What makes freedom possible is beyond all knowing, but what makes the moral law possible is freedom itself. The fact that we have a faculty of freedom is the critical ground of the possibility of morality.

I have called this lecture “Kant’s Imperative” so that I might begin by pointing up an ever-intriguing circumstance. Kant claims that the Categorical Imperative, which is the Moral Law, is implicitly known to every fully formed human being. And yet its formulation is absolutely original with him. Thus, to study that hard philosophical gem, the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, the little work in which Kant first sets out his imperative in its various versions, is to be in the curious position of laboring to acquire an utterly new principle which yet makes the almost persuasive claim of having been always in our possession. Out of this arises a common experience which, I am sure, you will have—or are already having—with the Categorical Imperative: you will probably find yourself ultimately unable to accept it, but you will never be able to forget it. But what we can neither accept nor ignore, it only remains for us to understand. The purpose of this lecture is to offer you some help with Kant’s Imperative.

Let me waste a few of our numbered minutes by setting out what kind of help I can try to give you. You might at first smile to hear it, but I think if it is put to you rightly, you might eventually agree that Kant is an easy author, easier, say, than Plato or Nietzsche. He is easy precisely because he seems difficult: laboriously explicit, forcibly systematic, rigorously technical. This is the kind of ruggedness meant to make a text accessible to straightforward explicatory industry. I shall engage in just so much of such explication of terms and their connections (gratifying though it be) as is necessary for our common discourse.

There is, however, another kind of help I can offer, though it might be a little premature. Some people might say that we should go farther in unravelling the text before coming to this part of textual interpretation. It also has to do with the precise sobriety, the systematic self-sufficiency and the deliberate authority of our writer. For these qualities all work to veil from view the real roots of the system—the stupendous assumptions that are packed into its technical terms, the strange abysses opening up beyond its well-delineated foundations, and the human pathos implied in its projects. To raise these roots is not, in my opinion, the worst way to begin to understand the system, and is probably the most profitable way to use our short time together.

Let me end these introductory remarks by pointing out that it is precisely because they have such a rewarding surface and such unsettling depths that Kant’s works have attracted the most effective explications and the most pertinent criticisms, among both of which I shall mention only the one full-scale commentary on the Foundations, which is by Robert Wolff and is called The Autonomy of Reason.

I shall make a straightforward beginning, then, by giving a brief explication of the literal meaning of the terms “categorical” and “imperative.”

The word “categorical” comes from a Greek verb which means to say something of something or somebody, and to say it flat out, without modification, without ifs and buts, as in accusation. A categorical assertion is an unconditional assertion.

The word “imperative” means a formulated command. A command, marked by an exclamation point, is the irruption into the world of an intention, an intention to change the course of events by an imposition of purpose, to cause a re-routing of the flow of events. Not every command, however, has a formula, since it may take the form of an imperious gesture, or an only incidentally intelligible sound, like “Heel” to a dog, or “Let there be light” to the elemental darkness. Obedience to such commands is a measure of the bidder’s power to be an efficient cause, to have an irresistibly powerful purpose. An imperative, on the other hand, not only articulates a projected move, it also gives a reason for it. It conveys not only the what, but also the why, of a command. It is an order directed to a rational being.

To understand what a Kantian imperative is, then, we must know what a rational being, a being having reason, is. Reason is the chief of those terms which carries in it far more than Kant’s bone-dry and matter-of-course presentation exposes. Indeed, it carries within it the whole system.

Reason, then, in its rock-bottom aspect, is, first of all, a faculty, a power. A rational being is above all a being capable of functioning to some effect. Next, reason is a faculty for laying down the law, for law-giving. Reason is a legislative power.

What, next, is a law? A law is an instrumental formula that subjugates, or brings under itself, those elements that are reached by it. Yet it does not accomplish this in the wanton, arbitrary manner of a despot, but in the mode of universality. The law commands, for it binds (indeed, that is what the word means), but it binds universally, or better, by means of universality, so that in binding it unifies. To say that reason is legislative is to say that it is the unifying power of universality. That, in turn, means that it is a power of principles, for “principle” is the name in logic of a first law, a law of thought which in unifying all that we have in mind applies universally to whatever may come before us. Let me interject here an observation: Nothing in Kant’s system seems to me more difficult to penetrate than his legal metaphor for reason as judgment given under law. I shall bypass that problem here, because its resolution is not immediately required.

