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Kantian Ethics in Gulliver’s Travels:
Are the Houyhnhnms Role Models?

The aim of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is to ascertain and justify the categorical imperative.1 I will concentrate on the third part of the Groundwork. Here, Kant wants to show why the categorical imperative is binding for us. The purpose of this part of the Groundwork is to show that we have the faculty of practical reasoning—that we are able to establish ends independent of sensual impulses.


Before taking the pains of establishing and justifying the moral principle, Kant has to clarify why it should be binding for human beings. After all, it could be possible that man cannot act autonomously because he is a slave of his passions / genes / brain structures. The categorical imperative applies only to beings whose actions stem from their own free will. According to Kant, a free will is the “ability to control how [one] behaves in conformity with the representation of certain laws” (GMM, p. 28). Therefore, only rational beings have a free will, for only they can act according to self-assigned laws (recall the Greek roots of “autonomy”: autos, self; nomos, law). In other words, rational beings can act autonomously and hence are free. Kant contrasts this kind of causality with absolute necessity, which is the causality of unreasoning beings—of creatures that cannot act autonomously because they are completely bound by their biological necessities and urges.

However, Kant points out that even though rational beings act freely, this doesn’t mean that their will is anarchical. After all, autonomy is the [End Page 259] causality of reasonable beings, and causality implies the law of cause and consequence. Kant underlines: “Although freedom is not a property of the will according to laws of nature, it doesn’t follow that freedom is lawless!… The ‘concept’ of lawless free-will would be an absurdity” (GMM, p. 41). The freedom of the will consists in its autonomy—its “property of itself being a law” (GMM, p. 41). Kant reminds us that the locution “the will itself is a law in all its actions” denotes the formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act only on a maxim that can also have itself as a universal law for its object” (p. 41, emphasis in original). He concludes: “Therefore a free will and a will under moral laws are identical.” Hence, to assume a free will ultimately leads to the moral principle.


So far, Kant has only shown why and to what extent the moral principle is binding for autonomous beings. On what grounds could man be ranked among them? In that respect, Kant proves himself quite pragmatic: to avoid giving a theoretical proof of man’s free will (an issue that is still unsolved), he proves it practically, and declares: “Any being who can’t act otherwise than under the idea of freedom is, just for that reason, really free in his conduct—i.e. all laws that are inseparably bound up with freedom hold for him just as if his will were validly pronounced free in itself as a matter of theoretical philosophy” (GMM, p. 42). Assuming that we are free has the same consequences for our moral conduct as if we were free. This is a necessary condition for us, as human beings, to legitimately claim that we have a will of our own. If we didn’t, we would have to suppose that our moral judgment doesn’t stem from reason, but from mere impulse. This, however, runs counter to the way we see ourselves. We therefore have to consider ourselves as free agents.

To summarize, Kant claims that we have to follow the categorical imperative because we are free, and that we are free because we are able to develop moral principles like the categorical imperative. Kant concedes that this does indeed sound strange: “It has to be admitted that there is a kind of circle here from which there seems to be no escape. We take ourselves to be free in the order of effective causes so that we can think of ourselves as subject to moral laws in the order of ends; and then we think of ourselves as subject to these laws because we have ascribed to ourselves freedom of the will” (GMM, p. 44). He wriggles himself out of it by drawing on his differentiation between appearance and the thing in itself, an idea he developed in The Critique [End Page 260] of Pure Reason (1781). According to Kant, we can never gain knowledge about the world as it really is: all we get to know are appearances, never things in themselves. This is because our perception of the world is influenced by our sensibilities, which tend to warp our perception. He concludes: “Once the distinction [between appearance and the thing in itself] has been made somehow, it automatically follows that we must admit and assume behind the appearances something else that is not appearance, namely things in themselves” (GMM, p. 44).

Similarly, we have only an empirical notion of ourselves, and hardly know anything about our true self. All that we know for sure about us is that we possess reason: “Now a human being really finds within himself a capacity by which he distinguishes himself from all other things. … This capacity or faculty is reason” (GMM, p. 45). It is by means of this reason that we are able to differentiate between the sensible world and the intelligible world. Because of this mental capacity, man ought to consider himself as a rational being, a being that belongs to the intelligible world. Still, man can adopt two possible points of view: he can classify himself as belonging to either the sensible world or the intelligible world. If he classifies himself as part of the sensible world, he can act only in accordance with natural necessity, which entails that his actions can no longer be regarded as autonomous: they are dependent, or unfree. Yet this contradicts our self-image as well as our experiences (for we can act quite independently of impulses). Consequently, man has to regard himself as part of the intelligible world.


