How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


Kant: A rational grounding for ethics: extra notes



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                                                                                                                                   Week 6 Human Nature and Ethics in Adam Smith, Rousseau and Kant  


                                                                        Week 6: Adam Smith (extra notes)


                                                                      Week 6: Rousseau (extra notes)                           



1. Link with previous weeks: economics and morality

2. Kant’s life and influences

3. Kant’s position in philosophy

4. Kant’s philosophy – transcendental idealism, and the ‘categories’:

5. The Metaphysics of Morals and the categorical imperative: Kant’s ethics

6. What Is Enlightenment?

7. Kant and politics (politics topic continued later)




1. Link with previous weeks: economics and morality.


Himmelfarb has only two references to Kant, but she does give (p 130) an account of the way that economic thinking developed after Adam Smith:


A crucial figure is Malthus, whose 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population argued that population always falls to the level of the means of subsistence. This he saw as both a ‘natural law’ (based on a biological law: sex and food are both basic needs) and a mathematical law (there will always be a geometric increase in population but only an arithmetical increase in food.)


Then David Ricardo formulated an ‘iron law’ of wages: real wages always tend, in the long run, toward the minimum wage necessary to sustain the life of the worker (Wikipedia) - this is because competition among labourers (I would have said, with Marx, that it is competition among the owners that results in a lowering of wages) will reduce the wage level. That is, when wages are higher, the supply of labour increases relative to demand, creating an excess supply and thus a fall in wages, – when wages are low the supply of labour falls in relation to demand, increasing wages. Equilibrium will be reached at subsistence level.


The consequence of Ricardo’s approach, for Himmelfarb, was that ‘economics lost its moral content’.


Alfred Marshall tried to ‘re-moralise’ economics by moving away from the focus on the market, and bringing in human behaviour (hence concepts such as ‘marginal utility’) thus he was (Himmelfarb says) using a Kantian approach: humans have a moral instinct (which also in Smith). (This seems to me to be overstating the moral content of Marshall…)


Himmelfarb says: all this was ‘soon overwhelmed’ by socialism. Thatcher tried to re-moralise economics with ‘Victorian values’ but over-stressed the individual: she should have gone further back, to Smith, and she would have found the social character of the moral sense (my emphasis).


I have some sympathy with what I understand to be Himmelfarb’s perspective: she seems to be trying to retrieve Adam Smith’s ethics for capitalism, and perhaps – given that her book has an introduction by Gordon Brown – for a kind of democratic socialism. However, I would have argued even before the recent financial crisis that this was a hopeless task. As I stress in my notes on Corporate Social Responsibility, only pressure from a number of directions on those who run the market stands a chance of taming it (and even then it is only a chance!). Consumer boycotts and campaigns, government regulation, international controls, and alternative business models (co-ops and social enterprises) all need to be developed as far as they will go. If capitalism despite these changes then still produces the gross inequalities, environmental destruction, exploitation – and war – that it now produces, then an alternative system will have to be found.


My CSR notes are at:  Corporate Social Responsibility - Contents page.




2. Immanuel Kant: 1724 – 1804


Kant’s life and influences:


Russell (see references at end of these notes) says he ‘is generally considered the greatest of modern philosophers.’ But he adds ‘I myself cannot agree with this estimate, but it would be foolish not to recognize his great importance.’ (p 677)


He was born at Königsberg, at a time when two religious movements were influential (David Appelbaum p 4)

(i) deism – the belief that reason can demonstrate the existence of God (etc), and reason should replace faith (see week 3);

(ii) (since the end of the 17th century) pietism – the belief that religion had to be experienced rather than learned from texts.


Pietism was especially strong in the German states after the Thirty Years’ War, which pietists saw as a ‘punishment for sin inflicted by God on Germany’ (Outram p 123). At first it was a movement within Lutheranism, and Frederick William I of Prussia (1688 – 1740) welcomed it. Rulers at the time saw the social use of religion… In Prussia it was ‘channeled into serving the poor and the serving the state,’ and Frederick William used it to drive a wedge between the Lutherans and the nobles (the Estates) who were linked and who opposed his plans for centralization and reform. It can be argued (M. Fulbrooke: Piety and Politics, cited by Outram p 122) that this led to strengthening the ruler, creating a ‘cultural unity in Prussia’s divided lands,’ and eventually enabling Frederick the Great to implement a policy of tolerance, and finally eventually helping the creation of the Prussian bureaucracy.


