Why does Kant think that the principle that determines morality must be purely formal and have no content? In some sense it is just the logical extension of Crusius’ critique of Leibnizian and Wolffian pseudo-morality: if morality is defined through any object of the will, then our adherence to it would hinge upon self-interest in some way. Morality cannot be predetermined by any content, otherwise morality becomes unduly constricted and its bindingness contingent upon desire for that content (which we may or may not have). Readers will be familiar with this as Kant’s argument that only a hypothetical imperative can result from a non-formal (i.e., “material”) basis for morality. In plain English, the reason you do the right thing has to be first and foremost just because it is the right thing to do.

Here it helps to run through Kant’s taxonomy of all the different kinds of objects of the will that others have tried to make the basis of morality. There are four basic kinds of “practical material determining grounds [Bestimmungsgründe] in the principle of morality.”[1] Objective grounds for ethics try to anchor it in the nature of things through ratiocination, whereas subjective grounds entail empirical observation of how we act and feel. Since the subjective grounds have been more attractive to scholarly commentators, I’ll dwell longer on the objective grounds:

  1. external subjective grounds: Here we look to education or government as the source of the principle of morality, where the rightness of moral acts is determined through the way that we are gently nurtured to behave (education) or more sternly induced to behave (government). Normativity and normality go hand in hand here. It is readily apparent, though, how problematic this is, and how easily it lapses into moral relativism across different social constructs. Even granting that nobody belongs to or moves between multiple and competing normative communities, there is the lurking danger of classism, particularly with regard to who has access to educational institutions. Above all, there is the danger of who watches the watchers—what makes the teachers and leaders of society moral experts, and how did they become so? These determining grounds are bound to be circular. From Kant’s rejection of this we can see the potential in his philosophy—only partially realized by Kant himself—for radical social critique.
  2. internal subjective grounds: This category is comprised of two different kinds of feeling: physical feeling (which Kant associates with Epicurus) and moral feeling (Hutcheson). It is easy to see what Kant finds arbitrary and contingent about a moral system based on pleasure—it is his rejection of “Epicurean” morality—but it is harder to see why he rejects the “moral sense” school of British thinkers such as Hutcheson and Hume. This school holds that we know what is morally praiseworthy and blameworthy through spontaneous feelings of delight or disgust, and these stirrings are not tied up with self-advantage, but noble in origin and aim. Aside from the possibility that these feelings may be culturally dependent, the problem here is that many dastardly people feel no qualms about the moral havoc they wreak. Morality must then be defined by the feelings of people who behave morally, yet that begs the question. As Kant says, “…one must first value the importance of what we call duty, the authority of the moral law, and the immediate worth that compliance with it gives a person in his own eyes, in order to feel that satisfaction in consciousness of one’s conformity with it and bitter remorse if one can reproach oneself with having transgressed it.”[2] As much as Kant admires the moral sense school of thought (having maintained it in his youth), and as important as moral feeling is for the cultivation of virtue (as we will see in future posts), Kant thinks we lapse into circularity if it comprises the definition of virtue.
  3. external objective grounds: This position is represented by “Crusius and other theological moralists.”[3] It is the idea that morality is determined by the God’s-eye view—literally. The objections to this view are quite familiar: how do we know what God’s will is? Do we know this through divine revelation? If so, how do we distinguish true prophets from false prophets, or truly sacred scriptures from false ones, without falling back on social bias? While Kant is not averse to theology—not at all, as we’ll see—he contends that deriving morality from theology is disastrous both for morality and for theology. In addition to the atrocities that are perpetrated in God’s name, even quiet and inoffensive believers distort their faith when they base their moral adherence on what they think (or have been told to think) of as God’s will because they are bound to view God in mercenary terms without an already clear moral system. In other words, if I try to throw out entirely my merely human standards and conceptions of right and wrong, and become entirely open to a theocentric morality, I am likely to be doing so out of a secret hope to get in good with the guy who holds the power of blessing and damnation over me. Noble-minded believers may say that they simply love God and want nothing from him, but then it must be asked why they love God—and if their reason is that God is supremely good, then it must be asked where they derive the ability to recognize God’s goodness as goodness. Kant’s critique can be extrapolated, mutatis mutandis, to moral theories based on religions that feature no ultimate deity. To a certain degree, in Buddhism (at least in its traditional forms) ethics is inextricable from a metaphysics and cosmology of mystical insights into the nature of ultimate reality (or lack thereof) that are inaccessible to the uninitiated (such as reincarnation, the wheel of samsara, the Buddha-nature, etc.). The main issue here is not the will of a personal God so much as it is grand metaphysical speculation about ultimate reality dictating how we ought to live, the idea that we can read ethics off of Nature itself at its highest level. To the extent that this strives to glean ethics from lower levels of reality, it shades into the final category, internal objective grounds.
  4. internal objective grounds: This position makes the perfection of oneself the principle of morality, and Kant cites as its representative examples both Wolff and the Stoics. Of all the moral schools Kant critiques, this is the one most opaque to current-day readers, despite the widespread popularity of this Leibnizian way of thinking in the early to middle decades of 18th century Germany; in fact, we know so little about it because Kant’s criticisms of its extravagant metaphysics were so devastating that it rapidly fell into lasting disfavor. Briefly put, “the concept of perfection in the practical sense is the fitness or adequacy of a thing for all sorts of ends.”[4] Wolff and his followers conceive of ethics as a matter of attaining greater completeness (today we might say “well-roundedness”) in both body and mind. Since this Leibnizian tradition conceives of sensual pleasures as the affective byproduct of bodily perfection—which is on the lower end of the scale of happiness, whose higher ends are intellectual contemplation—it follows that their ethics of perfection revolves around skill at attaining these heightened states of being.[5] Ethics then is a matter of reading the right books, seeing the right plays, doing the right exercises in the gym, and so on—whatever cultivates your mind and body toward refined happiness, or, to put it in the equally vacuous terms popular today, “personal growth.” It is the inoffensive ethics of bourgeois self-optimization, the Protestant work ethic. The problem here is that in lieu of a preexisting moral ideal that sets parameters upon it, the internal strength of mental acuity and attentiveness necessary for attaining these states—i.e., skill—is directed toward ends we just happen to have, and thus they are the ends that appear conducive to happiness. This is why Kant says that the ethics of perfection is a surreptitious eudaimonism or refined hedonism, because it is about the worldly wisdom or prudence necessary to put oneself into a higher, happier condition. Despite its attempts to rest on an intelligible principle, this ethical system has to fall back upon empirical principles to give it content; it parallels in practical terms the theoretical subreption (smuggling) of sensible content into Leibniz’s otherwise vacuous metaphysical ideas.[6]

