Prof. Stephen Palmquist, D.Phil. (Oxon)
Department of Religion and Philosophy
Hong Kong Baptist University
Immanuel Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. xii + 307 pages.
With this publication in one volume of the two parts of Kant's Die Metaphysik der Sitten, a small but significant milestone in English-speaking Kant-studies has been reached. Its significance can be appreciated by noting the history of the various English translations of this book—an issue the current translator, Mary Gregor, does not address. This is not, in fact, the first time the entire work has been translated into English. In 1799, just two years after the original German version had been published, a Scotsman named John Richardson, while studying under L.H. Jakob and J.S. Beck (two of Kant's prominent young disciples), anonymously translated and published both parts in English. However, his efforts went almost entirely unrecognized, with the translation quickly passing into virtual oblivion. All subsequent translations have, until now, included only the general Introduction and one of the two parts: the "Doctrine of Right" was translated by William Hastie in 1887, by John Ladd in 1965, and by H.B. Nisbet (extracts) in 1970; and the "Doctrine of Virtue" was translated by John W. Semple (incomplete) in 1836, by James W. Ellington in 1964, and by Gregor herself in 1964. While these translations (especially the more recent ones) all have their merits, the very fact of their separateness, together with the unavailability of Richardson's outdated translation, has meant readers of Kant in English have not had access to a unified translation. Published as part of the "Texts in German Philosophy" series, Gregor's new translation includes a significantly revised version of her previous translation of the Doctrine of Virtue, together with a new translation of the Doctrine of Right and a new "Translator's Introduction". As such, it is destined to be the standard English edition of The Metaphysics of Morals for many years to come.
One reason the English translations of the two parts of Kant's book have been published separately for over 150 years is that Kant himself initially published them in two installments (in January and August of 1797). This was possible because they deal with topics that are apparently quite distinct: politics and morality (i.e., rights and virtues). Nevertheless, Kant's general Introduction (pp.40-54) makes it clear that the two parts belong together like two sides of the same coin: each gives an account of how the facultyofdesire(orrationalchoice)canapplythemorallawinsuchawayastosecurepersonal freedom: first, freedom from the desire of others to impose their inclinations on us externally; and second, freedom from our own desire to allow our inclinations to control us internally.
A metaphysics of morals, in contrast to the critique of morality or the groundwork for such a metaphysics, serves the purpose of displaying in systematic form the body of moral knowledge that can be derived "from concepts alone" (p.44). Interestingly, Kant uses this phrase as a synonym for "a priori", even though it would seem more properly to indicate the analyticity of the knowledge under consideration. Furthermore, Kant emphasizes that the task of "applying" the (synthetic a priori) principles established in the second Critique to (for example) anthropology must be kept at the forefront: "we shall often have to take as our object the particular nature of man, which is known only by experience, in order to show in it what can be inferred from universal moral principles" (p.44). He apparently thinks such inferring gives metaphysics a synthetic status. Yet it could be argued that it actually indicates the a posteriori character of the analytic knowledge-claims under consideration. Although neither Kant nor Gregor explores this possibility, they do both recognize that such a project retains its interest, because it is not something that can be accomplished once and for all, but must be constantly revised as new areas of application arise (see e.g., pp.28,38).
Following the general Introduction is an Introduction to the Doctrine of Right, which starts off with Kant defining the scope of such a Doctrine as including "the sum of those laws for which an external lawgiving is possible" (p.55). After observing that "the question ‘what is Right?' might well embarrass the jurist", he attempts to alleviate this situation with a "universal principle": an action can be called "right if it can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law..." (pp.55-56). By applying the law of noncontradiction to this principle, Kant reasons that coercion is justified whenever it is employed "as a hindering of a hindrance to freedom" (p.57). He therefore concludes: "Right and authorization to use coercion ... mean one and the same thing" (p.58).
In the main body of the Doctrine of Right, Kant divides his inquiry into sections on Private Right and Public Right. The former treats of the topics of possession, acquisition, and legal acquisition, while the latter examines the notions of state, national, and cosmopolitan rights. Throughout his discussion it becomes clear to the attentive reader that Kant is dealing with a concept of rights that is markedly different from the one in common usage today, which tends to encouraged divisiveness and conflict. The distance between the common conception and Kant's ideal becomes especially poignant when he says in the Conclusion (pp.160-161) "that establishing universal and lasting peace constitutes ... the entire final end of the doctrine of Right ...": "There is to be no war, neither between you and me in the state of nature nor war between us as states ...; for war is not the way in which everyone should seek his rights."
Understanding how Kant could have seriously believed that a Doctrine of Right would lead to such a situation—one in which people willingly give up their external rights, as opposed to the tendency of many in this century to glorify the practise of selfishly defending their own individual rights—requires a recognition of the fact that the Doctrine of Right points necessarily beyond itself, to the deeper considerations of the Doctrine of Virtue. In the Preface and Introduction to the latter half of The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant restates many of the basic ideasalreadyestablishedinthefirsthalf,buttakesthemastepfurtherbyexaminingtherelationship between rights and virtue. He now explains that "virtue" is "the capacity and considered resolvetowithstandastrongbutunjustopponent...withrespecttowhatopposesthemoral disposition within us" (p.186). The "opponent" here is, of course, our own inclination to pursue happiness by fulfilling personal pleasures. What distinguishes virtue from rights is that only virtue can lead us to adopt a moral end (i.e., to make a free rational choice, in conformity with duty): the coercion made possible through the Right may constrain me "to perform actions that are directed as a means to an end, but I can never be constrained by others to have an end; only I myself can make something my end" (p.186). Rights, therefore, relate to a "narrow" form of obligation focussing on particular actions, whereas virtue relates to "wide obligation" because the moral law "can prescribe only the maxim of actions, not the actions themselves" (p.194).
