A Critique of the Groundwork of Kant’s Ethics

  • Hans Reiner
Part of the Phaenomenologica book series (PHAE, volume 93)


One thing that is indispensable to anyone intending a thorough critique of Kant’s ethics is to have a knowledge of its method, and its method is the subject we shall have to treat next.1 It is true that one cannot criticize any systematic ethics (or any other kind of philosophical system) unless one knows its method, but a knowledge of the method Kant’s ethics follows is especially indispensable to a critique of it. The fact is that the special character of Kant’s method is mainly accountable for the falseness of his theories on ethics and his inability to drop the mistaken assumptions underlying them. Moreover, one cannot know for certain what path a critique of this ethics should take until the questions about its method are resolved.


Practical Reason Moral Action Moral Consciousness Human Freedom Categorical Imperative 
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  1. 1.
    The Poems of Schiller, tr. E.P. Arnold-Forster (London, 1901), p. 84. H. Cysarz notices with reference to these verses: “the birth of morality” to Schiller’s mind was “not a Kantian conflict, but an awakening of the whole man”. Schiller, p. 134.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    The previous chapter, the purpose of which was exposition, would ordinarily have been the proper place for this account of method. However, our interest in the question of method being mainly to criticize rather than to describe, it appears expedient to include the whole discussion of method in this second, critical chapter and to use our account of it for an introduction to the critique.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Critique of Practical Reason, pp. 46/7.Google Scholar
  4. 1.
    The term “metaphysics” is thus essentially the name of a method when Kant speaks of a “metaphysics of morals”. In all Kant uses the term in two different senses. First, it signifies a method (or “means”) of cognition; namely, the method cognition follows when it occurs a priori rather than by means of the senses, and so by means of experience; and hence metaphysics is the method of “super-sensuous” cognition. Metaphysics in this sense of the word is defined by Kant as “the system of all purely rational knowledge of things by means of concepts”. Secondly, Kant speaks of metaphysics when he means the “end” or “object” the science of metaphysics aims at, which is an object “unattainable by experience”. The two terms are related by the fact that the “object” of metaphysics can be attained only through a priori cognition. But the term signifying a method is broader than that signifying an object, since not all a priori cognition aims at the same final end. Cf. Vber die Fortschritte der Metaphysik, Beilage 1.Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    Groundwork, p. 424; cf. p. 408 m.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    Cf. the first sentence of the Concluding Note in the Groundwork. This view is also corroborated by many passages in the Critique of Practical Reason. Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Critique of Practical Reason, p. 46 m. The term “deduction” is used by Kant in the same sense on pp. 447,454 m., and 463 in the Groundwork. Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    Groundwork, p. 445.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Ibid., p. 420t.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Ibid., p. 440.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Ibid., pp. 446 f.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Ibid., p. 447.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Ibid., p. 448 t.Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    Ibid., pp. 449/50.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    Ibid., p. 453 b.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    Ibid., p. 460.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    Ibid., pp. 459 t. and 461.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    Ibid., p. 455.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    The last sentence of the Groundwork. Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    Critique of Practical Reason, p. 47.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Ibid., p. 31 b.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    Groundwork, p. 452 b.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    Critique of Practical Reason, p. 47; cf. pp. 55, 91, and 104.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    Ibid., pp. 29/30.Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    Ibid., p. 4 n.Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    David Baumgardt, Der Kampf um den Lebenssinn unter den Vorläufern der modernen Ethik (Leipzig, 1933), pp. 73, 81, and 85 f.Google Scholar
  27. 1.
    To use such expressions when speaking of a Kant may seem to some readers pedantic, presumptuous, and so highly inappropriate. However, after decades of intense occupation with a subject, an author can find himself in the possession of such strong evidence against a doctrine as to feel bound to speak thus for the sake of clarity, even if the doctrine is the work of a Kant; whereas no one would benefit from watered-down criticism. I feel myself in the possession of such evidence. Moreover, I may notice that, in criticizing Kant, I am in the company of such eminent predecessors as Schiller and Hegel, and that my critique differs from that of Hegel, for example, not so much in the harshness of its judgements as in the completeness and nature of its arguments.Google Scholar
  28. 1a.
