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A Note on the A Priori

The notion of a priori claims is something that by now has been a little mangled beyond recognition. To know something a priori is to know it in a way not grounded on experience – “prior to” experience. More contemporary applications of this concept treat it in terms of such other ideas like that a claim is “conceptually true” or “true by definition” or “innately judged” or “logically entailed” or “mind-independent”. All of these are fine notions of how a claim may be grounded not on experience and are interesting in their own right. But they are also very diverse ways of knowing and have their own standards of acceptability (versions 1, 2, and 4 are actually closer to ways of understanding the notion of an analytic truth, but “analytic” and “a priori” were treated equivalently for a long time thanks to the Logical Positivists – and Hume…).

In the 20th century there has been a lot of critical attention given to the notions of a priori claims indicated above. For a while now there has been a trend of thought that sees all truth as empirically known (that is, all we are able to know are those claims grounded on experience). These criticisms are well argued and their concerns, I think, have been established as legitimate (whatever the conclusion as to things like “conceptual truth” etc) But they are also not what Kant means by “a priori”.

[ex: If we thought of “a priori” as equivalent to say, “true by definition”, then to say “the moral law is objectively true a priori” would thus mean something patently question-begging. If we treat “a priori” as “innately judged” then the above claim is committing the is/ought fallacy.]

The ironic thing about all this is that Kant always holds as a sort of axiom the doctrine of empiricism that “all knowledge depends on experience” (to a point that he sometimes gets criticism for!). Take experience away and, for Kant, there is no truth to talk about. If I may be so bold (as this is a tad controversial): for Kant, truth is primarily a matter of a way we go about working with experience. We have a thought, the “global representation”, which contains a representation of all experience and which we refer to with the label “the world”, and which we are constantly updating and revising. This representation is used as a standard against which we compare specific experiences and thoughts to see if they correspond. Those that correspond we call “true”, those that do not we call “false”, those which we have nothing to correspond to we call “indeterminate”.

So what could Kant possibly mean by “a priori” since all knowledge depends on experience? “A priori” for Kant means that what is known is not known in a way dependent on any particular experience. So for me to know that the Seahawks have been sucking it up recently requires me to have had some particular experience or other (watching the game, reading a report, etc). This is because it is something that “could have been otherwise” (in a sense of logical possibility); there are other possible experiences for me to have had in which the claim would not have been true. For Kant, something that is a priori true is something that is true for all possible experiences. What are possible experiences for us depends on what experience is like for us or, to put it another way, how we experience given the kinds of beings we are. Kant thinks that in as much as we are rational beings (where “rational” is not an empirical property like in “Sandra, you were NOT rational last night”), experience is different in a categorical way.

Kant is concerned with this idea much more in his work on the mind and perception (in the Critique of Pure Reason where things like ‘time’, ‘space’, or certain formal laws of causality are known a priori) but this notion will also affect truths in ethics. Our reason also affects our experience in the sense that we experience choice and intentionally directed action (we can understand why someone does something, where the why is a motive, purpose, or intention). To say that a moral truth is a priori true is to say that it is true in every possible experience qua experience of willing. The other reason it is important to note this now for understanding Kant is also because it means Kant (as well) is a Subjectivist since he thinks that moral truth depends on how we are. [As a teaser: Kant will be concerned about attempts to make morality an objective truth in the world (of independent moral facts perhaps) on the grounds that it prevents us from being free; in such a situation, being moral requires a relinquishing of our freedom]

Some More Preliminaries

I will not be proceeding in the way that Kant does. You’ll notice that the First Section starts off basically just arguing from intuitions – and not very well. The first page is a good example since the force of these considerations only has merit if we think moral truth will be connected with what we end up judging. Kant (trust me) doesn’t really buy into this way of arguing. It always strikes me that he at all entertains these arguments (especially the ridiculous one about the purpose of nature), given that ordinarily, and in many other places, Kant explicitly calls philosophers to task for using arguments like this.

Bottom line: Kant’s subjectivism (mentioned above) and his conception of moral truth does not have it depend on our intuitive or considered judgments. In other words, while moral truth may depend on how we are, the parts that it is dependent on are not those to which we can think otherwise about (i.e. having this particular intuition as opposed to another).

In general Kant does not do a good job in the Grounding at indicating what the ultimate justification of his claims rests on. In what follows you will find my best attempt at reconstructing the essence and structure of Kant’s thinking on where we get started with morality.

