Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/The Ethics of Kant

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IF, before Kant uttered that often-quoted saying in which, with the stars of Heaven he coupled the conscience of Man, as being the two things that excited his awe, he had known more of Man than he did, he would probably have expressed himself somewhat otherwise. Not, indeed, that the conscience of Man is not wonderful enough, whatever be its supposed genesis; but the wonderfulness of it is of a different kind according as we assume it to have been supernaturally given or infer that it has been naturally evolved. The knowledge of Man in that large sense which Anthropology expresses, had made, in Kant's day, but small advances. The books of travel were relatively few, and the facts which they contained concerning the human mind as existing in different races, had not been gathered together and generalized. In our days, the conscience of Man as inductively known has none of that universality of presence and unity of nature which Kant's saying tacitly assumes. Sir John Lubbock writes:

"In fact, I believe that the lower races of men may be said to be deficient in the idea of right. . . . That there should be any races of men so deficient in moral feeling, was altogether opposed to the preconceived ideas with which I commenced the study of savage life, and I have arrived at the conviction by slow degrees, and even with reluctance." — Origin of Civilization, 1882, pp. 404, 405.

But now let us look at the evidence from which this impression is derived, as we find it in the testimonies of travelers and missionaries.

Praising his deceased son, Tui Thakau, a Fijian Chief, concluded "by speaking of his daring spirit and consummate cruelty, as he could kill his own wives if they offended him, and eat them afterwards."—Western Pacific. J. E. Erskine, p. 248.

"Shedding of blood is to him no crime, but a glory. . . to be somehow an acknowledged murderer is the object of the Fijian's restless ambition."—Fiji and the Fijians. Rev. T. Williams, i, p. 112.

"It is a melancholy fact that when they [the Zulu boys] have arrived at a very early age, should their mothers attempt to chastise them, such is the law, that these lads are at the moment allowed to kill their mothers."—Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa. G. Thompson, ii, p. 418.

"Murther, adultery, thievery, and all other such like crimes, are here [Gold Coast] accounted no sins."—Description of the Coast of Guinea. W. Busman, p. 130.

"The accusing conscience is unknown to him [the East African]. His only fear after committing a treacherous murder is that of being haunted by the angry ghost of the dead."—Lake Regions of Central Africa. R. F. Burton, ii, p. 336.

"I never could make them [East Africans] understand the existence of good principle."—The Albert N'yanza. S. W. Bakes, i, p. 241.

"The Damaras kill useless and worn-out people: even sons smother their sick fathers."—Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa. F. Galton, p. 112.

The Damaras "seem to have no perceptible notion of right and wrong."—Ibid., p. 72.

Against these we may set some converse facts. At the other extreme we have a few Eastern tribes—pagans they are called—who practice the virtues which Western nations—Christians they are called—do but teach. While Europeans thirst for blood revenge in much the same way as the lowest savages, there are some simple peoples of the Indian Hills, as the Lepchas, who "are singularly forgiving of injuries;"[1] and Campbell exemplifies "the effect of a very strong sense of duty[2] on one of these savages." That character which the creed of Christendom is supposed to foster, is exhibited in high degree by the Arafuras (Papuans) who live in "peace and brotherly love with one another"[3] to such extent that government is but nominal. And concerning various of the Indian Hill-tribes, as the Santáls, Sowrahs, Marias, Lepchas, Bodo and Dhimáls, different observers testify of them severally that "they were the most truthful set of men I ever met,"[4] "crime and criminal officers are almost unknown,"[5] "a pleasing feature in their character is their complete truthfulness,"[6] "they bear a singular character for truthfulness and honesty"[7] they are "wonderfully honest"[8] "honest and truthful in deed and word."[9] Irrespective of race, we find these traits in men who are, and have long been, absolutely peaceful (the uniform antecedent); be they the Jakuns of the South Malayan Peninsula, who "are never known to steal anything, not even the most insignificant trifle"[10] or be it in the Hos of the Himalaya, among whom "a reflection on a man's honesty or veracity may be sufficient to send him to self-destruction."[11] So that in respect of conscience these uncivilized people are superior to average Europeans, as average Europeans are superior to the brutal savages previously described.

