Smith explains some fundamental features of Immanuel Kant’s moral and political theory.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Since several of my previous essays have been linked to Rand’s moral condemnation of Immanuel Kant (1724–1802), especially her infamous remark that Kant was “the most evil man in mankind’s history” (The Objectivist, Sept. 1971), I thought I would write a conciliatory essay or two about the moral and political theory of this villainous character whose evil supposedly exceeded that of the most murderous dictators in history. (The source of direct quotations from Kant is indicated by initials. See the conclusion of this essay for bibliographic details.)

My intention is not to defend Kant’s moral theory (I have serious disagreements) but to summarize some of its important features in a sympathetic manner. By this I mean that even though I reject a deontological (duty‐​centered) approach to ethics, I find Kant’s moral theory at once fascinating and highly suggestive, containing ideas that can be modified and then incorporated into a teleological (goal‐​directed) approach to ethics.

Kant’s first two major works on moral theory—Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788)—might be described today as treatments of metaethics rather than of moral theory as many people understand that label. They are metaethical in the sense that they are largely devoted to the meanings of moral terms, such as “duty” or “obligation,” an explanation of why we may say that ethical principles are rationally justifiable, and the proper methodology of moral reasoning. If these works offer little in the way of practical maxims, this is because they focus a good deal on Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which is a purely formal principle without any specific material content. The Categorical Imperative per se does not prescribe particular goals that people should or should not pursue. Rather, it mandates that moral maxims and general principles must be universally applicable to every rational being before they can qualify as authentically moral in character. As Kant wrote:

The categorical imperative, which as such only expresses what obligation is, reads: act according to a maxim which can, at the same time, be valid as a universal law.—You must, therefore begin by looking at the subjective principle of your action. But to know whether this principle is also objectively valid, your reason must subject it to the test of conceiving yourself as giving universal law through this principle. If your maxim qualifies for a giving of universal law, then it qualifies as objectively valid. (DV, p. 14.)

In other words, the Categorical Imperative is a formal principle of universalizability, a fundamental test that normative maxims and principles must first pass before they can qualify as rationally justifiable. (When Kant spoke of a moral law, he was drawing an analogy between the Categorical Imperative and the physical laws of nature. Just as there are no exceptions to the physical laws of nature, so there should be no exceptions to this fundamental law of morality.) Here is how Robert J. Sullivan explained the point of the Categorical Imperative in his excellent book Immanuel Kant’s Moral Theory (Cambridge, 1989, p. 165):

Kant calls this formula the “supreme principle of morality” because it obligates us to recognize and respect the right and obligation of every other person to choose and to act autonomously. Since moral rules have the characteristic of universality, what is morally forbidden to one is forbidden to all, what is morally permissible for one is equally permissible for all, and what is morally obligatory for one is equally obligatory for all. We may not claim to be exempt from obligations to which we hold others, nor may we claims permissions we are unwilling to extend to everyone else.

In “Causality Versus Duty” (reprinted in Philosophy Who Needs It) Ayn Rand launched an all‐​out assault on the concept of “duty,” calling it “one of the most destructive anti‐​concepts in the history of moral philosophy.” She objected to the common practice of using “duty” and “obligation” interchangeably, explaining what she regarded as significant differences and making some excellent points along the way. It should be understood, however, that Kant did not draw this distinction. For him “duty” and “moral obligation” are synonymous terms, so if the term “duty” jars you while reading Kant, simply substitute “moral obligation” and you will understand his meaning.

I regard “Causality Versus Duty” as an excellent essay overall (philosophically considered), but, predictably, Rand drags in Kant as the premier philosopher of duty and then distorts his ideas.

Now, if one is going to use another philosopher as a target, one should at least make an honest and reasonable effort to depict the ideas of that philosopher accurately. But Rand shows no indication of having done this. According to Rand, for example, “The meaning of the term ‘duty’ is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire, or interest.” The problem with Rand’s definition of “duty” is not simply that it does not apply to Kant’s conception of duty but that it directly contradicts it. Even a cursory reading of Kant’s works on moral theory will reveal the central role that autonomy played in his approach. By “autonomy” Kant meant the self‐​legislating will of every rational agent; and by this he meant, in effect, that we must judge every moral principle with our own reason and never accept the moral judgments of others, not even God, without rational justification. Rand’s claim that duty, according to Kant, means “obedience to some higher authority” is not only wrong; it is fundamentally antithetical to Kant’s conception of ethics. This is clear in the opening paragraph of what is probably Kant’s best‐​known essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self‐​imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self‐​imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of the enlightenment. (WE, p. 41.)