Kant maintains that human beings belong to both the intelligible and the sensible world. If we were purely rational, the question of why we should act in accordance with the categorical imperative would simply not arise, because we would obey it anyway. On the other hand, if we were driven solely by impulses, the question of why we should align our actions with the moral law wouldn’t come up either. A being whose actions are subject to natural necessity simply cannot act morally: you don’t reproach the cat for killing mice (unless it carries them into the kitchen). Since our will belongs wholly to the intelligible world, and because this intelligible world constitutes the basis of the sensible world, we, as sensual but nevertheless rational beings, are subject to the laws of the intelligible world. Put differently: our ability to act in accordance with the moral law entails the obligation to do so. Kant concludes, “So [End Page 261] this is how categorical imperatives are possible: The idea of freedom makes me a member of an intelligible world; if I were a member only of that world, all my actions would always conform to the autonomy of the will; but since I confront myself also as a member of the world of sense, my actions ought to conform to it” (GMM, p. 46).

Concluding, man is a composite being that possesses both intellect and desires. The challenge (and worth) of moral behavior consists in balancing these divergent dispositions. In the following, I’ll show that this characterization is very similar to Swift’s view of man.


In the fourth and final chapter of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver encounters a country governed by rational horses. As in the previous chapters, he is asked by his host to give an account of his native country and its inhabitants. After Gulliver tells the Houyhnhnm everything worth knowing, it gives a less than flattering verdict of both England and the English: “Although he hated the Yahoos of this country, yet he no more blamed them for their odious Qualities, than he did … a sharp Stone for cutting his Hoof. But, when a Creature pretending to Reason, could be capable of such Enormities, he dreaded lest the Corruption of that Faculty might be worse than Brutality itself.”2 The Houyhnhnm concludes that men must be “a Sort of Animals to whose Share … some small Pittance of Reason had fallen, whereof we made no other Use than by its Assistance to aggravate our natural Corruptions.” Furthermore, it attributes the deficiencies of human government and law to man’s “gross Defects in Reason, and by consequence, in Virtue” (WJS, p. 225).

Although the horse’s scathing criticism seems to mirror Swift’s notorious misanthropy, we should be careful to take the Houyhnhnms as role models for man. A letter by Swift proves that he hardly entertained idealistic notions about human nature: “I have got Materials Toward a Treatise, proving the falsity of that Definition [of man as] animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of Misanthropy … the whole building of my Travells [sic!] is erected” (WJS, p. 585). Seen in this light, the Houyhnhnms represent the animal rationale man can only claim to be. Using Kant’s vocabulary, Houyhnhnms are purely rational beings that face no conflict between moral principles and impulses. Gulliver, on the other hand, stands for the animal rationis capax, or a sensual rational being, as Kant would say: men are “beings who don’t always do what reason would have done if [End Page 262] left to itself” (GMM, p. 43). Both conceptions do justice to man’s nature as a composite being who doesn’t act solely on behalf of his reason. Kant would probably remind us that man cannot do otherwise because he is also part of the sensible world, which influences his motives and actions accordingly.

In the following, I will dwell on the similarities between the conceptions of Kant and Swift. My aim is to show that Swift designed the Houyhnhnm not as a role model for man, but as a diametrical opposite to him, for its morality runs counter to human nature.


The Houyhnhnm observes that “Reason alone is sufficient to govern a Rational Creature” (WJS, p. 225). Due to the Houyhnhnms’ rationality, disputes hardly ever arise among them: “Neither is Reason among them a Point problematical as with us, where Men can argue with Plausibility on both Sides of a Question; but strikes you with immediate Conviction; as it must needs do where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured by Passion and Interest” (WJS, p. 233). Gulliver recalls: “It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my Master to understand the Meaning of the Word Opinion” (WJS, p. 233). Human opinion is shaped by tastes, dispositions, and interests. Our political debates would lose much of their appeal (let alone rigor) if they had anything to do with logic or reason.

Moreover, the Houyhnhnms, unlike men, are never even tempted to violate moral principles: They “have no Word in their Language to express any thing that is evil” (WJS, p. 240), and hence have no conception of evil. Therefore, the Houyhnhnms have a one-dimensional nature that is always prone to morality. With such one-dimensional nature comes a one-dimensional worldview. Their limited perspective becomes apparent when they declare that Gulliver has to leave the country of the Houyhnhnms: he, being a Yahoo, cannot live with them, because “such a Practice was not agreeable to Reason or Nature, or a thing ever heard of before among them” (WJS, p. 244).

The last part of this sentence is quite revealing, and illustrates John Stuart Mill’s observation that “we call everything instinct which we find in ourselves and for which we cannot trace any rational foundation.”3 Unlike men and despite their pure rationality, the Houyhnhnms are unable to critically reflect upon themselves or their society: “Doubting or not believing are so little known in this Country, that the Inhabitants cannot tell how to behave themselves under such Circumstances” [End Page 263] (WJS, p. 207). Despite their “general Disposition to all Virtues” (WJS, p. 233), the Houyhnhnms don’t recognize their own faults. Self-importance is surely among them: quite revealing is the statement of a Houyhnhnm “that all Animals had a title to their Share in the productions of the Earth; and especially those who presided over the rest” (WJS, p. 218). This is not only a remarkably early version of Orwell’s “some animals are more equal,”4 but it also displays the Houyhnhnms’ elitism: apparently, they exert their morality only on those they consider worthy.

