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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Immanuel Kant
Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
Kant is one of those philosophers whose thought has always been presented to me second-hand, but whom I had never read until recently. I guess the idea is that his prose and argument structure are too opaque to read in an undergraduate philosophy class.
That may not be completely off-base. His prose is opaque, and his reasoning complex. But reading the Groundwork has been a joy for me. Discussion about Kant usually focuses around moral realism and categorical imperatives — both important ideas to him, to be sure. But what I found most interesting and relevant to my own thinking is the meta-ethical problem of how we do moral philosophy at all.
The standard method for most moral philosophy seems to go like this: consider the sum total of those human behaviors that we consider to be either moral or immoral. From that set of behaviors, try to infer some set of moral principles that best fits. Then test that set of principles against other situations, and see if they lead to conclusions that we intuitively know to be incorrect. If so, go back and amend the principles until the conclusion is more intuitive. Conversely, when a philosopher wants to attack some moral system, the standard approach is to show some case in which the system leads to an obvious moral absurdity — i.e., a conclusion contrary to common moral intuition.
The problem with this method is that it necessarily assumes that our common moral intuition has validity, and we are able to recognize a moral absurdity when we see one. (This is something quite different from recognizing a logical contradiction of the sort P & ~P.) There is probably no sound reason to make that assumption, and if there were a sound reason to make that assumption, then it’s not clear that the moral system does any work. If we can trust our moral intuition to differentiate between a conclusion that is morally absurd and one that isn’t, then why wouldn’t we similarly trust our moral intuition to arbitrate individual situations, and do away with moral theory entirely?
One common response is that we engage in a process of “reflexive equilibrium”, in which our moral theories refine our moral intuitions, and our intuitions in turn refine our moral theories. As compelling as this sounds, I don’t think it gets us out of the problem. While I agree that we might eventually reach an equilibrium, I don’t see any reason to believe that we would converge upon the “right” one. A corrupt moral theory would corrupt our intuition, which would reflexively corrupt the moral theory. We might get an equilibrium, but a thoroughly corrupt one.
Kant, however, rejects our moral intuitions entirely. He refuses to allow empirical observation to play a role in constructing moral theory. Kant wants a moral system derived entirely from rationality, not informed by checking it against our moral intuitions as they apply to empirical situations. In that, he avoids the problem of reflexivity — if we have a rational moral system and our moral intuitions lead us to some contrary conclusion, then our intuition is just wrong. (We can’t meaningfully ask the question of whether our rationality itself is valid, because answering it presupposes a rational evaluation.)
So Kant at least achieves consistency. Of course, that leaves him entirely in the rationalist camp and therefore vulnerable to all of the critiques of Hume, et al. But at least he manages to start with an internally valid system.