Had Kant had these and kindred facts before him, his conception of the human mind, and consequently his ethical conception, would scarcely have been what they were. Believing, as he did, that one object of his awe—the stellar Universe—has been evolved, he might by evidence like the foregoing have been led to suspect that the other object of his awe—the human conscience—has been evolved; and has consequently a real nature unlike its apparent nature.


For the disciples of Kant living in our day, there can be made no such defense as that which may be made for their master. On all sides of them lie classes of facts of various kinds, which might suffice to make them hesitate, if nothing more. Here are a few such classes of facts.

Though, unlike the uncultured who suppose everything to be what it appears, chemists had, for many generations, known that multitudinous substances which seem simple are really compound, and often highly compound; yet, until the time of Sir Humphry Davy, even they had believed that certain substances which, besides seeming simple resisted all their powers of decomposition, were to be classed among the elements. Davy, however, by subjecting the alkalies to a force not before applied, proved that they are oxides of metals; and, suspecting the like to be the case with the earths, similarly proved the composite nature of these also. Not only the common sense of the uncultured but the common sense of the cultured was shown to be wrong. Wider knowledge has, as usual, led to greater modesty; and since Davy's day chemists have felt less certain that the so-called elements are elementary. Contrariwise, increasing evidence of sundry kinds leads them to suspect more and more strongly that they are all compound.

Alike to the laborer who digs it out and to the carpenter who uses it in his workshop, a piece of chalk appears a thing than which nothing can be simpler; and ninety-nine people out of a hundred would agree with them. Yet a piece of chalk is highly complex. A microscope shows it to consist of myriads of shells of Foraminifera; shows further that it contains more kinds than one; and shows further still that each minute shell, whole or broken, is formed of many chambers, every one of which once contained a living unit. Thus by ordinary inspection, however close, the true nature of chalk can not be known; and to one who has absolute confidence in his eyes the assertion of its true nature appears absurd.

Take again a living body of a seemingly uncomplicated kind—say a potato. Cut it through and observe how structureless its substance. But though unaided vision gives this verdict, aided vision gives a widely different one. Aided vision discovers, in the first place, that the mass is everywhere permeated by vessels of complex formation. Further, that it is made up of innumerable units called cells, each of which has walls composed of several layers. Further still, that each cell contains a number of starch grains. And yet still further, that each of these grains is formed of layer within layer, like the coats of an onion. So that where there seems perfect simplicity there is really complexity within complexity.

From these examples which the objective world furnishes, let us turn to some examples furnished by the subjective world—some of our states of consciousness. Up to modern times any one who, looking out on the snow, was told that the impression of whiteness it gave him was composed of impressions such as those given by the rainbow, would have regarded his informant as a lunatic; as would even now the great mass of mankind. But since Newton's day, it has become well known to a relatively small number that this is literal fact. Not only may white light be resolved by a prism into a number of brilliant colors, but by an appropriate arrangement these colors can be re-combined into white light. Those who habitually suppose that things are what they seem, are wrong here as in multitudinous other cases.

Another example is supplied by the sensation of sound. A solitary note struck on the piano, or a blast from a horn, yields through the ear a feeling which appears homogeneous; and the uninstructed are incredulous if told that it is an intricate combination of noises. In the first place, that which constitutes the more voluminous part of the tone is accompanied by a number of over-tones, producing what is known as its timbre: instead of one note, there are half a dozen notes, of which the chief has its character specialized by the others. In the second place, each of these notes, consisting objectively of a rapid series of aerial waves, produces subjectively a rapid series of impressions on the auditory nerve. Either by Savart's machine or by the siren, it is proved to demonstration that every musical sound is the product of successive units of sound, each in itself unmusical, which, as they succeed one another with increasing rapidity, produce a tone which progressively rises in pitch. Here again, then, under an apparent simplicity there is a double complexity.

