which brings with it the disappearance of the person who wills it. That is why Kant was careful to say: act only in such a way that you can will that the maxim of thy act become a universal law.

In one case as in the other Kant deduces the content of the moral law from its pure universality: an act is forbidden, or contrary to the moral law, because it is logically impossible, or contradictory, either to universalize its maxim, or to will to universalize its maxim.

What constitutes the value of the Act is not the good present in its object, but the logical compatibility of its maxim with the Form of the Law
12. As we have just seen, Kant takes into consideration the consequences or results of our conduct: but solely and exclusively in order to determine whether its maxim is compatible or not with the universality of the you ought. By virtue of the fact that an act derives from a maxim that is logically compatible with the universality of the form of the law, it is ethically acceptable, it is moral, and is made to participate in the absolute goodness of the good will. But the intrinsic moral goodness of the object of our actions, the good and the evil inherent in the things we do, in the reality that we produce in the world, which itself possesses a certain moral quality in virtue of what it is, irrespective of the logical possibility or impossibility of universalizing or willing to universalize our maxims of conduct, has been entirely excluded and eliminated from the structure of ethics. What constitutes the value of an act is not the moral goodness of its object, but the logical appropriateness of its maxim to the requirement of universality of the formal norm.

The fundamental concept of good thus finds itself re-elaborated, reoriented, and as it were redistributed along new lines. In the first place, the notion of the good as value or of moral goodness obviously has not disappeared -- it cannot disappear; but it has been recast, so that it no longer designates anything more than the quality of an act whose maxim is compatible with the universality required by the form of the law. The change in vocabulary here is itself very meaningful: in order to designate this quality or value of the act, one will no longer say that it is "morally good" or "morally bad", but that it is or is not "moral" or ethical. The notion of moral goodness has turned into the notion of ethicalness. An act is ethical or moral (a reworked equivalent of "morally good") because it is commanded by the law. And it is commanded by the law because its maxim can be universalized, or willed to be universalized, without contradiction.

In the second place, as we indicated a moment ago, the notion of an object or content of the action, which would be considered good in itself (by reason of what it is, not physically, doubtless, but morally, or by reason of the value it bears in it, or the being it receives when it is transferred from the physical or ontological order into the proper perspective and the proper order of morality), the notion of the intrinsic moral goodness or moral badness of the object of our acts, in virtue of which the common conscience prescribes an act because it is good and forbids it because it is bad, this notion has been eliminated. The object no longer plays any role in the specification of the moral act. It is of secondary importance, extrinsic to the essential dynamism of morality, it is by a contribution of the act to the object, that in the last analysis the morality (the "moral goodness", in ordinary language) of an act already fully endowed with its value passes over to its content or its object and justifies the object's being itself called (but as a mere factual result, once the act has been decided upon) moral (or, in ordinary language, "morally good"). The value of the object is an effect of the value of the act; the object of the act is moral ("morally good") because the act is moral, or derives from a maxim compatible with the universality of the form of the law.

This is to say that the bonum honestum, which purely and simply perfects the human subject (the beautiful-and-good of the Greeks), the directly and specifically moral good has ceded the central place it occupied in traditional ethics to the absolute Obligation imposed by the Norm. It has been replaced by a substitute. For the bonum honestum is attributed to the object of the act before being attributed to the act itself, and it signifies a good in itself (in the proper order of morality).{1} And this "good in itself" is now rejected from the world of ethics just as the "thing-in-itself" is rejected from the world of knowledge. In the same way that the object of knowledge is made an object or "thing" (thing-phenomenon) because it is subsumed under our a priori forms, so the object of the act is made moral or "good", receives the seal of pure reason, because it is subsumed under an act whose maxim is appropriate to the universal form of commandment. I do not do right because I am doing the good. What I do is good (is moral) because I act according to a maxim which can be universalized without contradiction.

13. A great moral philosophy always has at some point or in some way a connection with the moral feeling of common experience. Popularly considered, and more or less separated from their systematic context, the doctrine and the formulae of the categorical imperative thus find a counterpart in our instinctive sense of the purity and dignity of the moral act, and they furnish practical criteria which receive the approval of the common conscience, like other general maxims such as "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". But taken philosophically, the doctrine of the categorical imperative is in itself ruinous, and has done a great deal of harm to ethics.

