TBM: Part 2, Chapter 2

by Arthur Schopenhauer

translated by Arthur Brodrick Bullock

Critique of Kant’s Basis of Ethics: ON THE IMPERATIVE FORM OF THE KANTIAN ETHICS.

Kant’s πρῶτον ψεῡδος (first false step) lies in his conception of Ethics itself, and this is found very clearly expressed on page 62 (R., p. 54): “In a system of practical philosophy we are not concerned with adducing reasons for that which takes place, but with formulating laws regarding that which ought to take place, even if it never does take place.” This is at once a distinct petitio principii. Who tells you that there are laws to which our conduct ought to be subject? Who tells you that that ought to take place, which in fact never does take place? What justification have you for making this assumption at the outset, and consequently for forcing upon us, as the only possible one, a system of Ethics couched in the imperative terms of legislation? I say, in contradistinction to Kant, that the student of Ethics, and no less the philosopher in general, must content himself with explaining and interpreting that which is given, in other words, that which really is, or takes place, so as to obtain an understanding of it, and I maintain furthermore that there is plenty to do in this direction, much more than has hitherto been done, after the lapse of thousands of years. Following the above petitio principii, Kant straightway, without any previous investigation, assumes in the preface (which is entirely devoted to the subject), that purely moral laws exist; and this assumption remains thenceforth undisturbed, and forms the very foundation of his whole system. We, however, prefer first of all to examine the conception denoted by the word “law.” The true and original meaning of the term is limited to law as between citizens; it is the lexνόμος, of the Romans and Greeks, a human institution, and depending on human volition. It has a secondary, derived, figurative, metaphorical meaning, when applied to Nature, whose operations, partly known a priori, partly learnt by experience, and which are always constant, we call natural laws. Only a very small portion of these natural laws can be discerned a priori, and with admirable acuteness, Kant set them apart, and classed them under the name “Metaphysics of Nature.” There is also undoubtedly a law for the human will, in so far as man belongs to Nature; and this law is strictly provable, admits of no exception, is inviolable, and immovable as the mountains, and does not, like the Categorical Imperative, imply a quasi-necessity, but rather a complete and absolute one. It is the law of motivation, a form of the law of causation; in other words, it is the causation which is brought about by the medium of the understanding. It is the sole demonstrable law to which the human will as such is subject. It means that every action can only take place in consequence of a sufficient motive. Like causality in general, it is a natural law. On the other hand, moral laws, apart from human institution, state ordinance, or religious doctrine, cannot rightly be assumed as existing without proof. Kant, therefore, by taking such laws for granted, is guilty of a petitio principii, which is all the bolder, in that he at once adds (page vi of the preface) that a moral law ought to imply “absolute necessity.” But “absolute necessity” is everywhere characterised by an inevitable chain of consequence; how, then, can such a conception be attached to these alleged moral laws (as an instance of which he adduces “thou shalt not lie”[1])? Every one knows, and he himself admits, that no such consecution for the most part takes place; the reverse, indeed, is the rule.

In scientific Ethics before we admit as controlling the will other laws besides that of motivation-laws which are original and independent of all human ordinance—we must first prove and deduce their existence; that is, provided in things ethical we are concerned not merely with recommending honesty, but with practising it. Until that proof be furnished, I shall recognise only one source to which is traceable the importation into Ethics of the conception Law, Precept, Obligation. It is one which is foreign to philosophy. I mean the Mosaic Decalogue. Indeed the spelling “du sollt“[2] in the above instance of a moral law, the first put forward by Kant, naïvely betrays this origin. A conception, however, which can\ point to no other source than this, has no right, without undergoing further scrutiny, thus to force its way into philosophical Ethics. It will be rejected, until introduced by duly accredited proof. Thus on the threshold of the subject Kant makes his first petitio principii, and that no small one.

Our philosopher, then, by begging the question in his preface, simply assumes the conception of Moral Law as given and existing beyond all doubt; and he treats the closely related conception of Duty (page 8, R., p. 16) exactly in the same way. Without subjecting it to any further test, he admits it forthwith as a proper appurtenance of Ethics. But here, again, I am compelled to enter a protest. This conception, equally with the kindred notions of Law, Command, Obligation, etc., taken thus unconditionally, has its source in theological morals, and it will remain a stranger to philosophical morals, so long as it fails to furnish sufficient credentials drawn either from man’s nature, or from the objective world. Till then, I can only recognise the Decalogue as the origin of all these connected conceptions. Since the rise of Christianity there is no doubt that philosophical has been unconsciously moulded by theological ethics. And since the latter is essentially dictatorial, the former appears in the shape of precepts and inculcation of Duty, in all innocence, and without any suspicion that first an ulterior sanction is needful for this rôle; rather does she suppose it to be her proper and natural form. It is true that all peoples, ages, and creeds, and indeed all philosophers (with the exception of the materialists proper) have undeniably recognised that the ethical significance of human conduct is a metaphysical one, in other words, that it stretches out beyond this phaenomenal existence and reaches to eternity; but it is equally true that the presentment of this fact in terms of Command and Obedience, of Law and Duty, is no part of its essence. Furthermore, separated from the theological hypotheses whence they have sprung, these conceptions lose in reality all meaning, and to attempt a substitute for the former by talking with Kant of absolute obligation and of unconditioned duty, is to feed the reader with empty words, nay more, is to give him a contradictio in adjecto[3] to digest.