Having exhausted all possible objects of the will that could serve as determining bases for making moral decisions, Kant concludes that there is no content or material that can serve as the basis for morality; instead, morality consists in a certain kind of form or manner of willing. It is not what these moral systems identify as duties that is the problem (though in some cases it could be), but why they take them to be duties; in each of these four cases, the mandatory nature of the duty hinges on desire for being in a better and happier state (whether overtly or covertly), and thus one is making the determining basis of one’s will a carrot or a stick of some sort.

This is heteronomy, wherein one puts one’s free will up for sale—deciding for whatever option fetches the highest price—instead of autonomy, wherein one upholds one’s dignity and respects one’s freedom as not being for sale.[7] For Leibniz all actions must be heteronomous simply because a decision can only be intelligible when we know the condition (price) it sold for. For Kant, on the other hand, autonomy is necessary for performance of the good to be truly disinterested—so autonomy is not self-aggrandizing insistence upon getting one’s way or getting what one wants, as in the careless caricature of Levinas and so many others.[8] It is quite the opposite of that, in fact. Liberty is not license. Kantian freedom is not getting whatever you want (heteronomy), but self-determination (autonomy).

It is customary to note Kant’s counterintuitive identification of bodily desires, emotional moods, and cultural metrics of success as being external to oneself (the “hetero” in heteronomy). I want to dwell on the comparatively neglected point that the ethics of perfection also falls under this heteronomy, because it is about amplifying one’s “intrinsic” (mental) and “extrinsic” (bodily) condition. Notice that for Kant, the cultivation of one’s intellectual prowess, and the attendant pleasures of doing so, are not automatically an exercise of autonomy. Kant certainly does think that, coming out of autonomous disposition, the subsequent perfection of one’s mind and body are duties. Paul Guyer puts it nicely:

…what Kant really rejects is not the abstract concept of perfection as the goal of morality, but the specific conception of perfection that his contemporaries like Wolff and Mendelssohn had ultimately derived from Aristotle. What Kant really does is to replace the perfection of our intrinsic and extrinsic condition as the ultimate goal of virtue with the perfection of the quality of our will itself—the good will.[9]

This echoes Kant’s famous opening declaration in his Groundwork that the only thing that can be thought of as unconditionally good is not virtue (strength for seeing ends through in challenging circumstances) but a good will (that wills good ends in the first place).[10] It is a certain kind of disposition of self-consistent freedom that Kant’s formalism is driving at by excising material determining bases of the will. It is by removing this that Kant carves out the idea that there is no end that could be so worthwhile that it would justify treating a person merely as a means to attaining that end. In other words, what matters above all for Kant are persons—choosers—and not the content of what they can choose.

