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All of the English editions incorporate academy edition page numbering in
their margins, except for the KrV and Rel. When I cite the Rel, I give the
academy edition page number followed by that of the English edition.
Introduction: Derivation, Deduction, and the Supreme
Principle of Morality




i.1 No Modest Claim
If there is a supreme principle of morality, then it is the Categorical Imper-
ative. This claim, which lies at the core of Kant™s ethics, is nothing if not
ambitious. Establishing it would amount to proving that absolutely no prin-
ciple other than the Categorical Imperative “ no utilitarian principle, no
perfectionist principle, no principle along the lines of the Ten Command-
ments “ is a viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality. How
does Kant (or might he) try to prove this? Does he (or might he) succeed?
Questions of this sort are what this book is about. To answer them, we must
understand what Kant means by claiming that if there is a supreme principle
of morality, then it is the Categorical Imperative.


i.2 The Basic Concept of the Supreme Principle of Morality
To begin we need to know how Kant conceives of the supreme principle of
morality. According to (what I call) his basic concept, this principle would
possess four characteristics. It would be practical, absolutely necessary, bind-
ing on all rational agents, and would serve as the supreme norm for the
moral evaluation of action. I call this concept of the supreme principle of
morality basic because it emerges immediately in Kant™s critical writings in
ethics.1 Already in the Preface to the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
it is manifest that, in Kant™s view, the supreme principle must have these
features.
It belongs to Kant™s basic concept of the supreme principle of morality
that it constitute the supreme norm for the moral assessment of action. This
means several things. The principle would distinguish between morally per-
missible actions, that is, ones that conform with the principle, and morally
impermissible actions, that is, ones that con¬‚ict with the principle (see
GMS 390). It would also specify which actions are morally required. As
1
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
2

Kant suggests in the Groundwork Preface, the supreme principle of morality
would not only be the basis for appraising an action™s moral requiredness,
permissibility, or impermissibility, but also its moral goodness (GMS 390).
Whether an action is morally good depends on how it relates to this princi-
ple. In particular, to be morally good an action must both conform with and
be done “for the sake of ” the principle. Finally, as the supreme norm for
the moral assessment of action, the supreme principle of morality would be
such that all genuine duties would ultimately be derived from it (see GMS
421).2 The supreme principle would justify these duties™ status as such.
Kant says that the supreme principle of morality “must hold not only for
human beings but for all rational beings as such” (GMS 408; see also GMS
389, 425, 442; KpV 32, 36).3 The supreme principle of morality would have
an extremely wide scope: one that extended not only to all rational human
beings but to any other rational beings who might exist “ for example, God,
angels, and intelligent extraterrestrials. In Kant™s view, the supreme principle
of morality would have to possess what I call “wide universal validity.” It would
have to be binding on all rational agents, at all times and in all places. This
is the second feature that, according to Kant™s basic concept, the supreme
principle of morality would have to possess.
To say that the supreme principle of morality is binding on us (human
agents) is to imply that we have an obligation to act in accordance with it.
We ought to but, as a result of privileging inclinations over duty, might not
follow its dictates. The same could also be said for any nonhuman rational
agents who had characteristics, for example, natural cravings, on the basis
of which they might act contrary to the supreme principle. The supreme
principle™s being binding on these agents would imply that they had an
obligation to act in accordance with it. For all agents “affected by needs
and sensible motives,” the supreme principle of morality would count as
an “imperative” (KpV 32). It would set out a command that we genuinely
ought to obey, although we might not obey it (GMS 414). We can conceive
of beings, however, on whom the supreme principle would be binding but
regarding whom it would be incorrect to say that they had an obligation to
obey it. According to Kant, one can be obligated to do something only if
there is a possibility that he will fail to do it.4 Yet some beings, for example,
God, might be such that they cannot fail to obey the supreme principle of
morality. It would thus make no sense to say that they had an obligation to
obey it. For them, the supreme principle of morality would be a law but not
an imperative (GMS 414, 439; KpV 32).
A third feature the supreme principle of morality would have to possess
is that of being absolutely necessary (GMS 389). Kant™s description of this
feature answers the question of what it would mean for the supreme princi-
ple of morality to be binding on an agent. On every agent within its scope,
for Kant every rational agent, the principle would hold without exception
(GMS 408). For example, a human agent would always be obligated to act
Introduction 3

