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The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics Kindle Edition
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[First off, although I’m seldom “critical” of reprint editions of “historical” books (I’m just glad that the book is still available---in ANY form!), this is an awful edition. The font size seems to be 6 pt. or even smaller, which makes the text nearly unreadable, when holding the book at a “normal” distance. And chapter headings are completely chaotic: black lines intended to set off a heading often come out and obscure entire lines of the text, and are not placed in the appropriate locations, in any case. In short, the PRESENTATION of this edition of the book is a real MESS! Perhaps the Kindle version isn't so bad. So my 5-star rating applies only to the booklet’s CONTENT, not this EDITION!]
But moving on to the CONTENT of the book: Kant wrote in the Preface to this brief 1780 book, “If there exists on any subject a philosophy (that is, a system or rational knowledge based on concepts), then there must also be for this philosophy a system of pure rational concepts, independent of any condition of intuition, in other words, a metaphysic. It may be asked whether metaphysical elements are required also for every practical philosophy, which is the doctrine of duties, and therefore also for Ethics, in order to be able to present it as a true science (systematically), not merely as an aggregate of separate doctrines (fragmentarily). As regards pure jurisprudence, no one will question this requirement, for it concerns only what is formal in the elective will which has to be limited in its external relations according to the laws of freedom; without neglecting any end which is the matter of this will.” (Pg. 2)
He continues, “Now in this philosophy (of ethics) it seems contrary to the idea of it that we should go back to metaphysical elements in order to make the notion of duty purified from everything empirical (from every feeling) a motive of action. For what sort of notion can we form of the mighty power and herculean strength which would be sufficient to overcome the vice-breeding inclinations, if Virtue is to borrow her ‘arms from the armory of metaphysics,’ which is a matter of speculation that only few men can handle? Hence all ethical teaching in lecture rooms, pulpits, and popular books, which it is decked out with fragments of metaphysics, becomes ridiculous. But it is not, therefore, useless, much less ridiculous, to trace in metaphysics the first principles of ethics; for it is only as a philosopher that anyone can reach the first principles of this conception of duty; otherwise we could not look for either certainty or purity in ethical teaching.” (Pg. 2)
He explains, “ethics may also be defined as the system of the ends of the pure practical reason. The two parts of moral philosophy are distinguished as treating respectively of ends and duties of constraints. That ethics contains duties to the observance of which one cannot be (physically) forced by others, is merely the consequence of this, that it is a doctrine of ends, since to be forced to have ends or to set them before one’s self is a contradiction. Now that ethics is a doctrine of virtue... follows from the definition of virtue given above compared with the obligation, the peculiarity of which has just been shown. There is in fact no other determination of the elective will, except that to an end, which in the very notion of it implies that I cannot even physically be forced to it by the elective will of others. Another may indeed force me to do something which is not my end… but he cannot force me to make it my own end, and yet I can have no end except of my own making.” (Pg. 8)
He suggests, “The duty of virtue is essentially distinguished from the duty of justice in this respect: that it is morally possible to be externally compelled to the latter, whereas the former rests on free self-constraint only. For finite holy beings … there is no doctrine of virtue, but only moral philosophy, the latter being an autonomy of practical reason, whereas the former is also an autocracy of it. That is, it includes a consciousness---not immediately perceived, but rightly concluded, from the moral categorical imperative---of the power to become master of one’s own inclinations which resist the law; so that human morality in its highest stage can yet be nothing more than virtue; even if it were quite pure … a state which is poetically personified under the name of the wise man (as an ideal to which one should continually approximate).” (Pg. 10)
He explains his famed Categorical Imperative: “It is the notion of an end which is also a duty, a notion peculiar to ethics, that alone is the foundation of a law for the maxims of actions; by making the subjective end (that which everyone has) subordinate to the objective end (that which everyone ought to make his own). The imperative: ‘Thou shalt make this or that thy end (e.g., the happiness of others)” applies to the matter of the elective will (an object). Now since no free action is possible, without the agent having in view in it some end (as matter of his elective will), it follows that, if there is an end which is also a duty, the maxims of actions which are means to ends must contain only the condition of fitness for a possible universal legislation; on the other hand, the end which is also a duty can make it a law that we should have such a maxim, whilst for the maxim itself the possibility of agreeing with a universal legislation is sufficient.” (Pg. 16)