An imperative, then, is a command given to a being that is itself a source of lawlike commands.

Such a command, to be acceptable, must therefore take the form of a law, a universal rule of reason, or more simply, of a reason why that command should obligate any and every rational being. It follows immediately that, strictly speaking, no command can be externally issued to such a being; at most a law may be suggested to it for its own internal adoption. What is more, if a law is truly rational, namely unexceptionably universal, it will be adopted by any perfectly rational being, and will thus scarcely need to take the form of a command. It will be a principle of reason simply.

In sum, therefore, a categorical imperative is an unconditional law-like command, formulated so as to be fit for adoption by a being which by its very nature deals in universals.

The next question must then be: Is there such a command? To be sure, it may seem a little back-to-front to define a formula and then to ask whether it has a matter. The question has a point only because we are all already aware of the fact that the Categorical Imperative is Kant’s term, taken from logic, for the Moral Law. Therefore, the question really is: Is there a moral law and does it and it alone have the form of a categorical imperative? Or, in brief: What is morality?

You may have found the title of the first section of the Foundations, “Transition from Common Rational Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical,” a little strange, because it expresses the intriguing circumstance to which I have already referred, the fact that Kantian moral philosophy claims to be nothing but an elaboration of common knowledge. Note that this beginning means that the principal problem of most moral inquiries—are there moral rules and whence are they known?—is settled before philosophy ever begins: Kant claims that we all know that there is morality; we are all directly acquainted with the fact of morality.

This moral fact consists merely in the experience we have (all of us, Kant means, even the most hardened sinner) of having said to ourselves: “I ought…;” I ought to do this or that, quite apart from profit or pleasure, quite against my desires and inclinations. I must say that Kant’s claim seems to me to ring true: We have all heard that contrary inner voice of command, and the moral monster in whom it is dumb is simply not imaginable to most of us.

Now notice that Kant does not begin with the highest good, nor with virtue, nor with habits, customs, good deeds or tables of commandments. (To be sure, we have already anticipated the fact that Kant will maintain the tradition linking right behavior to commands which is established in the Bible, but their number, source, claim to authority will all be radically altered.) Kant, one might say in sum, takes the path of morality rather than ethics, where I mean by ethics the concern with right conduct and by morality the concern with good intention.

Morality, then, or better, moral worth, is the next term to attend to. Moral worth is what is to be valued in the agent’s mode of action. “Nothing in the world, indeed nothing even beyond the world,” Kant begins, “can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.” To begin like that is precisely to begin with morality, for it is only the agent’s faculty for initiating action—that being what the will is—which is good in itself. All other possible goods, the actions themselves, talents, acquisitions, circumstances, or, above all, the end to be achieved, are only conditionally or relatively good, since they might all be in certain situations, productive of harm. I want to say in passing that it is a very deep assumption that only the will and never its object can be simply good.

At any rate, the will is clearly the central notion of morality. The perfectly good will, which Kant calls a holy will, is one which always obeys its own “ought.” Human beings do not always do as they know they ought. That is Kant’s second moral fact. The first was that we all experience an inner obligation to certain actions; the second is that we by no means always discharge it. Kant never confuses, as he is sometimes accused of doing, the universality of the moral command with the frequency of its execution.

When the kind of being that knows an “ought” but does not, from merely knowing it, necessarily obey it—when such a being does do as it ought, it is said to be doing its duty. Duty is the morality of beings whose will is handicapped. “The concept of duty.” Kant says, “…contains that of a good will though with certain restrictions and hindrances.” When, however, such a being, a human being, can be said to do its duty, it must do so from no ulterior motive but out of mere respect for its own inner voice, not by compulsion of command but for the sake of the law. Here I must go outside of the Foundations to deal with two related matters: the reason why Kant founds his philosophy on the good will rather than on an objective good, and what it means to be a human being, a being with a defective will.