Most of these examples of the illusiveness of unaided perception, whether exercised upon objective or subjective existences, were unknown to Kant. Had they been known to him they might have suggested other views concerning certain of our states of consciousness, and might have given a different character to his philosophy. Let us observe what would possibly have been the changes in two of his cardinal conceptions—metaphysical and ethical.


Our consciousness of Time and Space appeared to him, as they appear to every one, perfectly simple; and the apparent simplicity he accepted as actual simplicity. Had he suspected that, just as the seemingly homogeneous and undecomposable consciousness of Sound really consists of multitudinous units of consciousness, so might the apparently homogeneous and undecomposable consciousness of Space, he would possibly have been led to inquire whether the consciousness of Space is not wholly composed of infinitely numerous relations of position, such as those which every portion of it presents. And finding that every portion of Space, immense or minute, can not be either known or conceived save in some relative position to the conscious subject, and that, besides involving the relations of distance and direction, it invariably contains within itself relations of right and left, top and bottom, nearer and further; he might perhaps have concluded that our consciousness of that matrix of phenomena we call Space, has been built up in the course of Evolution by accumulated experiences registered in the nervous system. And had he concluded this, he would not have committed himself to the many absurdities which his doctrine involves.[12]

Similarly, if, instead of assuming that conscience is simple because it seems simple to careless introspection, he had entertained the hypothesis that it is perhaps complex—a consolidated product of multitudinous experiences received mainly by ancestors and added to by self—he might have arrived at a consistent system of Ethics. That the habitual association of pains with certain things and acts, generation after generation, may produce organic repugnance to such things and acts,[13] might, had it been known to him, have made him suspect that conscience is a product of Evolution. And in that case his conception of it would not have been incongruous with the facts above named, showing that there are widely different degrees of conscience in different races.

In brief, as already implied, had Kant, instead of his incongruous beliefs that the celestial bodies have had an evolutionary origin, but that the minds of living beings on them, or at least on one of them, have had a non-evolutionary origin, entertained the belief that both have arisen by Evolution, he would have been saved from the impossibilities of his Metaphysics, and the untenabilities of his Ethics. To the consideration of these last, let us now pass.


Before doing this, however, something must be said concerning abnormal reasoning as compared with normal reasoning.

Knowledge which is of the highest order in respect of certainty, and which we call exact science, is distinguished from other knowledge by its definitely quantitative previsions.[14] It sets out with data, and proceeds by steps, which, taken together, enable it to say under what specified conditions a specified relation of phenomena will be found; and to say in what place, or at what time, or in what quantity, or all of them, a certain effect will be witnessed. Given the factors of any arithmetical operation, and there is absolute certainty in the result reached, supposing there are no stumblings: stumblings which always admit of detection and disproof by the method which we shall presently find is pursued. Base and angles having been accurately measured, geometry yields with certainty the distance or the height of the object of which the position is sought. The ratio of the arms of a lever having been stated, mechanics tells us what weight at one end will balance an assigned weight at the other. And by the aid of these three exact sciences, the Calculus, Geometry, and Mechanics, Astronomy can predict to the minute, for each separate place on the Earth, when an eclipse will begin and end, and how near it will approach to totality. Knowledge of this order has infinite justifications in the successful guidance of infinitely numerous human actions. The accounts of every trader, the operations of every workshop, the navigation of every vessel, depend for their trustworthiness on these sciences. The method they pursue, therefore, verified in cases which pass all human power to enumerate, is a method not to be transcended in certainty.

What is this method? Whichever of these sciences we examine, we find the course uniformly pursued to be that of setting out with propositions of which the negations are inconceivable, and advancing by successive dependent propositions, each of which has the like character—that its negation is inconceivable. In a developed consciousness (and of course I exclude minds of which the faculties are unformed) it is impossible to represent things that are equal to the same thing as being themselves unequal; and in a developed consciousness, action and re-action can not be thought of as other than equal. In like manner, every because, and every therefore, used in a mathematical argument, connotes a proposition of which the terms are absolutely coherent in the mode alleged: the proof being that an attempt to bring together in consciousness the terms of the opposite proposition is futile. And this method of testing, alike the fundamental propositions and all members of the fabric of propositions raised upon them, is consistently pursued in verifying the conclusion. Inference and observation are compared; and when they agree, it is inconceivable that the inference is other than true.

