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§5. The Negative Interpretation

§5. The Negative Interpretation

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  :   

. I interpret the text as follows: if the promisee were to apply the CIprocedure to the maxim from which the deceitful promisor acts, the promisee would reject it, just as the promisor would also reject it were the promisor to follow that procedure. When Kant speaks of lack of agreement (in

the second sentence of II: [–]), he means that the promisor’s maxim

cannot be endorsed by the promisee. Thus if promisor and promisee both

act from maxims that pass the CI-procedure, they would accept and reject

the same maxims, and both would contain in their persons (and in this

sense endorse) each other’s (permissible) ends.

If this reading is correct, we can see why in II: (–) Kant says


So act in relation to every reasonable and rational being (both yourself

and others) that that being may at the same time count in your maxim

as an end in itself

is fundamentally the same as:

Act on a maxim which at the same time contains in itself its own

universal validity for every reasonable and rational being.

Here it is the maxim that contains in itself (in sich enhaălt) its own validity,

which must mean that every reasonable and rational person who applies

the CI-procedure correctly will see that the maxim passes, and therefore

that all can endorse it.

. This interpretation may seem a bit thin, even disappointing. Surely

Kant means more than this! Indeed he does in the positive interpretation

for the duties of virtue. But the negative interpretation fits the important

case of the duties of justice. That Kant has these duties in mind in the

promising example is shown by his saying that the requirement that others

must be able to contain in their person the end of our action is even

more plainly violated in attempts on the freedom and property of others

(the rights of man). For in these cases, it is clear that we intend to treat

others merely as means: we know perfectly well that they cannot endorse

our end; we clearly fail to treat them as ends against which we should

never act.

[  ]

   

Of course, the duties of virtue also satisfy this interpretation, since others

can endorse the maxims of ends from which we act when we fulfill our

duties of virtue. The difference is that with those duties we also promote

the ends enjoined by those maxims: stated in a summary way, we cultivate

our own moral and natural perfection and further the happiness of others.

Whereas the duties of justice can be met simply by acting within the limits

established by a just system of law, and even though we pursue only our

own interests and are indifferent to those of others. The duties of justice

require no more than the mutual endorsability of the maxims governing

our outer actions.

To conclude: humanity in us is simply our powers of reason and

thought, and of moral judgment and sensibility. To treat persons as ends

in matters of justice—to treat humanity in them as an end—and never as

means only is to conduct ourselves in ways that are publicly justifiable to

their and our common human reason, and of offering such justifications as

the occasion demands. If, further, we care for justice (we count respecting

the right of persons as our end and widen our concept of duty beyond what

is due [MdS :f.]), then we act from what Kant calls the obligation of

virtue (MdS :). We take a pure practical interest in associating with

others in ways that they can publicly endorse. That is a very important


. We have yet to consider the first example of suicide (II: []). Does

the negative interpretation apply to it? Let’s look at the fuller statement

Kant gives in MdS :f. There he writes:

Man cannot renounce his personality as long as he is a subject of

duty, and hence so long as he lives. It is a contradiction that he should

have the moral title to withdraw from all obligation, that is freely to

act as if he needed no moral title for this action. To destroy the subject

of morality in one’s own person is to root out the existence of morality

2. The motivation of our desiring to associate with others in ways that they can publicly

endorse, or in ways that can be mutually justified, both to them and to us, is taken as a basic

assumption of T. M. Scanlon’s contractualism. See his “Contractualism and Utilitarianism,” in Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. A. Sen and B. Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ),

pp. –.

[  ]

  :   

itself from the world, so far as this is in one’s power; and yet morality

is an end-in-itself. Thus to dispose of oneself as a mere means to an

arbitrary end [an end of natural inclination] is to abase humanity

in one’s own person (homo noumenon), which was yet entrusted to

man as being in the world of nature (homo phenomenon) for its preservation.

I don’t read this passage as saying that suicide is always wrong. Rather,

it says that a moral title for it is always needed, which cannot be given by

the ends wanted by natural inclination. The casuistical questions Kant lists

in this section imply that such a title can be given by conflicting grounds

of obligation (MdS :); for these may be at times stronger than the

ground not to take our life. Otherwise, the questions listed are not questions! Kant asks, for example, whether it is wrong of a commanding general

to carry poison so that if captured he can avoid being ransomed on conditions prejudicial to his country (a reference to Frederick the Great). While

Kant’s doctrine excludes suicide for reasons based solely on our natural

inclinations, it is not always forbidden whatever the reasons. What is required are very strong reasons based on obligatory ends, which may conflict

in particular circumstances.