This necessary tangent requires me to set out in the briefest way Kant’s system as reflected in the major texts. You know that the central works are all called “critiques:” There is a Critique of Pure Reason, a Critique of Practical Reason, and a third critique I shall barely mention at the end of the lecture. The word “critique” is used by Kant for an inquiry into the grounds of human knowledge, and that means for him, into the human faculties. The purpose of each critique is to certify some knowledge or activity which is already ours, to give us certain guarantees of its possibility—the desire for certainty is the guiding motive of Kant’s enterprise.

The Critique of Pure Reason inquires into the faculty of experiential knowledge; it grounds what for Kant is the sole material knowledge we can have, the science of nature. The second critique gives the grounds of moral action for which the term “practical” is reserved; later we will see why.

Each of these texts is preceded by a short preliminary work which analyzes respectively the established natural science and the common moral experience to discover what faculties we must possess to make them possible. The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, the work we are at this moment studying, is one of these; it was actually published three years before its critique, in 1785. The critique itself is named from the faculty which is disclosed in the last section of the Foundation, the “practical reason,” of course. (Just for the sake of systematic completeness, I might mention here that both critiques are followed by works giving the actual metaphysical systems grounded in the faculties, namely the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science and the Metaphysics of Morals.)

The main point of this sketch of Kant’s works is to document their all-determining, fundamental division into theoretical and practical philosophy. To quote from the first critique: “The law-giving of human reason (i.e. philosophy) has two objects, Nature and Freedom, and thus contains both the law of nature and the law of morality, initially in two separate, but eventually in one philosophical system.”

Now I think that the practical reason is the centerpiece of Kant’s philosophy, but that it is circumscribed and negatively defined, silhouetted, so to speak, by the pure reason. Morality begins where nature ends. So I must try to do the impossible and supply a three-minute review of the Critique of Pure Reason, which contains the account of nature.

The account of nature and the account of the science of nature are for Kant identical. That is because the system of nature is determined by the way our Sensibility forms and our Understanding functions over the sensations that come to us. This Understanding is a sub-faculty of the Reason, and its function is the structuring of appearances so as to unify them into a lawful system of things, the system of nature and natural laws. What is here relevant to the exposition is that while we ourselves are the legislators who constitute nature, we are not so freely and consciously; our understanding does its regulating, as it were, behind our backs; we cannot alter or abrogate its dispositions.

What is more, we ourselves are a part of rule-bound nature. For nature consists of ordered external appearances, the physical appearances of space, but also of inner appearances, the physchological events of our temporal consciousness. So, as human beings, we are at least partly of a piece with nature. Our behavior is controlled by inexhorable psychic mechanisms, akin to the laws of nature in being invariable sequences of cause and effect. Our desires and inclinations are as tendencies to motion, psychic lunges, incited by an object of desire or fear, as bodies are attracted or repelled by other bodies; we go after our natural ends not because of their intrinsic worth, but because they push or pull and bend us systematically—by inclination, as Kant says, using a physical term. Consequently, Kant has a most melancholy understanding of happiness: It is simply the—ever elusive—sum total of achieved desire, the successful completion of all psychic motion. (Let me, incidentally, remind you that this theory of happiness was set out within a decade of the Declaration of Independence and its inalienable human right to the “pursuit of happiness,” a pursuit which has been understood as a similarly infinite chase.)

As natural beings we are, then, in Kant’s term, “pathological,” meaning that we suffer rather than act, that we are passive rather than “practical.” (Kant uses the word practical to signify a willed action, a deed.)

Now we can see why our morality is a morality of duty. The Will, our power of initiating action, is defined by Kant as a faculty for causing the reality of objects through ideas, that is to say, a faculty for realizing our conceptions. But our conceived object is naturally a wish or a desire. Yet by a desire, as I have just pointed out, we are but passively drawn; our motion toward its object is but a pseudo-action, not a genuine exercise of the Will. (Kant has a special word for such an object-determined choice: Willkuer, usually rendered in English “will” with a lower case w.) Aristotle says in the Ethics: “If anyone says that the pleasant or the beautiful exercise compulsion on the ground that they are external to us and compel us, we must answer that this would make everything compulsory, seeing that we do everything we do for their sake.” Kant wants to say just that, namely, that all motion after external goods is compulsive, but he also wants to assert that we do not do everything for the sake of an external object.

