- Sittliches Bewusstsein und kategorischer Imperativ in Kants 'Grundlegung': Ein Kommentar zum dritten Abschnitt by Heiko Puls
The third section of Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is arguably one of the most challenging and obscure texts in the history of ethics. Until recently, it has also received comparatively little scholarly attention. Heiko Puls's line-by-line commentary is thus a welcome, and timely, addition to a growing wave of interest in this important work. [End Page 355]
The difficulty of Groundwork 3 arises largely because Kant is not entirely clear what he wants to accomplish by the end of the text. Some evidence suggests that he holds the ambitious goal of establishing the moral law's necessity as a principle of deliberation for all rational beings. Yet other evidence suggests he holds the more modest goal of establishing the moral law's bindingness as a categorical imperative for sensible rational beings like us. Puls makes a compelling case for approaching the argument of Groundwork 3 under the second interpretive framework.
In addition to an introduction and summary, the book is organized into six chapters (according to the six subsections of Groundwork 3). Puls's reading unfolds in the following steps: (i) He shows that the concept of morality is derivable from the concept of freedom, and that the concept of freedom is derivable from the concept of a perfectly rational being. But these connections for Kant are merely analytic and hence preparatory for the main argument. (ii) Puls shows that Kant's worry about a hidden circle in Groundwork 3 refers to a tempting but illicit assumption readers might make early on. We might assume that we are free in order to think of ourselves as perfectly rational beings—that is, beings for whom the moral law applies analytically—and we might then mistakenly infer that the moral law is binding for us. (iii) Puls argues that Kant's solution lies, not in finding a theoretical or morally neutral premise, but in critically investigating the powers and capacities we possess as sensible rational beings. On this reading, we are able to dissolve the suspicion of a circle by appealing to the Gefühl der Achtung (feeling of respect) through which we cognize the moral law. (iv) Puls shows that the moral law is possible for us as an imperative because it is immediately lawgiving in relation to our sensibly affected will. This connection is not analytic, but synthetic. What we would do as perfectly rational beings is what we ought to do as beings also affected by impulses and inclinations.
Two innovative features of Puls's book are worth highlighting. First, he makes a strong case for finding continuity, rather than discontinuity, in the proof-structures of Groundwork 3 and the second Critique. Our capacity to cognize the validity of the moral law via the feeling of respect, he argues, plays a role parallel to the doctrine of the Faktum der Vernunft (fact of reason). In both cases Kant is not arguing to the moral law by appealing to a theoretical or morally-neutral premise; instead, he is arguing within the moral domain by appealing to a moral capacity we really do have.
Second, Puls offers a penetrating criticism of a view defended by Dieter Schönecker, according to which Kant grounds the possibility of the categorical imperative by invoking the ontological superiority of the intelligible world. On Puls's reading, the intelligible world presents us with a goal to which we ought to aspire, and so it functions as a teleological rather than an ontological ground. We can say that the intelligible world enjoys normative superiority over the sensible world because it shows that our faculty of reason is immediately lawgiving (i.e. lawgiving without the mediation of impulses and inclinations).
As this quick sketch should make clear, readers will find much that is thought-provoking and controversial in Puls's book. From a critical perspective, one problematic thesis is his claim that a "human being has...