Square One: assume morality and ask what must it be like formally

· I take it that for Kant, the notion of morality is to be taken for granted. This isn’t controversial; there’s something we call morality. Think of it like a layer of reality; of the way we experience the world and ourselves. Kinda like the level of the emotional or of tastes or of personal identity.

· When we look at the concept of morality we find two things in it, according to Kant, that cannot be removed and which are present no matter what differences we have over what ACTUALLY IS moral. We can call these “formal” attributes of morality since they are features that do not change with changes in the substantial views we have of morality (the “content”).

· Morality concerns what is necessary and not contingent; thus it is universal (applies to all circumstances)

· Directs action to purposes that are considered “good/ends in themselves”

· Ex: Utilitarianism sees “preference satisfaction” as the “end in itself”; that is what is defining of it as a moral theory. Ultimately Kant would say such an end cannot be justified, but we can see how Utilitarianism is at least on the same page with Kant about shooting for what is necessarily and universally good.

· Morality is related to the operation of the will

· This is not supposed to be surprising either. Morality concerns willing actions and which actions ought to be willed.

· These two ideas give us Kant’s notion of duty = coordination of the will with the universal law

· This is Kant’s First Proposition of Morality = moral actions are actions done from duty

· Simple right!

Square Two & Three

Where we go from here concerns investigating the question as to what cases of willing constitute moral action.

What are the right “reasons” for action? SEE DIAGRAM!!!

· The Second Proposition of Morality = an action done from duty has its moral worth in the maxim according to which the action is determined (not in the consequences – the “object” – of the action, OR in the inclinations in the faculty of desire)

· One source of support for the anti-consequentialist claim is the observation that otherwise willing would not be important to morality. In other words, if moral worth was determined by the consequences of actions (what the event of the activity is), such things would not require a will to be moral.

· Another angle: Kant observes how given the fact that we can judge actions to be moral while at the same time denying that any good came out of them, it must not be essential to the judgment that an action was moral that we judge it had good consequences.

· The support for the rejection of inclinations comes from the observation that inclinations are contingent. <this is the more important argument>

· Bottom of 35: the objects of inclinations could never be regarded as having absolute value or intrinsic value since they only have value in those cases that we are inclined to treat them as such (a strange reply to sentimentalism!). I.E. the value of such objects is conditioned on our happening to have the dispositions to value them, but we want to find what is necessarily good.

· 45: heteronomy and freedom (foreshadowing…)

· 34: “bastard” morality and concerns about fragility

· Thus, the SPoM gets us into the realm of the operation of Reason in determining action

· The Third Proposition of Morality = Duty is the necessity of an action done out of respect for the law.

· The TPoM gets us the added notion that “respect for the moral law” is something that will also be a part of moral action; that it isn’t enough to just be able to cognize how one should act.

Kant finds something special in our ability to determine actions from self-generated laws rather than from laws generated by nature. And also: how these rules have a content that extends beyond the agent (when we make moral judgments we look to circumstances that do not just apply to our own wills but to anyone with a will).

The next question will be: which laws? What imperatives/maxims are the ones that generate moral action?

2 Kinds of Laws

Hypothetical = necessity of an action given an objective (some other end)

Categorical = necessity of an action given in itself


· “possible”; “problematic practical”; SKILLS

· These do not judge as to the worth of the end

· “lefty loosy, righty tighty”

· “if you are to get a job, you must stay in school”

· “actual”; “assertoric”; HAPPINESS

· These DO judge the worth of the end (hence: “assertoric”)

· Usually, according to Kant, the end is happiness

· Kant would concede to Mill that happiness is a universal end, so why can’t assertoric hypotheticals serve categorically? They are principles, but are they laws? (29)

· (26) 1st: while the end is universal the act is not

· 2nd: (related) the actions (basically the content of happiness) is always indeterminate

· We’re looking for the “for all time” morality – the universal – the necessary for all possible experience

· Is the question here still open?…

· What Kant DOES say about happiness:

· 12: “To secure one’s own happiness is a duty (at least indirectly); for discontent with one’s condition under many pressing cares and amid unsatisfied wants might easily become a great temptation to transgress one’s duties”

· 45: “I ought to endeavor to promote the happiness of others, not as though its realization were any concern of mine (whether by immediate inclination or by any satisfaction indirectly gained through reason), but merely because a maxim which excludes it cannot be comprehended as a universal law in one and the same volition”

· 45 is also a great place to illustrate how the hypothetical imperatives result in what Kant calls “heteronomy of the will”: when we give our freedom to the objects we will for the sake of.