Kant went to a pietistic school, and then to university, but decided against a career in the ministry because of his ‘rationalistic bent’ – then he went into tutoring, and was appointed a professor at the university of Königsberg in 1770 (age 46).


Philosophically, he was influenced by Rousseau (e.g. The Confessions, and Rousseau’s emphasis on sensibilité) his thinking became less metaphysical, and he put more confidence in ‘the lawfulness of inner experience.’ He was also influenced by current scientific thinking, and especially affected by encountering Hume’s arguments. For example (from Outram p 100):


“I may venture to affirm of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, in a perpetual flux and movement”.


Hume doubted the reality, crucially, of causality – and thus casting doubt over natural philosophy (the beginnings of science). It is only our habit, because of previous experiences, that we reason causally, but nothing guarantees the truth of our reasoning. He concluded that (although there is likely to be a God who created the order of the world), there were so many obstacles inherent in our perceptions that we could not be sure what was true rather than probable. This scepticism led Kant to examine the theory of knowledge.


When given the university chair Kant’s inaugural dissertation argued that we need to study the process of cognition, which leads to ‘objects’ coming into existence. The dissertation was so innovative in approach that it needed further work, which he undertook for the next ten years.


In 1781 in the Critique of Pure Reason he describes himself as having undergone a ‘Copernican revolution’ in thinking about the mind and objects in the world. (Appelbaum p 6)  Here Kant argued that trying to make our reasoning abilities correspond to the real physical world had led to failure, so we should see what happened if instead we ‘assume that the objects should conform or be adjusted to our knowledge.’


‘Pure reason’ means without reference to experiential facts (a priori) – pure reason is legitimate, he argues, in mathematics, but not in metaphysics, where a different kind of knowledge is needed (see below).


He sought to integrate moral philosophy and theory of knowledge, hence the titles that followed:


1783: Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics that may be Presented as a Science,

1785: Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals,

1788: Critique of Practical Reason.


Also, in 1784, he wrote the essay: What is Enlightenment? – see below…


1790: Critique of Judgment, which examines the idea of finality.

1793: Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone – which led to his being forbidden (by whom? Rfc) to write on matters of religion.

1795: Eternal Peace (see below)

1797: Metaphysics of Morals – dealing with justice and virtue.


In 1804 he died, in Königsberg.


3. Kant’s position in philosophy:


Russell (1946) says (p 619) that there are two schools of philosophy:


British – which is empirical, and represented by Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, Hume. For empiricists knowledge comes from experience, and ultimately through the senses; is subject to change/modification if new evidence arises; and there are no innate ideas.

(See also website


Continental – which is rationalist, and represented by Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Kant. For rationalists certainty can only be had through valid inferences from undoubtable axioms, i.e. ones where if you deny them you are led to contradiction, or whose principles are self-evident – hence ideas are innate.


This ‘split’ applies in metaphysics, and in ethics, says Russell.


Berki (1977, p 172) adds that Kant’s rationalism was also opposed to the romantics and Burke – and that he ‘sought to stem the tide of revolution and destruction.’




4. Kant’s philosophy – transcendental idealism, and the ‘categories’:


Kant (see also week 2 on philosophy/science) overturned the common-sense view that our understanding corresponds to how the world is: for Kant the world corresponds to how we understand it. Our conscious reasoning imposes sense on the world.


He starts, says Appelbaum (p 8) from a sense of ‘ever new and increasing admiration and awe’ at our experience of two worlds, an inner and an outer: ‘the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me’.


The ‘outer world’ and ‘objective’ knowledge:


Unlike Hume, he does not doubt the existence of objects in the ‘outer world’, but he argues that we cannot know them in themselves. In fact, says Appelbaum, he reverses Hume: so long as we restrict our knowledge to the realm of objects, it must be reliable, since it (thought) alone is responsible for the world of objects. When we try to understand the world(s?) beyond objects we need other ways of thinking (see below).


