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Kant's System of Moral Law


Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals has a surprisingly simple aim: to identify the Categorical Imperative, the single principle of morality. Yet Kant never directly says what the principle is. It is a scandal of Kant scholarship. One statement is the Formula of Universal Law: “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Shortly after, in a different formulation of the principle (called the Formula of Humanity), Kant says that you should “act in such a way that you treat humanity [...] always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” The book includes as many as five or six other formulations, all of which are somehow the Categorical Imperative.

There is a natural puzzle: given that Kant presents his single moral principle in a variety of formulations, how do they all relate to each other? Any reading of the text demands an answer to this question. Literature tends to revolve around issues of equivalence and priority among formulations. The majority of scholars, including John Rawls, Paul Guyer, and Onora O’Neill, believe that the formulations are equivalent: the formulations either yield the same results when applied to cases or can be derived from each other. Scholars also wonder whether some formulations are more important than others. For example, is the Formula of Universal Law the Categorical Imperative, while the others are subsidiary?

Fortunately, in some neglected and abstract passages, Kant discusses the relation among the formulas directly. In the Groundwork (p. 4:436), he says that the Formula of Universal Law highlights 1) the form of the law, 2) the Formula of Humanity the matter, and 3) most enigmatically, that there is a “complete determination” of laws in a possible kingdom of ends. Kant is invoking terms from the Critique of Pure Reason, an earlier work not directly about ethics. My dissertation uses a new reading of the terms in the Critique of Pure Reason to inform a new reading of the Categorical Imperative and Groundwork as a whole. On this approach, issues like equivalence and priority fall away and new, more productive readings of Kant’s argument emerge. In my view, the best way to solve an enduring problem in the scholarship on Kant’s ethics is to look outside his ethics.

Chapter One uses Kant’s theory of matter and form to frame a new reading of the first two formulas in the Groundwork, the Formula of Universal Law and the Formula of Humanity. The chapter begins by discussing the influence of Aristotelian hylomorphism on Kant’s language, epistemology, and metaphysics. I look at the first Critique and Lectures to develop Kant’s picture of form and matter. With this picture, it becomes clear that the first two formulations are about two distinct but inseparable concepts. When Kant talks about universality, he is highlighting the formal or structural features of the Categorical Imperative. It is a law—universal, general, and necessary. ‘Do not lie’ is a principle that holds for everyone. The formulation about humanity as an “end” supplies its matter or content. The law is about humanity—a rational nature with value or worth. Lying involves communication among rational beings. My reading has implications for freedom or autonomy, the concept at the core of Kant’s philosophy. Hylomorphic language indicates that the matter and form combine. An autonomous will is one that wills universal laws that have itself as content. A good will, then, has a hylomorphic structure: it is a combination of matter and form. Kant uses the relation between the first two formulas to make this point. Understanding the relation among the formulations turns out to be the same as understanding how we are free.

Chapters Two and Three analyze Kant’s claims about complete determination and possibility, the third point in the 4:436 passage. Chapter Two focuses entirely on theoretical philosophy. Kant discusses complete determination in the Ideal of Pure Reason, the last chapter of the Transcendental Dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason. He makes an intricate and compressed argument that possibility is grounded in reality, specifically God as a rational ideal. By considering Kant’s theories of modality, reason, and concepts, I show that the primary function of complete determination is to lead to this ideal. For Kant, the faculty of reason assumes that all concepts are derived from some maximally real and completely determined being, the titular ideal of pure reason. The chapter provides a new reading of the argument, including a discussion of Kant’s mention of refinement (l�uterung), which has gone overlooked by scholars. It also traces the development of the argument from pre-critical works like The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God and Negative Magnitudes.

Chapter Three, the culmination of the dissertation, applies the reading of the Ideal of Pure Reason to the Groundwork. It begins with a treatment of Kant’s theory of reason and concept of system. With a third formula of the moral law, the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends, Kant is showing that practical reason utilizes systematic thinking. Morality is not a list of isolated principles but includes interrelation and interdependence among them. The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends and reference to complete determination emphasize this. Chapter Three provides a reading of the Kingdom of Ends, why systematicity is essential to it, and what a complete determination of moral laws would be. For Kant, practical reason assumes that all possible moral principles are derived from a single ideal that supplies their content. The reference to complete determination leads the reader to see that a version of the argument from the first Critique Ideal of Pure Reason is assumed in the Groundwork. The chapter details the argument and explores how it solves a longstanding problem in Kant’s scholarship, namely, the source of the positive content of the law. The answer is an ideal that makes systematic practical cognition possible.

The central claim of the dissertation is that the relation among the formulas is best understood through the theories of hylomorphism, modality, and reason implicit throughout the Groundwork. A possible law, like ‘Do not lie’, is a type of hylomorphic composite: the matter of rational nature under the form of universality. But reason treats morality as necessarily systematic. The individual laws are a plurality that is unified under the form of system. The Groundwork uses a sequence of formulas to identify the moral law as a single system. And if the law is a complete system, it cannot be stated in a single formula. The reading that the Categorical Imperative and Groundwork must be understood as parts of Kant’s philosophical system provides responses to many objections to his moral theory. It also portrays the theory as a commentary on figures in the history of philosophy—from Aristotle and Plato to Leibniz and Rousseau. In the end, this is how Kant wanted his system to be read: as one part of a larger whole.

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