In contrast to the method which I have just described, distinguishable as the legitimate a priori method, there is one which may be called—I was about to say, the illegitimate a priori method; but the word is not strong enough: it must be called the inverted a priori method. Instead of setting out with a proposition of which the negation is inconceivable, it sets out with a proposition of which the affirmation is inconceivable, and therefrom proceeds to draw conclusions. It is not consistent, however: it does not continue to do that which it does at first. Having posited an inconceivable proposition to begin with, it does not frame its argument out of a series of inconceivable propositions. All steps after the first are of the kind ordinarily accepted as valid. The successive therefores and becauses have the usual connotations. The peculiarity lies in this, that in every proposition save the first, the reader is expected to admit the logical necessity of an inference drawn, for the reason that the opposite is not thinkable; but he is not supposed to expect a like conformity to logical necessity in the primary proposition. The dictum of a logical consciousness which must be recognized as valid in every subsequent step, must be ignored in the first step. We pass now to an illustration of this method which here concerns us.


The first sentence in Kant's first chapter runs thus: "Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a Good Will." And then on the next page we come upon the following definition:

"A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, nor by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition, that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations."

Most fallacies result from the habit of using words without fully rendering them into thoughts—passing them by with recognitions of their meanings as ordinarily used, without stopping to consider whether these meanings admit of being given to them in the cases named. Let us not rest satisfied with thinking vaguely of what is understood by "a Good Will" but let us interpret the words definitely. Will implies the consciousness of some end to be achieved. Exclude from it every idea of purpose, and the conception of Will disappears. An end of some kind being necessarily implied by the conception of Will, the quality of the Will is determined by the quality of the end contemplated. Will itself, considered apart from any distinguishing epithet, is not cognizable by Morality at all. It becomes cognizable by Morality only when it gains its character as good or bad by virtue of its contemplated end as good or bad. If any one doubts this, let him try whether he can think of a good will which contemplates a bad end. The whole question, therefore, centers in the meaning of the word good. Let us look at the meanings habitually given to it.

We speak of good meat, good bread, good wine; by which phrases we mean either things that are palatable, and so give pleasure, or things that are wholesome, and by conducing to health conduce to pleasure. A good fire, good clothing, a good house, we so name because they minister either to comfort, which means pleasure, or gratify the æsthetic sentiment, which also means pleasure. So it is with things which more indirectly further welfare, as good tools or good roads. When we speak of a good workman, a good teacher, a good doctor, it is the same: efficiency in aiding others' well-being is what we indirectly mean. Yet again, good government, good institutions, good laws, connote benefits yielded to the society in which they exist: benefits being equivalent to certain kinds of happiness, positive or negative. But Kant tells us that a good will is one that is good in and for itself without reference to ends. We are not to think of it as prompting acts which will profit the man himself, either by conducing to his health, advancing his culture, or improving his inclinations; for all these are in the long run conducive to happiness, and are urged only for the reason that they do this. We are not to think of a will as good because, by fulfillment of it, friends are saved from sufferings or have their gratifications increased; for this would involve calling it good because of beneficial ends in view. Nor must conduciveness to social ameliorations, present or future, be taken into account when we attempt to conceive a good will. In short we are to frame our idea of a good will without any material out of which to frame the idea of good: good is to be used in thought as an eviscerated term.

