The Slavery of Kant’s Maxim

Kant’s Maxim is well known in philosophy – perhaps one of the most well known maxims in philosophy, in fact. Roger Scruton calls the moral philosophy within which the maxim fits ‘one of the most beautiful creations the human mind has ever devised’, (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 286). And yet, despite the liberating intentions of the maxim, a strong case can be made for the idea that the maxim is a slave-master more than a liberator.

The maxim itself is a short one: ‘Act only on that maxim which you can will as a law for all rational beings.’ Our actions refer to reason alone, discounting any and all empirical considerations. This is how Kant derives the universal validity of his maxim such that by doing what reason demands of us we are doing something that is binding on all rational beings.

‘The demand of reason is a demand that I respect reason – that I allow reason the final say in my decisions. This means respecting reason not only in myself, but also in others. All rational beings have a claim to my respect, and this too is a fundamental axiom of morality. I cannot override another’s reason, as though it counted for nothing. I must try to persuade him, to secure his rational consent for those projects in which we are engaged together.’ (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 285)

Kant’s moral philosophy presupposes freedom in order to make sense of our fundamental moral intuitions, the most important of which is the idea that something ought to be done – call this ‘duty’. Contained within the idea of duty is the idea of being able to fulfill it. Etienne Gilson notes how this leads to positing some difficult ideas in Kant’s moral theory:

‘Now, to be able to determine oneself according to a certain law is to be free. Consequently, freedom must be presupposed as a property of the will of all rational beings. Moreover, since man is not free as a member of the world of sense, it is to be supposed that man, as a moral agent, is a member of another world, purely intelligible, where no sensible motives can interfere with the exigencies of morality. We are thereby confronted with the necessity of accepting, as inseparably connected with practical reason, certain theoretical positions wholly “withdrawn from any possible insight of speculative reason.” The will to act from pure respect for duty postulates the possibility of a perfect moral order; if that order is impossible in this life, it has to be possible in another; hence the soul is immortal. Again, such a perfect moral life, undisturbed by the ceaseless strife between reason and sensibility, must needs possess happiness – happiness, not as the end of morality, but flowing from it. And what is moral law as cause of eternal happiness if not God? Thus God is posited by practical reason, which means that reason has to posit His existence, although speculative, or theoretical reason can know nothing about it.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 188-189)

The difficulties that arise as a result of these postulations are well-known, but the most obvious is that when taken to their conclusion, Kant ends up with a picture of man torn between living in the order of nature and in the order of morality, since both orders are, as Gilson notes, bound to the same man.

The most severe difficulty, though, is that in trying to preserve a freedom for man to act rationally, Kant ends up a victim of dogmatic (in the worst sense) theology, forced by his own morality to postulate things for which there can be no reason other than necessity to believe in.

‘Failing a rational justification of morality, and granting that morality is inseparable from human life, there is nothing else to do but take morality as a self-justifying fact. But when morality does not flow from what we know, it becomes free to prescribe for us what we ought to believe…having refused to hold metaphysical conclusions on metaphysical grounds, Kant had been necessarily dragged from metaphysics, to ethics, and from ethics to theology.’ (‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 187-191)

Thus, by attempting to derive a universal morality grounded in pure reason alone acted on in freedom, Kant, by way of his maxim, is the victim of dogmatism. Such is the slavery of Kant’s maxim.

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