· Actions demanded by categorical imperatives will be considered good-in-themselves

· 36 “only rational nature exists as an end in itself”

· Why? “subjective principle of human actions” that we necessarily think of our own existence on these terms

· It’s like saying “our ends are our ends” or maybe better still “our ends (subjective) are considered as THE ends (objective)”

· These qualifiers are important so that we can see how Kant is saying something substantial, and not just trivially true (like: p is p).

· 2 Versions of the First Formulation of the C.I.:

· THOUGHT: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law <Formula of Universal Law>

· WILL: Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature <Formula of the Law of Nature>


· Because all of this is grounded on the objectively necessary law that “our ends are our ends” (self-governance), if we respect this point, we will also respect:

· Formula of the End in Itself: (36) “Act in such a way that you treat humanity (all rational beings) always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means”

· this makes the ends of others as our ends

· stipulation that their ends are not irrational

· Why does this follow from the first formulation? Because 1) we necessarily consider our rational nature as an end in itself (the observation on rational action that led us to the first formulation) and 2) we must universalize it according to the demands of the first formulation.

· When a community has shared ends this is called a “Kingdom of Ends” (could be imperfect)

· The Formula of Autonomy: Act on maxims you can will as laws mandated by a kingdom of ends (where you are included!)

· Kant is curious about an Ultimate Kingdom of Ends that enfranchises all possible people (not just the people we have in front of us – like a club of cheeseburger lovers who contingently share ends)

· In such a case there are laws but no one’s will is subjugated – and no one is above the laws. This is important since it precludes the possibility of acting by rules that may be designed to benefit others, but which if everyone did them would result in tragedy (think of vigilante justice – notice how such actions usually have their justification on consequentialist grounds!)

How do we understand evil, or when things go wrong?

What does it mean to violate the C.I.?

1) Where is the law coming from?

· Traditional view: agent’s actions are subject TO a moral law (imposed externally)

· Generates the problem of how to motivate such laws (in addition to “overriding” freedom)

· Kant’s view: moral laws are determined BY the agent (we are self-governing – we make rules for ourselves)

· This move usually generates a worry about relativism

· But this worry is dealt with by the fact that there are objective laws that constrain the laws we make (the C.I.)

2) So when we act immorally we are not holding immoral rules for action (traditional view; our rules don’t match up with objective law)

· For Kant this is impossible: we can’t really will in a way contrary to the C.I.

3) Rather, the violation is a case of one of the following:

· We are not engaging reason at all (in which case we are not determining our actions at all)

· We engage reason but only via hypothetical imperatives and so again, we don’t determine our ends but rather the objects the H.I. targets determine it

· We engage reason but create exceptions for ourselves (that fulfill some other H.I. in most cases) and our will is in conflict

A useful way to think about this is that Kant considers immorality to consist in giving up freedom.

· In all these cases the C.I. holds (objectively), we just don’t respect it (subjectively)

· A nice contrast position: morality from empathy sacrifices freedom

· Kant was particularly concerned with such moralities because he thought it made morality too weak – that there wasn’t really a reason we could respond to as agents to behave in such ways. And if we go for a morality in which freedom is sacrificed, then we leave morality to the “whims” of causal fate.

· THE POSITION which Kant takes as his major opponent is the position that morality consists in conforming our will to some inclination or other (cajoling of the will 39, heteronomy 45, search for necessity 62)

· 12: analogy with love: “love as an inclination cannot be commanded…love resides in the will and not in the propensities of feeling, in principles of action and not in tender sympathy”

A Note to think about:

· This may all strike you as somewhat empty of content. That’s because it is. Kant thought he could get some content out of it, but I think it is safe to say that it doesn’t get as much as Kant might want (he still gets some…)

· We will get some things perhaps, like respect for persons, but even something like that leaves a lot open as far as how that respect should look.

· Also, many actions that seem to fail the C.I. at first glance can be revised in accordance with it. We could try to head off these revisions by claiming that they won’t stand merely on reason alone, but then we also undermine the ground to get many of the other things we think are morally significant and Kant’s theory starts to look radically revisionary

· What else might be done?

