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The Love of the Law and the Self-Interested Being

24 February 2012

Immanuel Kant

A cursory reading the ethical thinking of German Idealist Immanuel Kant frequently results in the impression that he advocates suppressing natural human self-interest in favour of un-self-interested action guided the moral law, neatly summed up in the two formulations of the categorical imperative. This, however, is to misread Kant greatly. Far from advocating without regard or contrary to natural self-interest Kant was proposing what he saw as the only route to truly acting in the interests of the self.

The Kantian conception of respect of the law does not conflict with remaining a self-interested natural being because, within that conception, acting out of love for the law is the sole way to act in one’s own interest. To Kant, the moral law is the only path to freedom. Kant’s ethical constructivism posits the superiority of the active rational human agent. Such an agent imposes the structures and concepts of his or her own mind upon the exterior, phenomenal world, rather than trying to form his or her mind to match his or her impressions of the phenomenal world. The imposing, constructive agent is the only autonomous being and thus the only being capable of acting morally, which is his or her duty as rational agent.

Kant posits a unique metaphysics which divides the world into two realms, the noumenal, the realm of the Ding an sich (German for ‘thing in itself), also called the “world of understanding,” and the phenomenal, or natural world. In as much as we, as agents (our rationality and our humanity are not relevant to this point), experience the world of things it is the phenomenal with which we engage. The noumenal is fundamentally inaccessible; we cannot know things as they are in themselves, only as they present themselves to our senses. This is the case even in our self-knowledge: we know ourselves not as are in ourselves but as we are available to ourselves sensuously. Kant advances this ontology because it grounds his position on the nature of and requirements for human freedom. The phenomenal is knowable not simply because it how things are presented to the senses of agents but because phenomenal things abide by causal laws. Without being bound by the laws of causality phenomenal things could not be grasped by agents. Because Kant’s conception of morality requires a free will not determined by causal factors, for only the free agent is morally responsible, he therefore posits that the noumenal realm of things is unbound by causality. Kant acknowledges that he cannot prove this claim, indeed he holds that since this freedom is restricted to the noumenal realm, which is unknowable, it can be neither proven nor disproven, but asserts that this freedom is metaphysically necessary and can reasonably be believed in.

The Kantian moral law, which Kant sums up in his two formulations of the categorical imperative, to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law,” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4:421) and “[s]o act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means,” (4:429) is an analytic a priori judgement, a product entire of human reason. This means that is made without reference to the phenomenal world and is not bound by the law of causality. In contrast any maxim which proceeds from a merely hypothetical imperative, one that is based on sensuous experience of the phenomenal realm and thus also inescapably non-universalisable, is shaped by causality. Acting on such a hypothetical, non-universalisable maxim means that one’s actions may not be accordance with duty, though it is not the case that they must be and Kant does acknowledge the existence of acts which are good but only incidentally so since the motivations behind them are faulty. The grave implication of these faulty motivations is they cannot allow us either to fulfill our moral duty or to act as free beings, since merely hypothetical maxims operate within the sphere of the phenomenal. Freedom is characteristic only of the noumenal, so if an agent is to be free he or she must act only upon the determinations of the faculty of the noumenal realm, which is pure human reason.

To act only upon the judgements of pure human reason is to guide one’s life according to a priori, and thus universalisable, judgements, which are made without reference to the phenomenal realm, thus imposing upon the phenomenal the determinations of the noumenal. This, for Kant, is the path to autonomy, which is also synonymous with morality. For Kant the only autonomous being is the moral being. This is because the only guide to autonomous action is the moral law itself. When one acts in accordance with faulty moral maxims or with one’s desires rather than with duty one is imposed upon by the phenomenal world, rather than imposing upon it. One is only autonomous when one is wholly moral, acting in accordance with one’s duty out of duty. Thus the only way to exist as a truly free being is to act always in accordance with the moral law precisely because it is the moral law, against one’s inclinations and if they should stand in opposition to one’s duty. This is why acting out of love of the law is not contrary to acting as a self-interested, natural being. Acting out of the love of the law, in fact, fulfills one’s self-interest in a way that no other maxim can.

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