Just by reason of its formalism it has vitiated the notion of the universality of moral rules and of the law, by transferring that universality from the level of the reality which is human nature to the level of the being of reason which is the object of logic. I am henceforth submitted to the exigencies of a logical universal which imposes its form from without on my individual act without having any contact with my individuality, instead of being submitted to the exigencies of a rational nature which is no doubt common to all men but which is also my nature, individualized in me, a rational nature which no doubt places me under the authority of a general law, but which constitutes in me, and in spite of all my impulses to the contrary, an appeal to that law. The whole process of interiorization of the law, in virtue of which the law is recognized as just and good by the reason, and finally adapted by prudence to particular circumstances and to the singularity of the situations in which the self is involved, this whole process of interiorization is henceforth left out of account. The purely logical universality of the Kantian law, without any roots in nature, keeps it eternally separate from the individual subjectivity and external to it. It is Kant who forced Kierkegaard to seek an outlet for the deepest longings of the moral conscience in a revolt against the generality of the law, and in a "suspension of morality".

In completely separating the world of morality from the world of nature Kant completely destroyed the equilibrium of ethics. Forbidding himself to look for any rational elucidation of moral principles (which would have involved a recourse to being), he suspended ethics from the absolute of a "you ought" which he deprived himself of every means of justifying and which could therefore only appear as entirely arbitrary. He made of ethics a system established a priori, on the basis of which, far from relying on the moral experience of men in order reflexively to bring out the principles thereof, the philosopher dictates to them the articles of a legislation of Pure Reason despotically imposed on their life. He centered ethics no longer on the Good but on the Norm, and on "Obligatoriness", and by that very fact he warped the notion of moral philosophy and of its very normative character, detaching this normative character from its foundations in nature and its ties with experience, and making of moral philosophy a purely normative discipline, and normative a priori.

A Christian ethics of pure Reason which Christianity was instrumental in warping
14. The Stoic morality was a morality of pure value. But in a sense which this time is absolutely radical, the morality of Kant is a morality of value only. Finality and happiness still played an essential role in the proper structure of ethics for the Stoics; for them happiness and finality were absorbed into value, not opposed to it and excluded in its name. With Kant, the final end, the sovereign good, happiness, are all decisively rejected from the proper world of ethics. Kantian ethics is the irreconcilable enemy of Aristotelian eudemonism, because, in a much more general and more profound way, it is the irreconcilable enemy of Hellenic moral thought, and of the dependence of morality on happiness and on the sovereign good envisaged by the Greeks.

At the root of this enmity there is a kind of purist protest raised in the name of the old conflict between Christianity and paganism. As a result the ethics of beatitude appears as still contaminated by pagan eudemonism; the ethics of Kant, at the same time that it is purely philosophical, will be more Christian than traditional Christian ethics. What is at work at the bottom of this ethics of Pure Reason is a kind of hyper-Christianity without Christ, a Christian ferment deprived of its essence, from which the whole content of faith has been removed, but which continues to act.{1}

Where does the Kantian "you ought" come from, if not, as we have remarked, from a transposition of the revealed ethics of Sinai? Where does the idea of the sacredness of moral obligation and of the moral law, the idea of the supreme disinterestedness of the moral act, of the freedom and autonomy of the will when it identifies itself with the law, of the absolute or "categorical" value of the moral imperative, of the constraint it imposes on rebellious nature, of the dignity of the human person and the duty we have even when we use it as a means always to treat it at the same time as an end, where do all of these ideas come from if not from Christian sources? Kant wished to save all these elements derived from Christianity and to exalt them in an essentially rationalist ethics in which Pure Reason -- but a reason which can know nothing of the absolute -- takes the place of the God of Moses, in its capacity as Pure Practical Reason and on the condition of imposing an absolute commandment empty of all content. The result was, as we have seen, that he had to replace the Good by the Norm, and so unbalance ethics.

The ethics of Kant is the greatest and most powerful work of genius that modern times have erected in the field of moral philosophy. It is also an extraordinarily significant example of the way in which a moral system which is not only purely rational and philosophical but entirely and supremely rationalistic, can be thrown off balance by a devitalized Christian ferment, a Christianity which this philosophy itself has enclosed "within the limits of pure reason".