· We could draw an analogy from Kant’s treatment of nature, theoretical reason, and science:

· At the same time as the Critique of Pure Reason limits empirical knowledge (as not giving us knowledge of things in themselves), it also doesn’t destroy it. There is still room for science to fill out the content of thought, remembering that this only works because of the form provided by a priori principles.

· So we might say, the C.I. provides the form of moral willing but it still leaves open some of the content. Perhaps there is an “empirical” way to sort out what the rest of that could look like. It would involve looking at the particulars of the various objects of action that are compatible with the C.I. Maybe it looks like putting together an empirical notion of happiness and the good life that is rationally consistent…

Kant and Freedom: The Third Section of the ‘Grounding’


Almost all of the shit that Kant talks about in this Third Section depends on the context of Kant’s own perspective on philosophy (especially metaphysics and epistemology); the most important of which is Kant’s distinction between:

· the empirical (the world of appearances; the phenomenal realm; in other places “the world of sense” indicates that we are on this level even though “world of sense” empirical level)

· Every experience is an “appearance” according to Kant’s use of this word.

· All experience represents something as “the case”;

· this is part of the form of experience (i.e. it is universal to all experience), but the “empirical” refers to the content of what is represented (which is never universal).

· This manifests in experience representing two types of states of affairs:

· Inner states: blueness-here-now-in-my-mind (when this involves no judgment as to states of affairs outside the mind)

· Outer states: truck-there-yesterday (which can be part of the content of experience even when dependent on some other outer or inner state experience: i.e. tire marks observed now, memory recalled now)

· The empirical can concern two things (parallel to the bullets above): the immediate content of experience (like phenomenal properties), or the state of affairs in the world (which can be something represented in experience via a reconstructing of what has happened).

· This second kind is what empirical scientists do. Their conclusions are based directly on experience even though much theory is contributing to the final product.

· The CRAZY thing about Kant’s treatment of the empirical is that he believes that the empirical never gets us in touch with things as they exist independently from us.

· We generally have intuitions for Metaphysical Realism – I see the beer-appearance as having coldness; from this I infer that there is a mind-independent object (the beer) which has a mind-independent property (coldness).

· This sounds like it would be CRAZY to deny, but Kant does. The key to understanding why this isn’t so outrageous is that things that we might call “mind-independent” are included by Kant in the empirical (like the truck above). We know these things on the basis of our experiences, but how can we “step outside” experience to confirm that it is putting us in contact with the properties we think it does?

· This isn’t like other forms of Metaphysical Idealism (like Berkeley) where all objects are considered mental entities. Kant denies that we know of anything that “steps outside the bounds of experience”.

· SO! For Kant, we only know about experience and this only puts us in touch with how objects affect us, but it is in principle impossible to conceive of their existence independently of the ways they affect us (we get the effect but not the cause). Science just extends the capacities with respect to how objects can affect us in experience (consider a scanning electron microscope, x-ray, or carbon dating – all of these open up new experiences. It’s why the 80s freaked out with science fantasy).

· and the transcendental (the world of things in themselves; the noumenal realm; in other places “the world of understanding” or “ideas” indicates that we are on this level even though “world of understanding” transcendental level).

· The transcendental is called the transcendental since it “transcends” all particular experience.

· Thus, in contrast to the empirical, the transcendental mainly concerns things-in-themselves, so the transcendental is a world which, according to Kant, we mostly know jack-shit about.

· But the transcendental qua transcending of all particular experience also can refer to what is true of all possible experience (i.e. what is true of experience qua experience)

· This gets into what we can know a priori

· It concerns what are the necessary conditions for any/all possible experience

· This is the Critique of Pure Reason, a philosophical juggernaut, and I will stop my discussion of it here.

· I lied. One last thing to note: one of the necessary conditions concerns the Concepts of the Understanding. These are pure (i.e. not empirically derived – they are entirely empty of content and only provide the form of thought), but they go to work on sensation to cut it up and rearrange it into what we get in experience. [This is another of Kant’s radical theses: that experience is all processed and none of it is “direct experience” – even experience of experience!]