The difficult passage in Gr II: (–) may also apply to suicide. Kant

says that a subject (person) that is capable of a good will cannot without

contradiction be subordinated to any other object. He is, I think, invoking

the priority of the value of a good will found at Gr I: (). When we take

our life for reasons based on natural inclinations, we subordinate our moral

powers to something of merely relative value; this, Kant may think, is a

contradiction in the order of values. This fits what Kant says about suicide

above in the Doctrine of Virtue.

There is, however, an important gap. We still lack an argument of the

appropriate kind relying solely on the CI-procedure for the prohibition

against suicide. What we can say, though, is that given such an argument,

it would then be true that suicide fits under the negative interpretation. It

would mean that humanity in us—our moral sensibility and powers of pure

practical reason—could not endorse our suicidal action if prompted by our

natural inclinations.

[  ]

   

§. The Positive Interpretation

. The meaning of the positive interpretation is now clear. We treat humanity in our own person and in the person of others as an end-in-itself in a

positive way by conscientiously promoting the obligatory ends specified by

the duties of virtue. Described summarily, we do this by striving to advance

our own perfection (moral and natural) and the happiness of others, where

this is specified by their permissible ends (MdS :; ). Assuming that the

duties of virtue are given by maxims of ends enjoined by the CI-procedure,

the second formulation does not add to the content of the moral law as

specified by the strict method (II: []). It gives another way to look at

the content of that law—its matter, as it were (II: []).

Read this way, the positive interpretation emphasizes that there are objective ends: those valid for all reasonable and rational persons in the sense

that every such person must count these ends as ends they are to advance.

Thus the moral law not only imposes limits on the means we may adopt

in the pursuit of ends as permitted by the duties of justice, but also directs

us to hold certain ends as obligatory. In a phrase: the moral law determines

elements of the matter, as well as determining the form, of pure will (MdS

:f.). This is important in connection with Kant’s account of freedom:

for us to be fully free, pure practical reason must specify at least some of

our final ends as well as setting limits on the means we can use for achieving

them. Whether it must specify all our final ends is a difficult question of

interpretation we’ll discuss later.

. The term “humanity” is appropriate in both the positive and negative

interpretations: in the negative because it is reasonable and rational beings

as possessing humanity that constitute the limits against which we must

not act; in the positive because the obligatory ends are intimately connected

with the good of human persons: more specifically, with cultivation of their

moral and natural perfection and the fulfillment of their proper happiness

(as given by their permissible ends). Once obligatory ends are seen as certain

values associated with human persons, we see the way in which the good

of a (perfected) reasonable and rational person who is happy is an end-initself. In this connection, recall from Gr I:– (–) that moral perfection

(a secure good will) is the supreme form of intrinsic value.

Further, the idea of a positive and a negative interpretation of the second

[  ]

  :   

formulation is suggested by the fact that there is a natural contrast between

the first and the second pair of examples. In the first pair, the point stressed

is that we are not to treat humanity in ourselves, or in the person of others,

as a mere means to the ends wanted by our natural desires. Whereas in

the second pair of examples, Kant stresses that we must go beyond this

and make our conduct cohere with humanity in our person, that is, we

must promote our greater perfection (moral and natural) and further the

happiness of others. Kant draws an intuitively natural contrast between the

two pairs of examples and uses the words “negative” and “positive” to express the difference. Hence our terminology.

Often Kant states a basic idea of the Groundwork more clearly in a later

work. This comes from the second Critique ::

The moral law is holy (inviolable). Man is indeed unholy enough; but

he must regard humanity in his own person as holy. In all creation

everything he chooses, and over which he has any power, may be used

merely as a means; man alone, and with him every rational creature, is

an end in himself. By virtue of the autonomy of his freedom he is subject

to the moral law, which is holy. Just for this reason every will, even

every person’s own individual will, in relation to itself, is restricted to

the condition of agreement with the autonomy of a reasonable being,

that is to say, that it is not to be subject to any purpose that cannot

accord with a law which might arise from the will of the passive [leidenden] subject itself; the latter is therefore never to be used merely as a

means but itself also at the same time as an end [emphasis on “passive”

(for leidenden) is mine].

This fits the interpretation proposed, since whether a precept of justice

or of virtue might arise from the will of the passive subject is settled by

the CI-procedure.

§. Conclusion: Remarks on Groundwork II:– (–)

. There is a difficulty with the suggested reading of the second formulation

that must be faced. It concerns the fact that the passages II:– (–),

[  ]

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§5. The Negative Interpretation

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