The knowledge we have of objects is reliable because we apprehend objects through modes of our consciousness, in particular ‘space’ and ‘time’. Objects ‘submit to relational concepts’ – or ‘categories’ - e.g. causality (also quantitative notions etc – see Russell for full list of 12, and Appelbaum p 19 for other points). We apply the concepts – they do not exist objectively, out there, in the world. They are innate, a priori; and whilst they are in conformity with experience, they are not provable by experience.  Kant felt that this formulation would counter Hume’s view that all thought is habit, and would show how meaning is not private but can be shared by everyone, since the categories are the ‘forms’ that all thinking uses.


Appelbaum describes this kind of knowledge as ‘constructed by ego-consciousness’ (p 21) – and it seems to me (following Appelbaum) that an important part of Kant’s ethics is based on this point, and on the corollary that moral understanding is not ego-based (see below).


Why ‘transcendental idealism’?


“All objects of any experience possible to us are nothing but appearances, that is, mere representations which… have no independent existence outside our thoughts.”

(Critique of Pure Reason, cited Appelbaum p 14) Note the Cartesian origins of this division between thought and the world of objects… Hence ‘transcendental idealism,’ where ‘transcend’, for Kant, means the attempt to understand, to get into the ‘thing-in-itself’ – which we cannot do; we can grasp phenomena (observable manifestations of things), but not the thing-in-itself, which is loosely synonymous with noumena (objects of thought – like Plato’s Forms).



‘Idealism’ because all knowledge is a product of our thought imposing itself on reality (not of a real world imposing itself on our thought).


Once we are aware that we cannot describe the ‘hidden face of reality’ (Appelbaum) – the ‘thing-in-itself,’ i.e. the noumenal (*), then we are open to different ways of understanding (Appelbaum p 15) which we can apply to the metaphysical and the inner worlds. Appelbaum p 23: ‘Curbing the pretension of the ego, noumena preserve a realm of consciousness for the exclusive operation of duty and morality.’ [Hmm!] This idea is re-iterated in different words in the next paragraph.


(*) as noted, these terms are roughly synonymous, but it is not agreed whether Kant meant the same thing by them…


Metaphysical aspects of the world and ‘practical knowledge’:


With regard to metaphysical aspects of the world, any claims to have objective knowledge of e.g. God, the soul, immortality, are illusory, since ‘objective knowledge’ is bounded – it can only apply to objects. Such concepts/ideas, which are ‘ideas of reason’ (i.e. reason leads us to form these ideas), cannot be proved to be real by reason, nor can experience resolve them (from Russell p 682, this point has been made already above). Their importance, then, is practical – that is, connected with morals. The only right use of reason is directed to moral ends. (The purely intellectual use of reason leads to fallacies).


With regard to the inner world:


We experience unconditional freedom which we strive to embody in action (Appelbaum p 9) – hence ‘autonomy’. This is a different kind of knowledge or awareness, and it includes an awareness of our capacity for moral understanding. This moral world, which arises through participation, not objectivity, (hence ‘practical reason’) is, says Appelbaum, ‘a sphere of high sensitivity and awareness’, and ‘the compassionate mind’ reveals ‘love and respect.’ The next section explores this moral world further.




5. Kant’s ethics:


He wrote in succession the ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’ (1785) and the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ (1788) – which shows, as noted above, that for him the theory of knowledge and moral theory are connected. As Russell (p 621) puts it: he made ethics ‘supreme’ and derived his metaphysics from ethical premises. As Appelbaum (p 10 puts it): Knowledge without morality is ego-bound. Morality without knowledge is unwise.


Key ideas:


Autonomy – that is, the freedom to make moral choices, which enables us to perfect our human potential (see the essay on Enlightenment, with its references to ‘tutelage’ etc)


The categorical imperative – obedience to an inner moral law


Treating others as ends and not (purely) as means


Returning to the theory of knowledge sketched above, (Appelbaum p 25:) understanding the objective world (world of objects – the ‘conditional’ world) involves ‘freezing’ reality to create something permanent which we can grasp – it involves distance and disengagement; it involves analysis, explanation and theorization, and looking to the past. [I would add – á la Sartre – that it is a world of un-freedom: objects being fixed and unchangeable by themselves; humans exist in a realm which is un-fixed, fluid, and where we have responsibility for our choices etc – see my notes on existentialism pp20 Existentialism].