Here, then, we have illustrated what I have called above the inverted a priori method of philosophizing: the setting out with an inconceivable proposition. The Kantian Metaphysics starts by asserting that Space is "nothing but" a form of intuition—pertains wholly to the subject and not at all to the object. This is a verbally intelligible proposition but one of which the terms can not be put together in consciousness; for neither Kant, nor any one else, has ever succeeded in bringing into unity of representation the thought of Space and the thought of Self, as being the one an attribute of the other. And here we see that, just in the same way, the Kantian Ethics begins by positing something which seems to have a meaning but which has really no meaning—something which, under the conditions imposed, can not be rendered into thought at all. For neither he, nor any one else, ever has or ever can, frame a consciousness of a good will when from the word good are expelled all thoughts of those ends which we distinguish by the word good.


Evidently Kant himself sees that his assumption invites attack, for he proceeds to defend it. He says:

"There is, however, something so strange in this idea of the absolute value of the mere will, in which no account is taken of its utility, that notwithstanding the thorough assent of even common reason to the idea, [!] yet a suspicion must arise that it may perhaps really be the product of high-flown fancy, &c." (p. 13).

And then to prepare for a justification, he goes on to say:

"In the physical constitution of an organized being we assume it as a fundamental principle that no organ for any purpose will be found in it but what is also the fittest and best adapted for that purpose " (pp. 13-14).

Now, even had this assumption been valid, the argument based upon it, far-fetched as it is, might be considered of very inadequate strength to warrant the supposition that there can be a will conceived as good without any reference to good ends. But, unfortunately for Kant, the assumption is utterly invalid. In his day, it probably passed without question; but in our day, few if any biologists would admit it. On the special-creation hypothesis some defense of the proposition might be attempted, but the evolution hypothesis tacitly negatives it entirely. Let us begin with some minor facts which militate against Kant's supposition. Take first rudimentary organs. These are numerous throughout the animal kingdom. While representing organs which were of use in ancestral types, they are of no use in the types possessing them; and as being rudimentary they are of necessity imperfect. Moreover besides being injurious as taxing nutrition to no purpose, they are almost certainly in some cases injurious by being in the way. Then, beyond the argument from rudimentary organs, there is the argument from make-shift organs, which form a large class. We have a conspicuous case in the swimming organ of the seal, formed by the apposition of the two hind limbs—an organ manifestly inferior to one specially shaped for its function, and one which during early stages of the changes which have produced it must have been inefficient. But the untruth of the assumption is best shown by comparing a given organ in a low type of creature with the same organ in a high type. The alimentary canal, for example, in very inferior creatures is a simple tube, substantially alike from end to end, and having throughout all its parts the same function. But in a superior creature this tube is differentiated into œsophagus, stomach (or stomachs), small and large intestines with their various appended glands pouring in secretions. Now if this last form of alimentary canal is to be regarded as a perfect organ, or something like it, what shall we say of the original form; and what shall we say of all those forms lying between the two? The vascular system, again, furnishes a clear instance. The primitive heart is nothing but a dilatation of the great blood-vessel—a pulsatile sac. But a mammal has a four-chambered heart with valves, by the aid of which the blood is propelled through the lungs for aëration, and throughout the system at large for general purposes. If this four-chambered heart is a perfect organ, what is the primitive heart, and what are the hearts possessed by all the multitudinous creatures below the higher vertebrata? Manifestly the process of evolution implies a continual replacing of creatures having inferior organs, by creatures having superior organs; leaving such of the inferior as can survive to occupy inferior spheres of life. This is not only so throughout the whole animal creation up to Man himself, but it is so within the limits of the human race. Both the brains and the lower limbs of various inferior races are ineffective organs, compared with those of superior races. Nay, even in the highest type of Man we have obvious imperfections. The structure of the groin is imperfect: the frequent ruptures which result from it would have been prevented by closure of the inguinal rings during foetal life after they had performed their office. That all-important organ the vertebral column, too, is as yet but incompletely adapted to the upright posture. Only while the vigor is considerable can there be maintained, without appreciable effort, those muscular contractions which produce the sigmoid flexure, and bring the lumbar portion into such a position that the "line of direction" falls within it. In young children, in boys and girls who are admonished to "sit up" in weakly people, and in the old, the spine lapses into that convex form characteristic of lower Primates. It is the same with the balancing of the head. Only by a muscular strain to which habit makes us insensible, as it does to the exposure of the face to cold, is the head maintained in position: immediately certain cervical muscles are relaxed, the head falls forward; and where there is great debility the chin rests permanently on the chest.

