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Teaching Exercise 01: Kant's Groundwork in Three Charts

I'm returning to this long-unused space to write up a series of teaching exercises. Each of these exercises will be a way of posting up notes on some or another issue related to teaching philosophy--it's a way to have a writeup ready to send a friend or colleague, a way of organizing my thoughts, and--should anyone ever happen to stumble upon these posts--maybe even a way to stir up conversation with others.

This first exercise is a series of charts I've developed for teaching Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. I tend to think visually, and so a) drawing these diagrams helps me explain Kant; and b) these charts end up proving helpful for at least some students (I hope).

I've made charts useful for explaining the Preface and first two Sections; I see no reason to ever teach the Third Section in an undergraduate course (especially Intro to Ethics, which is where I typically end up teaching this text), so you won't find any charts for that one here.

Chart One:
Chart One: Preface
One of the major things Kant is doing in the Preface is to try and tell you exactly what his project is in the book you're about to read. In order to do this, he tells you exactly what he means by "a metaphysics of morals," and how it fits into the grand scheme of things. Imagine the box above represents all possible rational knowledge (and so "philosophy" and "science" can be used interchangeably in this preface to refer to the ways in which we study and generate such knowledge). Kant will make two distinctions here:

  1. "All rational knowledge is either material or formal"; and

  2. "We may call all philosophy empirical, so far as it is based on grounds of experience: on the other band, that which delivers its doctrines from a priori principles alone we may call pure philosophy."

Pure, formal philosophy is logic, while pure material philosophy ("restricted to definite objects of the understanding") is metaphysic. A "metaphysics of morals" is therefore the study of specific (definite, determinate) "objects of the understanding" (i.e. concepts) used in ethics--and these concepts are determined through a priori principles alone. In sum: a "metaphysics or morals" will determine the specific content of ethical concepts (e.g. "good"), and these concepts will be found in pure reason (Kant will stress again and again in this book that we cannot and should not try to determine the content of ethical concepts through experience).

Chart Two:
Chart Two: First Section
The First Section is organized around three propositions; the third is a "consequence of" the first two, and the point of the entire section. Kant's goal for this section is to lay out a philosophical definition of duty, as a concept that we can use to determine specific content of ethical concepts and judgments. The reason for this is that duty will show us not just what the good will wills, but also why. It is for this reason that Kant restricts himself to looking at instances when we do not want to do the right thing, but do it anyway. It is not--as many first-time students assume--that we cannot be good if we enjoy what we are doing; rather, it is that such cases are overdetermined. When what you want to do is also the right thing to do, of course that is what you will do. But we only really see what it means to be a good person (have a good will) when we do not want to do the right thing. (This is course is also the problem with the "morality pays" version of so-called Business Ethics; when doing the right thing is profitable, we don't need business ethics! The only time we really need ethics is when doing the right thing is not profitable.) This is why Kant says:
We will take the notion of duty, which includes that of a good will, although implying certain subjective restrictions and hindrances. These, however, far from concealing it, or rendering it unrecognizable, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth so much the brighter.
The "subjective restriction" here is just that we are omitting all cases where duty is followed but so is inclination. We can therefore come to see the difference between acting with duty and acting from duty. This will be especially important for understanding Kant's "philosophical definition" of duty:
Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law.
"Acting from respect," as Kant explains, is neither acting from fear of punishment, nor hope for reward--exactly the motives we screen out by restricting our focus here.

Chart Three:
Chart Three: Second Section
One of the distinctive features of Kant's account of human action is that he sees two "wellsprings of action" in the human agent: reason and desire. Reason is of course a universal structure that we participate in, while desire is a personal force, particular to me (my desires are always valid for me, but not for others). Hence, the laws we find in reason are universal laws, whereas desire is always a particular law (or laws--and of course two desires can contradict one another). If reason were able to directly determine our actions, we would be morally perfect--which is why Kant also says that obligations and imperatives don't apply to morally perfect beings; like natural laws, moral laws would simply be descriptions of how such a being does and will behave. Likewise, there are no imperatives or moral obligations for animals, because desire directly determines their behavior; as Christine Korsgaard puts it, "A lower animal's attention is fixed on the world. Its perceptions are its beliefs and its desires are its will." Humans, on the other hand, must chose; this capacity for choice is our will, and will--being "nothing other than practical reason"--applies the laws it gets from either reason or desire in order to derive an action. Reason tells me what I ought to do (because it is what is objectively valid for all rational beings), while desire tells me what I want to do (because it is subjectively valid for me). Reason thus "speaks" to the will in the form of imperatives (commands), and these imperatives will be objectively valid for all rational beings (categorical).

To go off on a little bit of a tangent--while also handwaving past several hours of classtime!--I find this last chart helpful for laying out Kant's understanding of human agency for two major reasons. The first is that I can keep coming back to it in order to explain various things happening in the Second Section (the Categorical Imperative; the discussion of autonomy; the function of the will, and the lawlike structure of human decision-making; etc.). The second is that it also very quickly lays out the central bone of contention between Kant and other thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, etc.: these "two wellsprings." These are, Kant thinks, competing authorities within the human agent, and it is here that we can (if we want) jump off into discussions about where other thinkers might fundamentally diverge from the Kantian story.

Obviously my goal in this post has not been to thoroughly explain Kant's Groundwork--but if you are familiar with the work, hopefully you will see how these charts lay out (simply and graphically) a couple of the major concepts and discussions. Let me know if you have any criticisms or feedback; I have been "tweaking" them a bit over the years as I teach this same text again and again.
Tags: kant, teaching exercises

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