This is not so universally conceded as it might seem at first blush. Playing off of my earlier proposal that we see bourgeois self-improvement as the modern version of the Leibnizian ethics of perfection—both are cherished by a well-educated elite that fancies itself cosmopolitan—we can see the derision such people pour on others who do not “make something of themselves,” who do not travel, go to college, eat organic, or have good table manners. They are in effect casting others as no longer deserving of moral consideration (respect) because they do not have the right “life-goals.” These failures have squandered their freedom on dead-end lives, and so they can be managed or shuffled out of sight without qualms; in the pseudo-universality of this false kingdom of ends, where no one is really an end in itself, there’s no need for them. There’s no need to postulate immortality for the wretched of the earth, for they will never make anything of themselves. Since eternity would only be squandered on them, we can console ourselves that we only need to put up with them for a finite timespan.

Contrary to the elitist ethics of perfection, Kant’s insistence upon universal moral principles is part and parcel of his insight that everyone matters, as Guyer explains:

The second version of the third formulation of the categorical imperative is the requirement “that all maxims from one’s own lawgiving harmonize with a possible realm of ends,” where such a “realm of ends” is understood as a “whole of all ends in systematic connection (a whole both of rational beings as ends in themselves and of the ends of his own that each may set himself)” (G, 4:436): this formulation applies the ideal of universal validity twice, first to the unconditional value of all rational beings and second to the derivative and therefore conditional value of the particular ends that such beings choose in the exercise of their free agency, that is, to the value that particular ends derive precisely from being determined by that in their agents which itself possesses unconditional value, their humanity or capacity for choice itself.[11]

Guyer’s analysis does a good job of bringing into sharp focus how the principle of morality is fundamentally based on one of two things: either on a kind of condition (an object of the will, and thus heteronomy), or on choice itself (free will’s independence from every object, and thus autonomy). It stands to reason that autonomy, the principle grounded within free choice itself, is the only way to have a moral system with room for anything of unconditional value, because it doesn’t rest on any condition through which it frames value. Because free will is unconditioned choice, it is the only way to guarantee that we properly acknowledge what is unconditionally valuable. It is through choosers mattering above all that the ends they choose can have their conditional importance properly recognized, so that we do not fall into the self-serving arbitrariness and elitism latent in the four material determining grounds of the will.

With this insight in hand—that choosers matter more than conditions, personhood more than thinghood[12]—we can then raise the question of what it’s like to acknowledge this priority. What is it like to motivated to be moral, if this motivation (as freely willed) cannot come from the outside, but one must instead make it the determining ground of one’s will? What does it mean to want to have a good will, or rather, to become a good will? What does it mean to want to not just be in a better condition, but to be a better person?


[1] Kant, 5:40, Critique of Practical Reason 172

[2] Kant, 5:38, Critique of Practical Reason 171

[3] Kant, 5:40, Critique of Practical Reason 172

[4] Kant, 5:41, Critique of Practical Reason 172-173

[5] Ibid., p. 173.

[6] For more on this, see Kant’s extensive discussion of Leibnizian subreption in the Amphiboly section of the First Critique: A268/B324—A280/B336, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1998. Pp. 371-377.

[7] Immanuel Kant 4:440; Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals 89. In Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1996. “Autonomy of the will is the property of the will by which it is a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition).”

[8] Emmanuel Levinas, “Philosophy, Justice, and Love,” in Entre-Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998. Page 111: “A commanding B is a formula of B’s non-freedom; but if B is the human being and A is God, the subordination is not servitude; on the contrary, it is an appeal to the human being. We must not always formalize: Nietzsche thought that if God exists, the I is impossible. That can be very convincing. If A commands B, B is no longer autonomous, no longer has subjectivity; but when, in thinking, you do not remain on the level of form, when you think in terms of content, a situation called heteronomy has a completely different signification.” First of all, Nietzsche’s dichotomy between human and divine action smacks of a rather specific Lutheran theology that holds grace to be Irresistible or Bust. Second, I do not know why we are turning to Nietzsche as the authority best qualified to represent the range of legitimate theological options. Third, and most saliently, what does it mean for heteronomy to not be servitude if the other we submit to is God rather than a human being? Levinas can say this stuff, but he owes the Kantian a very long and thorough report in the morning about what the hell it really means. Why is it different in the case of God? Can we get an argument for this, apart from quoting Scripture? How does Levinas respond to Kant’s criticism of theological moralists? The best I can figure is that Levinas is taking Kierkegaard’s word for it that Kantian faith is a crypto-atheist reduction of God to morality—a rather odd canard for Levinas to keep parroting, given his own stance that ethical obligation to the Other is a doorway to meaningful religion—and is likewise proceeding from the parallel misunderstanding of autonomy as insistence of oneself at the expense of the Other. Just because autonomy has “auto” (self) as a prefix, this does not mean it deifies selfhood and demonizes alterity. Levinas is overfond of the Heideggerian practice of resting his argument on etymology.

[9] Paul Guyer, “Kantian Perfectionism,” in Perfecting Virtue: New Essays on Kantian Ethics and Virtue Ethics, ed. Lawrence Jost and Julian Wuerth. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 2011. Page 205

[10] Kant, 4:393, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, p. 49

[11] Guyer 209

[12] Kant, 5:76-77, Critique of Practical Reason 202