human dignity. However, the ability to act on the basis of “universal” principles is concerned with the “archaeology” of moral principles above and prior to all particular circumstances, which is an approach to moral laws that affirms the individual’s personal control over her/his ethical life. I alone can give myself “permission” to do something. No one else can determine for me what moral law I should invoke.
No one can be forced to embrace a moral law because a moral law can only be self-legislated. The rules that govern technical skills and clever behavior1 are “particular” rules in light of merely personal self-interest. Furthermore, the rules that govern the “successful negotiation” of a social world (e.g., a particular culture, civic laws, corporate ethical climate, etc.) are “particular” rules tied to a particular, social world. A good example that illustrates the danger of confusing particular, social rules for universal, moral laws are the two formulations of the so-called “Ten Commandments” in the First Testament (Exodus 20 and 34): the former is a set of social rules that were needed to successfully negotiate a “nomadic culture;” whereas the latter is a set of social rules that were needed to successfully negotiate a “sedentary culture” with private property and domestic animals. However, both systems of social rules require that their citizenry be “moral,” that is, that they seek to live according to universal, moral laws, not slavish adherence to particular technical skills or social conventions.
One can do everything properly according to a given set of technical standards or social rules and still be immoral. Every Mafia Clan and Drug Cartel would be able to insist that it is “moral” because of its adherence to the particular, corporate rules that it embraces for governing its behavior if morality was merely a social construct to enable the successful negotiation of a social world. However, universal, moral laws are broad, and they include, for example, that one should not lie, one should not break one’s promises, one should not exploit the ignorance of others to one’s personal advantage, one should develop one’s talents, one should respond to the suffering of others, etc. These “broad” moral principles do not constitute a denial of “sensuousness” or “moral tyranny2 ” of hypothetical imperatives3 that are to be taken to govern the “correctness” or “incorrectness” every detail of one’s life. Above all, the moral law requires the affirmation of the dignity of all “rational” beings because only rational beings possess the capacity of
- See the Critique of Judgment AA V: 431-432.
- Kant rejects the charge that morality is a form of tyranny in the Metaphysics of Morals AA VI: 409. Kant also rejects the claim that morality involves suppression of the “flesh.” The “flesh” (included in “animality”) is affirmed as the most fundamental, material basis of any and all experience (see Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone AA VI, 26-27). The criterion for sexuality is found in the second form of the categorial imperatives that is anchored in the recognition of human dignity: “So act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of the other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” (Groundwork AA IV: 429) Furthermore, our “animality” is necessarily presupposed for the two “higher” capacities (Anlagen) achievable by a rational being: “humanity” as status and prestige in the eyes of others and “personality” as respect for the moral law as sufficient incentive for governing one’s moral responsibility (see ibid., AA VI, 27-28). In short, Kant denies that morality requires the denial of “sensuousness.” See the Metaphysics of Morals, AA VI, 408 but also 384, 390, 394, and 405. Kant also rejects “ethical asceticism.” See „Ethical Ascetics §53” of The Doctrine of Virtue in the Metaphysics of Morals AA VI, 484-485: “[…] monkish ascetics, which from superstitious fear or hypocritical loathing of oneself goes to work with self-torture and mortification of the flesh, is not directed to virtue but rather to fantastically purging oneself of sin by imposing punishments on oneself […] [I]t cannot produce the cheerfulness that accompanies virtue, but rather brings with it secret hatred for virtue’s command.” (Ibid., 485)
- On the crucial different between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, see Kant’s Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals AA IV: 413-415. The former are imperatives that govern particular “skills” (either technical or pragmatic) whereas the latter are moral imperatives that are universal.