1 Etienne Gilson speaks of Kantian ethics in a similar vein in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, trans. by A. H. C. Downes, New York: Scribners, 1940, pp. 342, 359-360, 361, 362. (London: Sheed and Ward, 1936.)

Cosmic-Realist Ethics and A-cosmic-Idealist Ethics
15. It will be helpful to recapitulate the results of our long analysis by grouping them into a synoptic résumé.

In the great classical tradition descending from Socrates, moral philosophy can be characterized as a cosmic-realist ethics. We say cosmic ethics because it is founded on a view of the situation of man in the world;{1} we say realist ethics because it is founded on the extra-mental realities which are the object of a metaphysics and a philosophy of nature. This ethics is at once, and essentially, experiential and normative in character.

We might designate in this way the essential articulations of this cosmic-realist ethics:

chart on page 114
In this table the first three terms relate to extra-mental reality. The Law designates the natural law rooted in the being of things and the expression in them of the creative wisdom.

Reason is the immediate rule or measure of human acts, itself ruled or measured by the natural law and the ends essential to human nature.

In consequence, the moral object is good in itself, intrinsically good, when it conforms to reason. There is an intrinsic goodness or badness -- conformity or non-conformity with reason -- in the object of our acts.

And the goodness or rightness of the moral action depends on the goodness of the object.

In this ethical perspective moral goodness has its foundation in extra-mental reality: God, the nature of things, and especially human nature, the natural law. This is the perspective of the common conscience of humanity, and it is also, we think, the authentic perspective of moral philosophy.

16. With Kant everything changed. As we remarked above, Kantian philosophy furnishes the example of a moral philosophy which the influence of Christianity -- improperly received -- helped to warp. It is a Christian moral philosophy, but a falsified one. Kant tried to transpose revealed morality as the Judeo-Christian tradition presents it to us into the register of pure reason. He sought to retain the Judeo-Christian absolutization of morality in an ethics of Pure Reason, which rid itself of any properly supernatural or revealed element in order to replace it with the authority of a Reason not grounded on the real and on nature. He proposes to us an ethics of pure duty, an ethics without a last end, freed from all impulse towards happiness and

chart on page 115
towards the good; an ethics of the categorical imperative, in which the universe of morality and of freedom is totally separate from the universe of nature, so that the content of the law must be deduced from its form and from the universally normative essence of the Pure Practical Reason. In this ethics the specification of moral acts is freed from any consideration of the good, of the goodness-in-itself of the object (that is to say, of its conformity with reason in virtue of the nature of things); and this is logical enough, since things in themselves cannot be reached in Kant's system.

The Kantian revolution thus leads to an a-cosmic-idealist ethics, constructed in complete independence of any observation of the situation of man in the world and the universe, wanting to have no foundation either in metaphysics or in the philosophy of nature. This ethics has a deductive-normative character.

The first three items of the preceding table are eliminated from this ethics, as having nothing to do with morality.

The initial stage of such a moral philosophy is Reason as the measure of human acts, but no longer in at all the same sense as in the classical tradition, for now we have to do with Pure Reason, pure of all knowable matter, reason considered in a purely formal manner, solely from the point of view of the exigencies of logical universality.

The second stage is the law, no longer the natural law, but law in the sense of the categorical imperative, the absolute "you ought" of Sinai imposed in the name of Pure Reason as the a priori form of human acts.

The third stage is the rightness or morality (the moral goodness) of the action. For Kant the action is moral when its maxim is a maxim that it is possible to will to universalize, to erect into a rule of universal commandment over the conduct of every human being. It is this universalizability of the maxim of the act that constitutes its ethicalness, or, in ordinary language, its moral goodness -- a goodness which depends in no way on the goodness of the object. There is no intrinsic goodness in the object on which the goodness of the act might depend. On the contrary, if in the end and as a by-product one can speak of the goodness of the object, it is only as depending on the morality of the act. The morality of the act makes its object morally good. Moral good no longer has any foundation in extra-mental reality, it is founded solely on the universality of Pure Practical Reason, the content of the moral action having to be deduced from this universal form and from the exigencies of universality essential to the reason. We have noted that Kantian ethics is an ethics of value only. Let us add that this value itself is henceforth the value of the moral act, not of the object, which no longer specifies the value of the act but, on the contrary, receives its own value, as a by-product, from the act itself.

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