in accordance with the supreme principle, no matter what he wants to do.
For us, the supreme principle of morality would be an unconditional com-
mand. That we were obligated to perform the action it speci¬ed would not
be conditional on our having any particular set of desires.
Finally, it is worth making explicit that for Kant the supreme principle of
morality must be practical “ it must be a rule on account of which agents can
act. Kant implies this in the Groundwork Preface by specifying that morally
good actions involve an agent™s acting for the sake of the moral law, that
is, the supreme principle of morality (GMS 390). In the Critique of Practical
Reason, he de¬nes practical principles, of which the supreme principle of
morality would be one, as propositions that “contain a general determina-
tion of the will,” thereby suggesting that this principle would be something
on the basis of which an agent can set himself to do something (KpV 19“20).5
One might conceive of the supreme principle of morality as a purely theoret-
ical tool. For example, one might take it to be a rule that could be employed
(perhaps by a team of experts) to categorize something an agent has done in
terms of its rightness or wrongness, but which (perhaps due to its enormous
complexity) could not be used by the agent himself in deciding what to do.
This would be a very un-Kantian conception of the supreme principle of
morality. For Kant the supreme principle must be able to ¬gure directly in
an agent™s practical deliberations.
From the very outset of his ¬rst great work in ethics, Kant operates with a
certain basic concept of the supreme principle of morality. It is evident from
the Preface of the Groundwork that he thinks of this principle as practical,
absolutely necessary, binding on all rational agents, and the supreme norm
for the moral evaluation of action.
Three remarks are in order regarding Kant™s basic concept of the supreme
principle of morality. First, as we will see, there is more to Kant™s concept
of the supreme principle of morality than is captured in this basic concept.
There are more features that, in Kant™s view, the supreme principle would
have to possess. It would, for example, have to be such that a proponent
of its being the supreme principle of morality could coherently claim that
obeying it “from duty” would have moral worth. The second point concerns
the provenance of the four features that belong to (what I call) Kant™s basic
concept. Kant, I think, would claim that if we “ that is, beings who possess
“common rational moral cognition” “ re¬‚ect a bit on what the supreme
principle of morality would be like, we ¬nd that it would have to possess these
four features.6 Kant makes it clear that, according to him, commonsense
morality is committed to the view that absolute necessity and wide universal
validity must be features of the supreme principle of morality. Implicit in
“the common idea of duty and of moral laws,” says Kant, is that “a law, if it
is to hold morally, that is, as a ground of an obligation, must carry with it
absolute necessity; that, for example, the command ˜thou shalt not lie™ does
not hold only for human beings, as if other rational beings did not have to
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
4

heed it, and so with all other moral laws properly so called” (GMS 389).7
The third remark regarding Kant™s basic concept of the supreme principle
of morality concerns its role in this book. We will be probing arguments for
the claim that if there is a supreme principle of morality, corresponding to
Kant™s basic concept of such a principle, then it is the Categorical Imperative.
For purposes of this book, Kant™s basic concept of the supreme principle of
morality is assumed. As readers will quickly see, assuming this concept does
not at all render it trivial or easy to establish that the Categorical Imperative
is the only viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality.


i.3 Derivation and Deduction of the Categorical Imperative
To re¬ne further our understanding of what Kant means by claiming that
if there is a supreme principle of morality, then it is the Categorical Imper-
ative, we need to place the claim into the context of the work in which it
initially arises, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant divides the
Groundwork into a Preface and three sections. In the Preface, he says: “[T]he
present Groundwork is . . . nothing more than the search for and establish-
ment of the supreme principle of morality” (GMS 392). In Groundwork I and II,
Kant searches for the supreme principle of morality in the sense that he
tries to discover what this principle would be, assuming there is such a prin-
ciple. Kant presents the Categorical Imperative by name for the ¬rst time in
Groundwork II: “[A]ct only on that maxim through which you can at the same
time will that it become a universal law” (GMS 421, Kant™s emphasis omit-
ted). Right after he presents this principle, he says: “Now, if all imperatives
of duty can be derived from this single imperative as from their principle,
then, even though we leave it undecided whether what is called duty is not as such
an empty concept, we shall at least be able to show what we think by it and
what the concept wants to say” (GMS 421, emphasis added). Throughout
Groundwork II, Kant reminds us that he is there offering no proof that the
Categorical Imperative is absolutely necessary and universally binding, and
thus no proof that genuine moral duties derive from it (see GMS 425, 431).
At the end of Groundwork II, Kant tells us what, in his view, he has demon-
strated to that point: “[W]hoever holds morality to be something and not a
chimerical idea without any truth must also admit the principle of morality
brought forward” (GMS 445). The “principle of morality brought forward”
is, of course, the Categorical Imperative. So by the end of Groundwork II,
Kant takes himself to have completed his search for the supreme principle
of morality by showing that if there is a supreme principle of morality, then
it is the Categorical Imperative.
Let us call an argument aimed at proving that if there is a supreme prin-
ciple of morality, then it is some particular principle, a “derivation” of this
principle.8 As we will see, Kant carries out a derivation of the Categorical
Imperative not only in the Groundwork but in the Critique of Practical Reason
Introduction 5