He proceeds, in sum, by conceiving human beings as rational and natural beings, as double beings with a double will, a pathologically affected faculty of choice as well as a practical faculty for initiating action. This latter, pure Will, is led by no external purpose, aim, or object, but only by its very own laws and ends. Therefore, to act from duty is to follow the internal command, the Ought of the pure will and to resist the pull of desire. Duty is, to begin with, to be negatively apprehended as resistance to the mechanisms of nature. We can never experience ourselves as doing as we ought except when we deny ourselves as natural beings, for only nature has sensible appearances and can be experienced, and we can feel the will only as thwarted happiness. That is by no means to say that morality lies in opposing our natural inclination—only that its sole evidence is of this negative sort. All we can know of our willing is that we are capable of doing our duty. But how can we know even that?

Here, half way through the exploration, let me recapitulate. We saw what a categorical imperative in general was, namely an unconditional command so formulated as to be capable of adoption by any rational being. Next we saw that Kant’s moral philosophy is a philosophy of intention, and begins with the moral fact of the sense of duty, an internal command of the will; further­ more morality takes the form of duty for those rational beings who have a will whose agency is sometimes blocked by the mechanism of their nature, namely the pull of desire. Finally we saw that human beings are beings of just that kind, for whom to will means to come into conflict with the natural self.

What remains to be articulated is the positive aspect of morality. How is it that we nonetheless believe ourselves able to exert our will freely? And what actually is the command it issues? That, after all, comes near the problem with which we began: Does the moral law, which, as we have seen, appears as the Ought of duty, have the form of a categorical imperative?

Now is the moment to draw together the two terms, Will and Reason. The Will, Kant repeatedly reveals, is nothing but the Reason in its practical capacity. It is not merely associated with rationality; it is reason. Note that this identification is another crucial juncture, a tap root of the system. Will is reason initiating action, or, as Kant says, determining itself to action: By being “determined” is meant being pulled together out of the laxness of abeyance to become a spring-board for specific deeds. Recall that the sub-faculty of reason, called the understanding, constitutes and consequently knows nature, and that, therefore natural science is certain. The upper reason, however, Reason proper, has no object of knowledge; the critique of pure reason is, among other things, a criticism of the unwarranted uses of reason as a faculty of knowledge. Instead it is a power of action, a practical faculty. The understanding regulates appearances, but unconsciously; the practical reason, on the other hand, consciously legislates. To make laws for itself is, as we have seen, for Kant the very essence of reason and to enforce them its very life. Reason is self-controlled, self-determined, self-legislating. It is autonomous: the word means simply “self-legislating.”

Such autonomy is what Kant calls Freedom. We have a free will; we can obey the command of duty because it is our inner­ most, supersensible self that issues it.

The idea of freedom and the will as a faculty of freedom are discovered as necessarily implied by the fact of morality in the third and last section of the Foundations. Note that I am holding the great middle section in abeyance for the moment.

What, then, is freedom? Negatively it is what is not nature—a mystery, namely a non-natural causality, an invisible, supersensible source of change in the time- and space-bound sensible natural sequences and connections, the occasion of natural motions with supernatural significance.

Positively, freedom is nothing but that very autonomy, that power of being a law unto itself, which characterizes the practical reason. What makes freedom possible is beyond all knowing, but what makes the moral law possible—that is to say, what makes it possible to obey the moral law—is freedom itself. The fact that we have a faculty of freedom is the critical ground of the possibility of morality. The moral law is in need of such grounding because, while a mere analysis of the concept of desires will inform us that we will follow them, nothing in the mere concept of a moral law tells us that we can obey it. It therefore needs a ground on which the command form “You ought!” is effectively conjoined to the thing to be done. (Incidentally, Kant calls such a proposition in which terms are conjoined on grounds other than their mere meaning a synthetic proposition, and when it is given from beyond experience, he calls it a synthetic a priori proposition.)