Following Appelbaum again, in order to deal with the ‘unconditional’ world (the world beyond objects, which is not fixed and frozen etc), and in order to ‘preserve our community with a wider realm of being’ (the noumenal) we need to ‘let drop the ego and its mode of consciousness.’ The development of moral consciousness is for Kant (as it was for Rousseau) the way to liberation. [We are free when we obey a law we have ourselves formulated, was Rousseau’s formula.] Obedience to the moral law grants us freedom from nature (the objective world – including our egos).


Nature (the conditional world) binds us to appetite, reactivity and craving – our inner self (part of the unconditional, and noumenal) searches for its own destiny; nature ties us into laws that bind us – and is heteronomous; the unconditional world gives us laws that bring freedom – that is, autonomy as “the property which will has of being a law to itself.”


Appelbaum says: When we experience a sense of ‘duty’ it is the ‘unconditional realm manifesting itself through our agency’. [I don’t like the sound of this!]


Kant argues that our action will be good if it is based on ‘duty.’


How do we arrive at this sense of duty?


Kant says: reason’s “true function must be to produce a will that is good, not as a means to some further end, but in itself.” (From The Moral Law).He argues that as soon as we stop to ask ourselves “what should I do?” we are presented with a need for the will to find guidance, some ‘laws’ to go by, and we are open to the categorical imperative – categorical meaning with no exceptions or provisos – imperative meaning that we are ordained by our being to obey (in Appelbaum’s words p 29). We need to find a goal that is for everyone (here I find echoes of Rousseau’s General Will), and is an end in itself.


As Russell puts it (p 682): all moral concepts originate in the reason, a priori – moral worth exists only when someone acts from a sense of dutynot from self-interest (as with a good and honest tradesman) nor merely from a benevolent impulse. These do not make someone virtuous. An act only has merit if it is done because the moral law enjoins it. [In my own words, this ‘duty’ is a ‘duty to try to be moral’ (not a duty owed to any one or any thing in particular, which is more how we use the word in everyday circumstances.]


The essence of morality is to be derived from the concept of law – everything in nature acts according to laws, but only a rational being has the capacity to act in accordance with a concept/idea of law i.e. by Will. Note, again, the specific meaning of ‘will’ – that is, not what we would mean in everyday usage.


An objective principle that is compelling to the will is called a command of the reason, and the formula of the command is an imperative.


A digression on some of the terms Kant uses, relating to his theory of knowledge:


- an imperative:

Following Russell (p 682): there are two sorts of imperative: hypothetical and categorical – hypothetical is ‘you must if you wish (to bring something about etc)’ – categorical is objectively necessary without regard to any end. 


- categorical imperative:

A categorical imperative must also be synthetic and a priori (it draws on experience but is not derived from experience, but known by reason – in my words…)


- a priori statements/propositions:

A priori statements are known to be true on the basis of something other than experience (e.g. that 2 + 2 = 4: experience can confirm an instance of the rule but not the rule – in my words…) Propositions we can only know through sense experience are ‘empirical’


On p. 679 Russell also distinguishes between synthetic and analytic statements: the latter have the predicate as part of the subject e.g. a tall man is a man – and to deny the truth of such a statement would be self-contradictory; all other statements are synthetic, including all the things we know through experience. Kant does not believe that all synthetic statements are derived from experience – thus breaking with all previous thinkers. The categorical imperative can thus be both synthetic and a priori. 


Returning to Kant’s ethics:


The first universal principle/categorical imperative:


“If I think of a categorical imperative, I know at once what it contains. For the imperative contains, besides the Law, only the necessity of the maxim to be in accordance with this Law, but the Law contains no condition by which it is limited, nothing remains over but the generality of a law in general, to which the maxim of the action is to be conformable, and which conforming alone presents the imperative as necessary. Therefore the categorical imperative is a single one, and in fact this: ‘Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law (universal)’. (Critique of Practical Reason)


Other translations have: “So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law.”) Or: ‘Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law.’