Moreover, the Houyhnhnms’ lack of passions, praised by Gulliver, is not restricted to negative ones. We learn that they display neither negative nor positive feelings: “Courtship, Love, Presents … have no Place in their Thoughts; or Terms whereby to express them in their language” (WJS, p. 234). Marriages are arranged: “The young Couple meet and are joined, merely because it is the Determination of their Parents and Friends” (WJS, p. 234). Additionally, partners are not chosen “upon the Account of Love, but to preserve the Race from degenerating” (WJS, p. 234)—that is, for eugenic reasons. And although the Houyhnhnms meet on a regular basis, their conversations are confined to purely academic topics: “Their Subjects are generally on Friendship and Benevolence; on Order and Oeconomy [sic!]; sometimes upon the visible Operations of Nature, or ancient Traditions; upon the Bounds and Limits of Virtue; upon the unerring Rules of Reason” (WJS, p. 242). Apparently, they don’t gather with their friends just for the sake of it, but only to “cultivate reason” (WJS, p. 233).

Thus, it seems fair to say that the Houyhnhnms serve not only to confront man with his own pretensions, but also to show what life would be like if we really were purely rational: rather joyless and boring. The Houyhnhnms don’t understand “what could be the Use or Necessity of practising … Vices” like “Drinking, Whoring and Gaming” (WJS, p. 211) because such activities have no other purpose than enjoyment. Since man is an animal rationis capax affected by the sensible world, sensual pleasures make his life worthwhile.

Concluding, Swift uses the utilitarianism of the Houyhnhnms to indicate the limits of rationality. Both morality and human life require (and consist of) more than mere reasoning: compassion has proved to be a more decisive factor in driving social change than logical analysis (slavery is nowadays considered immoral despite its economic and social advantages). And since an animal rationis capax like man has other needs than a frugal animal rationale, “the passionless Houyhnhnms represent, by their un-human shape, their un-human quality as beings guided by [End Page 264] ‘reason alone.’”5 They are not role models because their disposition is contrary to the nature of man—in both a negative and a positive sense.


The Houyhnhnms act “morally” from inclination; they cannot do otherwise. Only humans can act morally, because they face conflicts between the demands of the intelligible world and their impulses stemming from the sensible world. No such conflict exists for purely rational beings like the Houyhnhnms, as Kant points out: “Considered only as a member of the intelligible world, my behaviour would completely accord with the principle of the autonomy of the pure will” (GMM, p. 46). Both Swift and Kant attribute to man’s nature the fact that his actions are not always in accordance with morality: he is a being that possesses reason without being governed by it. Far from being lamentable, this even implies an advantage. Because, unlike the Houyhnhnms, man has two abilities: he can both disregard moral principles and develop new ones. Man’s understanding of morality is adaptable to the world around him. The Houyhnhnms, on the other hand, adjust the world to their morality. This is the reason why they send Gulliver back to his native country: not because he behaves like a Yahoo, but simply because he looks like one.

However, Kant maintains that the moral “ought” is something man actually wants, should he bother to develop his practical reason. This might explain Swift’s misanthropy, and his self-assigned task to prove “the falsity of that Definition animal rationale” (WJS, p. 585). Swift uses the Houyhnhnms to confront man with his own pretensions: man is an animal rationis capax because he can’t live up to his self-created image of an animal rationale. This conception ties in with Swift’s scatology, which serves to remind man that he is bound by his bodily needs and hence unable to disengage himself from his animal nature.

Yet it would be rash to stamp man as a Yahoo, because he is at least capable of acting morally good. It is because man tends to ignore this capability that Swift becomes abusive toward humankind. Swift resembles Kant in offering man two possible points of view: if he claims to be a reasonable creature, he can be expected to act like one. If he doesn’t, it is only fair to put him on a par with the Yahoos. Thus, man either realizes and accepts the validity of the moral law or he contents himself with his animal nature. The latter implies that he—like a Yahoo—is subject to heteronomy and thus can’t be expected to develop moral principles, let alone follow them. Since such view contradicts man’s self-image of [End Page 265] an autonomous and rational agent, only the first possibility remains. As Kant said, we have to regard ourselves as belonging foremost to the intelligible world. Nevertheless, since man is not purely rational but only a sensual rational being, future violations of the moral principle can be expected to occur.

In contrast to Swift and Kant, Gulliver indulges in the adoration (and expectation) of pure reason. This, however, is unattainable for him and his fellow humans. The misanthropy he displays at the end of the book (he avoids even the contact with his own family and prefers to spend most of his time with his newly acquired horses) is based on his worship of a wrong ideal.

Janelle Pötzsch
Institute of Philosophy I, Ruhr-Universität Bochum


1. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/kant1785.pdf, ed. Jonathan Bennett (2008), p. 28; hereafter abbreviated GMM.

2. Jonathan Swift, The Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), p. 215; hereafter abbreviated WJS.

3. John Stuart Mill, “The Subjection of Women,” in On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 474.

4. George Orwell, Animal Farm (London: Penguin, 1951), p. 114.

5. K. M. Williams, “‘Animal Rationis Capax’: A Study of Certain Aspects of Swift’s Imagery,” ELH 21, no. 3 (1954): 194. [End Page 266]