as well. He offers several arguments for the conclusion: if there is a supreme
principle of morality, then it is the Categorical Imperative.
A successful derivation would prove this conditional conclusion. It would
complete Kant™s search for the supreme principle of morality (or, more pre-
cisely, his search for what would be this principle, if anything is). But, as we
have seen, in the Preface Kant says that the Groundwork does more: it estab-
lishes the supreme principle of morality (GMS 392). In Groundwork III, Kant
tries to close a possibility left open by Groundwork I“II: the possibility that
duty is an empty concept, that is, that we actually have no (moral) duties.
He aspires to prove that the Categorical Imperative is valid: absolutely nec-
essary and binding on all rational agents (GMS 461).9 Kant suggests in the
Groundwork as well as later in the Critique of Practical Reason that proving this
would amount to giving a “deduction” of the supreme principle of morality
(see GMS 454, 463; KpV 47, 48). Kant™s usage of the term “deduction” in the
Critique of Pure Reason signals that to carry out a deduction of the Categorical
Imperative would be to show that we have a right, that is, suf¬cient justi¬ca-
tion, for considering it to be valid (KrVA 84“85/B 116“117). By the end of
Groundwork II, Kant takes himself to have shown that those of us who believe
there to be a supreme principle must embrace the Categorical Imperative
as this principle. Yet that we who believe that there is such a principle must
embrace the Categorical Imperative does not entail that it is actually binding
on us “ that we actually have the duties this imperative speci¬es. Our belief
in morality might be mistaken. A successful derivation of the Categorical
Imperative would not eliminate the possibility that morality is a “chimerical
idea.”
The aim of producing an effective derivation of the Categorical Imper-
ative seems less aspiring than that of giving a deduction of it. A derivation
that worked would show us what the supreme principle of morality would
be, if there was one, but, unlike a deduction, it would not show us that any
given principle was actually binding on us. By giving a deduction of the Cat-
egorical Imperative, Kant would answer two different opponents. First, he
would answer a moral skeptic, someone who holds that we are not obligated
to do anything at all. For he would establish that we are obligated to act only
on maxims that we can, at the same time, will to be universal laws. Second, if
Kant provided a deduction of the Categorical Imperative, he would answer
a “moral particularist,” namely someone who believes in the reality of moral
distinctions “ for example, that there are right actions and wrong ones “ but
who denies that there are any moral principles binding on all rational agents
or even all human agents.10 For Kant would demonstrate that the Categori-
cal Imperative is just such a principle. By giving a successful derivation of the
Categorical Imperative, Kant would refute neither the moral skeptic nor the
moral particularist. Both opponents would remain free to agree with Kant
that if there were a supreme principle of morality, then it would have to be
the Categorical Imperative, yet to deny that there is any such principle.11
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
6

It would be remiss not to mention that by the end of Groundwork II Kant
takes himself to accomplish more than a derivation of the Categorical Im-
perative. In addition to demonstrating that if there is a supreme principle of
morality, then it is the Categorical Imperative, he also thinks he proves a
stronger claim: if morality tout court is not an illusion, then it has a supreme
principle, namely the Categorical Imperative: “[W]hoever holds morality to
be something and not a chimerical idea without any truth must also admit
the principle of morality brought forward” (GMS 445, emphasis added). So,
in effect, Kant implies that by the end of Section II, we have a response to
moral particularism. Moral particularism entails moral skepticism, suggests
Kant; morality not based on principle would be no morality at all.
I do not discuss this suggestion. Nor do I focus on Kant™s deduction of the
Categorical Imperative. Instead, I concentrate on Kant™s derivation. The aim
of generating a successful derivation of the supreme principle of morality is,
I think, suf¬ciently ambitious to warrant our full attention. If Kant attains it,
then he shows that as far as candidates for the supreme principle of morality
are concerned, the Categorical Imperative is (and will be) the only game in
town.
Even though our focus is on Kant™s derivation, and not his deduction,
of the Categorical Imperative, it is worth noting that Kant eventually seems
to abandon the project of providing a deduction. In the Critique of Practical
Reason, published three years after the Groundwork, he asserts:

[T]he moral law is given, as it were, as a fact of pure reason of which we are a priori
conscious and which is apodictically certain, though it be granted that no example of
exact observance of it can be found in experience. Hence the objective reality of the
moral law cannot be proved by any deduction, by any efforts of theoretical reason,
speculative or empirically supported, so that, even if one were willing to renounce
its apodictic certainty, it could not be con¬rmed by experience and thus proved a
posteriori; and it is nevertheless ¬rmly established of itself. (KpV 47; see also KpV
48 and 93)

This passage raises many complex issues, but for our purposes a brief treat-
ment suf¬ces. In Groundwork III, Kant implies that he is undertaking a de-
duction of the Categorical Imperative (GMS 461, 463). Yet in this second
Critique passage, Kant suggests that the “objective reality” (i.e., validity) of
the moral law is “¬rmly established of itself ”; it does not need to be proved
through philosophical argument. In stating that the moral law is given as a
fact of pure reason of which we are a priori conscious and which is apodic-
tically certain, Kant is apparently suggesting that the moral law necessarily
presents itself to each rational agent as a valid practical requirement. To
use R¨ diger Bittner™s description, Kant seems to be implying that “one is
u
cognizant of [the moral law] in such a way that in all practical considera-
tions one knows of its validity and has to take this validity into account.”12
Since we are cognizant of the moral law in this way, Kant appears to hold,
Introduction 7

there is no need for arguments to show us that we are genuinely bound by
it. The project of deduction he undertakes in Groundwork III is, Kant now
thinks, an unnecessary one. That it is unnecessary to prove the validity of
the Categorical Imperative does not entail that it is impossible to do so. Yet
Kant even goes so far as to make the further claim that this project cannot
succeed: “[T]he objective reality of the moral law cannot be proved by any
deduction.”13 Kant™s grounds for this further claim need not concern us.
However, that he makes it strengthens the impression that he eschews the
Groundwork III attempt to prove the validity of the Categorical Imperative.
If, as it appears, Kant abandons this attempt, it does not, of course, follow
that we ought to do so. Kant might have failed to appreciate the strength of
his own arguments. But I do not try to make the case that he did.14


i.4 The (Alleged) Gap in the Derivation of the Formula
of Universal Law
Readers familiar with Kant™s derivation of the Categorical Imperative might
wonder why it merits a book length treatment. After all, according to the
received view, it falls conspicuously short. Kant sketches his derivation of
this principle in both Groundwork I and II. Here are central (and famously
dif¬cult) passages in each:

But what kind of law can that be, the representation of which must determine the
will, even without regard for the effect expected from it, in order for the will to
be called good absolutely and without limitation? Since I have deprived the will of
every impulse that could arise for it from obeying some law, nothing is left but the
conformity of actions to universal law as such, which alone is to serve the will as its
principle, that is, I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my
maxim should become a universal law. Here mere conformity to law as such, without
having as its basis some law determined for certain actions, is what serves the will as
its principle, and must so serve it, if duty is not to be everywhere an empty delusion
and a chimerical concept. (GMS 402)

When I think of a hypothetical imperative in general I do not know beforehand what
it will contain; I do not know this until I am given the condition. But when I think
of a categorical imperative I know at once what it contains. For since the imperative
contains, beyond the law, only the necessity that the maxim be in conformity with
this law, while the law contains no condition to which it would be limited, nothing is
left with which the maxim of action is to conform but the universality of a law as such;
and this conformity alone is what the imperative properly represents as necessary.
There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only on
that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
Now, if all imperatives of duty can be derived from this single imperative as their
principle, then, even though we leave it undecided whether what is called duty is
not as such an empty concept, we shall at least be able to show what we think by it
and what the concept wants to say. (GMS 420“421)
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
8