So far, indeed, is the assumption of Kant from being true, that the very reverse is probably true. After contemplating the countless examples of imperfections exhibited in low types of creatures, and decreasing with the ascent to high types, but still exemplified in the highest, any one who concludes, as he may reasonably do, that Evolution has not yet reached its limit, may infer that most likely no such thing as a perfect organ exists. Thus the basis of the argument by which Kant attempts to justify his assumption that there exists a good will apart from a good end, disappears utterly, and leaves his dogma in all its naked unthinkableness.


One of the propositions contained in Kant's first chapter is that "we find that the more a cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the enjoyment of life and happiness, so much the more does the man fail of true satisfaction." A preliminary remark to be made on this statement is that in its sweeping form it is not true. I assert that it is untrue on the strength of personal experiences. In the course of my life there have occurred many intervals, averaging a month each, in which the pursuit of happiness was the sole object, and in which happiness was successfully pursued. How successfully may be judged from the fact that I would gladly live over again each of those periods without change, an assertion which I certainly can not make of any portions of my life spent in the daily discharge of duties. That which Kant should have said is that the exclusive pursuit of what are distinguished as pleasures and amusements is disappointing. This is doubtless true; and for the obvious reason that it over exercises one group of faculties, and exhausts them, while it leaves unexercised another group of faculties, which consequently do not yield the gratifications accompanying their exercise. It is not, as Kant says, guidance by "a cultivated reason" which leads to disappointment, but guidance by an uncultivated reason; for a cultivated reason teaches that continuous action of a small part of the nature, joined with inaction of the rest, must end in dissatisfaction.

But now, supposing we accept Kant's statement in full, what is its implication? That happiness is the thing to be desired, and, in one way or another, the thing to be achieved. For if not, what meaning is there in the statement that it will not be achieved when made the immediate object? One who was thus admonished might properly rejoin: "You say I shall not get happiness if I make it the object of pursuit? Suppose then I do not make it the object of my pursuit; shall I get it? If I do, then your admonition amounts to this, that I shall obtain it better if I proceed in some other way than that I adopt. If I do not get it, then I remain without happiness if I follow your way, just as much as if I follow my own, and nothing is gained." An illustration will best show how the matter stands. To a tyro in archery the instructor says: "Sir, you must not point your arrow directly at the target; if you do, you will inevitably miss it; you must aim high above the target, and you may then possibly pierce the bull's eye." What now is implied by the warning and the advice? Clearly that the purpose is to hit the target. Otherwise there is no sense in the remark that it will be missed if directly aimed at; and no sense in the remark that to be hit, something higher must be aimed at. Similarly with happiness. There is no sense in the remark that happiness will not be found if it is directly sought, unless happiness is a thing to be somehow or other obtained.

"Yes; there is sense," I hear it said. "Just as it may be that the target is not the thing to be hit at all, either by aiming directly or indirectly at it, but that some other thing is to be hit; so it may be that the thing to be achieved immediately or remotely is not happiness at all, but some other thing: the other thing being duty." In answer to this the admonished man may reasonably say: "What then is meant by Kant's statement that the man who pursues happiness ' fails of true satisfaction '? All happiness is made up of satisfactions. The 'true satisfaction' which Kant offers as an alternative, must be some kind of happiness; and if a truer satisfaction, must be a greater or better happiness; and better must mean on the average, and in the long run, greater. If this ' true satisfaction ' does not mean greater happiness of self—distant if not proximate, in another life if not in this life—and if it does not mean greater happiness by achieving the happiness of others; then you propose to me as an end a smaller happiness instead of a greater, and I decline it."

So that in this professed repudiation of happiness as an end, there lies the inavoidable implication that it is the end.