Morality, therefore, demands freedom and freedom grounds morality. We can now collect all the chief terms of Kant’s moral discourse: Freedom is the radical power of the Reason to become practical, to determine itself as a Will, a supersensible cause of natural events. The human being is a rational being that can, however, appear to itself only as a part of nature. Therefore, it apprehends the rulings of its will as an “Ought,” as a command to do its duty in the face of the compelling mechanisms of its nature. The injunction of its will is the moral law.

That law, being laid down by reason for reason, must have the form of rationality. It is, therefore, an imperative. Furthermore, it must command an action in no way contingent on external circumstance. It is, therefore, a categorical imperative. Finally, it must as a law of reason have the mark of universality, of covering all cases, and hence it must be unique. It is, therefore, the Categorical Imperative.

And now, at last, I return to the middle section where it is actually formulated in three main versions. The first formulation is:

Act only according to that maxim by which
you can at the same time will that it
should become a universal law.

Let us see what this formula contains. It contains a new term, “maxim.” A maxim is my private, individual, “subjective” reason for a choice. It is intelligible enough, but it is individual in being contingent on my desires. A maxim is whatever subjective reason articulate beings give themselves for acting.

Now the imperative says precisely that those private reasons must be regulated. It says that they must always be required to have the character of a law of Reason. They must not be merely subjective, but must be capable of being universalized. The Categorical Imperative commands only this: That every action should be performed for a reason having the character of a law. It does not command this or that particular action. It does not even lay down this or that specific law. It only requires lawfulness itself. The first version of the moral law simply requires the will to act as a Will, namely in accordance with its character as Practical Reason.

Let me right here forestall what seems to me to be a niggling, logic-chopping objection to this grand rule. It is said that anyone can undercut its authority by so particularly specifying a maxim that the class of actions to which it applies contains only his own, and its universalization is emptily guaranteed. For example, I can take the maxim that I, standing at precisely my co-ordinates, at precisely the present moment, may tell you lies. The universalized version of this maxim will then say that anyone in my precise position may tell lies, there being, however, no one else in that class. But of course, Kant intends no such craftiness. The working import of his severe and noble rule is plain enough: Never take the easy way; never make an exception of yourself! The illustrative cases he immediately furnishes make that perfectly clear.

Another immediate criticism, derived precisely from a loose reading of one of these cases, is a simple mistake. Kant says that a maxim may fail to be a fit rule of moral action for one of two reasons. The first is because its universalization is self-contradictory: If I lie, and so all may lie, speech itself, the instrument with which I meant to deceive, is destroyed. The second is because the universalization is clearly undesirable: If I will not aid others, they need not aid me. Now it has been argued from the latter example that Kant’s morality is after all enmeshed in a calculus of convenience and desire but the desire for help from others is not the reason why we ourselves must not adopt a maxim of selfishness. The reason for rejecting that maxim follows from the pure formalism of the Categorical Imperative: It is that we can­ not reasonably universalize such a maxim, whether we ourselves will ever need help or not.

Clearly, the major problem connected with this version of the imperative arises from the framing of maxims and the testing of universalizations. I shall return to it at the very end.

Let me now go to the second version. It says:

Act so as to treat humanity, whether in
your own person or in that of another,
always as an end and never as a means only.

It is almost unnecessary to remark that however repellently severe Kant’s moral law may seem, this version, at least, goes straight to our republican hearts. The reason is plain: It is clearly the rule which gives the moral basis of our own political disposition, our democratic way of life, which requires that we accord others the respect belonging to self-determined beings capable of making their own decisions for themselves, and that when we use them, as Kant knows we sometimes must, we do not only use them. Indeed, in the aforementioned sequel to the critical inquiry, the Metaphysics of Morals, justice, the principle which binds human beings into a political system, is directly derived from this version: Justice is so dealing with others as to make my freedom compatible with theirs.

For that is precisely what it means to regard others as ends in themselves. It means considering them not as things but as persons, not as the means to our happiness, but as, in their turn, independent, ultimate law-givers, free beings whose will consults no end but its own. That is also precisely how Kant connects the first and the second formula. And that is where trouble starts.