Every obligation derives all sense and meaning; simply and solely from its relation to threatened punishment or promised reward. Hence, long before Kant was thought of, Locke says: “For since it would be utterly in vain, to suppose a rule set to the free actions of man, without annexing to it some enforcement of good and evil to determine his will; we must, wherever we suppose a law, suppose also some reward or punishment annexed to that law.” (Essay on the Human Understanding, Bk. II., ch. 33, § 6). What ought to be done is therefore necessarily conditioned by punishment or reward; consequently, to use Kant’s language, it is essentially and inevitably hypothetical, and never, as he maintains, categorical. If we think away these conditions, the conception of obligation becomes void of sense; hence absolute obligation is most certainly a contradictio in adjecto. A commanding voice, whether it come from within, or from without, cannot possibly be imagined except as threatening or promising. Consequently obedience to it, which may be wise or foolish according to circumstances, is yet always actuated by selfishness, and therefore morally worthless.

The complete unthinkableness and nonsense of this conception of an unconditioned obligation, which lies at the root of the Kantian Ethics, appears later in the system itself, namely in the Kritik der Praktischen Vernunft: just as some concealed poison in an organism cannot remain hid, but sooner or later must come out and show itself. For this obligation, said to be so unconditioned, nevertheless postulates more than one condition in the background; it assumes a rewarder, a reward, and the immortality of the person to be rewarded.

This is of course unavoidable, if one really makes Duty and Obligation the fundamental conception of Ethics; for these ideas are essentially relative, and depend for their significance on the threatened penalty or the promised reward. The guerdon which is assumed to be in store for virtue shows clearly enough that only in appearance she works for nothing. It is, however, put forward modestly veiled, under the name of the Highest Good, which is the union of Virtue and Happiness. But this is at bottom nothing else but a morality that derives its origin from Happiness, which means, a morality resting on selfishness. In other words, it is Eudaemonism, which Kant had solemnly thrust out of the front door of his system as an intruder, only to let it creep in again by the postern under the name of the Highest Good. This is how the assumption of unconditioned absolute obligation, concealing as it does a contradiction, avenges itself. Conditioned obligation, on the other hand, cannot of course be any first principle for Ethics, since everything done out of regard for reward or punishment is necessarily an egoistic transaction, and as such is without any real moral value. All this makes it clear that a nobler and wider view of Ethics is needed, if we are in earnest about our endeavour to truly account for the significance of human conduct—a significance which extends beyond phaenomena and is eternal.

As all obligation is entirely dependent on a condition, so also is all duty. Both conceptions are very closely related, indeed almost identical. The only difference between them might be said to be that obligation in general may rest on mere force, whereas duty involves the sense of obligation deliberately undertaken, such as we see between master and servant, principal and subordinate, rulers and the ruled. And since no one undertakes a duty gratis, every duty implies also a right. The slave has no duties, because he has no rights; but he is subject to an obligation which rests on sheer force. In the following Part I shall explain the only meaning which the conception “Duty” has in Ethics.

If we put Ethics in an imperative form, making it a Doctrine of Duties, and regard the moral worth or worthlessness of human conduct as the fulfilment or violation of duties, we must remember that this view of Duty, and of Obligation in general, is undeniably derived solely from theological Morals, and primarily from the Decalogue, and consequently that it rests essentially and inseparably on the assumption of man’s dependence on another will which gives him commands and announces reward or punishment. But the more the assumption of such a will is in Theology positive and precise, the less should it be quietly and unsuspectingly introduced into philosophical Morals. Hence we have no right to assume beforehand that for the latter the imperative Form, the ordaining of commands, laws, and duties is an essential and a matter of course; and it is a very poor shift to substitute the word “absolute” or “categorical” for the external condition which is indissolubly attached to such conceptions by their very nature: for this gives rise, as explained above, to a contradictio in adjecto.

Kant, then, without more ado or any close examination, borrowed this imperative Form of Ethics from theological Morals. The hypotheses of the latter (in other words, Theology) really lie at the root of his system, and as these alone in point of fact lend it any meaning or sense, so they cannot be separated from, indeed are implicitly contained in, it. After this, when he had expounded his position the task of developing in turn a Theology out of his Morals—the famous Moraltheologie—was easy enough. For the conceptions which are implicitly involved in his Imperative, and which lie hidden at the base of his Morals, only required to be brought forward and expressed explicitly as postulates of Practical Reason. And so it was that, to the world’s great edification, a Theology appeared depending simply on Ethics, indeed actually derived therefrom. But this came about because the ethical system itself rests on concealed theological hypotheses. I mean no derisive comparison, but in its form the process is analogous to that whereby a conjurer prepares a surprise for us, when he lets us find something where he had previously employed his art to place it. Described in the abstract, Kant’s procedure is this: what ought to have been his first principle, or hypothesis (viz., Theology) he made the conclusion, and what ought to have been deduced as the conclusion (viz., the Categorical Command) he took as his hypothesis.[4] But after he had thus turned the thing upside down, nobody, not even he himself, recognised it as being what it really was, namely the old well-known system of theological Morals. How this trick was accomplished we shall consider in the sixth and seventh chapters of the present Part.

Ethics was of course frequently put in the imperative form, and treated as a doctrine of duties also in pre-Kantian philosophy; but it was always then based upon the will of a God whose existence had been otherwise proved, and so there was no inconsequence. As soon, however, as the attempt was made, as Kant attempted, to give a foundation to Ethics independent of this will, and establish it without metaphysical hypotheses, there was no longer any justification for taking as its basis the words “thou shalt,” and “it is thy duty” (that is, the imperative form), without first deducing the truth thereof from some other source.


[1] Du sollt (sic) nicht lügen.

[2] Sollt is the old form for “sollst.” Cf. Eng., shalt: Icel; skalt—(Translator.)

[3] A contradiction in the adjective. This occurs when the epithet applied to a noun contradicts its essential meaning.—(Translator.)

[4] Like the converse of a geometrical proposition, this Kantian inversion is not necessarily true; its validity, in fact, depends on the conclusion being implicitly contained in the hypothesis. —(Translator.)


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