He continued, “that since our self-love cannot be separated from the need to be loved by others (to obtain help from them in case of necessity), we therefore make ourselves an end for others; and this maxim can never be obligatory except by having the specific character of a universal law, and consequently by means of a will that we should also make others our ends. Hence the happiness of others is an end that is also a duty. I am only bound then to sacrifice to others a part of my welfare without hope of recompense: because it is my duty, it is impossible to assign definite limits how far that may go. Much depends on what would be the true want of each according to his own feelings, and it must be left to each to determine this for himself. For that one should sacrifice his own happiness, his true wants, in order to promote that of others, would be a self-contradictory maxim if made a universal law. This duty, therefore is only indeterminate; it has a certain latitude within which one may do more or less without our being able to assign its limits definitely. The law holds only for the maxims, not for definite actions.” (Pg. 20-21)
He continues with the Imperative: “The supreme principle of ethics … is: ‘Act on a maxim, the ends of which are such as it might be a universal law for everyone to have.’ On this principle a man is an end to himself as well as others, and it is not enough that he is not permitted to use either himself or others merely as means … but it is in itself a duty of every man to make mankind in general his end. The principle of ethics being a categorical imperative does not admit of proof, but it admits of a justification from principles of pure practical reason. Whatever in relation to mankind, to oneself, and others, can be an end; that it is an end for pure practical reason: for this is a faculty of assigning ends in general; and to be indifferent to them, that is, to take no interest in them, is a contradiction, since in that case it would not determine the maxims of actions… and consequently would cease to be practical reasons.” (Pg. 22-23)
He suggests, “Love is a matter of feeling, not of will or volition, and I cannot love because I will to do so, still less because I ought (I cannot be necessitated to love); hence there is no such thing as a duty to love. Benevolence, however… .as a mode of action, may be subject to a law of duty. Disinterested benevolence is often called (though very improperly) love; even where the happiness of the other is not concerned, but the complete and free surrender of all one’s own ends to the ends of another (even a superhuman) being, love is spoken of as being also our duty. But all duty is necessitation or constraint, although it may be self-constraint according to a law. But what is done from constraint is not done from love.” (Pg. 30)
He summarizes: “First: A duty can have only a single ground of obligation; and it two or more proofs of it are adduced, this is a certain mark that either no valid proof has yet been given, or that there are several distinct duties which have been regarded as one… Secondly: The difference between virtue and vice cannot be sought in the degree to which certain maxims are followed, but only in the specific quality of the maxim… Thirdly: Ethical virtue must not be estimated by the power we attribute to man of fulfilling the law; but conversely, the moral power must be estimated by the law, which corresponds categorically; not, therefore, by the empirical knowledge that we have of men as they are, but by the rational knowledge how, according to the ideas of humanity, they ought to be. These three maxims of the scientific treatment of ethics are opposed to the older apothegms.” (Pg. 32-33)
He concludes, “Every man has a conscience, and finds himself observed by an inward judge which threatens and keeps him in awe (reverence combined with fear); and this power which watches over the laws within him is not something which he himself (arbitrarily) makes, but is incorporated in his being. It follows him like his shadow, when he thinks to escape. He may indeed stupefy himself with pleasures and distractions, but cannot avoid now and then coming to himself or awaking, and then he at once perceives its awful voice. In his utmost depravity he may, indeed, pay no attention to it, but he cannot avoid it… conscience must be conceived as the subjective principle of a responsibility for one’s deeds before God; nay, this latter concept is contained (though it be only obscurely) in ever moral self-consciousness.” (Pg. 39-40)
This brief book itself is of interest, even though it covers similar ground to other, better-known works of Kant.
The idea of perfection is seen as a personal matter and not as a call to make others perfect because we say so. A corollary is that virtue is the strength of a person's maxim with regard to a self imposed obedience to do duty. According to Kant, each of us should act as though the ends are such that they call for a universal application of the result to all. Conscience is seen as an innate characteristic which is driven by the will and acted upon physically.
Overall, "The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics" by Kant is an important contribution to the philosophy of living life to do right things by all.
Anybody who wants to think seriously about morality and ethics should make themselves familiar with the "Categorical Imperative", although I need to read more of Kant's work before I make a definitive recommendation on whether to start here or elsewhere.