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The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics

translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott
If there exists on any sub ject a philosophy (that is, a system of
rational knowledge based on concepts), then there must also be for
this philosophy a system of pure rational concepts, independent of any
condition of intuition, in other words, a metaphysic. It may be
asked whether metaphysical elements are required also for every
practical philosophy, which is the doctrine of duties, and therefore
also for Ethics, in order to be able to present it as a true science
(systematically), not merely as an aggregate of separate doctrines
(fragment arily). As regards pure jurisprudence, no one will question
this requirement; for it concerns only what is formal in the
elective will, which has to be limited in its external relations
according to laws of freedom; without regarding any end which is the
matter of this will. Here, therefore, deontology is a mere
scienti?c doctrine (doctrina scientiae).
One who is acquainted with practical philosophy is not,
therefore, a practical philos opher. The latter is he who makes the
rational end the principle of his actions, while at the same time he
joins with this the necessary knowledge which, as it aims at action,
must not be spun out into the most subtile threads of metaphysic,
unless a legal duty is in question; in which case meum and tuum must
be accurately determined in the balanc e of justice, on the principle
of equality of action and action, which requires something like
mathematical proportion, but not in the case of a mere ethical duty.
For in this case the question is not only to know what it is a duty to
do (a thing which on account of the ends that all men naturally have
can be easily decided), but the chief point is the inner principle
of the will namely that the consciousness of this duty be also the
spring of action, in order that we may be able to say of the man who
joins to his knowledge this principle of wisdom that he is a practical
Now in this philosophy (of ethics) it seems contrary to the idea
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of it that we should go back to metaphysical elements in order to make
the notion of duty puri?ed from everything empirical (from every
feeling) a motive of action. For what sort of notion can we form of
the mighty power and herculean strength which would be su?cient to
overcome the vice-breeding inclinations, if Virtue is to borrow her
”arms from the armoury of metaphysics,” which is a matter of
speculation that only few men can handle? Hence all ethical teaching
in lecture rooms, pulpits, and popular books, when it is decked out
with fragments of metaphysics, becomes ridiculous. But it is not,
therefore, useless, much less ridiculous, to trace in metaphysics
the ?rst principles of ethics; for it is only as a philosopher that
anyone can reach the ?rst principles of this conception of duty,
otherwise we could not look for either cert ainty or purity in the
ethical teaching. To rely for this reason on a certain feeling
which, on account of the e?ect expected from it, is called moral,
may, perhaps, even satisfy the popular teacher, provided he desires as