Week 4: Kant – Groundwork

(387) Kant makes a strict distinction between the realm of nature, in which natural laws are deterministic, and the realm of freedom, in which humans have free will and can therefore act morally or immorally.  The realms of nature and freedom can be thought of as two perspectives on the same thing: considered from the theoretical perspective, humans are part of deterministic nature, but considered from the practical perspective, we are free. At 453-4, Kant call the realm of nature ‘the world of sense’ and the realm of freedom ‘the world of understanding’.


  1. (414, 416). What is the difference between a hypothetical and a categorical imperative?


The difference between a hypothetical and a categorical imperative is that the hypothetical represents a practical necessity of a possible action as a means to achieving something else that is possible for one to will. The imperative which is categorical is one in which the action is objectively necessary – without reference to another end or goal.


  1. (420). What are maxims and how are they related to the moral law?


Maxims are subjective principles of acting, so containing a practical rule determined by reason conformably with the conditions of the subject, and is that principle by which the subject acts. In relation to the moral law which is the objective principle applicable to every rational being – the principle (an imperative) by which he ought to act. […]


  1. (421). Kant writes that there is ‘only a single categorical imperative’, but gives two formulations here.  Do you see any significance to the differences between these formulations of the categorical imperative?


The formulations are as follows: 1) “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”, 2) “act as if  the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature. […] There seems to be a small difference in that one of the definitions includes the word nature and I interpret these two formulations as the two distinct perspectives a person could adopt regarding morality. Being a moral individual and the morality one can live by in a society.



  1. (446-7). What is the difference between freedom and autonomy?


Kant defines freedom in both a negative and positive sense. Negatively, freedom is the property of causality that it can maintain a distance or separation from external “alien” causes that would determine it. Positively, because there are laws in the concept of causality meaning that although freedom is not a property of the will, but instead is not lawless but accords to immutable laws of a special kind. Autonomy is when the will is free and it has become a law to itself.


  1. (447-8). ‘It is not enough that we ascribe freedom to our will on whatever ground, if we do not have sufficient ground for attributing it also to all rational beings’.  Why do all rational beings need to be free, for the moral law to function successfully?


Firstly, Kant describes the a priori synthetic qualities of the third cognition which is positive freedom. Then morality is said to depend on our species rationality, and it has to be only derived from freedom which then has to be proven to also be a property of all rational beings. This then asserts that it is impossible to do this via human experiences. Kant wants to maintain and demonstrate to his readers that through reason the human subject is free and moral.


In the last two sections in the reader (‘How is a categorical imperative possible?’ and ‘On the extreme boundary of all practical philosophy’) , Kant uses the distinction between ‘the world of sense’ and ‘the world of understanding’ as a way to avoid a contradiction between human freedom (‘free will’) and deterministic nature (‘natural necessity’).  Ask yourself as you read these passages: how exactly does Kant claim to be able to avoid this contradiction, and do you find it convincing?


Kant’s way to avoid the contradiction between free will and natural necessity by saying that part of my actions follow the autonomy of the pure will. Others conform to natural laws of desires and inclinations to the heteronomy of nature. The latter is of the world of sense and is dependent on happiness, the prior is of the world of understanding and rests upon the supreme principle of morality. His solution is then to show how the human being although simultaneously belonging to two worlds has always an “ought” because it has the idea of freedom making it participate in intelligibility and its actions accord to the autonomy of will. At the same time I intuit myself in the world of sense my actions ought to conform to happiness, and this “ought” is for Kant categorical and a synthetic a priori judgement, in Kant’s own words, ‘since to my will affected by sensible desires there is added the idea of the same will but belonging to the world of understanding  – a will pure and practical of itself, which contains the supreme condition, in accordance with reason, of the former will.’ Here Kant is describing how an individual has this imperative for oneself, one’s own desires and happiness, but this indeed correlates directly to the autonomy of the will which I read as being that which carries moral impetus within a given society. I find it convincing, if you take the position that Kant himself took in What is Enlightenment?, that there are two uses of reason: private and public. Considering this it is convincing the connection he makes, you could say that it is easy to see how my desires are secondary to their potential impact upon others, and nobody should do something good for personal gain – it should be done purely because the act is good in and by itself. Yet, this starts to fall apart if we place it within the reality of capitalism today… for example we have conscious capitalism, but here I would compel you to think just how conscious your actions are regarding monetary ideology. So, because of the persistence of this ideology, and its darker parts (weapons/war industry) Kant’s practical philosophy as it is found in the text is not able to be fully applied to modern societies; in my opinion.

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