For, to begin with, there is in the Kantian system no external appearance by which to recognize a fellow will in its interiority. One may only conjecture that some exemplar of the natural species homo sapiens is, in fact, a rational being. But let that deep problem of intersubjective recognition be. What is more immediately to the point is this question: Why should I, and further, how could I, take another free being as an end? For that it is an end in itself cannot logically make it an end for me. Furthermore, its very worth lies in the performance of its duty even to the point of thwarting its own happiness; what sense does it make for me to meddle with its external well-being, which plays no part in its self-sufficiency? (You may immediately be reminded of a problem in political morality that is always with us, namely how to minister to the welfare of human beings while preserving their self-determination.) The most appealing version of the Categorical Imperative is also the most shaky in its systematic derivation. Let me do no more than read the third version, because you will see right away that it is nothing but the sum and substance, plainly stated, of all that has gone before. Significantly, it is not even framed as an imperative, but simply as a condition; the condition that the will must harmonize with universal practical reason, or as an idea, namely, “the idea of the will of every rational being as making universal law.” It is the ultimate formulation of Kant’s Moral Law.

I invite you to consider how remarkable it is that a principle so formal, so empty of specific content, gives rise to so characteristic a morality. Indeed, all the criticisms accusing it of excessive formalism or excessive flexibility seem to me misconstructions. Kantian morality issues in concrete kinds of conduct and definitely predictable deeds: uncompromising adherence to principle; the exclusion of any sentimentality from the effort to do good; unwillingness to let circumstances, private or social, lift responsibility for his deeds from the individual. Accordingly literature, especially German literature, abounds in vividly severe Kantian characters who perform their duty in the face of their natural humanity; they are evidently drawn from life, especially from the Prussian military and officialdom whose harsh virtues came from a Kantian training.

Therefore, the most telling criticisms of Kant’s moral philosophy have to be dredged up, it seems to me, from the substructure of the system itself. Although I must be very brief, I do want to run through some of those difficulties, because, as I men­tioned in the beginning, this sort of critical rooting-about in a system is not the worst way to work one’s way into it. Besides, you have probably already formed suspicions of your own which I might help you articulate.

Clearly all the difficulties begin with Kant’s idea of reason it­self as a law-giving function. (There are, of course, other conceptions of the intellect, for instance as a receptive capability—such a conception precludes, to be sure, epistemological guarantees of certainty.) Band in hand with the radical self-determination of Kantian reason goes the pathological mechanism of the temporal consciousness, a sharp opposition of freedom and nature which disallows in principle the possibility of any object of desire which is also good in itself, and so forestalls the very inquiry which interests most of us above all.

Again bound up with the uncompromisingly mechanistic view of desire is Kant’s repellent view of happiness as the unattainable satisfaction of all desires. Now that conception is belied by any moment of real happiness we have ever had, not only by the fact that we have attained it, but also by its quality: fulfilled desire is not what happiness feels like. Besides, in being quite disconnected from the performance of duty, such happiness is related to moral goodness only through the worthiness to be happy and the cold comfort of that strange exception to the strict separation of reason and the emotions which Kant has contrived, the moral feeling of self-respect. (The guarantor, by the way, of an ultimate concurrence of moral worthiness and pathological happiness, is a mere hypothesis, a god posited to serve just this function.) But some direct connection between acting well and living well seems to me to be both required and indicated by human experience. Virtue is the realization of morality in a living disposition, and therefore the notion of Kantian virtue will display the quandary in the disconnection of morality from the good life. For, just as one might expect in view of the stern demands of Kantian morality, human virtue is presented in its place, the Metaphysics of Morals, as essentially fortitude, strength of character acquired by rigorous ethical training. But what possible role can such an acquired, habitual disposition of the phenomenal consciousness play, when the Categorical Imperative requires precisely a radically rational response to every case? Indeed, one would think that there could be no direct, positive, persisting external structure of Kantian morality, no visible and exemplary virtue—no such thing as the firmly and finely moulded moral excellence of antiquity. The Kantian man of duty does, to be sure, bear the strong stamp of his morality in his respectability, but that is the consequence and not the source of his deeds. The emphasis on the continuously radical agency of the will shapes moral life as a succession of knife’s edge decisions and of crucial moments in which our self-respect is forever in the balance. It seems to me that there are such moral moments, when all comfortable contexts, all decent habits, fail and our naked integrity is at stake. For such crises the Categorical Imperative is made, but not for the continuous stream of reasonable life which it seems to me that a moral science ought to shape.