This last consideration introduces us naturally to another of Kant's cardinal doctrines. That there may be no mistake in my representation of it, I must make a long quotation.

"I omit here all actions which are already recognized as inconsistent with duty, although they may be useful for this or that purpose, for with these the question whether they are done from duty can not arise at all, since they even conflict with it. I also set aside those actions which really conform to duty, but to which men have no direct inclination, performing them because they are impelled thereto by some other inclination. For in this case we can readily distinguish whether the action which agrees with duty is done from duty, or from a selfish view. It is much harder to make this distinction when the action accords with duty, and the subject has besides a direct inclination to it. For example, it is always a matter of duty that a dealer should not overcharge an inexperienced purchaser, and wherever there is much commerce the prudent tradesman does not overcharge, but keeps a fixed price for every one, so that a child buys of him as well as any other. Men are thus honestly served; but this is not enough to make us believe that the tradesman has so acted from duty and from principles of honesty: his own advantage required it; it is out of the question in this case to suppose that he might besides have a direct inclination in favor of the buyers, so that, as it were, from love he should give no advantage to one over another [!]. Accordingly the action was done neither from duty nor from direct inclination, but merely with a selfish view. On the other hand, it is a duty to maintain one's life; and, in addition, every one has also a direct inclination to do so. But on this account the often anxious care which most men take for it has no intrinsic worth, and their maxim has no moral import. They preserve their life as duty requires, no doubt, but not because duty requires. On the other hand, if adversity and hopeless sorrow have completely taken away the relish for life; if the unfortunate one, strong in mind, indignant at his fate rather than desponding or dejected, wishes for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it—not from inclination or fear, but from duty—then his maxim has a moral worth. "To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations" (pp. 17-19).

I have given this extract at length that there may he finally understood the remarkable doctrine it embodies—a doctrine especially remarkable as exemplified in the last sentence. Let us now consider all that it means.

Before doing this, however, I may remark that, space permitting, it might be shown clearly enough that the assumed distinction between sense of duty and inclination is untenable. The very expression sense of duty implies that the mental state signified is a feeling; and if a feeling it must, like other feelings, be gratified by acts of one kind and offended by acts of an opposite kind. If we take the name conscience, which is equivalent to sense of duty, we see the same thing. The common expressions "a tender conscience," "a seared conscience," indicate the perception that conscience is a feeling—a feeling which has its satisfactions and dissatisfactions, and which inclines a man to acts which yield the one and avoid the other—produces an inclination. The truth, is that conscience, or the sense of duty, is an inclination of a high and complex kind as distinguished from inclinations of lower and simpler kinds.

But let us grant Kant's distinction in an unqualified form. Doing this, let us entertain, too, his proposition that acts of whatever kind done from inclination have no moral worth, and that the only acts having moral worth are those done from a sense of duty. To test this proposition let us follow an example he sets. As he would have the quality of an act judged by supposing it universalized, let us judge of moral worth as he conceives it by making a like supposition. That we may do this effectually let us suppose that it is exemplified not only by every man but by all the acts of every man. Unless Kant alleges that a man may be morally worthy in too high a degree, we must admit that the greater the number of his acts which have moral worth the better. Let us then contemplate him as doing nothing from inclination but everything from a sense of duty.