Some of Rand’s statements about Kant are largely accurate, as we see in this passage:

“Duty,” he holds, is the only standard of virtue; but virtue is not its own reward: if a reward is involved, it is no longer virtue. The only motivation, he holds, is devotion to duty for duty’s sake; only an action motivated exclusively by such devotion is a moral action (i.e., performed without any concern for inclination [desire] or self‐​interest.

Kant believed that moral virtue will make one “worthy of happiness” and thereby foster a sense of what Kant called “self‐​esteem.” Curiously perhaps, in Galt’s Speech Rand used the same phrase (“worthy of happiness”) in relation to self‐​esteem. But Rand was correct insofar as Kant denied that these and other possible consequences should constitute the motive of one’s actions. Kant held that we should follow the dictates of duty unconditionally, that is, without regard for the consequences of our actions, whether for ourselves or others.

A major problem with Rand’s treatment of Kant in “Causality Versus Duty” is she harps on his defense of moral duty without ever mentioning the Categorical Imperative, which is the centerpiece of Kant’s moral philosophy. As we have seen, the Categorical Imperative is not some nefarious demand that we obey the dictates of God, society, or government. Rather, it is a purely formal requirement that all moral principles must be universalizable. The Categorical Imperative is a dictate of reason that our moral principles be consistent, in the sense that what is right or wrong for me must also be right or wrong for everyone else in similar circumstances. Kant is often credited with three basic formulations of the Categorical Imperative, but he framed the principle differently in different works, and one Kantian scholar has estimated that we find as many as twenty different formulations in his collected writings. There are many such problems in Kant’s writings, and these have led to somewhat different interpretations of the Categorical Imperative, as we find in hundreds of critical commentaries written about Kant. Although I am familiar with all of Kant’s major writings on ethics, I do not qualify as a Kantian scholar, so I do not feel competent to take a stand on which particular interpretation is correct. But his basic point is clear enough, and it was nothing less than philosophical malpractice for Ayn Rand to jump all over Kant’s defense of duty (or moral obligation) without explaining his Categorical Imperative. Indeed, to my knowledge Rand mentioned the Categorical Imperative only once in her published writings. In For the New Intellectual, she claimed that Kant’s Categorical Imperative “makes itself known by means of a feeling, as a special sense of duty.” This is absolutely false, a claim that Kant protested against explicitly. He insisted that the duty to follow the Categorical Imperative—i.e., our moral obligation to apply moral judgments universally and consistently—is a logical implication of our “practical reason,” not a feeling at all.

I shall go into greater detail about Kant’s Categorical Imperative (especially its political implications) in my next essay, but before drawing this essay to a close I wish to make a few brief observations about Kant’s attitude toward happiness. From reading Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, or some other Objectivist philosophers on Kant, one can easily come away with the notion that Kant was a champion of selflessness, altruism, or perhaps something even worse. This misleading interpretation is based on Kant’s argument that moral actions should not be motivated by a desire for happiness, whether for ourselves or for others. The following passage by Kant is typical:

The maxim of self‐​love (prudence) merely advises; the law of morality commands. Now there is a great difference between that which are advised to do and that which we are obligated to do.” (CPR, pp. 37–8.)…..A command that everyone should seek to make himself happy would be foolish, for no one commands another to do what he already invariably wishes to do….But to command morality under the name of duty is very reasonable, for its precept will not, for one thing, be willingly obeyed by everyone when it is in conflict with his inclinations. (CPR, 38.)