The lengthy Introduction to the Doctrine of Virtue (18 sections in all) defines the scope for the remainder of the book. Unlike considerations of rights, wherein one may freely choose whatever end one wishes, so long as the principle of Right is not transgressed, considerations of virtue focus only on those ends that are also duties (pp.187-190). The two types of ends that fit this qualification are "one's own perfection and the happiness of others" (p.190). On this basis, the Doctrine of Virtue (like its predecessor) discusses first private, then public duties. Kant also makes a number of subordinate distinctions, such as "perfect" versus "imperfect" duties; but examining these is beyond the scope of a general review such as this.
Let us instead turn now to Gregor's introductory comments. In a "Translator's Note on the Text" (pp.ix-xii), she offers some valuable insights concerning Kant's use of the term Recht. After explaining the difference between its adjectival use (recht, as in "it is right to obey the law") and its use as a substantive (Recht, as in "everyone has the Right to self-determination"), she explains that the former notion of "a right", as "an authorization to use coercion", is contained within the wider concept of what is "Right" as such (pp.x-xi). Keeping this firmly in mind while reading the Doctrine of Right should help readers avoid the pitfall of reading some of the contemporary connotations of the term "rights" into Kant's usage.
The "Translator's Introduction" that follows begins with a helpful sketch of the architectonic relationships between Kant's three works on morality (pp.1-4), highlighting the difference between Sittlichkeit (i.e., "morality", the topic of the Groundwork and the second Critique) and Sitten (i.e., "morals", in the sense of "manners" or "customs" [cf. p.44]). Next Gregor explains the important distinction between Wille and Willkür (pp.4-7): the former refers to the will as active in "the subject imposing obligation ... regarded as having pure practical reason", while the latter denotes the will as active in "the subject put under obligation ... regarded as having a capacity for free choice" (p.4). The latter can be further distinguished from "wishing" by the fact that the Willkür is "accompanied by consciousness of its ability to produce the object" (p.5), whereas a mere wish is not.
The remainder of Gregor's Introduction is devoted to "an overview of Kant's procedure in deriving the two systems of human duties" (p.8). Among the numerous fine points of interpretive scholarship brought out in the process of accomplishing this task, Gregor analyzes the role of "possession" in Kant's notion of what it means to have a right (pp.11-13). As an example of how an "[a]nalysis of the concept of Right ... yields the concept of a [particular] right" (p.11), she explains how the use of "coercion" can be authorized. In the course of her discussion, Gregor hints at an insight which is of utmost importance for a proper understanding of Kant's view of rights (cf. pp.15-16): that particular rights are to legal theory what inclinations are to a theory of personal morals. Like the affirmation of an inclination, the act of claiming to possess a particular right is not bad in itself, but is morally justifiable only when it conforms to a higher end (namely, the Right as such). The relevance of this Kantian insight to the current political climate in most democratic countries could have been brought out by highlighting the dangers inherent in the common tendency to reverse this order of priority and treat individual claims to possess rights as themselves defining what is Right.
Gregor concludes the Introduction with a lengthy consideration of some exceedingly complex problems relating to the Doctrine of Virtue, to which she proposes some rather unclear solutions (pp.17-28). For instance, in attempting to discern what it is that Kant regards as the "material basis for determining choice", she concludes that it "is just the thought that the action or the end prescribed is a duty" (p.23); yet Kant's answer seems rather to be that the material basis is simply whatever maxim a person chooses to adopt. Gregor then examines Kant's defense of the paradoxical notion that, in order to be permitted to do what makes me happy, I must do what may not make me happy (namely, will the happiness of others). But instead of bringing out the subtle connection between such a conclusion and the Golden Rule Kant valued so highly, Gregor merely labels Kant's argument as "cryptic" (p.24). One of the most interesting points in this part of her discussion comes when she develops a few hints of Kant's into the suggestion that justice and respect can be regarded as duties that bridge the gap between the external duties of Right and the internal duties of Virtue, respectively. The Introduction concludes by commenting on Kant's often-misunderstood view that, when two duties appear to conflict, it is actually the "grounds of obligation" that conflict, not the duties themselves: in these situations, free choice is therefore required in order to determine which duty to favor, and in such cases, "inclinations may be consulted" (p.28). Unfortunately, although the Introduction makes a number of good points such as the latter, it does so in a style that is often no more transparent than the original text itself. As such, it is not very suitable for students or other readers with little or no prior knowledge of Kant's philosophy. Such readers would do well to read the first ten pages of this Introduction, and then turn directly to Kant's text, returning to the remainder of the Introduction only afterwards, when the subtler points raised therein can be appreciated more fully.
Gregor provides a moderate supply of notes to Kant's text (pp.281-293), mostly of a grammatical or linguistic nature. Some of these are adapted from the notes Paul Natorp appended to the German version of the text that appears in volume VI of the standard, Prussian Academy edition of Kant's works. The book also includes a comprehensive Index and a Bibliography which, while not exhaustive, does serve as a helpful pointer to the relevant secondary literature. All in all, this is a work of mature scholarship, for both the author (Kant) and the translator (Gregor), undertaken in both cases near the end of a long career of devoted service to the profession. As such, it is certain to provide a rich source of stimulating reading, with respect both to the philosophical content of the original and to the linguistic form of the translation, for anyone interested in obtaining a systematic understanding of what is right and good.
Stephen Palmquist, Hong Kong
This etext is based on a prepublication draft of the published version of this essay.
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