So, e.g. not returning money that you have borrowed (not, as Russell puts it: borrowing money!!!) is wrong because if we all did it there would be no trust in the world (not, pace Russell ‘because there would be none left to borrow’!). Theft, murder etc, also, obviously if practised universally would lead to chaos and destruction. Or (from website below) breaking promises (even when it is in our interest to do so) – would lead to promises generally being unbelievable…


But see Appelbaum p 31: the danger of universalisation is that it becomes mechanical – rather it should leave a space for an enlarged awareness, the ego having been put aside.


But Russell asks: is this just a necessary and not a sufficient criterion of virtue? If someone wants to commit suicide – and wishes that everyone would as well, this seems like a categorical imperative to the would-be suicide. So to be sufficient (argues Russell) we need to take into account effects.


The second universal principle:


“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” (The Moral Law – Appelbaum p 32)


Russell says that this principle does not seem to be entailed by the first, and that it is an abstract form of the doctrine of human rights, and open to the same objections – what to do when interests conflict (as they so often do in politics)? To solve this, some people’s interests might have to be sacrificed for others, e.g. for the majority.


The principle could be made stronger, says Russell, by understanding it to mean not that each is an absolute end, but that everyone counts equally when considering policies which affect them – i.e. an argument for democracy.


On the other hand, Appelbaum stresses that if we are to develop fully as human beings, then respect for others – and the recognition of their rights to full development – is unavoidable.





6. What is Enlightenment?


In 1784 Kant wrote an essay: What is Enlightenment – this helped to spread the epithet ‘age of enlightenment’, especially with the words: ‘we do not live in an enlightened age, but an age of enlightenment’.


(However, Himmelfarb p 11 points out that the origins of term ‘enlightenment’ are earlier than Kant: the term ‘Siecle des lumieres” was used in 1733 by the abbé Dubos; Rousseau used the same expression in 1750 in his First Discourse; and d’Alembert 1751 used it in the Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedie.)


Text is at:


Outram (p 2) argues that Kant’s essay gives several definitions of ‘enlightenment’ (I’m not sure I see this!) and some contemporaries saw it as satire on the use of the word at the time.


Most importantly, however, Kant saw the dangers of unlimited questioning, which could cause chaos in the social order. Hence his view that in their ‘private’ lives (i.e. their social roles and posts such as soldier or curate) men should not question the ideas given them by their superiors. For Kant, enlightenment was a ‘process’ not a ‘project.’


Outram also says (p 32) that: Kant’s approach (a restricted sphere for ‘critique’) fits with those (e.g. Reinhard Koselleck: Critique and Crisis) who saw the enlightenment as a step on way to monarchs restoring ordered government by encouraging religious toleration.  See next weeks for discussion of ‘enlightened despotism’…


Porter (p 39) makes the point that Kant believed that to deny people their civil rights would be to treat them as children.


There is also a discussion of this essay by the 20th century philosopher Foucault at: where Foucault argues that the ‘enlightenment’ represents an attitude rather than a period in time, that its task (autonomy) has not yet been completed, but that Kant was (perhaps?) the first to interrogate his own and his time’s stage of knowledge.



7. Kant and politics:


It is worth noting Kant’s contribution to ideas on war and peace: in his work Perpetual Peace 1795 he argues for a federation of free states bound together by a treaty forbidding war, - constitutions of the component states should be ‘republican’ which for him means separate executive and legislature – and accepts that is easiest to get the best government under a monarchy. NB he wrote under the impact of the reign of terror, so was suspicious of democracy – if the ‘whole people’ are really sovereign then this is a despotism! So what is really being said is majority rule. (Russell p 684)


Russell adds, understating the situation somewhat: “Since 1933, this treatise has caused Kant to fall into disfavour in his own country.”





Appelbaum, David: The Vision of Kant, Element Books, 1995

Berki, R.N., The history of political Thought, Dent, 1977

Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, Unwin, first published 1946.