Instead of a conclusion let me end with a coda of a slightly technical but also of a consolidating sort. Almost by the way, and not counting it among the standard versions of the Categorical Imperative, Kant offers the following formulation:

Act as though the maxim of your actions
were by your will to become a law of nature.

The formula appears in the Critique of Practical Reason with much more emphasis under the title of “Typic of pure practical judgment.” It is essentially a rule of instruction for forming maxims, or rather for testing maxims to see if they can be made into universal laws. In sum, it is the founding rule for the—very necessary—moral science ef maxim-making. For, obviously to do as I ought, I must, albeit incidentially, also know what to do; the “So act” must have a content. So we see that although for Kant virtue is not knowledge, yet the decisions of the practical reason are imbedded in the judgments of pure reason. We must know a criterion for deciding what maxims bear universalization.

Such a criterion, the formula informs us, is to be derived from the science of nature. We must know nature’s works, its interactions and reciprocities, its harmonies and balances well enough to be able to make a speculative projection of our maxims, and to imagine what the world would be like if the contemplated choice occurred inevitably, mechanically and universally, as a law of nature. What, for instance, would a world governed by a maxim of selfishness look like, a world deterministically devoid of benevolence—a question which we require a certain experience of nature to answer. Thus, as Kant had promised, there is a re-approachment of the science of nature and what he calls the “casuistry” of morality. And that was to be expected.

For first, we ourselves are, through the structuring functions of our understanding, the makers, and immediately also the knowers, of nature. Yet the rules of our understanding, the faculty which structures appearance in its basic reality, do not determine particular occurrences, but only the general system of things and their relations, which is precisely what Kant calls nature. That indeterminacy enables us, as knowers of nature, to turn her to our own purposes, to move mountains and manipulate people. Such acts of applied science are performed according to what Kant calls a technical or a hypothetical imperative, which is the very contrary of a categorical imperative, since it always has the form: “If you desire such and such a result, do such and such because it is technically or prudentially appropriate:” If you would level a hill, lay a charge of dynamite; if you would win a crowd, promise things.

Such technical interferences with nature are certainly phenomenal, in both senses—apparent and sometimes spectacular. They appear because they are, after all, but the interaction of inner psychic and outer physical nature; they are not deeds of practical reason. Moral action, on the other hand, is a true irruption of rational purpose into the course of natural events. It is a second law-giving which grafts upon nature a second, an invisible order which is yet of the “type” of a natural law—a system of harmonious lawfulness. The act of nature-making, which the understanding accomplishes automatically, is to be consummated by practical reason consciously. But the effects of the free will can never be evident as such: however our moral purpose may re-route nature, what appears will still be the course of nature. First and last, there can be no phenomenal morality.

And yet there is, at least, a visible symbol of the possible unity of the two law-givings. It is an appearance which stands for the possible harmony of natural and moral lawfulness. Kant introduces it in the last critique, the Critique of Judgment. It is the beautiful. For beauty raises in us a pleasure, which is without desire, at the harmonious interplay of our free sensual imagination and the lawful nature produced by our understanding. Therefore, a thing of beauty is analogous to a moral deed in which our free will, without regard to inclination, must work in the world of determined nature. So, although beauty is only a symbol, it is yet a source of hope for the possibility of effective obedience to Kant’s Imperative and for its product: a morally informed nature.

This essay was originally published here in February 2016, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was originally a lecture read at the University of Chicago in March 1979, at the invitation of Leon Kass in a series sponsored by the Dean of the College and the staff of “Human Being and Citizen.” It appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 31, Number 2, 1980) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author.

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The featured image is from the front piece of Prolegomena, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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