Self-Love, Anthropology, and Universal Benevolence in Kant's Metaphysics of Morals

By Edwards, Jeffrey | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Self-Love, Anthropology, and Universal Benevolence in Kant's Metaphysics of Morals


Edwards, Jeffrey, The Review of Metaphysics


IN HIS CRITICAL METAPHYSICS OF MORALS, Kant insists on keeping the purely rational concepts, laws, and principles of moral philosophy strictly separate from the empirical elements of practical anthropology. This is not to say that he treats the a priori part of the doctrine of morals in isolation from empirical psychological concepts and observations about the special nature of human beings. He allows that such elements are necessarily brought into the formulation of the system of pure morality (Sittlichkeit).(1) Still, he maintains that their integration with this system cannot detract from the purity of the highest principles and fundamental a priori concepts of morality themselves, or cast any doubt on the a priori origin of all practical laws in pure reason alone.(2) Within the system of the metaphysics of morals, the pure part of moral philosophy must therefore be logically dissociated from any particular theory of human nature that includes the principles of a specifically human moral psychology. This measure is mandatory if moral philosophy is not to rely on species-dependent presuppositions when, on the basis of its pure part, it plays its distinctive legislative role for humans as rational beings. As Kant states in the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten of 1785, "all moral philosophy rests wholly upon its pure part, and, when applied to the human being, it borrows not the least thing from the knowledge of that being (anthropology), but rather gives to the human being, as a rational being, laws a priori."(3) Accordingly, the foundational task of the metaphysical theory of morals must be to investigate the "ideas and the principles of a possible pure will, and not the actions and conditions of human willing [Wollen] as such, which for the most part are drawn from psychology."(4)

Kant can be criticized for advocating this kind of theoretical division of labor. One can radically question the notion that any part of a humanly viable theory of morals can sensibly be dissociated from the consideration of quite specific anthropological presuppositions, that is, presuppositions that go well beyond the imputation that we have the generic capacity to know the possibility conditions of purely rational volition and are able to acknowledge the imperative force of the "idea of a practical pure reason."(5) My concern in this article, however, is not to maintain the correctness or incorrectness of this broad avenue of criticism. It is rather to establish that as long as Kant preserves his basic conception of rational self-legislation, he cannot possibly provide adequate grounds for asserting the independence of the pure part of moral philosophy from the description of sensuous human nature's empirical dimension, and thus from the conditions of human willing as such.(6) To do this, I will begin by focusing on one aspect of the relation between inclination and duty in Kant's doctrine of the moral worth of actions and by treating this aspect against the wider backdrop of eighteenth century, moral philosophy.

I

The account of moral worth in part 1 of the Grundlegung has always presented a major obstacle to the charitable reception of Kant's practical philosophy.(7) Historically, it has been almost a ritualized undertaking for each generation of Kantians and Kant scholars to correct the standard misapprehensions of the relation between inclination and duty at issue in this account, a relation that is central to Kant's doctrine of moral value and merit. In anglophone circles, for instance, recent work by a number of Kantian theorists has done much to clear away the undergrowth of contemporary misreadings. A case in point is Barbara Herman's article, "On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty."(8) Herman discusses the common misinterpretations of the examples that Kant uses in the Grundlegung in order to clarify his conception of the moral worth of actions. These examples have often been understood as illustrating the claim that dutiful actions can have moral worth only if done from the motive of duty alone. …

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