The Long of the Short of It [the Third Section via highlights]

· 49: Freedom is not lawless [this point is well-taken in contemporary debates since it is generally accepted that metaphysical indeterminism is as hostile toward freedom as determinism]

· 49: freedom = autonomy = the property the will has of being a law to itself => dependency on the faculty of reason

Freedom Must be Presupposed as a Property of the Will of All Rational Beings

· 50: “morality serves as a law for us only insofar as we are rational beings” and because of this “it must also be valid for all rational beings”. This entails that “freedom is also the property of the will of all rational beings”, so Kant takes it as his charge to defend this claim

· 50: “every being which cannot act in any way other than under the idea of freedom is for this very reason free from a practical point of view. This is to say that for such a being, all the laws that are inseparably bound up with freedom are valid just as much as if the will of such a being could be declared to be free in itself for reasons that are valid for theoretical philosophy” (Kant means by “theoretical philosophy” metaphysics)

· 50: “Reason must regard itself as the author of its principles” otherwise it would consider determinations of judgment as not due to reasons but to inclinations.

· These are 2 very tricky points

· Something to emphasize: freedom concerns rationality for Kant, not only in terms of Practical Reason (judgment of what to do), but also for Theoretical Reason (judgment of what to think). In fact it is consideration of TR that probably gives Kant whatever ground he has here.

· The CONCLUSION: we necessarily operate under the idea of freedom inasmuch as we are rational beings with wills. Also, will is to be attributed to any rational being at all (it is at the heart of what reason is)

Concerning the Interest Attached to the Ideas of Morality

· 51: “We have finally traced the determinate concept of morality back to the idea of freedom, but we could not prove freedom to be something actual in ourselves and in human nature”

· 51: “But why, then, should I subject myself to this principle simply as a rational being and by so doing also subject to this principle all other beings endowed with reason?”

· “no interest impels me to do so” (or it wouldn’t be from reason)

· “But nonetheless I must necessarily take an interest in it”

· “For this ought is properly a would which is valid for every rational being, provided that reason is practical for such a being without hindrances”

· Remember God: God is perfectly rational so he doesn’t require maxims. Only beings who are not fully rational need maxims to hold the course contra inclinations

· The story is something like this in my mind: to be moral one must be free, to be free one must think/act from reason, there are some general formal guidelines that are part and parcel of rational activity (like principle of non-contradiction). Thus, if it is ‘me’ who is acting, then I will be acting from those guidelines; violation of those guidelines means my action wasn’t free (and thus not moral either). Given that sometimes my will is determined not by myself (but by inclinations), then reason will manifest in the form of maxims that require me to take an interest in them (i.e. the “respect” for the moral law) in order for me to resist other inclinations that lead me away from acting with reason.

· But we are at an important obstacle here. In this story we can still wonder if we actually are free at all. It can seem as though whether or not we have freedom depends on something that has nothing to do with us at all (i.e. it is ultimately a contingent matter and not a matter of freedom whether or not I am free). This is a worry that Thomas Nagel later wrote about (more eloquently) under the moniker of “Moral Luck”. [we will be reading this paper]

How will Kant address this problem?

· The Setup

· 52: “all representations that come to us without our choice (such as those of the senses) enable us to know objects only as they affect us; what they may be in themselves remains unknown to us”

· Thus 53: “even with regard to himself, a man cannot presume to know what he is in himself by means of the acquaintance which he has though internal sensation”

· Recall 19: “In fact there is absolutely no possibility by means of experience to make out with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of an action…has rested solely on moral grounds and on the representation of one’s duty…there cannot with certainty be at all inferred…that some secret impulse of self-love, merely appearing as the idea of duty, was not the actual determining cause of will”

· Out of all this we get the following:

· There are things-in-themselves behind appearances (the empirical/transcendental distinction)

· We don’t know anything about T-I-Ts

· 53: “Reason…shows such a pure spontaneity in the case of what are called ideas that it goes far beyond anything that sensibility can offer…”

· This is important. The concepts of the understanding (that make reason work), are not just the passive vehicle for the content of experience that comes from the senses; they actively work on it in ways that could not be determined by what we get from the senses (this is what Kant means by going “far beyond”).

· This inspires us to consider ourselves in two different ways…

· 53: “Therefore he has two standpoints from which he can regard himself…”

· “…first, insofar as he belongs to the world of sense subject to laws of nature…”

· This is the empirical level of contingent facts

· The “Third-Person” Perspective on experience

· This is the level on which we ourselves are objects of experience like other possible objects (like beer-things vs mind-things)

· This is the world where causality is king. Everything in the empirical world is an effect of some cause and the cause of some effect.

· So, on the empirical level, determinism holds even of us.

· This is the level on which we are beings with inclinations since our inclinatio

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