Kant’s Moral Basis, by Mortimer J. Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Question:

I would like to raise the question of whether it is even possible to act from such a notion of duty that Kant says is the sine qua non of moral action. For example, even when formulating what we consider to be our duty, we must always consider an action’s consequences and formulate what duty requires in light of those consequences. Hence, any abstract notion of duty completely separate from consequences (and I’m not sure this is what Kant had in mind) seems to be either impossible to motivate anyone’s actions or to be completely empty and vacuous.

Response:

If moral philosophy is to have a sound factual basis, it is to be found in the facts about human nature and nowhere else. Nothing else but the sameness of human nature at all times and places, from the beginning of Homo sapiens, can provide the basis for a set of moral values that should be universally accepted. Nothing else will correct the mistaken notion that we should readily accept a pluralism of moral values as we pass from one human group to another or within the same human group. If the basis in human nature for a universal ethic is denied, the only other alternative lies in the extreme rationalism of Immanuel Kant, which proceeds without any consideration of the facts of human life and with no concern for the variety of cases to which moral prescriptions must be applied in a manner that is flexible rather than rigorous and dogmatic.

Dogma has a place in sacred theology, but in moral philosophy it is pernicious and should be avoided.


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