    The term “moral demand” (sittliche Forderung) is not used by Kant, who speaks rather of a “necessitation” (Nötìgung) to do what is morally good. Nevertheless I chose to use “moral demand”, which is more specific than “necessitation” and less specific than “obligation”, since it seemed to me to make the exposition easier to understand. Numerous authors (for example, G. Simmel, Th. Lipps, G. Störring, M. Scheler, and D. von Hildebrand) have used the term since the end of the last century, and I have used it in later publications (as in “Good and Evil”, 1965). (Appended note by the author, 1980.)Google Scholar
  29. 2.
    Cf. Groundwork, pp. 406/7 and the Critique of Practical Reason, p. 47, which passages were cited in the preceding §.Google Scholar
  30. 3.
    Herbert Spencer, Data of Ethics, §§ 45–47; Paul Rée, Die Entstehung des Gewissens (Berlin, 1885), §§ 25–27; Georg Simmel, Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft I, 407/8; L. Lévy- Bruhl, La morale et la science des moeurs (Paris, 1903), p. 196. Nietzsche s and Freud’s theories of conscience amount (though not obviously) to such an invalidation of conscience’s claim.Google Scholar
  31. 4.
    The correctness of this thesis will be shown in Chapters Four and Five of this book. Here it is asserted only in the form of a notice of our disagreement with Kant. We may also say provisionally that the aggregate of abilities for having moral insights consists in the various abilities underlying the comprehension of values. Google Scholar
  32. 5.
    Critique of Practical Reason, p. 47.Google Scholar
  33. 6.
    Cf. the remarks on this point at the end of § 15 below.Google Scholar
  34. 1.
    Like our account of Kant’s system of ethics (§ 2), our critique does not aim at completeness; we shall pass over many particulars and bring out only the decisive main points.Google Scholar
  35. 2.
    Groundwork, p. 435 m.Google Scholar
  36. 3.
    Ibid., pp. 399/400.Google Scholar
  37. 4.
    Ibid., p. 445 t.Google Scholar
  38. 5.
    Cf. § 30.Google Scholar
  39. 6.
    That there are still even Christian philosophers who, from a failure to see the irreducible importance moral values have in themselves, try to lay ethics upon a (social) eudomonistic foundation is amazing. Did Jesus not show in his parable of the Widow’s Mite (Mark, 12, 41ff.) that the value of the spirit in which an action was done was incomparably higher than the value of the action’s success.Google Scholar
  40. 7.
    Groundwork, p. 435 m; cf. p. 416 m.Google Scholar
  41. 8.
    On this Schiller cf. the second half of § 7.Google Scholar
  42. 1.
    The word value is here intended to be understood non-terminologically and in keeping with common usage, just as the whole of the present characterization of good and evil is provisional. More exact definitions cannot be given until Chapter Four.Google Scholar
  43. 2.
    The positive meaning of this genuine principle of autonomy is here only suggested in brief. A full discussion of it follows in Chapter Four (§§ 26 and 27).Google Scholar
  44. 3.
    Hegel describes Kant’s argument yet more harshly as “stacking the deck” (his account of Kant’s mistake is however very general and sketchy). Die wissenschaftlichen Behandlungs- arten des Naturrechts, Werke (1832) I, 354.Google Scholar
  45. 4.
    This too will be explained by the analyses in Chapter Four.Google Scholar
  46. 5.
    Cf. Gerhard Kruger, Philosophie und Moral in der Kantischen Kritik (Tübingen, 1931) and David Baumgardt, Der Kampf um den Lebenssinn unter den Vorläufern der modernen Ethik (Leipzig, 1933), pp. 97 ff. Google Scholar
  47. 6.
    Groundwork, p. 422 t. Cf.Ibid.., p. 429 m.;.Critique of Practical Reason, p. 69 m. and The Metaphysics of Morals., pp. 422. ffGoogle Scholar
  48. 7.
    Groundwork, p. 403.Google Scholar
  49. 8.
    Ibid., p. 402.Google Scholar
  50. 9.
    The point of our objection if obviously not that by adopting new maxims to act upon one can alter the result of the categorical imperative as one pleases. We assert only that one is free to make certain slight alterations. Our objection therefore must not be likened to interpretations alleging that the categorical imperative is compatible with any content; these Julius Ebbinghaus rightly attacks in his essay “Deutung und Mißdeutung des k’ategorischen Im- perativs” (Studium Generate, I/7, December, 1948).Google Scholar
  51. 1.
    I use the (nowadays confusingly ambiguous) term “metaphysics” in a sense that derives principally from Aristotle, which is explained more fully below in § 16. This sense corresponds roughly to the “second”, that is, narrower, sense of the term in Kant, which signifies the “purpose” or “object” of the science of metaphysics. Cf. § 9 n. 1.Google Scholar
  52. 2.
    A full enumeration of the relations and differences here mentioned only briefly is contained in my dissertation Freiheit, Wollen, und Aktivität (Halle, 1927).Google Scholar
  53. 3.
    This will be shown more fully in Chapter Four.Google Scholar
  54. 4.
    Critique of Practical Reason, pp. 96 ff; cf. p. 7 b.Google Scholar
  55. 5.
    Cf. above § 6 n. 8. More on the peculiar nature of this kind of freedom is contained in book Freiheit, Wollen und A ktivität, under the catch-word “profektiven MachtbereichGoogle Scholar
  56. 6.
    This ambiguity of the term freedom corresponds to an ambiguity of the term morality: Morality can be thought of as comprising good and evil or as consisting solely in the good. The ambiguity of the two propositions at the beginning of the § on the relation between morality and freedom is hereby increased.Google Scholar
  57. 7.
    Recently by J.G. Greiner, Formale Gesetzes-Ethik und materiale Wert-Ethik (Heidelberg, 1932), and Paul Olivier, Zum Willensproblem bei Kant und Reinhold (Berlin, 1941). Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague 1983

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  • Hans Reiner

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