When he pays the laborer who has done a week's work for him, it is not because letting a man go without wages would be against his inclination, but solely because he sees it to be a duty to fulfill contracts. Such care as he takes of his aged mother is prompted not by tender feeling for her but by the consciousness of filial obligation. When he gives evidence on behalf of a man whom he knows to have been falsely charged, it is not that he would be hurt by seeing the man wrongly punished, but simply in pursuance of a moral intuition showing him that public duty requires him to testify. When he sees a little child in danger of being run over, and steps aside to snatch it away, he does so not because the impending death of the child pains him, but because he knows it is a duty to save life. And so throughout, in all his relations as husband, as friend, as citizen, he thinks always of what the law of right conduct directs, and does it because it is the law of right conduct, not because he satisfies his affections or his sympathies by doing it. This is not all however. Kant's doctrine commits him to something far beyond this. If those acts only have moral worth which are done from a sense of duty, we must not only say that the moral worth of a man is greater in proportion as the number of the acts so done is greater; but we must say that his moral worth is greater in proportion as the strength of his sense of duty is such that he does the right thing not only apart from inclination but against inclination. According to Kant, then, the most moral man is the man whose sense of duty is so strong that he refrains from picking a pocket though he is much tempted to do it; who says of another that which is true though he would like to injure him by a falsehood; who lends money to his brother though he would prefer to see him in distress; who fetches the doctor to his sick child. though death would remove what he feels to be a burden. What, now, shall we think of a world peopled with Kant's typically moral men—men who in the one case, while doing right by one another, do it with indifference and severally know one another to be so doing it, and men who, in the other case, do right by one another notwithstanding the promptings of evil passions to do otherwise, and who severally know themselves surrounded by others similarly prompted? Most people will, I think, say that even in the first case life would be hardly bearable, and that in the second case it would be absolutely intolerable. Had such been men's natures, Schopenhauer would indeed have had good reason for urging that the race should bring itself to an end as quickly as possible.

Contemplate now the doings of one whose acts according to Kant have no moral worth. He goes through his daily work not thinking of duty to wife and child, but having in his thought the pleasure of witnessing their welfare; and on reaching home he delights to see his little girl with rosy cheeks and laughing eyes eating heartily. When he hands back to a shopkeeper the shilling given in excess of right change, he does not stop to ask what the moral law requires: the thought of profiting by the man's mistake is intrinsically repugnant to him. One who is drowning he plunges in to rescue without any idea of duty, but because he can not contemplate without horror the death which threatens. If for a worthy man who is out of employment he takes much trouble to find a place, he does it because the consciousness of the man's difficulties is painful to him, and because he knows that he will benefit not only him but the employer who engages him; no moral maxim enters his mind. When he goes to see a sick friend the gentle tones of his voice and the kindly expression of his face show that he is come not from any sense of obligation but because pity and a desire to raise his friend's spirits have moved him. If he aids in some public measure which helps men to help themselves, it is not in pursuance of the admonition "Do as you would be done by," but because the distresses around make him unhappy and the thought of mitigating them gives him pleasure. And so throughout: he ever does the right thing not in obedience to any injunction, but because he loves the right thing in and for itself. And now who would not like to live in a world where every one was thus characterized?

What, then, shall we think of Kant's conception of moral worth, when, if it were displayed universally in men's acts the world would be intolerable, and when if these same acts were universally performed from inclination, the world would be delightful?


I had intended to criticise, with kindred results I think, three other cardinal points in Kant's doctrine; but am obliged to abandon the intention. A state of health such that the foregoing pages, commenced in the middle of March, I have been unable to complete till the first week in June, compels me now to desist.

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  1. Campbell in "Journal of the Ethnological Society," N. S., vol. i, 1869, p. 150.
  2. Ibid., p. 154.
  3. Dr. H. Kolff. "Voyages of the Dutch brig 'Dourga.' "Earl's translation, pp. 161. 163.
  4. W. W. Hunter."Annals of Rural Bengal," p. 248.
  5. Ibid., p. 217.
  6. Dr. J. Shortt. "Hillranges of Southern India," pt. iii, p. 38.
  7. Glasfind in "Selections from the Records of Government of India" (Foreign Department), No. xxxix, p. 41.
  8. Campbell in "Journal of the Ethnological Society," N. S., vol. i, 1869, p. 150.
  9. B. H. Hodgson in "Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal," xviii, p. 745.
  10. Rev. P. Favre in "Journal of the Indian Archipelago," ii, p. 266.
  11. Col. E. T. Dalton. "Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal," p. 206.
  12. See "Principles of Psychology," § 399.
  13. See "Principles of Psychology," § 189 (note) and § 520.
  14. See Essay on "Genesis of Science."