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Kant’s Autonomous Willpower

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This is my essay from Philosophy class. Warning: the gobbledegook that is philosophy is present in most of the first section, although I think my point surpasses and outcomes this. The marking of a philosophy essay is frankly beyond me (see note at end). 

Kant claims: “an absolutely good will, the principle of which must be a categorical imperative, doesn’t specify any object, and contains only the form of volition, as such, and this form is autonomy.”[1]

Explaining such a statement is the central problem of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. I will attempt an explanation of the statement above, presenting his best argument for it, but I will go on to argue that, due to his attempting to represent in words the essentially non-representative forces of the intelligible world of the will, we shall need to redefine or, at least, refine the definition of many of Kant’s terms to fully make sense of his theory. This semantic confusion is perhaps a result of philosophic discipline or it may be purely linguistic and historical, the work concerning numinous impressions translated into words, translated into 18th century German,  translated into 21st century English. I contend further that this best objection is more of a misunderstanding which clouds the issue than a bad argument.

To begin, I will address each of the statement’s terms in turn, starting with the absolutely good will. A will, for Kant, is “the ability to act according to the thought of laws.”[2] It is the decider which rational beings possess that chooses, using mental evaluation, which action to take according to principles of some sort. An absolutely good will evaluates in such a way as to be absolutely good in this choice of action. It is, in a sense, good character,[3] to be a good decider of action (as distinct from merely doing pleasing deeds). Power, intelligence, personality – these things may be desirable but without good will, Kant argues, they are not truly good or virtuous.[4] There is some necessary circularity in his argument: “good will is good because of how it wills – i.e. it is good in itself.”[5] In other words, good will is good because it is good. This circularity comes from the word, ‘absolutely,’ that is, completely, unquestionably, perfectly. It is difficult to find other words to describe something so perfect and complete.

Kant’s absolutely good will commands categorical imperatives because ‘categorical’ means ‘absolute’. Something absolutely good cannot be only conditionally good – ‘conditional’ as the opposite of ‘absolute’ means ‘subject to the conditions of, for example, the situation, the people involved, your goal, the weather, etc.’ A categorical imperative is unconditional – the command is given without provisos.[6] The command is not, ‘do this when such-and-such condition prevails’ or, ‘if in situation A, then do this,’ etc. This explains the ‘absolute’ part of the absolutely good will. When we add the quality ‘good’, we read, ‘you should do this because it is absolutely good’ – absolute goodness is the only condition, if you like. Once again, the reason for this circularity is that there are no words to define or compare absolute goodness hence there are no words to justify absolute goodness, as it is wholly absolute. The absolutely good will must give categorical imperatives because otherwise the will would not be absolutely good.

As a result of all this, the absolutely good will cannot specify an object, something we are trying to attain. Firstly, an imperative containing the clause ‘in order to attain a specific goal’ would be conditional: ‘you must do this if you want to attain the goal.’[7] Therefore the will would not be issuing a categorical imperative and so not be absolutely good (see above). Secondly, by having a specified object, the will would be treating everything it encountered as a means to attain this object, that is, it would make decisions as to actions based on their relative value.[8] ‘Relative’ is also in opposition to ‘absolute’; to decide which action to perform based on its relation to a goal, could not be operating from a standpoint that is absolute. For instance, the actions would be only good for the goal in question, for me, for achieving X; they would not be absolutely good.

The absolutely good will only contains the form of volition insofar as we understand what a categorical imperative is. A categorical imperative by its very nature, is only the form of volition[9] because the content of volition would be a specific goal we are seeking to attain and this, as per above, would be conditional, specific and relative, all opposed to the concept of absolute good.

Kant called this mere form of volition autonomy in the sense that it is a command that emanates from inside the mind. Since, as we have seen, an absolutely good will can only issue categorical imperatives, unconditioned by any specific situation or object, it is clear that the motivation of the command does not herald from the material world. The material world can only be accessed via your body, which is always in a particular place at a particular time – in other words, in a situation. As a result, all directives issuing from the outside world can only motivate you to act if there is a material-world object interesting you in performing the action. Therefore, the idea of absolute goodness must arise a priori, without derivation from empirical, material-world experience. The proof for this rests largely on the all-pervading, irresistible idea of freewill; we feel we can choose our actions independent of the natural laws of the material world.[10] For instance, we do not explain our actions as exclusively a combination of situation, biology, habits, or the causal qualities of space and time (though, of course, since our body is in the material world, we must be subject to these laws all the same). Furthermore, the requirement that a categorical imperative must apply categorically, also includes that it must apply to oneself, not just to others or the universe generally. In this sense, the absolutely good will is autonomously self-directing, a mysterious force or volition emanating from within the mind.

I contend that Kant’s best argument for this claim is analytic and, as frequently illustrated above, contained in the definition of the word ‘absolute’. Since the absolutely good will does not rest on material-world experience – it is a purely a priori idea – explaining it or arguing for it on the basis of real-world examples is, I think, a poor way of arguing for its importance and validity.[11] It clearly operates entirely apart from these concerns.