In both passages, Kant argues for a conditional claim. If duty is not an
“empty” or “chimerical” concept, that is, if there are genuine moral obliga-
tions, then the Categorical Imperative is the principle of these obligations,
the supreme principle of morality. In both passages, Kant is offering a deriva-
tion, or part of a derivation, of the Categorical Imperative.
If we are to believe the received view, both the Groundwork I and the
Groundwork II derivation fail. They fail because they contain a crucial gap.
In each, Kant embraces a principle that is, for practical purposes, virtually
uninformative. Without argument, he then jumps to the Categorical Imper-
ative as the only viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality.
Bruce Aune offers an in¬‚uential expression of the received view. Aune
argues that both versions of the derivation fail, but let us follow him in fo-
cusing on Groundwork I.15 In the very sentence in which Kant sets out for
the ¬rst time the principle we refer to as the Categorical Imperative, he says
that “nothing is left but the conformity of actions to universal law as such,
which alone is to serve the will as its principle” (GMS 402). According to
Aune, Kant™s saying this amounts to his embracing the principle L : “Con-
form your actions to universal law.”16 L, suggests Aune, “is a higher-order
principle telling us to conform to certain lower-order laws.”17 L “formulates
the basic moral requirement”; it commands that we conform our actions
to these lower-order laws: principles that are necessarily binding on all of
us.18 But L does not tell us what these laws are. It fails to indicate, for exam-
ple, that among them we would ¬nd “Do not commit suicide,” rather than,
say, “Minimize your suffering.” Kant, Aune says, jumps directly from L to
the Categorical Imperative, which Aune calls C1: “Act only on that maxim
through which you can at the same time will that it should become a univer-
sal law.”19 In Groundwork I, Kant assumes that “we conform to universal law
(and so satisfy L) just when we obey C1 and act only on maxims that we can
will to be universal laws.”20
Yet, notes Aune, this assumption is far from obvious, as it is easy to il-
lustrate. Kant holds that in acting on a maxim of nonbene¬cence “ for
example, “To maximize my happiness, I will refrain from helping others in
need” “ I would be disobeying C1 (GMS 423). Suppose Kant is right about
this. According to the assumption in question, then, in acting on this maxim,
I would not be conforming to universal law: to a principle that is necessarily
binding on all of us. But it is unclear why I would not be. For all Kant has
shown thus far, it could be that a principle necessarily binding on all of us is:
“Always do what you believe will maximize your own happiness.” In acting on
my maxim of nonbene¬cence, I could be conforming to this universal law.
Kant, Aune suggests, embraces L as the basic requirement of moral action.
Kant af¬rms that if there is such a thing as moral action, then it is action
conforming to universal law. But then, without argument, Kant jumps to the
conclusion that the only way for an action to conform to universal law is for
it to conform to C1. The gap Aune ¬nds in Kant™s Groundwork I derivation is
Introduction 9

between the (for practical purposes) uninformative principle L and C1, the
Categorical Imperative.21
Aune is far from alone. Several other philosophers, even ones sympathetic
to a Kantian approach in ethics, have claimed to ¬nd a gap of this sort.22 In
their view, in neither Groundwork I nor II does Kant succeed in defending a
move he makes from a practically uninformative principle to the Categorical
Imperative.
Allen Wood, for example, has recently interpreted the Groundwork I and
II derivations in essentially the same way as Aune. According to Wood, in
both derivations Kant tries to establish that “our maxims ought to conform to
whatever universal laws there are.”23 But then Kant jumps without argument
from this rather empty principle to the Formula of Universal Law. Kant
illegitimately takes for granted that the only way to conform to whatever
universal laws there are is to conform to the Formula of Universal Law.
Henry Allison discusses another characterization of the practically un-
informative principle from which Kant (supposedly) moves directly to the
Categorical Imperative. On this characterization, the principle is (what I
call) the “principle of rightness universalism”:

RU: If a maxim or action is judged permissible for a rational agent in
given circumstances, it must also be judged permissible for any other
rational agent in relevantly similar circumstances.24

RU is rather vague: for one, it is not clear what are to count as “relevantly
similar circumstances.” However, this version of the traditional reading fo-
cuses on (what it sees as) Kant™s move directly from RU to the Categorical
Imperative. According to this version, Kant presents the Categorical Imper-
ative in a parenthetical clause aimed at explicating the prescription that
the will conform its actions to universal law as such, namely RU. Kant then
implicitly identi¬es RU with the Categorical Imperative or, at the very least,
claims that the former entails the latter.25
Obviously the two principles are not equivalent. Suppose someone acts
on Kant™s famous maxim of false promising: “When I believe myself in need
of money, I shall borrow money and promise to repay it, even though I
know that this will never happen” (GMS 422). If she acts on this maxim,
then, for well-known reasons I need not here restate, she violates the Cate-
gorical Imperative.26 But she does not necessarily violate RU. If she holds
her acting on the false-promising maxim to be morally permissible, nothing
need prevent her from judging that in circumstances relevantly similar to

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