Kant’s opposition to happiness as a specifically moral motive was based on his rather technical conception of ethics, and on his distinction between moral principles and prudential maxims. He believed that the maxims that will lead to happiness vary so dramatically from person to person that they cannot be universalized and so do not qualify as general moral principles. The actions that will make me happy will not necessarily make you or anyone else happy. For this and other reasons, Kant argued that happiness cannot provide a stable moral motive for actions but must depend on the prudential wisdom of particular moral agents. Egoists like Ayn Rand will obviously object to Kant’s views on this matter, and, in my judgment, there are good reasons for doing so. But it would be a serious error to suppose that Kant was somehow anti‐​happiness. On the contrary, Kant repeatedly asserted that personal happiness is an essential component of the good life. According to Kant, reason allows “us to seek our advantage in every way possible to us, and it can even promise, on the testimony of experience, that we shall probably find it in our interest, on the whole, to follow its commands rather than transgress them, especially if we add prudence to our practice of morality.” (DV, p. 13.) “To assure one’s own happiness is a duty (at least indirectly)….”(GMM, p. 64.) But happiness will not serve as a motive or standard of moral value because “men cannot form under the name of ‘happiness’ any determinate and assured conception.”

Nevertheless, the “highest good possible in the world” consists neither of virtue nor happiness alone, but “of the union and harmony of the two.” (TP, p. 64.) Kant made a number of similar statements in various works, as when he wrote that the “pursuit of the moral law” when pursued harmoniously with “the happiness of rational beings” is “the highest good in the world. (CJ, p. 279.)

Kant’s highly individualistic notion of the pursuit of happiness—the very fact that disqualified it as a universalizable moral motive—was a major factor in his defense of a free society in which every person should be able to pursue happiness in his own way, so long as he respects the equal rights of others to do the same. Jean H. Faurot (The Philosopher and the State: From Hooker to Popper, 1971, p. 196) put it this way.

[Kant] thought of society as composed of autonomous, self‐​possessed individuals, each of whom is endowed with inalienable rights, including the right to pursue happiness in his own way…. There is, according to Kant, only one true natural (inborn) right—the right of freedom.

As Jeffrie G. Murphy explained in Kant: The Philosophy of Right (1970, p. 93):

[Kant’s] ideal moral world is not one in which everyone would have the same purpose. Rather his view is that the ideal moral world would be one in which each man would have the liberty to realize all of his purposes in so far as these principles are compatible with the like liberty for all.

According to Kant, the “first consideration” of a legal system should be to insure that “each person remains at liberty to seek his happiness in any way he thinks best so long as he does not violate …the rights of other fellow subjects.” (TP, p. 78.) And again:

No one can compel me…to be happy after his fashion; instead, every person may seek happiness in the way that seems best to him, if only he does not violate the freedom of others to strive toward such similar ends as are compatible with everyone’s freedom under a possible universal law (i.e., this right of others). (TP, p. 72.)

Kant was resolutely opposed to paternalistic governments. A government that views subjects as a father views his children, as immature beings who are incompetent to decide for themselves what is good or bad for them and dictates instead “how they ought to be happy” is “the worst despotism we can think of.” Paternalism “subverts all the freedom of the subjects, who would have no freedom whatsoever.” (TP, p. 73.) The sovereign who “wants to make people happy in accord with his own concept of happiness…becomes a despot.” (TP, p. 81.)

Needless to say, these and similar remarks scarcely fit the stereotypical Objectivist image of Kant as a villainous character who wished to subvert reason, morality, and the quest for personal happiness. Kant, whatever his errors, made a serious effort to probe the nature of ethics and moral obligation to their foundations, and to justify a theory of ethics by reason alone. A regard for the dignity and moral autonomy of every individual, regardless of his or her station in life, runs deep in the writings of Kant. But more needs to be said about Kant’s political theory, so that shall be the main topic of my next essay.

The following are the sources for the quotations from Kant used in this essay.

CJ: Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith, rev. Nicholas Walker (Oxford University Press, 2007).

CPR: Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (Bobbs‐​Merrill, 1956).

DV: The Doctrine of Virtue: Part II of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Mary J. Gregor (Harper, 1964).

GMM: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated and analyzed by H.J. Paton, in The Moral Law (Hutchinson, 1972).

TP: “On the Proverb: That May be True in Theory, But Is Of No Practical Use,” in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Hackett, 1983).

WE: “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Hackett, 1983).