My principal objection to Kant’s view is that he makes the mind, along with the will itself, more rational and moral than is justified. Consider: what does Kant mean by absolute good exactly? Kant is referring to a sense of absolute, all-pervasive ‘rightness’ or ‘correctness,’ I think, but I mean these words without any moral, ethical, or rational content, as, I believe, though unbeknownst to him, Kant does. He writes of a powerful sense of absolute good that does not rely on empirical-world terms. This removes it from the social sphere of governmental law with its statues of rights but also from the subjective human sphere of rationally or even ethically right-or-wrong judgements;[12] good and bad, useful and useless involve real-world input. Kant argues that the idea of absolute good therefore must be rational, that is, a result of ‘pure reasoning’. This is a tenuous leap. By ‘pure reasoning,’ most people mean abstract though concrete thought such as logic or mathematics with their systematic laws and theorems. But Kant’s absolutely good will does not employ, by any stretch of conception, a set of concrete laws or even terms. Of course, he calls the process ‘moral law’ but, as he repeatedly emphasises, there is no input, no object and no content in its workings; it does not treat people, actions or concepts like mathematical or syllogistic[13] processes (this would be using them as a means to an end), and furthermore, he writes, “how this presupposition [of freedom]… is possible can never be grasped by human reason.”[14] In sum, absolute good will is an irrational,[15] unreasoned though abstract sense of intrinsic ‘rightness.’ It is not conditioned by specific ends; it does not suggest doing but being, being a good decider of action, being a good person.[16] In this sense, it is a pure sublime impression, going beyond reasoned moral judgement. The word ‘right,’ as in intrinsically ‘correct,’ ‘appropriate’; or ‘true,’ not in the factual sense, but in the emotional – as in emotionally ‘real,’ ‘genuine,’ ‘balanced’, ‘at one’ even just mysteriously ‘meaningful’ – are, I argue, closer to the absolute good that Kant outlines.[17]

Kant’s conclusions should not be devalued by this criticism. His system provides a tenable framework explaining genuine altruistic inspiration. His weakness is in trying to subsume too much under rational processes (in this respect he is similar to other Enlightenment philosophers, who felt the need to justify inspiring religious feeling[18] by ‘proof’ of God’s accord with reason). His insistence on rational terminology makes the Groundwork excessively confusing but not invalid per se. A relaxing of Kant’s language – something like ‘a sense of rightness’ for ‘moral law’, ‘meaningful suggestion’ for ‘categorical imperative’, ‘impressionistic’ for ‘intelligible’ – would clarify the proper feeling of these mysterious experiential elements – although the Groundwork makes perfect sense when read metaphorically, with an understanding that rational language is here used semi-poetically to refer beyond reason to a ground of pure emotion/mystery. Kant seems to recognise this himself when he suggests applying his three principles of morality simultaneously “to introduce a certain analogy[19] that will bring an idea of reason closer to intuition and thus nearer to feeling.”[20]

NOTE ON THE MARKING OF THIS: Aside from lamenting the absence of a bibliography which the question specifically stated was not necessary, the marker thinks “much more could have been said about autonomy and intention” – although besides using Kant’s exact (and confusing) terms when discussing this in my second longest paragraph (para 6), I am not sure what else was required. (I suspect putting things into my own words and not using philosophic and Kantian buzz words did not work in my favour here.) My criticism of his rationality was apparently “on target” but my argument regarding semantics needed “much more support” – once again, semantics is words, what kind of evidence do we need for words? Presumably more than the word limit permitted. Did I mention I might major in this? Gives you second thoughts…

[1] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Jonathan Bennett; available from p. 40. [Access date not given.]

[2] Ibid, p. 18 (emphasis removed).

[3] Ibid, p. 5. The parallel is implied: “[good talents and temperaments] can become extremely bad and harmful if the person’s character isn’t good – i.e. if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature isn’t good.” Here character and good will are equated.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid (Kant’s emphasis).

[6] Ibid., p. 19.

[7] Ibid., p. 28.

[8] Ibid: “Things that are preferred have only conditional value, for is the preferences (and the needs arising from them) didn’t exist, their object would be worthless.” (Kant’s emphasis.)

[9] Ibid., p. 20: The categorical imperative is “concerned with… the form and the principle from which the conduct follows.”

[10] Ibid., p. 44.

[11] Ibid., 24. The perfunctory way in which Kant treats his real-world examples suggests their relative unimportance. He puts off the “serious, considered division of duties for a future metaphysic of morals” (footnote 9, p. 24). The examples he gives are somewhat confusing in their hallucinatory logic and besides, “we can’t site a single sure example of someone’s being disposed to act from pure duty” (p. 14) anyway.

[12] These right-or-wrong judgements are what we usually call morality (indeed this is what Nietzsche means by the term) but Kant uses his own definition of ‘moral law,’ ‘ethics’ and even ‘rationality’.

[13] A logical syllogism requires an “if” and so could not be categorical.

[14] Kant, Groundwork, p. 51 (my emphasis).

[15] As in, ‘emotional, not based on the pure reasoning of logic or maths,’ not, ‘other than mental’.

[16] Kant, Groundwork, p. 5: As mentioned earlier, see Kant’s equating it with ‘character,’ being a good person.

[17] Of course, Kant seems to reject the emotional ‘meaning’ qualities I am suggesting with the use of words like ‘rationality,’ ‘reason’ and ‘moral law,’ but I contend that he has redefined these terms so that they do not mean what most people take them to mean, at least not today.

[18] If religious awe is not related to this idea of absolutely good will, what is it then?

[19] A.k.a. metaphor.

[20] Kant, Groundwork, p. 34.

Written by tomtomrant

23 November 2011 at 12:28 am

Posted in myth, philosophy

Tagged with , ,

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