DURANT 1926: The Critique of Practical Reason

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VI, Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, Section 4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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The Critique of Practical Reason

If religion cannot be based on science and theology, on what then? On morals. The basis in theology is too insecure; better that it should be abandoned, even destroyed; faith must be put beyond the reach or realm of reason. But therefore the moral basis of religion must be absolute, not derived from questionable sense-experience or precarious inference; not corrupted by the admixture of fallible reason; it must be derived from the inner self by direct perception and intuition. We must find a universal and necessary ethic; a priori principles of morals as absolute and certain as mathematics. We must show that “pure reason can be practical; i. e., can of itself determine the will independently of anything empirical,” [Critique of Practical Reason, p. 31.] that the moral sense is innate, and not derived from experience. The moral imperative which we need as the basis of religion must be an absolute, a categorical, imperative.

Religion cannot be based on science and theology, because it must be absolute and certain. Therefore, religion must be based on absolute faith derived intuitively from inner self.

Now the most astounding reality in all our experience is precisely our moral sense, our inescapable feeling, in the face of temptation, that this or that is wrong. We may yield; but the feeling is there nevertheless. Le matin je fais des projets, et le soir je fais des sottises; [“In the morning I make good resolutions; in the evening I commit follies.”] but we know that they are sottises, and we resolve again. What is it that brings the bite of remorse, and the new resolution? It is the categorical imperative in us, the unconditional command of our conscience, to “act as if the maxim of our action were to become by our will a universal law of nature.” [Practical Reason, p. 139.] We know, not by reasoning, but by vivid and immediate feelings, that we must avoid behavior which, if adopted by all men, would render social life impossible. Do I wish to escape from a predicament by a lie? But “while I can will the lie, I can by no means will that lying should be a universal law. For with such a law there would be no promises at all.” [Practical Reason, p. 19.] Hence the sense in me, that I must not lie, even if it be to my advantage. Prudence is hypothetical; its motto is, Honesty when it is the best policy; but the moral law in our hearts is unconditional and absolute.

We seem to have a moral sense of right and wrong even if we do not always follow it. It is our conscience. It is the immediate feeling that we must avoid behavior which, if adopted by all men, would render social life impossible.

And an action is good not because it has good results, or because it is wise, but because it is done in obedience to this inner sense of duty, this moral law that does not come from our personal experience, but legislates imperiously and a priori for all our behavior, past, present, and future. The only thing unqualifiedly good in this world is a good will—the will to follow the moral law, regardless of profit or loss for ourselves. Never mind your happiness; do your duty. “Morality is not properly the doctrine how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.” [Practical Reason, p. 227.] Let us seek the happiness in others; but for ourselves, perfection whether it bring us happiness or pain. [Preface to The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics.] To achieve perfection in yourself and happiness in others, “so act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of another, in every case as an end, never only as a means”: [Metaphysics of Morals, London, 1909; p. 47.]—this too, as we directly feel, is part of the categorical imperative. Let us live up to such a principle, and we shall soon create an ideal community of rational beings; to create it we need only act as if we already belonged to it; we must apply the perfect law in the imperfect state. It is a hard ethic, you say, this placing of duty above beauty, of morality above happiness; but only so can we cease to be beasts, and begin to be gods.

This moral law does not come from our personal experience. It is the inner sense of duty to seek the happiness in others; but for ourselves, perfection whether it bring us happiness or pain.

Notice, meanwhile, that this absolute command to duty proves at last the freedom of our wills; how could we ever have conceived such a notion as duty if we had not felt ourselves freer We cannot prove this freedom by theoretical reason; we prove it by feeling it directly in the crisis of moral choice. We feel this freedom as the very essence of our inner selves, of the “pure Ego”; we feel within ourselves the spontaneous activity of a mind moulding experience and choosing goals. Our actions, once we initiate them, seem to follow fixed and invariable laws, but only because we perceive their results through sense, which clothes all that it transmits in the dress of that causal law which our minds themselves have made. Nevertheless, we are beyond and above the laws we make in order to understand the world of our experience; each of us is a center of initiative force and creative power. In a way which we feel but cannot prove, each of us is free.

Such a sense of duty must come from the freedom of our wills. We feel this freedom as the very essence of our inner selves.

And again, though we cannot prove, we feel, that we are deathless. We perceive that life is not like those dramas so beloved by the people—in which every villain is punished, and every act of virtue meets with its reward; we learn anew every day that the wisdom of the serpent fares better here than the gentleness of the dove, and that any thief can triumph if he steals enough. If mere worldly utility and expediency were the justification of virtue, it would not be wise to be too good. And yet, knowing all this, having it flung into our faces with brutal repetition, we still feel the command to righteousness, we know that we ought to do the inexpedient good. How could this sense of right survive if it were not that in our hearts we feel this life to be only a part of life, this earthly dream only an embryonic prelude to a new birth, a new awakening; if we did not vaguely know that in that later and longer life the balance will be redressed, and not one cup of water given generously but shall be returned a hundred-fold?

We feel that we are deathless. In spite of all reasons not to, we still feel the command to righteousness. We feel this earthly dream only an embryonic prelude to a new birth

Finally, and by the same token, there is a God. If the sense of duty involves and justifies belief in rewards to come, “the postulate of immortality . . . must lead to the supposition of the existence of a cause adequate to this effect; in other words, it must postulate the existence of God.” [Practical Reason, p. 220.] This again is no proof by “reason”; the moral sense, which has to do with the world of our actions, must have priority over that theoretical logic which was developed only to deal with sense-phenomena. Our reason leaves us free to believe that behind the thing-in-itself there is a just God; our moral sense commands us to believe it. Rousseau was right: above the logic of the head is the feeling in the heart. Pascal was right: the heart has reasons of its own, which the head can never understand.

If the sense of duty involves and justifies belief in rewards to come, it must postulate the existence of God. Our reason leaves us free to believe that behind the thing-in-itself there is a just God.

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FINAL COMMENTS

There seems to be inherent human nature that is not based on personal experience. It consists of the immediate feeling that we must avoid behavior which, if adopted by all men, would render social life impossible. There is an ideal sense of self.

Kant associates this ideal sense of self with an inherent awareness that there is a bigger beingness beyond this earthly life. This awareness leads to the postulation of God.

In my view, the human beingness forms the apex of evolution of this universe. The inherent nature of this beingness, therefore, carries a certain responsibility toward continued evolution. That sense of responsibility forms the basis of out inherent sense of morality.

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